Winter 2019

Academic Freedom

Professionalization and the Precarious State of Academic Freedom for Graduate Student Instructors

One afternoon in March 2017, the first semester after the election of Donald Trump, a first-generation Indian American student in my Asian American literature course confided to me after class that while he was walking home alone the previous night a group of young men attempted to run him over with their car as they yelled racial slurs. This incident followed a string of violent anti-immigrant hate crimes against South Asians in Kansas, Washington, and Pennsylvania after the passage of Executive Order 13769 (Mishra). The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded 1,863 hate crimes across the United States between November 2016 and March 2017 (“Update”; Bauman). Of these 1,863 hate crimes, 330 occurred on university campuses. Coincidentally, the incident with my student occurred during the week we were studying Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories depicting Indian American experiences in the United States. The connections were ripe for the picking. As a graduate student at that time, though, what protection did I have to invite discussions of potentially contentious social justice issues in my classroom? For those without institutional protections, the university structures governing academic professionalism make responding to such issues a difficult project.

Undergraduate opportunities to engage in critical inquiry and community building depend on graduate students’ capacity to access academic freedom. To begin this conversation, I shed light on the ways that a growing number of graduate students are put into precarious positions professionally when addressing issues of racial violence with their students, which not only impedes their development as scholars and educators but also has the potential to hinder the quality of education that undergraduates receive and to foreclose mentorship pathways at times when students (and especially minority students) need them most. In response, I propose that departments institute more targeted intradepartmental training in critical pedagogy, which would help prepare all instructors to handle controversial contemporary sociopolitical issues in the classroom. In addition, departments should expand mentorship networks by promoting interdepartmental collaboration between academic departments and, for example, on-campus cultural centers that serve underrepresented undergraduate student populations. This would open new lines of connection between graduate student instructors and undergraduates. By systematizing critical pedagogy and expanded mentorship networks as forms of institutional and professional value, departments can create a more inclusive and egalitarian institutional climate among graduate students, revise institutionalized professional norms that have disproportionately affected underrepresented minority scholars in the humanities, and improve the kinds of education and community-building initiatives offered to undergraduates within a contemporary landscape beset by racial violence.

Academic Freedom and the Changing Academic Workforce

Tenure has been a common focal point for discourses on academic freedom because it established the terms under which professors could satisfy their professional educational responsibilities during the highly politicized wartime years of the early twentieth century. The institutionalization of tenure set the conditions for academic freedom to align with the professional norms that would define academic labor. At first, academic freedom was most associated with the free exchange of ideas in the classroom. Teaching was the chief labor of professors leading up to the mid–twentieth century, especially with the passage of the GI Bill in 1944. When research gained prestige during the Cold War, academic freedom extended to the circulation of knowledge in research initiatives, scholarly publications, and academic journals.

Undergraduate opportunities to engage in critical inquiry and community building depend on graduate students’ capacity to access academic freedom.

Recently, academic freedom has taken into account faculty mobility (i.e., free movement across national borders), funding acquisition for controversial research ventures, federal support for historically marginalized disciplines like ethnic studies, and even decisions to deny letters of recommendation for students studying abroad (see Rana; Palumbo-Liu; Tiede). Although graduate students perform many of these same professional activities—teaching, researching, publishing, journal editing, presenting at and attending conferences, acquiring funding, and writing recommendation letters—they do not maintain the same relation to professionalism that would enable them to access rights to academic freedom. As universities increasingly rely on contingent labor for undergraduate teaching assignments, graduate students are called on to lead the classroom despite having little to no institutional protection. Without systematic institutional protections in place, graduate students are ironically most at risk professionally during the very moments when they have the opportunity to make the biggest impact on their students by confronting racial violence in classroom discussions. If teaching controversial subjects is a precarious activity for faculty members, then it is no less than daunting for graduate student instructors who professionalize without the same rights to academic freedom.

