Grad Student Academic Freedom: It’s Complicated

Academic freedom is complicated. It is especially complicated for grad students.

Recently, a Canadian grad student made the international news for teaching material that her professor and program didn’t want her to teach in a tutorial for a class she was t.a.ing. I won’t reproduce the details here. They are by now familiar.

In the wake of the controversy this story spawned, some academics declared that grad students don’t have academic freedom – that academic freedom is reserved for faculty alone. If you have been reading this blog over the last few weeks, you know that I disagree with this view.

I don’t regard academic freedom as an all or nothing thing. Rather, I think that the various freedoms clustered under academic freedom come in degrees, and that the degree of any freedom a university member has depends on their credentials and their role. Thus, there is no straightforward answer to the question of what academic freedom grad students have.

One of the complicated things about grad students is that they occupy multiple roles: they take courses; they write theses; they t.a. in their own disciplines (with or without tutorials); they t.a. in other disciplines (with or without tutorials); they run their own studies; they assist other researchers with studies on which the t.a.s are not the principal investigator; they teach courses independently; and so on and so on.

On my view, one of the things we seek to do in graduate programs (and, for what it’s worth, I am the Graduate Chair in my own department) is to socialize and professionalize grad students into roles that permit them greater and greater academic freedom. We start them off in fairly modest roles, in accordance with their training, and as their training progresses, we help to move them into more senior roles with greater academic freedom.

Mind you, the relationship between the training and the role isn’t linear. Sometimes, a senior PhD student accustomed to independently teaching courses picks up a gig marking exams for someone else. When that happens, they have less academic freedom than when they’re teaching their own course.

And a grad student doesn’t have a particular level of academic freedom full stop. Rather, they have one level in their thesis work, one level in their t.a.ing., and so on.

In short, in case I haven’t sufficiently drummed this point home yet, if grad student academic freedom were a Facebook relationship status, it would be “It’s complicated.”

Image of a drop-down "relationship status" menu from Facebook. "It's complicated" is selected.

I’ll have more to say about this next week (after a brief digression Monday about wandering and failure).