Your Budget Is a Question of Pedagogy and Equity

Crossposted to the Scholars’ Lab blog

I finished drafting this post back before the extent of the coronavirus pandemic was becoming known. And now, of course, the impact of the virus around the globe—and on higher education in particular—continues to evolve. So I had been sitting on this post for some time; I wasn’t sure how a rapidly changing landscape of higher education, replete with hiring freezes and bleak budgetary outlooks, might impact these conversations. I’m still uncertain. But I’m publishing this now in the expectation that ethical conversations about budgets as they pertain to students and teaching are likely to become more important now than ever. I’m grateful to Mackenzie Brooks, Amanda Visconti, and Elizabeth Fox for reading the post over.

Caveats aside—this post is part of a larger project I’m working on over the course of the year about the intersections of digital humanities pedagogy as it can reflect and enact infrastructural change in higher education. While each post is meant to stand on its own, they do participate in a longer conversation. It might be helpful to explore the framing post for the series for context.

I will talk elsewhere about opportunities for pedagogical interventions in the context of credit-bearing courses. For now, I wanted to speak primarily from my own institutional perspective. As the Head of Student Programs for a library-based center for digital research, the teaching that I do tends not to happen in for-credit courses. Instead, my teaching takes place in a range of activities: year-long student fellowships that carry a stipend that I design and administer in collaboration with the rest of the Scholars’ Lab, one-on-one consultations, one-off workshops, and more. Roughly half of my working life is spent on the actual work of theorizing and carrying out teaching. The other half is spent on developing the administrative infrastructure to allow such work to happen, for myself and others. With that in mind, I wanted to pause over the kinds of pedagogical interventions that can be made by people in these kinds of positions—whether we describe them as alt-academic, para-academic, academic, or otherwise. For that reason, the following does not apply so much to teaching in credit bearing courses, though it might offer useful food for thought as it applies to a range of pedagogical situations.

Sean Michael Morris refers to a pedagogical habitus, “embodied practice, often uninspected or subterranean to a person’s own thinking about themselves,” that forms the “genetic makeup” of an instructor’s teaching. In this line of thought, pedagogy is not just a practice–it is more properly thought of as your general attitude towards the work of teaching that you do. Put simply, your pedagogy is reflected in every action you take that could potentially affect students and your attitudes towards all such actions. It’s not too much of an exaggeration, I think, to say that with this frame of thinking every action can be considered a pedagogical one. No administrative decision is too small to affect students in some way.

I often point to budgets as the clearest example of how mundane administrative details, seemingly disconnected from the work of the classroom, have profound ramifications for teachers and learners. To put the finest point on it: your budget is a pedagogical issue. It’s also a question of equity. The economic circumstances your program creates or participates in directly affect the kinds of people able to participate in your programs and the work they can do.

Higher education is a time of enormous financial uncertainty for many students. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work with #realcollege, for example, has brought attention to the number of college students that struggle with food and housing insecurity. The situation is often no better for graduate students who, even if their programs offer tuition remission and stipends, are frequently forced to live in poverty. B. Mano’s piece on their particular circumstances at MIT sheds light, in particular, on how specific institutional policies can intersect with national labor and immigration law to produce especially dire situations for students. In these circumstances, any decision that we make as administrators can have dire consequences for the lives of the students around us.

Of course, every situation is different and subject to different pressures. Many institutions doing digital work simply don’t have any budget or funding at all. If you’re in a position like this, it might feel difficult to imagine how you could structure financial circumstances for your students in a more equitable manner when you’re still trying to find any kind of firm structure at all. In what follows I don’t mean to propose the perfect as the enemy of the good. Instead, I’d suggest taking the following as opportunities to examine where you’re at in the hopes of finding a way towards better outcomes—whatever “better” means for you and your circumstances. At the very least, I hope that the following discussion can supply resources and questions to use as we all try to advocate for better labor conditions for students.

Four pedagogical questions that you might ask of the student side of your budget are:

  • Does it exist?
  • Is it stable?
  • Is it transparent?
  • Is it what my students need?

Does it exist?

Are students a part of your budget? If not, why? In Elissa Frankle’s ignite talk entitled “Pay Your F-ing Interns,” she describes how unpaid internships reinforce whiteness and homogenous, privileged communities in museum workers. Frankle goes on: “We may say that we value diversity, that of course we want to treat our workers well, but do our core documents and budgets reflect that fact?” Our decisions about infrastructure, at their best, should reflect what our organizations believe in. A first useful question you can ask of your budget, then, is, whether and to what degree your work with students rises to the level of budget lines and conversations during allocations.

What you can pay is, of course, a local issue. But it is worth questioning whether your current payment practices are the result of habit or limitations. At UVA, we are subject to a range of policies that impact what we can offer students. It’s important to know what these are at your institution so that you can answer statements like “we can only pay X” with “actually, the policy states we can pay X+Y.” I often find state and local policies as a useful first tool when advocating for students, and they can also provide common language for working with financial administrators elsewhere in your institution who might be more removed from the day-to-day lives of your students.

Even if you’re not instituting something as formal as an internship or an hourly position, it’s worth considering how much unpaid time you’re asking of your students. Asking students to drive visiting speakers to events, for example, might appear negligible for the amount of effort it requires. But this small ask still takes a student’s time, time that they could be applying to their own work, to another paid position, or to personal needs.

In short, recognize the economic impact you are likely already having on students and decide whether you can do better. Recognize what you ask of them, first, and second ask what you can pay them.

Is it stable?