Graduate student labor is steadily on the rise, meaning the problems involving graduate student professionalization increasingly affect undergraduate education. Research into departmental staffing over the last two decades corroborates these claims. In 2001, the Coalition of the Academic Workforce surveyed data from the United States Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics and found that graduate students constituted 22.2% of the instructional staff for English departments at PhD-conferring universities (Summary, table 1). Since 2001, that percentage has gradually gone up. According to MLA records from 2015, 23.9% of undergraduate English courses at PhD-conferring universities are taught by graduate students (English Departments). Often in response to intensifying budget cuts, humanities departments rely on cheap graduate student labor. By creating this market for graduate students to take on teaching roles, English departments would appear to be providing more opportunities for graduate students to gain valuable teaching experience and to establish meaningful connections with undergraduates. This shift to emphasize graduate student instruction might suggest, then, that graduate students enter the ranks of the professoriat more prepared to succeed in their professional duties. However, since graduate students do not have the same rights to academic freedom because of the occupational constraints inherent to their position as graduate students, they discuss controversial subject matters in the classroom at their own risk and thus might be more averse to taking pedagogical risks than tenure-track faculty members would be. What this means is that the turn to graduate student instruction, while seeming to provide opportunities for graduate students to professionalize, actually preserves (and possibly even intensifies) the institutional conditions that inhibit their professional development and, as a result, places limitations on undergraduate educational experiences. If departments value the education of their undergraduate students, then departments need to reassess the kinds of institutional support offered to graduate student instructors as they professionalize.

The English department at my home institution, for instance, provides tremendous support for graduate student professionalization by offering writing workshops, teaching seminars for rhetoric and composition courses, conference training, departmental mentorship cohorts, opportunities to sit in on departmental faculty meetings, and job-market preparation to develop graduate students into successful members of the profession. Ironically, though, it is this very commitment to professionalization that can also deter graduate students from confronting contentious sociopolitical issues. In weighing their own professional future alongside the institutional norms that regulate their professionalization, graduate students are often compelled to assimilate to the peace and stability of their departments and, by extension, their disciplinary fields.

This assimilatory imperative is particularly evident in the ways that graduate students approach classroom pedagogy. In general, graduate students have a limited number of opportunities to teach upper-level literature courses before graduation. For minority graduate students working in historically marginalized disciplines with fewer course offerings, the number of opportunities is even smaller. To have a shot at a tenure-track job, graduate student instructors must ensure that their teaching experience yields positive results. Graduate instructors do not want their undergraduate students complaining about their political leanings to department heads because they need good course evaluations for the job market. They cannot afford to risk losing their already meager stipends, either. Moreover, graduate students know that they should be spending most of their time researching and publishing, not teaching, if they want to be competitive for tenure-track jobs. Graduate student instructors can thus feel persuaded to shy away from or alter the ways that they speak on contemporary sociopolitical developments with their students because there is no standardized institutional incentive to privilege this type of pedagogical approach—an unfortunate circumstance for minority scholars like myself who work in minoritized disciplines with cultural histories rooted in social, political, economic, and racial violence. As university instruction continues to fall to graduate students, English departments (intentionally or otherwise) preserve structural inequalities that prevent this labor force from capitalizing on its teaching opportunities, which, in turn, affects the quality of education that they provide undergraduates.

If academic freedom remains dependent on tenure, in other words, it will become an illusory right that may never be realized. For graduate students, the possibility of accessing academic freedom is in many ways regulated by the job market. While the production of PhDs in universities in the United States continues to rise (“Table 13”), the number of tenure-track jobs in English declined by 43% from 2008 to 2014, making it hard to place faith in professionalization as a pathway toward tenure (Birmingham). To put this into perspective: recent data from the MLA Job Information List show that in the academic year of 2016–17 there were 354 tenure-track assistant professorship openings listed in English but well over one thousand graduating PhD candidates in the field (MLA Office of Research). In addition to the obvious disparity between job openings and graduate student job applicants, it is safe to assume that many of these assistant professorships did not go to freshly minted PhDs. Instead, the jobs likely went to other assistant professors through lateral hiring.

Looking only at race, 83% of white junior faculty members received tenure, whereas 53% of minority faculty members did.

