Folklorists: to hell with fakelore. Let’s take on fake facts.

In this new era of fake news, “alternative facts,” and government more obsessed with being right than being honest or good, folklorists have a responsibility to be part of the resistance.

We aren’t specialists in facts. We’re specialists in “truth” only insofar as we know well how malleable the idea of truth can be, because all narratives–even the ones crafted without the explicit intent to obfuscate or deceive–are crafted through conscious and unconscious decisions governed by the context of performance. 

But we’re specialists in belief, and in tradition, and in the reproduction of culture, and in the understanding that stories–true, false, and somewhere in between–do not exist in vacuums. Fact-checkers can evaluate statements against reliable sources, separating the truthful from the “truthy” from the explicitly false. Folklorists can help by digging into the why: Why do some narratives take root and circulate despite the lack of foundation? What fears or ethics or community loyalties are driving people’s attachment to those narratives? What can we learn–really learn–about people from the stories they’re so eager to believe?

These aren’t only important questions to ask of the Trump sympathizers and the alt-right among us. Fake or distorted news circulate widely on the left, too, and it doesn’t help us to support it. Several speakers at the Women’s March accused Trump of gutting the Office of Congressional Ethics, for example, when Trump actually opposed Congress on that issue–not from a desire to protect the watchdog, but because he claimed Congress should focus its priorities on tax reform and health care, but still. It doesn’t benefit anyone to build straw-man arguments to oppose a demagogue. It discredits the movement and distracts from more-pressing issues.

Take, for example, climate change denial. According to a recent Pew study, most of North America and Western Europe, supposed paragons of white western rationalism, aren’t all that worried about climate change, particularly compared with our extreme fear of ISIS. Countries in South and Central America and in Africa, whom we white Western rationalists tend to dismiss as superstitious and “primitive” in worldview, are far more worried about climate change than we are–and, of course, the science backs them.  Facile explanations of white American (and European, and Canadian) dismissal of the threat of climate change, like the idea that we dislike environmental policies because they’re bad for business, are lazy. They imply that people who advocate against policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions do believe in global warming, but choose to disregard that belief in the interest of prioritizing economic growth.

Seriously, guys, climate scientists are predicting that we may be en route to destroying the earth as a habitable planet for human beings.

If you believe the apocalypse is coming, you don’t use the economy as an excuse to look away.

Despite all the evidence supporting the existence of human-created global climate change, enormous numbers of people in our country genuinely don’t believe it’s happening. (Aside: that was a link to a NASA page. If the link breaks, refer to the National Parks Service employees’ rogue twitter account.)

I don’t know why this is. But I think a folklore study could find out. Data sources are out there, in the news, in website comment sections, and on social media. What is the tradition of narrative and belief at play here?  In cases of all these spurious stories that circulate, in all cases of belief that seems irrational, that’s the question we need to answer.

  1. When we understand a narrative tradition, we can, potentially, reframe a counter-narrative that aligns with the epistemology we’re trying to reach. 
  2. Understanding the tradition that undergirds beliefs makes it harder for us to dismiss those beliefs as the irrational, primitive, or sociopathic vagaries of stupid people (cf. “poor, uneducated, rural white people made this happen against their own interests! Why woudl they DO that!?!?”). People generally have good reasons for believing the things they believe. We may not agree with them. We ay have good, vested reasons for wanting to inspire them to change their beliefs. But generally speaking, when one person successfully brow-beats another into changing their worldview, we call that abuse, or slavery, or colonialism, and it’s rarely as successful as it might seem on the surface and it  usually ends in revolt from the brow-beaten. I’m not being kumbaya when I say that inspiring a change in worldview must start from a place of mutual respect, no matter how hard that place may be to find.  

To bastardized Glassie: our traditions have created this present, and our future, out of our past. Folklorists: we have the tools to figure out why.


Volunteering for Social Justice in Bloomington

Here’s a list of organizations that rely on volunteers and provide services in opposition to racism, ableism, sexism, poverty, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia.

Most of these organizations are 501c3, which means they’re largely apolitical. Some may require a background check, especially if they involve working with kids or vulnerable populations.

