Compensate Graduate Students for Service Work (guest post by Carolina Flores et al)


The following is a guest post* by Carolina Flores (Rutgers),  Milana Kostic (UCSD), Angela Sun (Michigan), Elise Woodard (Michigan), and Jingyi Wu (UC Irvine), graduate students in philosophy who comprise the organizing team of Minorities and Philosophy (MAP).


[collage by Mark Wagner]

Compensate Graduate Students for Service Work
by Carolina Flores (primary author), and (in alphabetical order) Milana Kostic, Angela Sun, Elise Woodard, and Jingyi Wu

(This post introduces and summarizes Minorities and Philosophy’s report on Service Work Distribution and Compensation Among Graduate Students, which you can read here.)

What do Minorities and Philosophy activities, departmental climate initiatives, undergraduate mentoring, conference organizing, outreach activities like the Ethics Bowl, and prospective graduate student visits have in common?

One answer is that they all rely crucially on graduate student labor, particularly the labor of members of marginalized groups, like women and people of color. In addition, all these activities matter deeply to the profession. They play an essential role in building and sustaining community at the departmental level and creating opportunities for vibrant philosophical discourse, turn departments into more supportive spaces, and contribute to making philosophy a more diverse discipline.

There has been substantial discussions of how faculty who are members of marginalized groups are burdened with a disproportionate amount of service work (in the form of both official roles in the department and of informal support of departmental life and the well-being of its members).[1] Such work—which is central to a department’s functioning—makes it more difficult to carve out time for research. This is almost universally recognized to be unjust and in need of correction. But there has been little discussion of how unfair distribution of service work affects graduate students. Graduate student service work tends to remain invisible, just part of the fabric of day-to-day departmental life.

To bring this to light, MAP (Minorities and Philosophy) used our network of chapters to conduct a study of graduate student service work. Our findings indicate that service work distribution at the graduate student level prefigures the lopsided distribution we find at the faculty level. If departments care about ensuring that graduate students from marginalized groups have a chance to thrive in graduate school and beyond, they must take action to ensure fair distribution and compensation of this work.

We also propose some concrete policies that departments can institute to do better. We encourage faculty to take these seriously, and graduate students to advocate for these in their departments (perhaps with graduate student unions as allies).

That said, these are preliminary proposals. We are keenly interested in hearing from faculty and graduate students about other ideas for improving on the status quo on service work distribution and compensation. We hope this report serves as a springboard for designing, discussing, and eventually implementing fairer distribution and compensation models.

Graduate Student Service Work: The State of Play

Using the network of MAP chapter representatives, we collected information on the distribution and compensation of service work among graduate students in 40 departments, most of which are in the US. You can read the full report here.

The results are only indicative, their central limitation being that they do not rely on official departmental information but just on the perspectives of MAP-involved graduate students in each department (who are mostly members of under-represented groups in philosophy). This might skew responses towards the conclusion that graduate students from those groups are  over-burdened. That said, the results are strikingly robust in showing unequal distribution of service work, with special burdens placed upon students who are members of marginalized groups in the profession, and lack of compensation for, or recognition of, this work. They cannot plausibly be discounted by appealing to biases in responses. That said, we welcome further studies of this issue to get a clearer sense of service work distribution.

We want to highlight two results. First, service work appears to be distributed in very unequal ways, with members of underrepresented groups shouldering a large proportion of this work (figures 1 and 2). For instance, close to half of survey participants say that less than 15% of graduate students do the majority of the work. In addition, 66% said that this burden was more likely to fall on underrepresented groups, with only 5% saying that underrepresented groups do not do more than their fair share.

Figure 1. Summary of answers to “Is service work distributed evenly? If not, what percentage of people do most of the work?”

Figure 2. Summary of answers to “Do members of underrepresented groups do more than their fair share?

Second, for the most part, departments don’t financially compensate graduate students for service work:

Figure 3. Summary of answers to “Does your department recognize or compensate service work?”

Write-in responses also indicate that departments are more likely to compensate work related to the prospective visit and to organizing conferences. Work that is more community-oriented or more focused on issues of diversity and inclusion is less likely to be compensated.

