Graduate Student Workers of the World, Collectivize Your Stipends!

We post here a short interview with the “Duke Collective,” a group of graduate students at Duke University who in 2012 began to collectivize their grants, stipends, and awards. They currently number 8 students with more scheduled to join over the summer. At the end of the interview, we have uploaded a document authored by the collective which goes into more detail as to their practice and the resistance put up by their departments and the administration at Duke.

SUM: Tell us about the Duke Collective. How did it come about? What does it do?

DC: It essentially began out of necessity, where a couple of our friends had no means to ensure their livelihood during the summer — or at least, thought they couldn’t ensure their livelihood through their current habitual and epistemological limits. So we thought, my roommate and I, that we often engage in wage sharing practices with our friends on a daily basis, whether it be buying them a drink or going out for dinner, so why not extend that logic beyond its traditional limitations and see where it takes us.

And so it initially began as a kind of emergency fund, where we didn’t put our entire wage in but only some of our stipend for collective use, mostly as a substitution for a lack of summer funding opportunities to friends who were on international visas, and therefore weren’t allowed to work, at least not legally. So it started with three people in the summer: myself, my roommate, and a friend of ours who isn’t a graduate student.

Then, as time went on, more friends heard about the project and wanted to join in. So it grew to about 6. We then had a few discussions about why we were limiting it to a kind of charity fund, as opposed to going all in, with the idea that we should try and have our economic relations also reflect our social relations, that is, we are totally reliant on others for our subsistence, so why not reflect those relations economically, and see what comes of it — noting that individuated wage and salary structures are probably the strongest enforcer in giving one a sense of individual autonomy, masking our collective reliance beneath an ideology of autonomy.  That is, first you get paid individually, and then you start to believe you can survive on your own — a kind of Pascalian materialism that Althusser drew on in his ISA essay.

So we started pooling our entire wage into one account to which we all had access. Of course there were some limitations — certain banks wouldn’t allow you to share unless you were family, and others still had a numerical limit on to how many people could belong to an individual account, unless we opened up a business account, which — for tax and income reasons — we couldn’t do. But eventually we found one that didn’t care for filial relations and just wanted our money, and therefore let us bring in whomever and however many into the fold.

We then decided to try and extend this relation beyond our small circle of friends and into, first, our graduate department as a whole, to see who would be on board– this was after a series of confrontations with our department over funding and financial transparency issues, and the culture of professionalism that came with it. So we decided that, since at Duke our funding is fairly sizable ($21,000) a year, if we pooled our wages amongst the entire graduate student body, we can begin to distribute our funds more equitably, and initiate a culture of collective wealth and intellectual collaboration, rather than individual poverty and scholarly competition, all the while not even having to deal with the bureaucratic side of university departments since they would never agree to such a proposition, and the power was essentially in our own hands.

But we heard the usual objections, this is an impossible project, or it cant work, or we like deferring responsibility to some big Other called the department, since the idea of managing ourselves and our desires collectively takes too much time and energy (i.e. revolution of the everyday is too much work), etc etc.

Those of us who were involved had the convenience of being friends — that is — having solidarity established before we started, which makes taking that economic risk of sharing your subsistence with one another a bit easier; whereas to open up this project to people who you are not intimate with provokes all kinds of fears and anxieties, understandably so — especially when they are aware that there are no checks and balances to the project except for our own self-governance; everyone his own bureaucrat as someone recently put it.

In any case, now it functions as an everyday practice. We pay our bills through the account, groceries, etc. There are few if not all together zero rules. It’s actually quite mundane — because we are fairly homogenous class, with rather equal pay (though there are upper year students who no longer receive funding but I can go into that later), it hasn’t created drastic changes on our daily life except in little but important ways — there is no talk of who pays for what when; our homes and cars are shared fluidly; we’ve tried incorporating to get discounted rates on wifi, heating, plumbing, and so on; money as a form social mediation has to some degree been mitigated in our circle, though it is obviously still present once we emerge out of our urban collective.

Download: Bring Down the Duke and Bring Up the Collective

8 thoughts on “Graduate Student Workers of the World, Collectivize Your Stipends!

  1. Pingback: Graduate Student Workers of the World, Collectivize Your Stipends! | The Nightly Texan: Student Blog for UT Austin

  2. There are factual errors in the attached document that should be corrected. The authors state that the Duke Literature program seizes half of their external grants. This is false; in fact, we have absolutely no mechanism for doing so. When a graduate student within the funding cycle receives an outside grant, the Duke Graduate School considers that the grant replaces the Duke funding the student would otherwise have received. Since this creates a situation in which a student would be no better off for having received the grant, the Duke Literature Program provides an incentive to apply for grants by extending the student’s funding on a 2:1 basis. For example, if a student received a two-year Mellon grant, then the Literature Program would provide sixth year funding (which otherwise ends at year five). If the student were allowed to keep both the outside award and the Duke funding, this would create a situation in which the student would be receiving twice the stipend that other students receive, which seems completely unfair. The inaccuracies are not trivial, since they gloss over the fact that an outside award is a fellowship and thus requires no work (other than one’s own research), while the Duke funding requires RA/TA services (except for the fifth year, which is a fellowship). Moreover, they misrepresent the situation to make it seem as if the student is losing half of his or her award, whereas in fact he or she is receiving the full award plus an extension of the Duke funding. Katherine Hayles, Professor of Literature and Director of Graduate Studies, Duke University

    • It would seem the DGS is misrepresenting the situation, as both the document linked to in the post and the GPL’s own posted info (pasted below) make clear that one year of external support yields one additional semester of GPL funding. Unless the monetary amount of the additional semester of GPL funding equals the entire monetary amount of the external support for a year, the student is being seriously short-changed. Indeed, if, say, the student earns one year of external support at $25K, or $12.5 per semester (as the GPL doesn’t provide summer funding), yielding an 11th semester at the yearly GPL support of $21K, or $10.5K, the student is actually receiving *less* than half of what s/he earned–and that, of course, doesn’t factor in the interest on what’s essentially a loan the student is forced to provide to the GPL.

      Talk about exploitation!

      To wit:

      3. External Funding

      GPL students have often been successful applying for fellowships outside of Duke, and are encouraged to apply for such funding. Information is regularly circulated and posted by the DGS, and the Graduate School Financial Aid web site has links to fellowship and research opportunities.

      External grants or fellowships does not change or extend the departments guarantee of 5 years of funding (whether from external or internal sources). In order to encourage students to apply for external funding, however; the department has established the following structure:

      1 yr of support ~ student receives full funding for 1 semester in the 6th year.
      2 yrs of support ~ student receives full funding for both semesters of the 6th year.
      3 or more yrs of support ~ the department will pay the students fees.

  3. Pingback: School of Doubt | Queereka Cross-Post: Collectivism at Duke

  4. Thank you for posting this–as a minimally funded graduate student, it’s extremely inspiring. If you are aware or more information on this or on similar approaches, please post about them too!

  5. Reblogged this on buildingsnbridges and commented:
    ein versuch gemeinsamer ökonomie. ein punkt, den ich wichtig finde: “…noting that individuated wage and salary structures are probably the strongest enforcer in giving one a sense of individual autonomy, masking our collective reliance beneath an ideology of autonomy. That is, first you get paid individually, and then you start to believe you can survive on your own…”

    … und dass es “geld verdienen(!)” genannt wird, trägt zu diesem eindruck bei, glaube ich.

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