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Liminal States and Provisional Citizens

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 2, June 2012
pp. 13-16 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0017

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Are graduate students academic citizens?” This is the second question I asked myself after being invited to join the Committee for Professional Concerns panel on academic citizenship at accute. I am still not sure I have an answer. The first question, however, was “What is academic citizenship?” So my research began, right after I accepted the invitation.

Unfortunately, the concept of “academic citizenship” isn’t well-defined. Often, it’s used as a synonym for service, and if it’s only that, then its importance to me, as a graduate student, is as another aspect of professionalization. But this seems like a fairly limited interpretation. The idea of “citizenship” implies much more, invoking ideas of the university as communal and democratic rather than bureaucratic or corporate. So I read further about service communities, academic activism, and the importance of disciplinary socialization. However, all this did was deepen my concern that academic citizenship might not apply to me and that I might have little to contribute to the panel.

And then, frankly, I got a little anxious. I’d never been to accute and already had another paper to write. Like most students, I had a list of various commitments and deadlines to meet, academic and otherwise (and topping this list were two approaching summer classes, as well as the need to find further employment in order to pay for rent, food, and school, where I still had a dissertation to write). Really, I wanted to care about academic citizenship, but it struck me as a concern that may place me, despite my best efforts, at a remove. And that’s troubling. So I asked other graduate students for their thoughts on academic citizenship. Like me, none of them had a clear idea of what it meant. When I offered my limited understanding, most agreed that it was an important issue. Some even said that they’d get back to me with their thoughts. They didn’t.

If students are reticent to speak on the topic, and if I remain uncertain even after my research, then perhaps it’s because there’s no satisfactory answer to the primary question: “Is a graduate student an academic citizen?” The only answer I’ve come up with is “kinda.” Basically, a graduate student is a provisional citizen, one whose status isn’t guaranteed.

The ambivalence around graduate students’ status as academic citizens isn’t only felt by students but is reflected in the scholarship. For example, in his book The Academic Citizen, Bruce Macfarlane identifies the five communities served by academics as “students, colleagues, their institution, their discipline or profession, and the public” (70). These communities are envisioned as a “service pyramid,” with student service forming the base of the pyramid and the public its peak, since “institutional reward and recognition and the ingrained practice of academic life places a higher premium on service contributions to other communities” (72). Macfarlane’s study shows that academics hold student service in the least esteem. Moreover, opportunities for service are limited in some of these communities, while graduate students themselves are actually part of the pyramid. The bottom part. Samuel Long also points to the academy’s ambivalence toward graduate students, identifying them as “quasi-citizen[s] within the university political system” (221). What’s not clear from the literature, then, is the extent to which citizenship applies to graduate students; we seem to exist in a liminal space between citizens and the communities they serve.

The deeper considerations about academic citizenship are many: for example, how can we view service not just as professionalization but as a contribution to a community? How do we quantify the difference between a “good” and a “bad” academic citizen? How might we engender a classroom which reflects the concerns of social justice? All important questions, but it’s difficult to consider their implications when your continued status as an academic citizen is uncertain, and unless your citizenship is confirmed they remain more or less theoretical. Perhaps the real question is “Are the concerns of citizenship relevant to graduate students?”

The anxiety that most graduate students feel about their job prospects, and the uncertainty about their future in academia, doesn...


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