Platecleaning and pedagogy

This is based on a talk I gave (with the intentionally stultifying title of "Pedagogical implications of inequalities (social and other) at the graduate level") as part of a one-day conference called "Graduate Student Learning in the Humanities: Challenges, Best Practices, Perspectives", which took place on 28 September 2013 at the University of Toronto. The best bit probably starts around section 43.


1. When I was invited to participate in a workshop on graduate pedagogy, I agreed to do it, because it was an unusual and interesting request—it was a seductive request—even though I probably should have said no. I mean, I have a dissertation to write, and writing this presentation would be (and was) a distraction from that. It would, so to speak, get in my way. It would be an obstacle.

2. But it would be an interesting obstacle, and one that would have some benefits. It would probably look good on my CV, and it would force me to consider and articulate my ideas about pedagogy, which is something you’re expected to do when you go on the job market. So it might, in some small way, help me towards one of my presumed goals in working on this PhD—of getting a job in academia.

3. And yet I have no mastery of the subject of graduate pedagogy, outside of my own experiences as someone in the fifth year of his PhD programme. I don’t study or research graduate pedagogy. But I was assured that the purpose of this workshop would be to start conversations, rather than to present or perform mastery, and I thought, OK, I can try to start a conversation.

4. In fact, I have already had several conversations with people, both in person and online, who shared their stories and their opinions on my topic. I will be sharing some of their stories—anonymously, of course—but I want to thank all of them.

5. A further obstacle: Preparing a version of this document, after the workshop, for people who weren’t at the conference to read. I’ve put sections that I’ve added after the conference in italics.


6. Let me begin by proposing a model of how graduate pedagogy happens in a PhD programme, and only then getting to what I’m really interested in talking about, the “Pedagogical implications of inequalities (social and other) at the graduate level”. (I will not really be discussing MA programmes, which, in many ways, are not comparable to PhD programmes.)

7. So: As you know, you don’t just arrive at a PhD programme and automatically receive a doctorate and a tenure track job. There are obstacles along the way. The dissertation, or rather the lack of dissertation, is an obstacle that needs to be dealt with. The qualifying exams are obstacles. The required courses are obstacles, filled with smaller obstacles, such as papers and discussions. Publications, or the lack of publications, are usually obstacles. And so on.

8. If I call them ‘obstacles’, it isn’t to suggest that they’re negative. In fact, I want to propose the opposite: that we think of the PhD programme as a set of obstacles that have been carefully chosen for their pedagogical purposes. The dissertation isn’t an obstacle for the sake of being an obstacle, but rather, it’s a way of making the student do research, articulate findings, develop argumentation skills, and learn habits of writing that make the student more able to achieve the goals of the PhD programme—which are, after all, not so much getting the PhD itself, but rather, getting published, getting hired, and making an impact on ‘the scholarly conversation’.

9. In this scenario, the student’s learning happens through navigating the obstacles, rather than through some kind of reception of ‘teaching’ that is delivered by faculty. Moments of direct ‘teaching’ may still happen, but most of the learning is autodidactic or student driven or however you want to put it. I want to reflect the great degree of autonomy that the PhD student or candidate has in learning.

10. And, similarly, in this system, the faculty—especially the supervisor—is mostly in charge of monitoring the obstacles. Has this obstacle—this dissertation chapter, this language exam—has it been cleared successfully? If not, is there another obstacle preventing this obstacle from being cleared—if the student doesn’t understand theory X, perhaps it’s because they haven’t read book Y? Should they be told this, or do they need to figure it out on their own? Monitoring and managing these obstacles can be done—perhaps should be done—with pedagogical goals in mind. Faculty teach by creating, monitoring, and maintaining an effective pedagogical obstacle course.

11. So when other obstacles arise—such as preparing a talk about graduate pedagogy—they might get in the way of this pedagogical programme of obstacles. When deciding whether to encourage or discourage the student from presenting that talk, the supervisor monitors and evaluates the competing obstacles. And this is a form of pedagogy.

12. I don’t want to suggest that the supervisor or the faculty are the only ones who create or evaluate these obstacles. The administration certainly creates some of the obstacles; so do other students. The student in question is probably the first in line to evaluate these options; I could have said no to this talk before even mentioning it to my supervisor. And, of course, life sometimes throws unexpected obstacles in a student’s way. Disease, or pregnancy, or religious conversion, or whatever.

13. But I want to privilege for now the supervisor’s role in creating, monitoring, and evaluating obstacles, and see where that leads us.


