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Leveraging the Academy: Suggestions for Radical Grad Students and Radicals Considering Grad School

By Chris Dixon and Alexis Shotwell, August 2010

Romanticized, demonized, celebrated, denounced—among activists in the United States and Canada, academia is all of these things. It is a gate-keeping institution that shapes and is shaped by relations of power and privilege. It is a site of intense struggle: those who are structurally excluded battle for access, while those who study there fight for affordable and relevant education, and those who work there demand dignity, respect, and living wages. It is a place both where people develop radical politics and transformative visions, and where people seclude themselves in insular, disconnected ivory towers. These contradictions are stark. Yet radicals have tried to make use of the academy. Since the 1960s, in particular, graduate school has become an attractive pathway for many activists, but also often an isolating and depoliticizing one. This is still true today, as radicals active in a variety of movements are choosing to go to grad school.

The questions bound up in this choice are urgent ones: How might activist grad students concerned with fundamentally transforming this society make sense of the university? How might radicals involved in the university relate to it, evading its pitfalls and exploiting its openings? And most importantly, how can the space of the university be made useful for building broad-based radical left movements? We aim to approach these questions by offering some suggestions based in our own experiences of ambivalently occupying the university as graduate students with the hopes of using it to advance political work.

We are fortunate to be thinking about these issues from a site that has shown us many of the possibilities and perils of the academy. We are both graduate students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the History of Consciousness Department. UCSC has a distinguished history of student, worker, and faculty struggle. During our tenure there this history bloomed into vibrant coalitional work linking low-wage workers in union struggles with direct-action counter-recruitment manifestations, rank-and-file militancy in the teaching assistant union, and lively struggles around access and retention for traditionally marginalized students. Being at UCSC also taught us a lot about how much work is still to be done in university settings: we witnessed deep racial divides among UCSC’s activist communities, “radical” faculty unwilling to step up to support low-wage immigrant workers, and a troubling tendency to forget even recent campus organizing history.

Our trajectories also shape our thinking on these matters. Chris, currently in the fifth year of his Ph.D., came to grad school out of a long engagement with anti-authoritarian politics and direct-action organizing. Alexis came to grad school with a background in feminist politics and community radio, and has just completed her doctorate. Both of us worked on rank-and-file organizing with and against our own union (UAW Local 2865), struggled in solidarity with campus service workers as part of a student-worker coalition, participated in counter-recruitment work, assisted with immigrant justice organizing, and worked on an annual Disorientation Guide. We engaged in many of these activities through a political collective made up of six grad students.

Our experience of doing political work as grad students is obviously partial. We don’t think we have definitive answers. But we’ve tried to approach our work experimentally, and we’d like to share some results. Our hope is to open some conceptual terrain for expanded discussion and imagination about academe as a resource for change. We know that, as individuals, graduate students can and do play important activist roles outside the academy. In fact, we think that sort of work is vital. However, we want to examine some of the ways that we can do political work in university settings as well. We address these thoughts primarily to radical grad students and activists considering grad school, but we believe they are relevant for anyone concerned with making use of the academy to further movement-building and social transformation.

But First, a Reality Check

Grad school is sometimes compared to sweatshops, factories, and the military. We are troubled by these comparisons because they erase real differences of racialization and class, in particular, and the exploitation and violence bound up in them. When people make such comparisons, however, they are trying to push back against a competing narrative: that grad school is a cushy, delightful experience, or that grad students should just be quietly grateful for their good luck and not make any waves.

Pushing back against this narrative isn’t just whining: it’s personally and politically important. Grad students frequently characterize their experience as marked by humiliation, arbitrary rules, a pervasive anxiety about their self-worth, dictatorial superiors wielding life-changing power, and grinding routines that wear down their ability to resist. In our view, grad school often creates exhausted, insecure, status-conscious people who distrust their own judgments and are thus more susceptible to the prevailing norms and styles of the academy.[1] Perhaps the most pernicious norm is an individualistic and isolated mode of intellectual engagement, cutting grad students off from the very work that we think they are uniquely situated to take up.