I have included religious-based organizations only if I know they do not discriminate in their services and that they do not tie their services to attendance at, or receipt of, religious material or services. (In other words, the Interfaith Winter Shelter is here, the Salvation Army is not. I’m not sure about Wheeler Mission–can anyone tell me?)

This is crowdsourced, not comprehensive, so I’m open to adding to it if anyone has suggestions. Links to websites are helpful.

The Bloomington Volunteer Network has a great database of volunteer opportunities far more extensive than this list.

Feel free to contact me with additions.

All Options Pregnancy Resource Center – literally all-options pregnancy support, from infertility and adoption support to abortion funding. Office tasks, outreach, distributing donated materials, peer counseling.

Hoosier Abortion Fund is a new project through All Options to fundraise for improved abortion access in Indiana. Apply here to join.

Amethyst House – transitional housing for people in recovery from substance use disorder. Volunteer to help in the office.

Area 10 Agency on Aging – housing, community support, transportation, resources for low-income elderly people. Huge numbers of volunteer opportunities, from teaching exercise and art classes, to repairing elders’ homes, to delivering food, to just visiting elderly people who may be lonely.

Bloomington Food Policy Council – developing food security by assessing gaps and advocating for policy changes. They need volunteer researchers, event planners, and general advocates.

Bloomington PRIDE – LGBTQ+ arts and culture organization, including programming for LGBTQ+ youth and seniors. The Prism Youth Community and the Aging and Caring Network are both parts of PRIDE. Event-based volunteering, and year-round event planning and coordination.

Community Kitchen – soup kitchen, and backpack buddies program to feed free-lunch children over the summer. Help cook and serve meals, and pack bags for backpack buddies.

El Centro Comunal Latino – culture and education center for the local Latinx community, including all ages tutoring and immigration information sessions. They always need tutors.

Girls Inc – educational and after-school programming for girls. Volunteer to help with sports or education programming, summer camps, or events.

Habitat for Humanity – provide housing to the homeless. Volunteer to help build a house, or volunteer at the ReStore which sells donated furnishings etc. to raise funds.

Hoosier Hills Food Bank – food bank that supplies many area food security organizations, including Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, Community Kitchen, Wheeler Mission, etc

Indiana Recovery Alliance – harm reduction, including needle exchange (for as long as it’s legal…), for people with substance use disorder. Follow the IRA Volunteers facebook group for opportunities.

Interfaith Winter Shelter – low-barrier overnight homeless shelter coordinated by several Bloomington religious organizations. Help staff the shelter.

Life Designs – Support for seniors and people with disabilities across South-Central Indiana. Administrative, event planning, and fundraising volunteer positions.

Meals on Wheels – delivers meals to individuals homebound due to illness or age. Help deliver meals.

Middle Way House – domestic violence and sexual assault crisis center. Phone volunteers, office volunteers, I think also advocacy for survivors when they choose to report their assaults.

Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard – food pantry, food justice organization, tool-share. Help stock and distribute food, volunteer in the garden, or help lead education programming.

New Hope Family Shelter – high-barrier homeless shelter that does not split up homeless families. Huge variety of volunteer opportunities here, from building a shed to developing an affordable housing guide.

New Leaf, New Life – offers services to people incarcerated in the Monroe County Jail during incarceration and afterward. Volunteer to help lead enrichment groups, help with office tasks, and help with transition programming for inmates being released.

Planned Parenthood – affordable reproductive and sexual health services. Be an escort to help women get into the clinic safely, be involved in activism.

Positive Link – HIV/AIDS health and resources organization. Start by attending a meeting of the Community Aids Action Group (CAAG), and go from there.

Purdue Extension Monroe County – 4H! Huge numbers of volunteer opportunities in camps, after-school programming, education programming, etc. Additional programming in health and human services, environment and natural resources, food and nutrition. Contact Courtney Stewart at

Shalom Center – homeless shelter, services provider, and soup kitchen. Help staff the shelter and kitchen.

South Central Community Action Program – Huge variety of services for low-income people. Volunteer with Head Start, or take one of a huge number of volunteer opportunities to counter poverty.

Spencer Pride – events and education for and about GLBTQ+ folks in rural Indiana. They have a new community center downtown. Event-based volunteering, and possibly opportunities in their community center?

