Doing the work: early interventions

I recently shared some thoughts on how service in support of EDI initiatives disproportionately impacts members of underrepresented groups, and how this imbalance necessitates a fundamental shift in the way in which we value and reward academic service. While that piece focussed largely on the promotion and tenure of faculty, it is critical to acknowledge that this imbalance is being felt at all levels of our institutions.

Universities and scholarly societies should be applauded for constructing committees and oversight groups that represent broad and diverse perspectives - including the lived experiences of graduate students. Engaging this group directly is fundamental to the development of inclusive policies and positions that can reform the academy from the ground up. However, we must be mindful that like faculty, students are playing a zero-sum game with their time - every hour they give to these initiatives is an hour away from the bench. This is exacerbated by the fact that those students who make the most substantive contributions are often asked to take on additional roles (the proverbial pie-eating-contest where the prize is more pie).

I firmly believe that we should be encouraging our students to engage with academic service - they offer unique insights and creative solutions, and in many cases have the most to gain/lose by the action/inaction of administrators at these tables. However, a mismatch between the activities that we acknowledge as necessary and valuable to the academy, and the frameworks within which we evaluate our trainees remains an issue. For example, the rubric for our national-level graduate scholarships considers experience in leadership, organization, and community outreach as evidence of excellent ‘personal characteristics and interpersonal skills’; however, this comprises a mere 20% of a student’s score (while the remaining 80% is awarded in recognition of academic excellence and research potential). You do not have to be a graduate student in maths to understand how best to allocate your time; yet, the students most in need of systemic reform may not feel they have the freedom to choose. Trainees hold unique perspectives on the challenges related to EDI - it is our responsibility to allow them to engage in the process of reform without penalty.

And so again, we return to the question of where to start. While long-term solutions involve overhauling our evaluative frameworks to better align with our values, I believe the short term solution is simple - we should be providing paid opportunities for graduate students to engage in meaningful service work. I propose this take the form of paid fellowships, awarded in lieu of teaching assistantships to graduate students who wish to engage in substantial service to their department/faculty/institution. This is by no means radical - it is routine practice in many departments to ‘buy-out’ the portion of a student's stipend that is dependent on teaching in order to provide more protected bench time. An initiative like this would simply aim to provide the same protections, while allowing students to continue doing the work necessary for structural change. Importantly, in addition to reducing the service burden on underrepresented groups, these fellowships would make explicit the value of early career service, and help establish in our trainees the expectation that service work should be recognized and adequately compensated.

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