Dysfunctional PhDs in a dysfunctional university

If one’s experience as a PhD student is dominated by hierarchy, perhaps that also says something about the changes occurring in academia more generally.

by Bran Thoreau on roarmag.org

One predictable response to pieces that are critical of the hierarchical structure of relating that seems to inform the PhD is that “that’s just the way it works.” The academic version of Thatcher’s “there is no alternative.” Academia, in other words, is approached as a structure that is beyond the possibility of any PhD student not only to change, but even simply to criticize. This argument is usually buttressed by the suggestion that the PhD is a necessary evil to overcome, before getting into the exclusive club that will provide those “special privileges” that were denied to you as a student (you will, in other words, get some kind of “immunity” from the nuisances you had to face up to that point).

This is a position I can understand, despite disagreeing with it. I can understand, in fact, that hierarchies can embed themselves in the very ways one is able to think about the world. In a feudal world dominated by hierarchical relations, after all, even God will come to be pictured as a superior of all earthly superiors. Some people, perhaps, are never too bothered by any of this. I like to think that this is also a consequence of the fact that the changing face of academia as a whole is rarely considered relevant when one discusses the pitfalls of a PhD. What I aim to do with this piece, then, is to offer an alternative approach to scrutinizing the PhD experience, no longer understood as something isolated and insulated from the rest of the university world.

What academia is becoming, as a whole, sometimes shines in the way that one experiences it through the PhD. So that, if one’s experience as a PhD student is dominated by hierarchical, authoritarian relationships, perhaps that also says something about the direction of change inside the wider world of higher education.

In my experience as a PhD student, there are often teaching duties to be dealt with. The university as a whole has a policy of setting a maximum amount of hours, as well as guidelines on how those hours should be computed. Unfortunately, however, it has equally been my experience — as I mentioned in another piece — that these guidelines are interpreted rather creatively (such as by restricting the count to actual lecture time, so that preparation, office hours and so on are excluded from the count, and basically done in the student’s own time). Forget that this slowly turns a full-time research PhD into a part-time teaching position — without a formal employment contract.

It seems rather funny that academics should pull on each other cheap tricks of this sort. Haggling on what the rules really mean. Or on whether they are binding or just “guidelines” that can offer no protection from an excessive teaching load (all this, while teaching to students about the evils of the “casualization of labour”). I do understand that departments, sometimes, can get swamped by teaching, and academics think that this is the only way to solve the problem of their own excessive teaching load. They may think this is the only way, but it needn’t be so.

What attempts of this nature disclose — to interpret entitlements in such a way as to inflate the PhD teaching load — is a willingness to keep relationships with PhDs in a hierarchical, authoritarian mode. This allows for a department to meet their teaching needs, without having to take into consideration the needs of PhD students. If I take away your entitlement to a limit in your teaching, and/or interpret it against you, that means I position myself as a hierarchical superior. I can order you to do what I say, as opposed, perhaps, to being clear about the department’s needs and subsequently asking for, rather than commanding, your help.

Hierarchical roles can therefore get rehearsed in “admin” mode, such as when teaching is being allocated, but they can carry over even into other aspects of the PhD relationship. Once you know you are supposed to take orders from more senior academics, on penalty of “consequences” (losing a scholarship, failing an upgrade, etc.), those “consequences” might colour your whole PhD relationship with tinges of servility. The outcome, of course, is that while the PhD may be touted in advertising leaflets as the ultimate “free-thinking” experience, that free-thinking is often a sham. For how can you breed freedom through relationships based on hierarchy and “following orders”?

What I am beginning to notice, however, is that this same quality, this same embeddedness in a hierarchical, pyramidal world, will probably not disappear the moment you manage to make it through doctoral boot camp. Consider how, for instance, university management often rehearses hierarchical roles by taking on categories of university workers that are farthest from the academics themselves, say catering or cleaning services. They may get pay cuts, or get outsourced. Equally often, these workers are also left alone. Their struggles are not considered worthy to be taken up by most (not all) academics (students, to be fair, seem to care more). What academics fail to understand, however, is that — if you let management get away with it — the hierarchical roles of a pyramidal governance structure are consolidated. So that, when management turns their eyes to academics, their position in that conversation will be even more dismal and subordinate than it would have been had they not allowed hierarchy to play out in relation to the cleaners.

In this sense, I would argue for the interrelatedness of the question of the PhD teaching load with that of the freedom to pursue one’s research ideas, and of these issues with the more general problem of fostering horizontal, non-hierarchical solidarity across all the different groups of people that somehow make the university. When hierarchy is cultivated in the admin aspects of the PhD, it might spill over into the more idealistic aspects as well, breeding little soldiers that might do well on the battlefield of the job market, at the cost of becoming enslaved inside.

Similarly, when hierarchical forms of relating are allowed inside the university, for instance, by failing to take a stand in solidarity with cleaners and caterers (under the assumption that what happens to them is something academics are immune to) the university becomes less of a breeding place for freedom, and more of a feudal structure — one where, inadvertently, people begin to turn to the wrong God.