For minority graduate students, access to academic freedom can remain deferred even after landing a tenure-track job. Promotion is difficult and, although the tenure evaluation process is sometimes regarded as meritocratic, tenure-denial cases disproportionately affect minority faculty members. Recent publications by women of color in the profession, such as those in Patricia A. Matthew’s Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, have boldly shed light on this phenomenon through candid personal accounts of the tenure evaluation process and through independently organized data collection. Jane Junn, in her longitudinal study on tenure acquisition rates across gender and racial demographics in the humanities at the University of Southern California from 1998 to 2012, found that 92% of white male assistant professors were awarded tenure while only 55% of female and minority assistant professors earned tenure. Looking only at race, 83% of white junior faculty members received tenure, whereas 53% of minority faculty members did. Women of color appear to be most affected by tenure denial. For Asian American women, the success rate was 40%, among the lowest of the demographics measured. While Junn’s research provides only a small window into the academy, the data nevertheless reveal how the rights to academic freedom hinge on a broader system of professionalization.

Supporting Critical Pedagogy

Departments must address the issues involved with graduate student professionalization to mitigate their precarity in the university and to improve undergraduate learning. To do this, English departments should consider promoting critical pedagogy more visibly as a departmental initiative. By enculturating critical pedagogy as a departmental endeavor and training graduate student instructors, departments will not only enable those instructors to be better poised to engage in and manage controversial discussions in the classroom but also create a more collaborative institutional culture where graduate students from all backgrounds are expected to participate in discussions on the sociopolitical violence that affects minorities, instead of having these kinds of pedagogical expectations continue to fall on minority graduate students.

My Asian American literature course was in high demand after Trump’s election, experiencing a roughly two hundred percent increase in student enrollment in comparison with previous years. Despite the high demand, on a campus of forty thousand students there was only one course per year with Asian America as a primary critical subject area. In teaching it, I felt that I needed to do justice to my students’ educational and personal expectations, especially as my unit on Japanese internment coincided with Executive Order 13769 (i.e., the Muslim travel ban); my week on Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist started a day after Trump’s authorized strike on South Asia with the MOAB bomb; and my section on Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies occurred during the deadly assaults on South Asian immigrants. The overlaps were remarkable, to say the least.

For me, teaching as a graduate student (of color) in rural central Pennsylvania in the Trump era—where conservativism is hypervisible and representatives of political watchdogs like Turning Point USA encourage undergraduates to surveil university classrooms through anti-left Web sites such as Professor Watchlist—can feel especially precarious.1 Despite being trained to offer critical readings about Asian American literature and culture, I felt palpably restricted in my freedom to capitalize on those professional skills even as recent events brought the histories of racial violence against Asian immigrants and Asian Americans front and center.

If critical pedagogy were more visible as an institutional value, graduate instructors might feel more comfortable approaching teaching as an opportunity to participate in mutually informed dialogues with students, allowing them to be more prepared to navigate students’ myriad worldviews, challenge previously held convictions, and criticize government policies. Departments might thereby turn a potentially vulnerable situation—having a graduate student of color teach a semester-long course on racial politics in a predominantly white rural area—into a more pedagogically positive outcome. The graduate instructor’s classroom would be more open to radically different viewpoints, an atmosphere that supports developing skills in critical thinking and critically engaged debates. As an added benefit, such institutional reforms might even expand the types of critical work that graduate students produce in their research initiatives because they would be able to test a range of critical viewpoints more frequently and with a wider audience throughout their graduate careers.

Additionally, by promoting critical pedagogy oriented around contemporary social politics, departments have the potential to foster a renewed awareness of the value and influence of classroom pedagogy. Academic freedom in the classroom can be more than overt critique; it can also encompass effective course planning and teaching performances. For example, in response to the anti-immigrant labor ideologies that define Trump’s political platform, I focused my course on Asian American labor in contemporary labor economies instead of opting to offer a general survey course. Planning the order of the readings was crucial to illuminating the ways that Asian American experiences have historically been governed by state-sponsored narratives of race. For this reason, I purposely began the course with Jack London’s “The Unparalleled Invasion” to ask my students to reflect on what it meant to start such a marginalized course within the university through the perspective of a non–Asian American imperialist writer. By beginning the course in this way, I put pressure on their understanding of Asian Americanness as a cultural formation, provoking questions about narrativity, cultural representation, and racialization. Pedagogical labors like course planning and teaching performances configured spaces of possibility to expand academic freedom’s temporal and material registers (i.e., its immediacy as a speech act and its institutional formations).