Stone Belt – support and housing for adults with developmental disabilities to facilitate independent living. Various volunteer opportunities; details not specified on their website.

Sycamore Land Trust – protects, restores, and keeps in trust thousands of acres of land across Indiana. Volunteer to clean and maintain preserves, clear out invasive plants, and more.

VITAL (Volunteers in Tutoring Adult Learners) – what it says on the tin!

On Moving to Canada

My Canadian passport feels like a golden ticket right now. And there’s a decent chance I’ll use it, but there was a decent chance I’d use it before this election, too. I’ve been wanting to move home if a good opportunity presented itself for my family and me.

But I’ve been thinking about a few things that some fellow expats said recently.

One is one of my dearest friends. We went to undergrad together in Ontario, and then ended up at separate American schools for our doctorates and stayed in the country afterward, me because I had lifelong dual citizenship and a girlfriend-turned-wife I wanted to stay with, she because of a job offer and a boyfriend-turned-husband with whom she now has a great life in New York City. She happened to be in Europe on election day.

We texted after the results came in. She said that, yeah, the outcome made her not want to come back to the country–but were she to decide to leave, it would do nothing to benefit the vulnerable people she would be leaving behind.

She teaches at a women’s college. It’s a powerful position from which to grow resistance (and resistants).

The other was from someone I barely know. We were casual friends as kids–like, pre-teens and younger, back in the suburbs of Montreal. She was a year or two older (and infinitely cooler) at an age where a year or two was a gargantuan age difference, so we weren’t terribly close, though we got along well when we had reason to hang out at Girl Guides or in our rec field hockey league. She moved to the US for awhile–college and graduate school, I think–and now lives in Europe.

But thanks to the general WTF of facebook’s algorithm, something she said popped up on my newsfeed, and I think it’s the most important point I’ve read from a Canadian on this issue:

This movement to the far right is not happening in isolation. There was Brexit, yes, but there have been rising far-right politicians in Western Europe for years, from the Front National in France to the BNP and similar parties in England to the rise of the far-right in Germany  and Sweden and Austria.

The far-right is on the rise in Canada, too.

Trump is the crashing, bubbling orange froth on a tidal wave that threatens… well. I was going to say ‘the west,’ as problematic a term as that is. But let’s just call it what it is: mostly-white countries.

But Canada has Trudeau! you say. Who doesn’t love Trudeau? 

Yes, Trudeau’s pretty great. I have some misgivings about the guy when it comes down to brass domestic political tacks, but I’m insufficiently well-informed to give voice to them without doing a little more research. And yes, his decision to greet Syrian refugees at the airport while the American Vice President-Elect was trying to block them from his home state was an incredibly important symbolic gesture. Trudeau’s like Obama in a lot of ways, insofar as he’s a young progressive who revitalized a new generation of Canadians following a period of infinitely shitty Bush II-style Conservative leadership.

But Trump is following Obama, y’all.

There was a point a few years ago when I said to a (white, Canadian) friend that the USA wouldn’t elect this kind of right-wing, unapologetically racist leader. It’s not that the country isn’t racist, I said. It’s insanely racist. But it’s invested to the point of obsession in the illusion that it’s not. The illusion of equality is too deeply-entrenched in American white people’s self-importance to permit a large-scale political decision that outright rejects it.

And now here I am, eating that toxic crow, and acknowledging that saying that–and even thinking it–made me part of the problem.

We need to be better listeners, white people. That includes those of us in Canada.

It’s worth stressing that a significant majority of American voters chose Clinton. But in a country like Canada, with a parliamentary system, 4 major political parties, and a history of avoiding coalition governments, a minority of the country could put a right-wing nut into power as well.

I might still move to Canada. Like I said: I wanted to before this happened; this has really just been an extra push. But to my Canadian friends and family, let’s not do the thing we so love to do where we point fingers south and revel over how much better we’ve got it. And to anyone else thinking to emigrate north–let’s not think of that as a way to flee the problem. There’s enormous work to be done in the US to mitigate and avert the damage that’s about to happen. But there’s enormous work to be done in Canada–and elsewhere–to ensure that this doesn’t just repeat itself there.