14. Anyway, when I was asked what I might want to talk about in a workshop on graduate pedagogy, I reframed the question as: What seems to be the greatest—or, at least, most noticeable—obstacle that prevents my peers from learning, from achieving the ultimate goals of the programme.

15. And the answer—or, an answer—seemed blindingly obvious: Money.

16. Though, really, as I thought about it, not just money, but the experiences, assumptions, and capacities connected to money; the differing socioeconomic backgrounds and situations of students and professors, and the socioeconomic expectations of the academy and the academic job market.

17. I’m going to provisionally refer to these issues as ‘class-related’, although I’m not entirely satisfied with that as a term. Certainly, these ideas spill into other areas that I am not examining here, such as gender, race, and disability. Again, this talk is hoping to start conversations, not finish them.

18. Suzanne Conklin Akbari suggested, after the talk, that these issues might relate more to where you grew up—in a metropolis, in a rural area, etc.—rather than what economic class you belonged to. This is probably true, although I still suspect class issues are lurking there; I’m sure others have thought more than I have about the way class negotiations function differently in a metropolis.

19. So I have three lines of thought here, with no real conclusions. All three end in questions, which I hope others can begin to answer.

  1. The first deals with the precarity of many graduent students’ financial situation, and how that affects their ability to learn.
  2. The second deals with the effects of precarity on students’ ability to be persuasive.
  3. The third deals with the socioeconomic expectations of academia, and how we prepare graduent students to match those expectations.


20. So, first: precarity.

21. Let me review the basics: The average PhD time-to-completion at the University of Toronto is a little over six years;1 my PhD funding package lasts for five years,2 at $15,000/year on top of tuition, with limited resources available for funding later years, including paying for tuition.3 That $15,000/year has not increased since I entered the PhD programme five years ago, which means that, thanks to inflation, the part of my funding package that I actually see—the part I’m expected to live on—has effectively gone down every year, and is currently at approximately $14,000/year in 2009 dollars.4 The poverty line in Toronto (as of 2012) is $18,759/year.5

22. Let’s be clear: This affects students in different ways. Some students arrive having money, or having stable access to money—or at least, to emergency funds—through their families. Some students arrive with dependents who need support. Some students have unexpected expenses (say, medical expenses) arise that increase the precariousness of their financial situation. For some students, even $15,000/year is more than they’ve ever earned, or comparable to what they’re likely to earn with the other job opportunities available to them. The choice between washing dishes all day or making a few thousand dollars less per year and moving to a significantly more expensive city to be in a prestigious PhD programme, is, weirdly, a choice that some students have to make.

23. Which is to say that students often need more than $15,000/year to survive, especially if they are doing it for six years in a row. Sometimes, more money comes in through scholarships. Sometimes, more money comes in through taking up jobs, either within the university (TAships or RAships) or outside it.

24. But let’s not forget that the funding package includes with it a stipulation that requires either outside funding or a certain number of TA hours. These TA hours are, of course, an obstacle to dissertating, but let’s assume that a certain number of TA hours serves a pedagogical function—they give students classroom experience and get them closer to the end goal of getting a teaching job. Let’s assume for simplicity’s sake that the number of TA hours expected from students is the ideal for pedagogical purposes, and that, for most students, additional TA hours undertaken for financial security purposes are decidedly an extra, unwanted obstacle in the pedagogical programme.6

25. And, of course, some students take on jobs outside the university—tutoring, perhaps, or retail—which, in most situations, are obstacles that drain time and energy away from overcoming the properly pedagogical obstacles.

26. I could go on.

27. But my question is, what role does faculty—does a supervisor—have in all of this?

28. The administration could decrease the precarity of these students’ lives and remove some of these pedagogically useless obstacles by increasing funding and tying it to inflation, or to the poverty line. But their response to this idea, over the last few years, has ranged from dismissal to disparagement.

29. Students have the ultimate responsibility for dealing with this situation, either by deciding what sorts of additional funding to take on, or by leaving the programme altogether.

30. But these decisions have pedagogical implications. Rather than dissertating or presenting talks at workshops such as this one, these students are spending time learning how to avoid encroaching poverty and learning how to succeed at these unrelated jobs. And because of these pedagogical implications, it seems like the faculty who are shaping the pedagogical programme might need to, in some way, monitor and evaluate this aspect of their students’ lives.

31. Not by anything so invasive as going over bank statements.

32. But if a student is not navigating the pedagogical obstacle course effectively, is there a way for faculty to figure out whether this is because they’ve been distracted by these other obstacles, such as their sixth year in a row of living in poverty? Is there a way for offering them guidance (or opportunities, such as a relevant RAship?) for how to navigate these obstacles?

