Currently, I am actually sitting by my mailbox. Ok, it's on the outside of the house and I'm on the inside, but it's right there outside this window, and I'm watching it. I'm waiting for the financial aid check that feels like it is well overdue. It's the check that will cover the bills and rent until the semester's first paycheck and then supplement my meager earnings until January, when another check will arrive to take its place for the spring semester.
Today, I resent the hell out of this check. I need it so badly. I've spent weeks now trying to be creative with my meals and playing games with which checks get sent in when, hoping to avoid anything bouncing or losing electricity and sitting in the dark. I don't mind, so much, in the summers, when I work a little and wait a little and have big blocks of time that belong only to me. But when I look out into the great expanse of fall, look into weeks that will be warm with frenzied activity and cold with the coming winter, I start to get extremely frustrated about the financial sacrifices graduate school entails.
In the fall, I do not choose to make money stretch and hope that the warm summer mornings without an office to drag towards are worth what they quite literally cost me. But when the first semester of the new school year begins, I work my ass off. Average teaching load at this university for a TA is four sections of twenty students each. That's 80 students who I teach in class, talk to in office hours, coax through assignments and prod through excuses and lies and plain old absence. I grade their papers, know their names, listen to their academic problems and take their criticism seriously. It's my job and it's a good job and I'm grateful for it. But I often feel as if the university is taking advantage of my passion for the work and my need for a job compatible with this education to get highly skilled labor for very substandard prices. They use me, and I'm grateful for it. And that pisses me off.
This semester, I'm lecturing a course. I'm excited about the time in the classroom, the freedom to create the syllabus and the plain fun I'll have with the students. But I don't actually get paid as much to do this job as I do as a Teaching Assistant. Like my work as a TA, my work as a lecturer makes it possible for the university to charge an undergraduate an obscene amount of tuition to come and take this course. If graduate students and recent PhDs weren't willing to work for far, far less than professors who do the same job, the university would be screwed. They know it. They have to know it. But they count on a brutal, long educational process and a vicious job market to keep us in our place.
It's not that I didn't know, coming to graduate school, that very little money would end up in my account. I very consciously decided that work as a TA was the best on-the-job training I could ask for and that I was willing to see that education as a compensation in and of itself. What I didn't realize was that the material compensation I would receive would not even begin to cover the costs of living in this town. I've had funding almost every semester I've been here. I've had loans almost every semester, as well. And I don't know a single other graduate student who has escaped that fate here. Apparently, graduate work now requires not just a short-term financial sacrifice and a willingness to become very familiar with very cheap foodstuffs. It also requires that I make a sacrifice of my long-term financial health. Professors don't get paid enough to compensate for these loans.
Thank god, I suppose, that I'm fairly good with money and careful with bills. I manage to get by without credit cards and to stash quarters and dollars away to help pay for the research trips that make graduate work in history that much more expensive. Mostly, though, I'm thankful that I have no doubts that this is the profession for me. If I did, I wouldn't be able to justify the debt and financial worry. I would, like other graduate students I have known, have to abandon the project for something more stable. But I still wish I'd taken the financial aspects of graduate study into greater consideration when I chose my university. I might not have chosen this one, and I'm not the only one who feels this way. Graduate programs in general have to start making graduate work financially realistic, or their ability to recruit and keep the best students to teach the university's undergrads is going to tank, and with it the university's reputation. This place is only as good as the students who come here and the students who teach them.
The postman just walked past my house with nothing for my box. The check did not come today. It'll be another 24 hours of hoping that no checks will bounce or no fees will be deducted while I sit here and work on my syllabus for the fall. I've got to get this formalized so I can put together the copy packet and start writing lectures. I'm not on the clock, though, for another week. They'll get this weekend's work for free.