An open letter to Aaron Sorkin and Garrison Keillor


Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’ve kind of missed the point. (Especially you, Garrison.)

Your op-eds and open letters have gone viral over the past few days because they make us feel better: Garrison’s because he places Trump-management into the hands of the Republican politicians who often hate him as much as we do, and Sorkin’s because he offers the trite (and very American) promise that from this disaster will grow an America made stronger and more united through the shared battle of preventing Trump from destroying, well, everything. We will survive four years of this, you say, one way or another.

The problem is that a very real number of us won’t survive this.

The people who lose their health insurance if the Affordable Care Act is reversed may not survive this.

The women driven to back-alley abortions may not survive this.

The poor and the homeless and the addicted and the disabled who face radical cuts to social services may not survive this.

The refugees deported to war-torn countries may not survive this.

The women whose sexual assaults Trump’s rhetoric enables may not survive this.

The undocumented people deported to their nations of origin where they may have no networks or capacities to earn a living may not survive this.

The Black folks, Latinx, undocumented, queers, Jews, Muslims, and Arabs — and anyone who could be mistaken for one of those categories — may not survive the racist aggression that Trump’s movement has empowered.

Garrison, your letter says that we should read Jane Austen and grow heirloom tomatoes and perhaps enjoy a little schadenfreude while the Republicans are forced to deal with the undocumented, the opioid-addicted, the Mexico wall.

But seriously: you know what happens if we let the Republicans deal with the undocumented, the opioid-addicted, and the Mexican border, right?

I paraphrased your statement to a co-worker of mine today — an unassuming, white, 40-year-old, college-educated, (presumably) straight dude who works in the same underpaid branch of corporate America that I do, and who wore a Hillary Clinton t-shirt on election day.

He looked me in the eyes, unblinking, and said, “I don’t give a damn about growing tomatoes.”

Aaron: you’re a lot closer to the mark. Thank you for acknowledging the shelter afforded by your privilege, and for asserting that it’s time for us to fucking fight through every channel available, by opening checkbooks and rolling up sleeves and working on behalf of those who are less able to help themselves. I hope you’re right that Trump will be impeached within a year of taking office, but the hope is a slight one. You see, if Trump goes out, Mike Pence goes in. I’ve lived in Mike Pence’s Indiana since he took office. The only comfort I would take from a Pence presidency over Trump’s is the fact that I feel pretty confident that Pence could go four years without literally nuking anyone, and I feel pretty confident that Trump couldn’t. Refugees, the undocumented, people of color, queers, and women in need of abortions will suffer just as much, if not more, under Pence.

There is no easy way out of this one, and there is no guarantee that we’ll emerge from this stronger and better than we started.

My grandmother called me last night. She is a teacher, a Chicago Jew, an opera aficionado, the wife of a WWII veteran who ran an electrical distribution business in rural Illinois. She, and my grandfather, tried their best to raise anti-racist children in farm country in the 1950s and 60s when the sentiment was not popular.

“I think this is beginning of the end of America’s dominance in the world,” she told me.

There is no elbow-grease solution to this problem where we come out universally shinier than we went in–at least, not on a global scale. This is the dent in the body of the car where the rust begins to set in. If we turn our attentions to artisan beers and classic literature, Garrison, the rust will spread. And when we fight, Aaron, let’s call it what it is: mitigation and damage control.

This isn’t about the next four years. This is about the indefinite future of this country. We have the power to shape where we go, but let’s not mince words about it: the results of this week’s election do not mark a detour en route to the same destination. This is a radical change of course.

When I told my wife I was going to write this up, she asked me not to be too cynical. We don’t need that right now, she said, and she’s right. So here’s the good I’m seeing from this already: many of us who have found the ease of complacency too hard to resist are motivated, now, to step up. I count myself in that category. It’s frustrating that it takes this kind of cataclysm to make that happen, but I’ve never seen an outpouring of people wanting to care for each other like I’ve seen in the past 24 hours.

I don’t expect that the United States will emerge from this better and more beautiful than it was going in, institutionally-speaking. I didn’t grow up with the American-style patriotism you need to believe that; its exceptionalist rhetoric has never resonated with me. But I think we’ll see concerted efforts toward goodness and social justice on the part of many of its people.