If you are interested in the details, you can read the full report here. The central take-away is that members of underrepresented groups bear much of the service work load, and are not getting compensated for this. This work takes time away from research and teaching and is often draining, especially when it includes advocating for change in the department, attempting to shift cultural norms, or emotionally supporting others. Further, having one’s important community-oriented work remain unrecognized and unappreciated—though others reap benefits from it—compounds the sense of alienation and invisibility often experienced by members of marginalized groups in academic settings.

Why can’t grad students just say no to service work?

The main response we currently see to unjust distribution of service work is advice targeted at members of marginalized groups to just say ‘no’ to service work.[2] We think this advice is misguided and won’t solve the problems we are concerned about.

First, service work strongly benefits departments and the profession at large. As such, it needs to be appropriately valued, not treated as a toxic waste of time. Second, in many cases, people from marginalized groups are under disproportionate external pressure to take up service work, especially if they have taken up these roles in the past.[3] Third, students from underrepresented groups tend to be particularly attuned to the importance of this service work. This often leads to a sense of moral duty to do service work, especially when it connects to diversity and inclusion. In addition, empirical research on gendered and racialized labor suggest that students from marginalized groups are more likely to have internalized that part of their role in life is to support others and attend to the needs of the community.[4]

To get the benefits of a lively, supportive, inclusive community, without exploiting already marginalized graduate students, departments need to take steps to improve policies around service work. In our view, the central focus here should be on appropriately recognizing, compensating, and distributing service work.[5] To this effect, we have put together a list of suggested policies.

Policies MAP recommends

The following are proposals which MAP recommends that departments take up. Some of these are policies that only faculty can implement; others can be achieved within the graduate student community. We encourage readers to comment with additional suggestions.

Structural policies:

  • Financially compensate (at least) especially onerous service tasks, in the form of stipends, awards, or a reduction in teaching or research assistant duties.[6]
  • Institute clear standards for what different roles demand and accountability mechanisms to ensure that people do their fair share when it comes to shared roles.
  • Limit volunteer-based allocation of service work: instead, make a clear list of available roles and rules for how many roles each student must and can take up over the year and over their time in graduate school.
    • Institute simple rules for distribution: e.g. every student must take up one role per year, and none can take up more than three.
    • If grad students decide on role assignment at a meeting, then encourage people to sign up for roles before and shortly after the meeting. This limits the amount of pressure on people who attend the meeting.
  • Incorporate discussion of the importance of service work in beginning-of-the-year orientation sessions, and publicly set clear expectations for all graduate students.
  • Be clear about the value of service work in hiring processes.

Individual behavior:

  • Publicly acknowledge and appreciate service work, e.g. through public or personal “thank you”s from faculty for service work. Graduate students should also try to show appreciation for others’ community-oriented work.
  • Faculty should be mindful of primarily asking members of marginalized groups to take up service roles (especially ones that do not bring professional advantages), and should always check how many service roles students are already performing before asking them to take up new roles.
  • All should avoid expressing special expectations that members of marginalized groups take up service roles.
  • All should discuss service work distribution and compensation with prospective students, as a significant factor affecting graduate school experience.
  • Members of privileged groups should seek out service work roles.
  • Volunteers for shared roles ought to make every effort to do their fair share rather than allow the work to fall on one or two people.

We thank Alex Guerrero, Yarran Hominh, Cameron Domenico Kirk-Giannini, Meena Krishnamurthy, Lisa Miracchi, Keyvan Shafiei, and Justin Weinberg for insightful comments on this material.

[1] See, for example, “Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family?,” “The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work,” and “The Burden of Invisible Work in Academia: Social Inequalities and Time Use in Five University Departments.”

[2] See, for example, “Women, Stop Volunteering for Office Housework!” and “Women of Color Get Asked to Do More “Office Housework.” Here’s How They Can Say No.”

[3] See, for example, “For Women and Minorities to Get Ahead, Managers Must Assign Work Fairly

[4]Women, Stop Volunteering for Office Housework!,” for example, suggests that women are more likely to be asked to take up service work and are more likely to accept service work.

[5] Our view is also consistent with some recommendations by empirical researchers. See, for example, “For Women and Minorities to Get Ahead, Managers Must Assign Work Fairly.”

[6] This recommendation (and the remaining) should be read in conjunction with the other recommendations that we put forth, especially the structural ones. Furthermore, we do not recommend depriving minority students of service work that might benefit them. Instead, we recommend that in cases where the service work brings little professional advantage and is inadequately compensated, faculty members should be mindful of primarily asking minority students to perform these tasks.

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