33. Faculty might also need to figure out how to petition the administration to ensure that students aren’t put in precarious economic situations that undo all of their careful pedagogical obstacle-crafting.


34. The other side of financial precarity that I want to think about is that extended periods of financial precarity alter thought processes, how it brings about what a recent book refers to as “scarcity mindset”.7

35. When I presented this paper, I referred to the financial situation in question as “poverty”, tying it in with the fact that students are expected to live below the poverty line. Suzanne Conklin Akbari, again, questioned this afterwards; there is an important distinction between lifelong poverty—especially desperate poverty—and spending a few years without money. This is true. I’m don’t know the poverty rates of PhD students’ backgrounds; I know that enough of them come from poor enough backgrounds that the scarcity mindset is very familiar to them. And I suspect that six years of living below the poverty line is enough to put someone into a scarcity mindset.8

36. Ongoing financial precarity can easily infect someone’s thought processes. If money is regularly pressing, then there is a regular risk that decisions might lead to an inability to make rent or buy groceries. Things are tight; there is no room for a false move.

37. Every decision has to get weighed for its potential financial consequences. It may only take a split second, but the financial calculus must be worked out. Even if it turns out that there were no financial repercussions at stake in the decision, this has to be decided as well. This becomes automatic, an overtrained muscle, a reflexive action.

38. This is what I worry about: Imagine asking two people whether they want to be involved in a project.

  1. The first person thinks it’s a great project and says, “Yes!”
  2. The second person thinks it’s a great project—and then has to quickly decide whether participating in the project is going to put them in increased financial precarity—and then figures out that, no, it probably won’t—and then says, “Yes!”

39. My worry is that the first person will come off as more confident, more engaged, more excited, more persuasive in getting their excitement across, because that is how we are likely to interpret that split second gap.

40. My worry is that, because of this, people who are in a position of privilege, who are financially secure, are going to be able to more easily maintain this privilege. My worry is that financial precarity becomes another obstacle that gets in the student’s way of achieving the goals of the faculty’s programmes.

41. I am not sure how faculty can address this, though, other than being mindful of why they might find some students more persuasive than others, and interrogating why they were persuaded. So I ask: does anyone have any ideas how faculty might address this sort of pedagogical obstacle?

42. Except, of course, that they should work to ensure that students aren’t put in financial precarity in the first place, so that this unnecessary obstacle doesn’t arise.


43. The last idea I wanted to bring up involves the socioeconomic expectations of academia, and how those are taught.

44. A few days ago, the academics—grad students and professors—that I am connected to via social media had some discussions over a recent blog post called “How to Tell if You’re a Declass(é) Academic”.9 The author points out that, while academics in the humanities typically “drive sensible cars, live in modest homes, and buy their clothing off the rack”, they nevertheless engage with subtle but pervasive “class markers”, because “members of the academic profession still attach a lot of importance to the accoutrements of the high class life”. There are things that academics are expected to know about or care about which are thought to be more native to a moneyed lifestyle. Academia is a culture in which you are—or you are thought to be—expected to know something about art, something about food, something about classical music, something about travel and how to handle yourself in a foreign—well, European—country. You are presumed to know that there are more types of wine than ‘red’ and ‘white’.

45. This is not entirely an issue of being moneyed; I grew up in New York City, and while my parents were working their way towards a solid foothold in the middle class, I was nevertheless surrounded by people who took this ‘high culture’ seriously—including my high school, which took me on field trips to the City Opera or to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

46. And while I don’t want to suggest that the process left me perfectly refined, it certainly made me comfortable in a set of situations that my husband, who grew up in a town of about 4000 people in Newfoundland, didn’t have access to, despite his family tracing a similar economic path into the middle class that mine was taking. He has been learning a lot about navigating and becoming more fluent in this cultural milieu since beginning grad school.

47. It’s possible that this need to perform as a member of a refined class is not as prevalent as it used to be. It’s possible that enough people who are not actually from that class—who are not ‘to the academy born’—have infiltrated the ranks that it’s more of a spectre of expectations, a spectre of a ruling class, rather than a reflection of the actual socioeconomic conditions of faculty. And yet it’s still widely felt.

48. This spectre appears whenever we, as academics, engage in networking, but in particular it haunts the dinner portion of the academic job interview.

49. At the dinner, candidates are evaluated on how well they converse, how well they deal with and recognize the food and drink, how they deal with merely being in a restaurant (especially a ‘fine’ restaurant), which, I want to stress, is not an experience that is familiar to every socioeconomic class. The evaluative criteria of the candidate dinner are entirely class-based.