And that’s pretty great.

Groups, Gay Bars, and Election Night

On Tuesday, I’m going to watch the election results at my local gay bar.

It’s a potluck. Folks have been encouraged to wear pyjamas and bring “screaming pillows.”

And I’m so, so relieved that I get to go there.

In 2008, I watched the results roll in an implicitly queer space without really thinking much about it. Rachael’s Cafe wasn’t advertised as queer, but the woman who owned it is openly trans. I went with a gaggle of folklore and folklore-affiliated graduate students, all of whom had been in Bloomington about a year, and we watched the results roll in with a wide slice of the community that we–newly-minted, ivory-towered graduate students that we were–didn’t normally interact with much.

Indiana went for Obama by a razor-thin margin. Rachael, the cafe owner, got a phone call from the new President-elect, thanking us for his support. (Sorry for the paywall. Can’t do a thing about it.)

We’re not under any delusions that Indiana will miraculously turn blue this year like it did in 2008. Hell, this town doesn’t even seem to like Hillary much these days, though she had a pretty solid following during the 2007 primaries; this was Sanders turf, and a lot of locals seem to be voting for Hillary more in opposition to Trump than in direct support for her.

But I’m really, really glad that I can go watch this damned election at a gay bar.

I’ve had a few curmudgeonly conversations with some younger queer folks who dislike queer bars for having too many straight people in them. I’ve had a few more curmudgeonly queer folks who argue that the era of queer bars is over because it’s passé to feel that we need to segregate ourselves. Ironically, I sometimes have these two conversations with the same person.

But I’ve been thinking about groups of people. We obsess about them a little in folklore studies: what they are and what they’re not, who’s in them and who’s out, and what the heck the word “group” means in the first place. A folk group can be made up of any group of people whatsoever who have at least one thing in common — thank you, Dundes. But I like the fact that one of the main things that people will have in common at that bar tomorrow night–apart from, in all likelihood, an opposition to Trump and varying degrees of support for Clinton–is that we all chose to go to a gay bar to watch the results come in. A lot of us will be queer. Those that aren’t will recognize that they’re in a queer space. To be queer is to be marginalized, to some degree, and to be marginalized is, in all likelihood, to be viscerally frightened by the potential outcome of this whole mess.

I’ve been thinking of Noyes’ “Group”: she talks about how community is the project of a network, and groups create themselves through differentiation from others as much as through celebration of (or reification of) similarities. There’s a cynicism implicit to this description, which Noyes herself acknowledges: groups are created through shared dissatisfactions, in response to intrusion or aggression or oppression. But then, when that sense of intrusion or aggression or oppression begins to abate or to be addressed, groups may reach out to one another. We reach out from the site of these oppressions and find that which is common with other groups who have differentiated themselves for the same reasons.

So tomorrow, I’ll hang out with people who share many of my dissatisfactions and feel the impacts of many of the same intrusions and aggressions and oppressions. We will, I hope, feel better and stronger as a result, and that will empower us to reach out to many other groups who are likely to sequester themselves away for analogous reasons and may then feel empowered to reach back, so that “[these] intelligentsia, because [they] cannot participate in empire, [make] national revolution.”

Creepy Clowns Explained, Folklore-Style


Creepy clown hysteria is all over my social media feeds, and I figure, what use is a Ph.D. in folklore if not to break down the most entertaining and pervasive urban legend* I’ve seen in years?

Urban legend? You cry. This isn’t an urban legend. The White House addressed it. Schools have gone on lockdown. Time covered it.  There are videos on twitter. Creepy Clowns have actually been arrested. Stephen King’s tweet, for crying out loud!

It’s an urban legend, up there with alligators in the NYC sewers and urine in Corona bottles. It’s absolutely textbook.