On top of all this, being a graduate student is genuinely hard. We plunge into an area of study because we feel some passion for it, we spend years learning its vocabulary and methods, and we try to formulate research projects that will sustain our passion while allowing us to survive. Frequently our families of origin, and our nonacademic friends, don’t understand what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, or why it would be worthwhile. And even unionized grad students don’t make much money, so we often come out of grad school with big debts and slim job prospects.

These features have been exacerbated by the neoliberalization of the university and the increased casualization of its workforce. That is, universities are increasingly run on a profit-making model, and a rapidly growing number of university employees are part-time, contingent workers with few rights. Campus workers—from custodians and dining hall workers to clericals and non-tenure-track faculty—are doing more labor for less pay in more precarious circumstances. Marc Bousquet has beautifully analyzed the place of graduate employee labor in this context. In “The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible,” Bousquet argues that the grad school system isn’t primarily about producing Ph.D.’s for an imagined market in tenure-track jobs. Rather, it is aimed at extracting teaching labor from not-yet-degreed graduate student employees, who will too often later become part of the casualized adjunct pool.[2]

These challenging circumstances also point to opportunities. Each site of exploitation and misery in the lives of grad students is also a site for struggle. And because there are so many of these sites, grad students are uniquely positioned to help build connections among widely varied communities. Graduate students are workers: as teaching assistants, instructors of record, lab assistants, and research assistants, we can struggle for workplace justice and in solidarity with other workers. Graduate students are teachers: as teaching assistants and instructors, we can enact liberatory pedagogical methods, introduce oppositional knowledge and histories, support marginalized undergraduates in their university education, and more. Graduate students are students: as learners and researchers, we can help develop ideas that are relevant for changing the world. And graduate students are located in academic institutions: as members of university communities, we can participate in broader struggles to demilitarize university research, support outreach and retention, challenge funding and curricular priorities, fight sweatshop sourcing of food and university-branded clothing, and more.

Many grad students are uniquely situated in one other way: we come to grad school with movement backgrounds and activist commitments or develop political commitments through grad school. We should be nurturing and drawing on these experiences and commitments, perhaps with the help of some of the following suggestions. These things not only help to leverage the academy for changing the world, but can also help combat some of the soul-destroying features of academe we talked about above. Indeed, it is precisely this work that might move the grad school experience toward something meaningful and politically useful.

Suggestion One: Understand the Academy as a Nexus for Organizing and Capacity-Building

The university is by no means the most important site of social struggle today. Though radical ideas sometimes show up in academic discourse, they almost always originate elsewhere. Still, in the spirit of recognizing where we’re located and trying to work from there, we think it is important to appreciate features of academe that make it ripe for political work. For one thing, though we can rightly critique the ivory tower, we can just as easily understand how universities are situated in dense webs of interconnection. The university, in fact, is a nexus through which systems of power manifest. For example, universities frequently replicate frameworks of access based on race and class. Organizing efforts for outreach and retention programs, or for various “ethnic studies” departments, are vibrant challenges on these grounds. Similarly, many universities are connected in significant ways to the military-industrial-complex; campaigns to keep recruiters off campuses and to demilitarize university funding are making crucial interventions in military-university relationships. Universities are major employers and buyers of goods and services; pro-union, living-wage, and anti-sweatshop struggles on campuses can thus have important catalyst effects. Universities have also been important loci for divestment campaigns, and might be again. Because campuses concentrate large numbers of energetic, exploratory young people in one place, there is a lot of potential for mobilization. In many ways, then, the university is an appropriate site for organizing, and political work there can have broader effects.

One especially significant effect of organizing in the university is a different kind of education, one that students gain not primarily through classrooms or books but through activism. Many undergrad activists develop skills and analysis as they work in student organizations; plan events, actions, and campaigns; face hostile administrators; contend with apathetic peers; try to understand and describe the systems they seek to change; experiment with organizing techniques; write and design flyers, websites, and publications; and engage in many other aspects of activist work. This is capacity-building: growing the sensibilities and competencies to do movement work. And graduate students can help in this process. We can share our own experiences as organizers (mistakes included). We can spark reflection and long-term strategic thinking. We can share our resources for political education. We can encourage student organizers to take care of themselves. We can use our positions to help student activists navigate tensions between their academic and political work (not necessarily mutually exclusive). We can ourselves remain (or become) lively, engaged participants in social struggles.