By placing value on these pedagogical labors, departments might be able to redress the evaluative standards of professionalization, making teaching a more nuanced, creative, and valued form of labor on the job market and during reviews for hiring and promotion. Often, when graduate students express a strong investment in teaching under the current system of professionalization, they become coded as teachers who lack serious dedication to research. This categorization positions them to be interpreted as individuals more suited for teaching-centered jobs—in other words, adjunct faculty members (Kelsky 89). For minority graduate students working in historically marginalized disciplines, where the classroom feels like a crucial space to have an impact on undergraduates, the love of teaching can quickly become coded as a “minority thing” that puts such graduate students on the path to perpetual contingency. By situating critical pedagogy as a kind of labor more intricately aligned with academic freedom, departments could be more attuned to seeing the value in the work of undergraduate educational experiences. Reevaluating the subjects and objects of academic work has never been more imperative. Capitalizing on the value of classroom pedagogy may be one way to reassess the work we do in the academy, the impact that we make on our students, and the types of publics that we reach.

Greater institutional support for graduate student instructors opens up more opportunities for graduate students to create meaningful connections with undergraduates. In addition to motivating discussions in the classroom, institutional support would allow graduate students to feel more comfortable in taking part in on-campus sociopolitical movements. Already, at universities like Penn, Hunter, Northwestern, and Dartmouth, among others, minority students in historically minoritized fields such as Asian American studies have openly criticized the lack of institutional support provided by their universities, composed social media campaigns and public syllabi in response to the cultural erasures that they have experienced, and distributed petitions to raise awareness of these issues.2 Many politically active graduate students, though, participate in these institutional labors at the risk of their own professional futures. Moreover, their commitments to political activities outside of research and teaching demonstrate how the fight for institutional recognition—let alone the possibility of academic freedom—often falls on marginalized minority populations as forms of hidden labor. Therefore, in addition to generating intradepartmental initiatives to promote critical pedagogy as a professional imperative, departments would do well to provide greater support for graduate students by facilitating interdepartmental professional development pathways across university institutions. By interdepartmental, I do not simply mean connections between academic departments; instead, I mean connections between academic departments and, for instance, on-campus cultural centers that serve underrepresented undergraduate student populations.

Before teaching my Asian American literature course, I (along with another graduate student colleague at the time from my small Asian American studies cohort) communicated with administrators at our on-campus cultural center, and they eagerly put me in touch with socially active undergraduate students of color who happened to work on the university’s student-of-color magazine. These connections helped me—a graduate student looking to publicize minoritized course offerings in the English department and to initiate mentorship networks for undergraduates—and helped those undergraduates who were looking to broaden both the scope of their on-campus activities and their institutional support pathways. My experience with the cultural center and its student body reaffirmed how cultivating institutional visibility for minority undergraduates gets placed on minority graduate students as hidden labors that fall outside the normative conceptions of professionalization. If departments were to assist in opening up and managing these networks for their students across different institutional arenas in the university, the result could be a more unified, engaged, and tolerant classroom where student populations feel more aligned. Departments would do well to expand the parameters of professionalization, then, by implementing training programs that teach graduate students how to foster sustainable relationships with undergraduate on-campus cultural centers for minority students. In doing so, departments could create more opportunities for graduate students to establish important connections with undergraduates, which would result in more visible forms of institutional support for minority student populations and would alleviate some of the burdens that befall minority graduate students in their efforts to build communities for minoritized student populations.

As much as some might suggest that the danger of the current political climate lies in its pervasive bigotry and anti-intellectualism, I argue that a crucial unforeseen danger of this moment is the self-censorship, silence, and even fear experienced by graduate student instructors who must increasingly engage students in contentious contemporary political ideologies, yet who have little to no institutional protection to do so. As an educator of color teaching in a minoritized field like Asian American literary studies in rural Pennsylvania, I am unfortunately not surprised when students of color open up to me about their experiences with racism. Handling these hidden labors has become just another part of the job. Sadly, though, one of the hardest aspects about dealing with these situations is figuring out how to respond carefully so that I do not get in trouble for communicating something that could be construed as controversial. What does this say about how we value the well-being of our undergraduates? What does this reveal about the quality of support that our undergraduates are (or are not) receiving when they are most vulnerable? And what does this expose about the efficacy of the humanities in our present moment? Until the university makes concerted efforts to reassess the institutional support that it offers graduate student instructors, it will continue to hinder the intellectual and personal development of its undergraduate and graduate student populations as well as risk appearing inadequate at tackling “real-world problems”—or, more specifically, at showing students how the purported “real world” is always part and parcel of their university experience. Now, as universities rely on graduate labor amid budget cuts to the humanities and amid the racial violence affecting minority students, we can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to our graduate student instructors.