The textbook in question is Jan Harold Brunvand’s “The Vanishing Hitchhiker,” which isn’t the most recent academic book on urban legends (hey, 1981), but it’s the most influential. You can pull the main defining qualities of an urban legend from pages 3 and 4 of my paperback copy. According to Brunvand, the defining qualities of an urban legend are:

  • they are believed to be true.
  • the stories gain credibility from specific details of time and place or from reference to source authorities.
  • the event they describe happened recently and often nearby (though the geographic element is more metaphorical than literal nowadays; Brunvand wrote this in 1981, pre-internet-as-a-mode-of-everyday-information-sharing). Often, in the telling, the event itself happened to a friend of a friend or something similar (a coworker of a cousin, aunt of a neighbor). Folklorists use the acronym FoaF all the time when talking about urban legends–it’s that common.

Most of my encounters with this creepy clown craze have been on social media, both in people’s descriptions of their experiences with and their fears of the creepy clowns and in the media stories that people have linked, and these items always apply. Here’s my favorite one, used with permission from the person whose page it was on, with names blurred out to protect the innocent:


Comparing that with Brunvand’s list:

Believed to be real: check. A number of people in this comment thread clearly take the threat of creepy clown attacks very seriously.

Gains authority from specific times and places and references to source authorities: check. See: “reports from school principals and other sources… in our area,” and the other one that references a sighting “close to us… last week.”

FoaF: SO MUCH THIS. “[Name] has seen two sightings close to us… last week.” “[Name] told me yesterday that an unknown suspect was driving…” Note that nobody in the thread claims to have seen a creepy clown directly. There’s always a degree of remove involving a person not immediately present to give their account of events.

Another urban legend hallmark:  they tend to contain an element that’s… hard to believe. How many of us have believed stories about people getting drugged in nightclubs and waking up in hotels minus a kidney, never mind the fact that for a person to wake up, unaided, from a kidney removal would require complex anaesthesiology and sophisticated medical equipment? (I’ve got a long list of these. I wrote up four more and then deleted them for length.)

You can see, in that facebook exchange, that people believe in the clowns, but… nervously. Almost apologetically. “I know you’re probably laughing,” says one person. “Shoot it. Mock it. Shoot it again,” says another — a sentence that can be read, per your preference, as joke or a literal threat.

People sort of believe the story, but then, they sort of don’t, probably because they know there’s something of the horror-movie ridiculous to it. And as far as I can tell, there are no accounts of these creepy clowns delivering more than threats and scares.

“But Sarah!” you say. “People have been arrested dressed up like clowns! Creepy clowns have made threats on social media!”

Yes.  We could quibble over the likelihood that a person who announces an intent to commit a crime on Facebook really wants to commit the crime or whether they just want to scare people and get arrested. But regardless, creepy clowns are doing creepy things. And the reason for that is called ostension, which is the academic term for, basically, acting out legends. More specifically, for re-telling legends by acting them out.

The behavior follows the story, not the other way around. The reason we have people being creepy clowns now is that we already had narratives about creepy clowns. People acting like creepy clowns are, in their own way, retelling a story that existed before them.

I haven’t read Bad Clown by folklorist Benjamin Radford (though he’s published some good stuff in the past, so I’m inclined to guess that it’s good), but in this CNN article, he points out that the scary clown stories we’re hearing right now aren’t new: they’ve been around since the 80s, at least. It’s not unlike how the urban legends about AIDS in the 90s (remember those? Intentional infections by needle-sticks in nightclubs or in the change compartment of a Coke machine, or by predatory women coercing family men into extramarital sex? were updated versions of contagion narratives as old as the black death.

So here’s the TL;DR question: if this narrative has existed since the 80s, why the hell are people latching onto it right now?

And that’s the million-dollar question we’d need ethnographers to figure out. Brunvand theorized, in Vanishing Hitchhiker, that urban legends took hold because they spoke, in some way, to popular fear associated with some kind of cultural change. (My gloss, here, not his words.) It’s a theory that’s a bit simplistic, but mostly makes sense. AIDS urban legends don’t circulate now they way they did in the 90s probably because we understand AIDS better now than we did then, and we have effective treatments for controlling it, so we don’t fear it the way we used to.

