The Great Grad-School Experiment in Utopian Socialism

Slate's Culture Blog
April 8 2014 8:16 AM

The Great Grad-School Experiment in Utopian Socialism

Étienne Balibar
Étienne Balibar just made the revolutionary decision to pool wages with adjuncts. NOT.

Photo by tomislav medak via Wikimedia Commons.

The Student Union of Michigan ran an interview last week about a gutsy move by six Duke graduate students: For the past two years, they have collectivized wages. That is, they take their “stipends” (university-speak for “paychecks,” a sleight of verbiage that gets universities out of all sorts of labor laws) and put them into one big bank account. This way, for example, if you have an engineering student who makes a whopping $25,000 a year because he’s got summer funding, he or she subsidizes the medieval historian with two kids who gets only a swift kick in the groin from June to September.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

The students didn’t like how the university doled out funding unevenly (and at times secretly so), thus creating a culture of “individual poverty and scholarly competition,” so they decided to pool wages and create a culture of “collective wealth and intellectual collaboration.” The best part, according to them, was that they circumvented the bureaucracy entirely, evening out—voluntarily and in private—disparities that were created to make them compete against each other.

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The craziest part is that according to the interview, “everyone is his own bureaucrat,” and they’ve been able to self-police with complete success. (I’d have been kicked out of that collective after three weeks, for misappropriation of funds toward Sephora.)

I have to say I’m so impressed that I will forgive the self-named “Duke Collective” for referring to both “epistemological limits” and the French Marxist Louis Althusser in casual conversation. It’s really incredible. So many of us bemoan income inequality in general—and, in higher-ed circles, the continuing chasm between the ever-dwindling tenured Haves and the teeming hordes of contingent Have-Very-Littles—but what do we do?

I once made the shocking suggestion that academic departments stop relying on adjunct labor, and the response was so swift, severe, personal, and vitriolic that it scared me off the Internet for a week. This is the dumbest thing you have ever written, I was told, by more people than I can count. How dare I suggest there was anything anyone could do? Meanwhile, this group of pipsqueaks has taken matters into its own hands, and in the process removed their fates entirely—however temporarily—from the university powers that be.

I really have to hand it to them. They are walking the walk that their professors merely talk (and talk, and talk). Could you imagine if some of the biggest names in today’s neo-Marxist Critical Theory actually took it upon themselves to pool wages with the adjuncts in their own department? Ha! I’ll bet $100 right now that will never happen. I’m serious: Send me proof of professorial wage-sharing, even in something as minor as an “adjunct emergency fund,” and I’ll add a contribution from Prof. Franklin.

It’s entirely possible that the Duke Collective’s micro-utopianism will come to an abrupt end as soon as one of them graduates and starts making either real money or no money. But I hope they stick with it, if only for the joy of continuing to shame those of us who insist that there’s nothing we can do.

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

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