When we see the university as a nexus for struggle and capacity-building, we expand opportunities for social transformation.

Suggestion Two: Work with Undergraduates

What successful grad student organizing we did included significant work alongside and with undergraduate activist groups and involved bridging a pervasive grad-undergrad divide. In general, grad students rarely get involved in student activist groups—as though “student” means “undergrad.” Frequently, grad students are scared of large groups of undergrads, feel silly and awkward engaging with undergrad organizing, or feel like we’re older, superior, and in a different place in our lives. And often undergrads don’t think of inviting grad students to meetings or actions because we’re perceived as disengaged and disinterested, or just intimidating. Sometimes these sorts of worries are accurate; addressing them can even be useful on both sides, since they involve broader questions about being welcoming and legible. It is true that graduate students and undergraduates are frequently in different places of their lives, and will sometimes have different organizing priorities and internal cultures. But undergraduate student organizers are often the major motor of campus struggle. Also, with few exceptions, they’re really fun.

Graduate students can contribute substantially to the campaigns and political work in which undergrads are involved. In 2004, for example, a student-worker coalition at UCSC initiated a year-long organizing campaign in support of low-wage and predominately Latino/a campus workers. As part of this coalition, graduate students made weekly classroom announcements about upcoming events and the ongoing campaign; wrote and distributed informational materials; drafted and circulated petitions and letters; helped to write press releases; used our access to faculty to advance organizing objectives; agitated with our union to get support for the coalition’s goals; and mobilized grad students and other members of the campus community for pickets and direct actions. We’ve also seen grad students effectively supporting undergraduate work by helping with student publications, mentoring individual undergrad organizers, and providing some institutional memory. But we don’t have to just play support roles; we can also initiate campaigns and work as full partners in ongoing organizing. In order to do any of this, however, grad students must build real relationships with undergraduates on a basis of equality and respect. This usually requires facing up to some of the ingrained teacher-student hierarchies we tend to manifest.

When collaborative undergrad-grad organizing happens, it is powerful and energizing.

Suggestion Three: Organize Grad Students

Organizing grad students, as the saying goes, is like herding cats (for all the reasons we talked about in our “reality check”). And often active grad students get isolated and drained by working hard in ineffective or retrograde institutional structures, or by immersion in the political infighting and posturing typical of many academic departments. And yet, it is not impossible to organize grad students in ways that sidestep these dangers and advance positive change. Institutional positions and good departmental cultures can have important activist potential, particularly if they are connected to broader organizing.

Probably the single most common vehicle for organizing grad students is around workplace issues. After all, the main thing we share as grad students, other than doing lots of research, is our wages and working conditions as teaching and research assistants. Such organizing usually results in an attempt to form a union. Sometimes these efforts win formal union recognition by university administrations, often not. (Sometimes, as in the case of New York University, grad students win recognition and the university repeals it through legal machinations; that fight is ongoing.)[3] If you are not a member of a union, it is definitely worth organizing to form one and have it formally (legally) recognized. If you are part of a union, you’ll face different challenges. Most unions big enough to run university organizing campaigns follow a business union model, usually resulting in formally democratic structures that are not in fact very responsive to popular rank-and-file initiatives. These unions also tend to resist any response to workplace injustice other than contract enforcements narrowly defined. Opportunities for solidarity work are likewise narrowly understood. In short, a TA union itself is a site of struggle. It’s important for us to fight collectively to improve our working conditions, but we can’t stop there.

We can work with and against our unions in ways that hold true to the ideal of worker solidarity and challenge a business union model. For example, we were inspired in the early 2000s by grad students at York University in Toronto, who brought their union (CUPE Local 3903) under rank-and-file control, in line with participatory democratic functioning, militant solidarity action, and broader social justice work. Even if our union is really messed up, we can follow Local 3903’s example and form “flying squads,” in which grad student workers actively mobilize to support other unions’ pickets and other community initiatives.[4]  At UCSC, we developed a graduate-student solidarity network to organize and mobilize grad students to join other workers, on and off campus, for labor actions, and to address some of the failings we saw in our own union. This network developed into a kind of reform caucus, UAW Members for Quality Education and Democracy, which sought to support labor struggles and draw connections between workplace conditions and accessible, quality education. This is an example that we think resonates with many other rank-and-file initiatives and aspirations, not only in the graduate-student union realm.