I would like to thank Tina Chen, Michelle N. Huang, Christine “Xine” Yao, and my fellow panelists on the roundtable Precarity and Activism, at the 2018 MLA Annual Convention, who, at various stages of the project, influenced me and the making of this essay through their mentorship, generosity, professionalism, and editorial insight.

1. A week after Trump’s election, Turning Point USA opened a new chapter on campus at Penn State. In an interview with the university’s newspaper, The Daily Collegian, the chapter vice president Aidan Piombino-Marris—an undergraduate majoring in medieval studies—claimed that he had started the chapter for those who “have been silenced by the mainstream media and professors who may be liberally biased” (Navas). Already, Peter Hatemi—distinguished professor of political science at Penn State—appears on Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist as a professor who “discriminate[s] against conservative students and advance[s] leftist propaganda in the classroom” (“About Us”).

2. Though many of these kinds of on-campus movements are at different stages of development, for some insight see Ferrarin; Penn Asian American Studies Undergraduate Advisory Board; Coalition; Sananes.


Works Cited

“About Us.” Professor Watchlist, Turning Point USA, 2018,

Bauman, Dan. “After 2016 Election, Campus Hate Crimes Seemed to Jump. Here’s What the Data Tells Us.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 Feb. 2018,

Birmingham, Kevin. “The Great Shame of Our Profession: How the Humanities Survive on Exploitation.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 Feb. 2017,

Coalition for the Revitalization of Asian American Studies at Hunter College. “Petition for an Asian American Studies Major/Department at Hunter College.” The Action Network, Accessed 22 Dec. 2018.

English Departments in United States Institutions of Higher Education. Modern Language Association, 2015, PDF download.

Ferrarin, Gianna. “Students and Faculty Are Fighting to Keep Asian-American Studies Alive. They Say Administrators Aren’t Helping.” The Daily Pennsylvanian, 23 Sept. 2017,

Junn, Jane. “Appendix B—University of Southern California Analysis of Data on Tenure.” Matthew, pp. 269–77.

Kelsky, Karen. The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD into a Job. Three Rivers Press, 2015.

Matthew, Patricia A. Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure. U of North Carolina P, 2016.

Mishra, Sangay K. “An Indian Immigrant Is Murdered in Kansas. It’s Part of a Spike in Hate Crimes against South Asians.” The Washington Post, 7 Mar. 2017,

MLA Office of Research. Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2016–17. Modern Language Association, Dec. 2017, PDF download.

Navas, Emeling. “Turning Point USA Opens a Chapter at Penn State, Aims to Bring Awareness to Impact of Capitalism.” The Daily Collegian, 2 Dec. 2016,

Palumbo-Liu, David. “Why and How Is Academic Freedom Important for Ethnic Studies?” Journal of Asian American Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 2016, pp. 101–03.

Penn Asian American Studies Undergraduate Advisory Board. “Stop Killing UPenn’s Asian American Studies.”, Accessed 22 Dec. 2018.

Rana, Junaid. “The Academic Freedom of Social Movement.” Journal of Asian American Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 2016, pp. 111–16.

Sananes, Rebecca. “A Fight for Faculty of Color at Dartmouth and Beyond.” New Hampshire Public Radio, 24 May 2016,

Summary of Data from Surveys by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce. Modern Language Association, American Historical Association / Modern Language Association, Mar. 2001, PDF download.

“Table 13: Doctorate Recipients, by Subfield of Study: 2004–2014.” National Science Foundation, 2016,

Tiede, Hans-Joerg. Letter to Dr. Mark S. Schlissel, President, University of Michigan. American Association of University Professors, 16 Oct. 2018,

“Update: 1,094 Bias-Related Incidents in the Month Following the Election.” Southern Poverty Law Center Hatewatch, 16 Dec. 2016,

Leland Tabares is a postdoctoral fellow in English at Pennsylvania State University, University Park. His research focuses on contemporary Asian American literature and culture and professional labor economies, institutionality, and racialization. His work has appeared in the Journal of Asian American Studies and Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association.

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