50. I have not yet been on a job interview. But I’ve heard a lot of stories about job interviews that went very badly. One of those stories—it’s probably considered gauche to share one of these in such a public forum, isn’t it?—anyway, one of these involved a candidate whose interview was going pretty well, until at the end of the dinner the candidate picked up the plate and literally licked it clean.

51. Now, let me explain why this story was funny. The candidate is not supposed to lick the plate clean. That is not how we do things. It doesn’t matter how you were raised, that does not match the performance we expect from you. Your performance is not in the right shape; you are not adequately refined.

52. One of the audience members—who I won’t name here, but one who, importantly, grew up in Toronto—claimed, in the discussion after this talk, that someone who licked the plate at a dinner was not following decorum and had therefore made an error in judgment, and was the sort of person who would wear an offensive t-shirt to class.

53. But, of course, this is wrong—offensively wrong. My husband pointed out, both in the discussion session and in more detail later, the problem here: In some parts of the world, in some cultures—including his own—licking a dinner plate is perfectly decorous (it is a licit way of stating how much you enjoyed the food), and shows a perfectly fine judgment.10

54. It’s entirely unfair for hiring and evaluative practices to give someone like me (or the audience member who imposed his sense of decorum on the rest of us) an advantage in academia simply because we grew up in the dominant culture.

55. If one of the goals of graduate pedagogy is to make a student hireable, then one of the things that a student has to learn—if, because of their socioeconomic or cultural background, they haven’t learned this already—is that you don’t lick the plate. The student needs to understand the expectations of the academic class, and needs to be trained in navigating them.

56. Is this an explicit pedagogical goal?

57. Is this an explicit pedagogical goal only for certain people, perhaps those who have not arrived sufficiently ‘refined’, or those who, after a few years in the academy, do not seem to be getting it?

58. Should it be an explicit pedagogical goal to point out to the person who comes from a privileged background the nature of that privilege? How would such a conversation unfold?

59. If we’re uncomfortable with making this goal explicit, should faculty—during the hiring process—favour candidates that exhibit unfamiliar backgrounds? If we value a diverse faculty (do we? how diverse are we willing to go?), we should perhaps hire the plate lickers, or favour the people who fail the dinner interview in interesting ways.

60. I’ll stop asking questions, for now, and start the discussion period.

  1. Source. (There are probably other sources for this, but this is the same figure that everyone at the workshop had.) ↩︎
  2. Other departments fund the MA year, or have other variations on how they distribute the funding. ↩︎
  3. At other universities, tuition rates reduce dramatically after the student is ABD; this is not the case at UofT. ↩︎
  4. There are other scholarships that can be won; personally, I’ve averaged about $2500/year in further scholarships, but those are very unevenly spread out and entirely unpredictable (and thus difficult to budget around). ↩︎
  5. "Nearly a quarter of Toronto residents live in poverty", Toronto Star. ↩︎
  6. I should add that I have taken on additional TA hours—probably amounting to about $2000/year?—in several years, in order to increase the breadth of my TA experience. And, of course, because I needed the money; those extra TA hours nudged me above the poverty line. ↩︎
  7. Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (New York: Times, 2013). ↩︎
  8. This is, incidentally, not to be confused with a “poverty mentality”, which is a phrase that gets used by people who want you to think your way into riches. ↩︎
  9. “Werner Herzog’s Bear.” Notes from the Ironbound. ↩︎
  10. A few people have said to me, “Surely these regions aren’t so isolated that they’re not exposed to mainstream norms of decorum!” But that’s not quite how exposure works. A few years ago I saw Gerard Van Herk give a talk on Newfoundland English for the University of Toronto’s Linguistics Department. He pointed out that his students (at Memorial University of Newfoundland) knew that some parts of their dialect were Newfoundland-specific; mainlanders don’t talk that way, and if they wanted to ‘pass’ in mainland society, they had to suppress that part of their ability to express themselves in English. But there were other forms that the students didn’t realize were Newfoundland-specific. Van Herk suspected that the students knew that there were two competing ways of saying something, both of which were acceptable. They did not notice that one of those forms was missing from CBC English. I want to suggest that standards of decorum work in a similar way: When you come from a subaltern place where there are two options for decorous behaviour (the local one and the dominant one), it can be especially difficult to recognize that only one of those is dominant. My husband only learned that plate-licking was considered unacceptable a few years ago, and he was frustrated to once again realize that he could spend five or six years in a graduate programme learning the dominant culture’s expectations of him and nevertheless manage to not learn one of those expectations—and that such a mistake would suggest, to people from the dominant culture, that he entirely lacked judgment! ↩︎