It is also important to nurture lively political communities among grad students beyond the limited goal of a single campaign, strike, or event. Union culture, for example, requires much more than just mobilization and meetings; it needs a sense of comradeship, a collective practice of caring about what happens to other people. In our experience, when people work together on specific projects over time, they come to trust each other personally and politically. This trust is essential to grounded political community. The tightrope we walk here, of course, is difficult since cliquishness and insularity often result from close organizing ties. And so we think it is important to create structures that people can easily access without already being linked to existing social-political networks. One experiment we tried in this vein, still ongoing, is a non-university-based email listserv for communication among radical grad students at UCSC; we called it “radgrads.” At the beginning of each school year, an announcement goes out on the grad email lists, explaining the purpose of radgrads and inviting people to join it. The list serves as a vehicle for informing grad students of events and campaigns on and off campus, a site for discussion among students from very different departments, and occasionally a means for organizing social events and in-person discussions. We’ve also seen the success of, for example, a women-of-color grad research and action collective and queer grad groups in creating supportive institutional cultures for political work.

When grad students come together, we are formidable.

Suggestion Four: Question Professionalization and Individualism

Perhaps one of the starkest differences between undergrads and grads is that while the university is often a place of politicization for undergraduates, it is more often a place of depoliticization for grad students. Aside from time and money pressures, two of the main depoliticizing forces we encounter are professionalization and individualism, as they are engrained in academic culture. Professionalization is the process of learning and adopting the “rules of the game” of academic life. Usually, these are middle- and upper-middle-class coded ways of talking, dressing, and socializing. They have historically been most comfortably deployed by men, and they are very white. Professionalization includes a set of academic behaviors and accomplishments, like publishing papers, presenting work at conferences, applying for grants and fellowships, and successfully conducting a job search. Individualism is a trait that fits neatly into academic professionalization; individual achievement and brilliance are highly praised, almost defining characteristics of academe. Academics are supposed to live the life of the mind, immune to bodily needs and relational connections. Thus, genuinely collaborative work is not taken as seriously as solitary genius, even in the sciences, and we are expected to diligently pursue our individual “careers.” As a result, academic life is often deeply isolating, both in terms of how we conceptualize our work and how our work process is structured.

It might be tempting to throw professionalization out entirely. After all, it brings together many of the most rage-inspiring aspects of academic culture. We call for a questioning of professionalization, however, because there are times when understanding and mindfully deploying norms of the profession is useful. People who come into the academy from working-class backgrounds, people who live with disabilities, or who are racialized, or fat, or otherwise “inappropriate” in the ivory tower’s halls, can benefit from a careful investigation into the norms of professional life. Using these norms can be key to infiltrating and surviving academe. Even for the relatively privileged, understanding professionalization is important in refusing to internalize its imperatives. At the same time, we think it is crucial to develop alternatives to professionalization. In particular, a prevailing myth supporting the professionalization imperative is the idea that every worthy Ph.D. student should expect to land a tenure-track job. But this has never been the case. And as universities shift more and more teaching onto contingent labor, it looks very likely that it never will be. As graduate students, we must imagine life beyond the tenure carrot and the adjunct stick. There are, as far as we know, no maps laid out for this work, but we think it’s worth exploring.

Collaborative work, in our experience, offers a way to simultaneously challenge professionalization and refuse depoliticization. This alternative to the individualist model can be practiced among academics and also with and among activists outside of academic contexts. For those engaged in movements, this mode should be familiar. Activist intellectual work is often collaborative; it seeks clarity and refinement through the process of conversation and collaboration. We noticed the promise of this kind of approach in our political collective, particularly as we wrote a social-economic analysis of our university’s priorities and practices. In general, we found working collaboratively as graduate students outside of academically sanctioned settings to be both challenging and exciting. Often in our lives as grad students we relate to one another as colleagues, interlocutors, or rivals, but usually our work is our own. Politically motivated, shared work is a powerful antidote to these relationships. In our case, we also discovered that it gave us more ground to stand on in our broader organizing work. We experienced this, in a different way, when we assembled an all-graduate-student affinity group for street actions in San Francisco after the ground invasion of Iraq in 2003. Integrating these sorts of approaches into our academic work can have similarly profound effects. And more fundamentally, such approaches can challenge and change the ways we presently think about our day-to-day work routines and ourselves as intellectuals.