Students need to be able to plan their finances. If they cannot, only students from affluent backgrounds will be able to make decisions about their educations in the face of such uncertainty. If we want to design programs for students that will be as inclusive as possible, we need to strive for better stability in what we can offer. I am well aware that stable budgets are a luxury in most institutions, including my own. This is especially true in digital humanities, where people and organizations have successfully lobbied IMLS, CLIR, the Mellon Foundation, and the NEH ODH for substantial grants to support their work.

Grant funding can provide valuable experience for students and resources for paying them for their labor. And at some institutions these avenues might be the only ones available for funding the work of you and your students. Grants come with the disadvantage, of course, that they will eventually run their course. Soft money can provide useful supplemental resources for employing students, but the associated instability can cause long-term issues for students and staff. For example, a term-limited grant-funded student position might be listed as one year with year extension contingent on successful performance. In such a situation, the student or postdoctoral worker will spend a significant portion of their time planning and searching for what comes next when the grant-funded position ends. Extensions to a contracted position might, of course, be more dependent on successful lobbying for continued funding than on faith in an already carefully vetted candidate. But it’s still worth considering the real-life ramifications these positions can have for candidates.

It is worth noting the benefits of stable student programs founded on hard money. Through a combination of advocacy and strategic planning, the Lab has been fortunate enough to offer two stable fellowships for several years now. Praxis is completing its ninth year, and our Graduate Fellowship in Digital Humanities is in its thirteenth year. This means that students can plan on these programs as possibilities for them as they plot out not just their research agenda during their time with us, but also their plans for applying for supplemental funding. It is truly unfortunate that we cannot accept everyone who applies, but we work hard to try to bring as many people as we can into our community. It takes time for research agendas to develop, and students need time to decide if such things are right for them. The Scholars’ Lab has application cycles that run virtually all year long for its various programs, and students discuss their intention to apply well in advance of when they are eligible to do so.

Stable programs lead to better support for students as well. Supporting students requires time and energy from staff, no matter how experienced and skilled they might be. Thoughtful and considerate planning that includes student support as part of the regular workload for staff ensures that teaching and pedagogy will not become afterthoughts. Even if suddenly presented with the financial option to take on new students, one should ask if they can be supported.

Good teaching follows from well-supported and energized staff who are empowered to decide if they have the bandwidth to take on new students. Good learning follows from students who can make informed decisions about their lives and have the time and space to commit to learning.

Is it transparent?

I often find that students have received no real information about the systems by which their finances get processed. On the one hand, this is understandable—university budgeting processes are byzantine, and information about payment processing might seem like a means to an end and less crucial to students’ day-to-day lives. But providing knowledge about these systems can help students plan their own lives more capably. I have found it helpful to make sure students are aware of a range of different components related to how their payments are processed:

  • University payroll calendars
  • The length of time it takes for a payment to process
  • Whether a payment will be taxed up front or not
  • Whether a certain amount of payment during the year triggers automatic taxation
  • When payments are likely to come through, how often, and in what amount

Each of these elements can help students plan their time and finances. In addition, I’ve found that it can be difficult for us to track when something goes wrong in a payment that we’ve issued. We know when we issue it, and we find out if a student gets their funds. But there are many steps along the way. With many, many links in the administrative chain before the money actually gets dispersed to students, there are many places where things could go wrong. So I have regular appointments on my calendar when I ask students to make sure that they’ve been paid as expected. I often find students are really patient and willing to wait even if it appears that something might be amiss. But, as payments take time to process, I would rather we be in constant communication and transparent about where things stand so that we can reduce the burden on students already living in states of financial precarity. A transparent budgeting and dispersal process is a more ethical one.

Is it what they need?

Lastly, any administrative process can be enhanced by student input. As is often the case with teaching, I find the best way to grow is to ask students for their insights. Put simply, unless you were a student very recently, you probably do not know what sorts of pressures your students are subject to. Unless you recently lived paycheck to paycheck, it might be easy to forget the sort of financial precarity that a number of our students live under. And it is impossible for any one person to have personal experience that tracks with every possible student experience in the world. In short, be wary of invoking Students with a capital ‘s’, as one broad monolithic community. In order to take a broad, intersectional approach to your teaching and administration, you must talk with students themselves. They are experts on their own situations, and talking with your students about their needs can help to inform your decisions. They’ll learn more about how the university works, and the teaching and pedagogy you can offer will be enhanced as it more closely matches the real-world experiences of your community.

We address this same point in the Scholars’ Lab Student Programs Charter:

We teach in public, meaning that we talk openly about our pedagogical process. When possible, we write about it as well. If something is not working, we will change it and adapt based on the needs of the students and our colleagues. Accordingly, we expect our students to talk and write about their work and the learning process for them, to engage in the experience, and help us shape a pedagogical experience that works for them.

To engage your students directly in conversations like those above is to treat them as peers, as collaborators in the learning process in all of its messiness. Details like these might seem removed from teaching or overly specific. But they have material effects on the day-to-live lives of your student collaborators. A conversation with a student about how the uncertainties around a particular fellowship payment, for example, helped us to understand that a different distribution calendar would offer students more cushion if payments were delayed. We wouldn’t have gotten the idea had we not talked with the student directly about their needs.

As mentioned above, it can be difficult to balance these conversations against the realities of trying to do this work. We don’t live in a perfect world, and we’re all working with limited resources. Talking with students directly can be a way of sussing out whether your budgetary situation is operating for them and their lives and how it might work better for them. Students can help us all find our way to more equitable pedagogies and budgets that reflect them. You cannot do everything, but you might be able to adjust a few things. In the current climate of higher education, when many are faced with hiring freezes, across-the-board budget cuts, the prospect of layoffs, and withdrawn job offers, such conversations might seem small. But small decisions can matter in big ways for your students. And they can help us care for our vulnerable community members during chaotic times.

Resources for further reading on the topic: