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Forced to Work at Waffle Bus, Rice English Ph.D. Students Lodge Stipend Complaints

Not sure the English Ph.D.s will be able to afford Lovett Hall anytime soon.
Not sure the English Ph.D.s will be able to afford Lovett Hall anytime soon.

It seems that the teaching tellows at the University of Houston may have started something. While those English Department masters and Ph.D. students have begun a sit-in near Chancellor Renu Khator's office to force a discussion about their meager stipends -- the group's annual funds remain below the national poverty line -- certain English Ph.D. students at Rice have begun coalescing around a similar call.

According to a handful of students currently in Rice's program, the university has failed to keep their stipends pegged to a rising cost of living and has allowed the program to fall behind peer institutions in terms of compensation. As such, and much like their peers at UH, the current batch of Rice students are forced to go elsewhere for work, depriving both them and their students of the necessary hours to devote to scholarly study.

"We have to do whatever we can -- I'm not sure we could survive if we didn't," Lindsey Chappell, a second-year English Ph.D. student, told Hair Balls. "I know people who wait tables, who tutor. I know one student who now moonlights on The Waffle Bus."

Fortunately, and unlike at UH, Rice students are not forced to sign statements promising to forgo outside work. Still, the point of graduate school isn't to sling eggs to the latest customer or to learn how to properly flip a waffle iron before the batter crisps. The point of these graduate programs is to exist within the scholarly sphere, and to devote your entire energies to your scholastic pursuit.

Rice's Ph.D.s at least see a stipend above the poverty line, with nine-month incomes coming in at $16,000. However, as Seth Morton, a third-year student, points out, such intake falls $5,000-$10,000 short of those at peer institutions, and has likewise remained stagnant while Houston's cost of living continues to spike.

"The current rate will not allow us to compete -- even if we jump it to $20,000, we're still not competing with Ivy League programs," Morton told Hair Balls. "And it's hard, because the university is so public in lauding the strength of Rice endowment, and with the donor and gift-giving culture at Rice...Rice PR just released a report talking about how [the Centennial Campaign] is crossing the $950 million mark, so it's tough to understand how the university is so tight-pocketed when it comes down to a matter of few thousand dollars."

According to Morton, the programs currently house a little over 30 students, which would entail jumping their cumulative stipends by only a few hundred thousand dollars to put them on par with those at other programs.

However, as Dean of the School of Humanities Nicolas Shumway -- who, according to Morton, had declared rectifying the students' stipend situations the "first order of business" three years ago -- notes, Rice's stipends are meant to be supplemented by teaching incomes, which average approximately $5,000 per class.

"Let me say I want to raise the stipends. They're not where they should be, and I've been saying this for some time," Shumway told Hair Balls. "Teaching should be part of graduate training, but I don't think it's ethical to use [graduate students] as cheap labor. The reason Rice stipends are low is because we don't include teaching incomes in stipends."

Shumway pointed to additional certification programs in which the graduate students could receive supplemental funding. Chappell and Morton, however, both noted that they don't believe there are enough positions and courses available to suffice as additional income.

"These strategies aren't actually very possible -- they look great on paper but not on the ground," Chappell noted. " We need to teach. We need to put it on our CVs for the job market...but we don't currently teach enough."

As it is, the dean recently declared that he was raising the program's stipends to something more comparable to the finest programs in the nation. But instead of sending additional funds to the current crop of students, it's the next batch of first-year students -- the ones without the ability to supplement their income through teaching -- who will see the pay raise.

"Rice is rather generous on other ways," Shumway said. "We waive all tuition for grad students, and we have a very generous medical plan. We're nice to them in other ways. ... I don't think we have anything to be ashamed of here."

Of course, while current students are happy to hear that later students won't have to experience the current situation, such a promise doesn't alleviate present realities.

"There have really been no lines of communication between us and the dean's office, and we're left scrambling and confused," Morton says. "It's like we don't really have a voice in this, and we're not too sure what the next step is...There's a real sense of disappointment. Morale's really been affected by the news."

Chappell, for what it's worth, doesn't fault the dean for his recent announcement. She feels that the budgetary directives are coming from elsewhere, as they likely are. Still, due to the perceived lack of communication, a department-wide malaise has settled in.

"Frustration is a good word," she says. "We had lots of talks with the dean last year, and the original plan expressed was to give us all a raise, and that was sort of snatched away and doled out to our successors. Which is great, and we're happy things are changing, but for us we're worried how we're going to make ends meet."


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