Critically approaching professionalization and developing collaborative means of doing activist intellectual work opens surprising and liberating spaces.

Suggestion Five: Build Accountability to Movements into Research and Teaching

The question of accountability is a crucial way to frame and understand our work. We can approach it, among other ways, in terms of how knowledge itself is produced. Veteran activist and academic Richard Flacks nicely illustrates this, recalling that a central slogan among radical sociologists in the late sixties was “knowledge for whom?” The question remains pressing, and it begs another: accountability to whom? One way to answer this question is to think about the communities that validate and thus structure our scholarship. With whom is our work in conversation? To whom is it accountable? How are the answers to these questions related to each other?

Some of us have managed to find ways of sustaining political relationships with activists in a variety of movement contexts. Often, these relationships even become an inspiration for or the focus of our academic work. This is good and useful. But there are many open questions about what accountability is and how we should enact it. Of course, in this case, accountability would involve explicit negotiation with research “subjects” and some account of how the research will come back to the community. But such a mode of accountability will always be dissatisfying and partial—it will always fail. In general, we think of accountability as involving far more than a basic attention to research ethics. It is a relationship that orients our attention, commitments, and research questions. When, as academics, we think of ourselves as standing in solidarity with movements as equal participants in struggles for social transformation, our relationship to what work we do, how we share it, and for whom we’re doing it might fundamentally change. This is how we understand accountability.[5]

Issues of accountability are also central to teaching. After all, most of us will teach, sometimes a lot, during graduate school. It is not uncommon to have the chance to design and teach one’s own class, and almost everyone works as a teaching assistant at some point. There is no way that we can overview here all of the useful work on radical pedagogy—work on canons, how knowledge is formed in relation to power, how we can use the classroom as a place to teach for liberation, and how our teaching selves can be fully integrated and present beings. There are excellent and important resources out there.[6] But we do want to note the difficulty of bringing activist commitments and sensibilities into the classroom. Teaching is some of the most fulfilling work either of us has done. It is also the most challenging. We have encountered both of these most strongly when we have tried to directly bring our political commitments into our teaching. And so we maintain that teaching is immeasurably strengthened when it is accountable to movements. In our experience, this means facilitating ways for students to not only think critically about the world but to develop means of actively engaging it. It means finding ways to both support and challenge student activists. It means challenging social hierarchies as they manifest in teaching spaces. It means seeing even very politically problematic students as utterly worth working with. It means understanding the classroom as a space that is densely interwoven with the rest of the world.

Developing accountability in our research and teaching helps us make genuine contributions to movements.

Toward Discussion and Collective Strategizing

When we started graduate school, we were searching for models for how to do activist intellectual work in the academy while also sustaining strong connections to movements. We were able to identify individual professors and grad students who seemed to be successfully navigating some of these tensions, but we found little in the way of explicit discussion and collective strategizing. And so we have tried to build some of our own models, always incomplete, at the same time that we have attempted to develop political practice appropriate to our situation. Perhaps the hardest part has been finding ways to generate the discussion and strategizing that we couldn’t find but urgently need. We have been fortunate to participate in a lively political community at UCSC, but we have always felt that activist grad students in many other places would have crucial insights to offer to these conversations. In our view, we especially need discussion that evades political posturing and realistically engages with the question of sustainable organizing in unsustainable circumstances. We hope, then, that these suggestions might help spark serious and ongoing reflection and dialogue. We hope too that they might serve as a support of some kind for radical grad student activity. Grad students, as we have argued, are in a unique structural location where political work can have powerful effects. We must develop ways of collectively sustaining and strengthening that work. Doing so will help move us from ineffectiveness and isolation to meaningful and strategic activist intellectual work. It will help us leverage the academy for movement-building.


We wrote this piece in late 2006, during our first year living away from Santa Cruz and the graduate student culture we described. We stand behind what we wrote here, but we have a few thoughts to add based on our experiences since then.

