Open Forum: Graduate Student Concerns – Graduate Student Life in the Academy Today

Mark Harbold

Note: The College Music Society held open forums during its 2004 National Conference in San Francisco to discuss the Professional Life Initiative reports. This is a brief synopsis of the Forum on Graduate Student Concerns held at the Conference.

Cynthia Taggart (Michigan State University) led a discussion attended by graduate students in theory, musicology, and performance. The interests of “returning” students, foreign students, and “traditional age” students were represented.

Many issues were raised in the hour-long discussion:

• Some schools are cutting Ph.D. programs. What is the impact of this on graduate students?

• Unionization – Graduate Student Union issues were discussed at length and the following points made. Graduate students needs and rights should be protected. Graduate students deserve decent pay and should not be overworked. What about the university’s desire to serve as many students as possible? How necessary is unionization? Is it necessary at all schools, or are conditions pretty good at some without a union? Fairness issues—at some schools, assistantships pay more in science or engineering than in music. It is difficult to try to unionize and get along with faculty whose support you will need for the degree, future jobs, and other support.

• Role of the graduate student—Going deeper than just union issues, the role of the graduate assistant in higher education is difficult. What is your identity? You are not yet a full faculty colleague, but you are not an undergraduate, either. And as a Teaching Assistant you are definitely teaching, often with full responsibility for (and minimal supervision of) your courses. It’s a high wire act.

• Mentoring issues—Some Teaching Assistants get wonderful mentoring from their supervising professors, but too many end up doing all the grunt work—processing Scantrons, doing secretarial jobs, etc. While disparities in work load (and quality of work) exist, the deeper issue is mentoring. If a Teaching Assistant is a glorified administrative assistant, where do they get the mentoring to be successful in future positions?