Based on that CNN article–and I really should read his book–Radford’s taking the Brunvand route, attributing the clown craze to anxieties associated with our local and global political climate. He talks about fear of terrorism and fear of school shootings, too. Someone in that facebook post above talks about how the scary thing with clowns is that you never know who’s behind the makeup. You never know which sweet-faced kid in your daughter’s class might bring a gun to school. Stephen King’s “most of ’em are good” is the kind of thing that people say in response to Islamophobia. The problem with an Islamist terrorist is the terrorist part, not the Islam part. The problem with a creepy clown is the creepy part, not the clown part. Some folks would say that clowns are, by definition, creepy. But some folks would say that Muslims are, by definition…

(And just to be clear on my stance here: those people would be absolutely wrong. And the folks whom I know from the facebook thread up there would agree with me. There’s parallelism, not equivalence, between the narratives.)

My hypothesis (not theory — just the hypothesis I’d try to test if I were turning this into research) is that the creepy clown narrative has latched on right now because of a cultural encouragement to fear smiling, unfamiliar faces. Fear the smiling Syrian refugee who says she’s trying to escape war, because she might actually be a terrorist. Fear the friendly neighborhood gay man, because he might be a pedophile. (To be clear, I subscribe to neither of those fears). It’s an election year, so we’re being inundated by people making promises they probably can’t deliver and fostering in us the fears that encourage us to align with their respective political camps.

I mean, I think Donald Trump is enormously terrifying and kind of a clown.




*Fellow folklorists: yes, we can pick apart the accuracy of the term “urban legend” to describe this kind of phenomenon until I’m grey. This is a blog post; KISS property applies, let’s roll with it.

Grad Student Teaching: It’s Screw or Be Screwed

The semester I decided to (finally) graduate with my doctorate in 2014, I sidelined my teaching.

My students hated it. I had always taken pride in the quality of my teaching; the previous semester, I’d received student feedback forms that said “Sarah is, without a doubt, the best instructor I’ve had since I arrived at IU,” and “Sarah reminds me of why I came to college in the first place.” (I still glow over that stuff, not gonna lie.) But I knew they’d lambast me in my end-of-semester reviews in Spring ’14 for being slow to return graded assignments, or for providing insufficient feedback, or for not always answering emails on the day they were sent.

I was right, and they were right. They deserved better teaching than they got from me that semester, and they rightly told me so.

But I had the chance one day, before class, to explain to three of my students why grading and email were slow. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but by the end of it, all three of them had eyes like saucers.

“I had no idea that’s how it worked,” one guy said, and the other two nodded.

Here’s what I explained:

I am, first and foremost, a student. My primary responsibility is to finish my research and to graduate.

According to my contract, I am being paid 37.5% FTE to work 15 hours per week on teaching. A significant lump of those hours are rigidly allocated:

  • 5 hours of teaching time (I taught two sections, each of which met twice per week at 75 minutes per meeting)
  • 1 hour weekly staff meeting
  • 2 office hours

There go eight of my 15 hours. Let’s add the more flexible, but still essential, additional responsibilities:

  • 2 hrs per week of lesson prep
  • Avg. 2-ish hrs per week of email if I’m really efficient about handling them (more time when deadlines loom; less time during the quiet weeks)

For the sake of argument, let’s assume I have a great week and manage to get all my lesson prep done in one hour and I only spend one hour on student emails. Still, ten of my 15 hours are gone.

Now, the grading. I have about 40 students. In a sixteen-week semester, each student is turning in 8 short papers (four 1-pagers, four 2-3-pagers), a midterm exam, a final paper rough draft (6 pages), a final paper final draft (8-10 pages), and some miscellaneous classroom work, according to the guidelines of the program syllabus which I was required to follow.

If I spend 10 minutes grading each paper, it will take me 400 minutes (6 hrs, 40 minutes) to finish all of my grading for a single assignment. And 10 minutes is not a lot of time to read and provide thoughtful, actionable feedback on more than a single page of student writing.

So even if I’m very conservative with my estimate and I’m using an egg timer to cap myself at 10 minutes per paper (quality of feedback be damned) and under-shooting the time I’ll need to prep my lessons, I’m at 16 hrs 40 mins of work for my 15 hr/week job if I want to turn around all of my grading within a week of a paper being turned in to me.