First, the economic crisis of the late 2000s has deepened and accelerated the neoliberalization of universities, especially public ones. This is not news for anyone who lives or works on a campus in North America. Although it would have been difficult for us to imagine this while we were in grad school, budget cuts, tuition hikes, furloughs, and other kinds of austerity measures are now even more widespread and aggressive. They are creating more precarity—more of a squeeze—in the lives of university workers and students. This squeeze makes it harder to organize resistance. Still, we’ve been inspired by the rise of campus-based movements fighting austerity. Some of these movements add new dimensions to what we write here while others challenge some of our assumptions. Since we haven’t been directly involved in these movements, we look to others to help us understand the lessons and effects of these struggles.

Second, in the years since this article came out online, we’ve had lots of feedback from other grad students. Many people pointed out how very rare and precious it was for us to have a lively undergraduate organizing culture to connect with, a broad-enough coalition of activist grad students across the disciplines, and sympathetic professors as mentors and collaborators. Although we thought we understood a wide range of grad school experiences, it became clear to us that we were generalizing from a fortunate institutional context. However, we continue to think that our context was fortunate in part because of the political work we undertook there; although we benefited from certain features of UCSC, we also struggled to actively shape our context. This is what we tried to describe above. Some of the lessons we learned in a reasonably hospitable situation may be applicable on other scales in more embattled contexts. Alexis has seen some of this from the point of view of a job in a university without an active student movement and with very limited faculty support for progressive (much less radical) politics: less hospitable contexts require that we think more strategically, marshal our energy for smaller-scale “wins,” and spend more time nurturing what political space there is.

Third, we’ve reflected a lot on the transition from grad school to life after grad school. For some of the people we did political work with, grad school ended without a degree. Indeed, 50% of people who start Ph.D. programs don’t finish them. We also have friends who have completed doctoral programs and either opted out of pursuing tenure-track work or have been unable to find secure academic employment. And we know some people who have found tenure-track jobs—both those who are happy and those who find themselves contemplating leaving academe even though they’ve supposedly “succeeded.” We realize that although we did a good job thinking collectively while we were in grad school, we haven’t done this as well since we started moving out of grad school. The professionalizing and individualizing dynamics we talk about above seem to gain power the closer one gets to obtaining a doctorate. We, and many people we know, are still trying to imagine life beyond the tenure carrot and the adjunct/nonacademic stick, but for the most part we’re still doing this in highly individualized ways.

Finally, as we attempted to emphasize throughout our discussion, grad students in particular and university-based activists in general are not going to single-handedly generate the mass movements that we need in order to fundamentally transform society. These movements have to come from dedicated organizing in many social sectors. Our hope remains for radical graduate students to contribute to this process.


[1] For more on this process, see Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined minds: A critical look at salaried professionals and the soul-battering system that shapes their lives (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

[2] Marc Bousquet, “The waste product of graduate education: Toward a dictatorship of the flexible,” Social Text 70, no. 1 (2002): 81–104. See also Marc Bousquet, How the university works: Higher education and the low-wage nation (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

[3] On the struggle at NYU, see Monika Krause, Mary Nolan, Michael Palm, and Andrew Ross, eds., The university against itself: The NYU strike and the future of the academic workplace (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008).

[4] See Jeffrey Shantz, “Anarchy in the unions: Contemporary anarchists at work,” WorkingUSA 12, no. 3 (2009): 371–85.

[5] Three recent collections have influenced how we think about these issues: Caelie Frampton, Gary Kinsman, A. K. Thompson, and Kate Tilleczek, eds., Sociology for changing the world: Social movements/social research (Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2006); Charles Hale, ed., Engaging contradictions: Theory, politics, and methods of activist scholarship (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); and Stevphen Shukaitis  and David Graeber, eds., Constituent imagination: Militant investigations, collective theorization (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007).

[6] For an excellent primer, we recommend bell hooks, Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994).

This article was included in the collection Collaborative Futures: Critical Reflections on Publicly Active Graduate Education edited by Amanda Gilvin, Georgia M. Roberts, and Craig Martin (Syracuse: Graduate School Press of Syracuse University, 2012). It is a revised and updated version of a piece that was originally featured on MRzine in 2007.