This also doesn’t account for the extra hours that typically don’t get factored in to our conceptions of teaching hours, such as:


  • Before- and after-class miscellanea, including rearranging desks, getting media queued up, writing the day’s objectives on the board, talking to students before and after class — probably about 1 hr/week
  • Administrative tasks, including photocopying, picking up blue books for exams, tracking attendance, or following up with students with troubling behavior or attendance patterns — anywhere from 0 to 2 hours in a week

So, I’m being paid for 15 hours a week. If I want to excel at the job, providing really great, interactive lessons, thorough student feedback on assignments, same-day email turnaround, and a one-week grading turnaround, while also being accessible to my students before and after class for the kind of quick interactions that make them feel like I give a damn about them (because I do), I’d need more like 25 hours, at the absolute minimum.

So basically, the system is set up to screw somebody. Most of the time, I let it be me, because I liked teaching and wanted to do it well. But if I let it be me forever, I would never finish my degree.

Here’s what I didn’t tell those students:

My 37.5% FTE gave me a paycheck of about $15,000 (before taxes) over 10 months, plus health insurance for the year, in the 2013/14 academic year. When I started teaching in 2008 in a different program, the pay was more like $11,000 before tax. I guffawed when this article mentioned that average salary of $30,000+. I WISH. Though I’ll concede that living on $15K in Indiana is probably similar to living on $30K in, say, NYC.

“But Sarah,” you scold, “You also got a tuition remission, right? Isn’t that worth another several thousand dollars?”

Nope. I had achieved doctoral candidacy in 2010, so my 2013/14 tuition was about $600/year.

But, okay, tuition remissions can be worth thousands of dollars for pre-candidacy grad students (including me, before 2010). But the university still comes out overwhelmingly on top.

Let’s assume all of my 40 students were in-state (they weren’t; at least a third were out-of-state and therefore paying a lot more tuition, but let’s keep it simple) and taking an average load of 15 credits at the flat tuition rate of $4,459/term for the Spring 2014 semester. My class was 3 credits, so that means that students were paying about $892 each to take my class for one semester.

40 students x $892 = $35,680 per semester of tuition revenue per semester.

I taught the class for two semesters per academic year, so that totaled about $71,360 of tuition revenue for the year.

Let’s assume that I’d been enrolled in 18 credits (9 credits per semester) of graduate coursework that year, at the out-of-state graduate rate of $994 per credit hour.

That means that the university would have been comping me about $17,892 in addition to my $15,000 stipend, for a total yearly “pay” of $32,892 against the tuition revenue of $71,360.

That is, again, me being generous:

  • That tuition remission corresponds to money that I do not have to pay to the university, which is is not the same as the actual cost of my education which the university absorbs, which is lower.
  • In-state graduate students would have “earned” significantly less in tuition remission. In 2013/14, their tuition was $331/credit hour, compared to out-of-state $994. So the profit margins increase for the school there.
  • Remember, I pretended that all of my students paid tuition at an in-state rate, when a significant number of them paid at out-of-state rates which were over 300% higher.

Even with all these gimmes, the school comes out with an over 50% profit margin to fund administration, facilities, campus infrastructure, and…whatever.

Admin, facilities, and infrastructure are worthwhile expenses for the most part. But regardless, my students, for whom this school is supposed to exist, get a crappy learning experience (and inane student debt), and I live paycheck-to-paycheck while working my tail off to just try to graduate, already, so I can start not living paycheck-to-paycheck anymore, please.

(I know a lot of people who supported kids on a grad student teaching salary. They generally had to take out inane debt while working.)


I tried to break down how this would compare to the profit margins on an Assistant Professor, tenure-track. It quickly got out of hand, because Assistant Profs often teach large lecture classes where grading and discussion sections are overseen by (yep) graduate students.

There are some major asterisks to the quick breakdown I’ve provided here. I don’t know how taxes operate on the university end. I did not account for health insurance expenses, which probably added up to a few thousand extra dollars spent on my behalf by the university every year. And it would be worthwhile to further break down how, specifically, the university spends that tuition revenue; the information is publicly available and I’ll probably pursue it down the line.

I’ve said frequently that higher education in the United States is going to need to undergo a paradigm shift in the next couple of decades, because under this model, the people being most screwed are the people these institutions are supposed to be serving.

*I know I didn’t talk about adjuncting. Because that’s a whole separate ugly kettle of university-teaching fish for another day.