I am a graduate student teacher. My name is Penelope, but the University of New Mexico seems to prefer my deadname. I transitioned early in 2021. I began teaching in the fall, and it was important to me that I teach with my true name because teaching is deeply important to my self-understanding.
It was so important, in fact, that I accelerated my transition to that end: I came out to my department and the school before my parents or many of my close friends. I think it can be hard for others to imagine how alienating it is for strangers to know your name before your loved ones. It was hard, but this was a sacrifice that I had to make in order to begin living the life I wanted to live.
After going through the stubborn and very difficult process of setting up my new identity in various bureaucratic channels in the University (one must separately change one’s name on LoboMail, MyUNM and other portals that I cannot even recall, and the LGBTQ Resource Center’s guide on this process is woefully incomplete), I was dismayed to see that the University used my deadname on my course listing. Students invariably began the first day of class very confused. Now every class I have ever taught in a college setting has begun with a brief, vague, but nevertheless unmistakable allusion to my transness.
I tried to contact admissions, information technology, the registrar, my department chair and the LGBTQ center. They all essentially told me the same thing: until the state of New Mexico decides to recognize my new name legally, there was nothing they could do. And since the state of New Mexico has certain prerequisites for name and sex change, like being a resident for half a year, nothing could be done.
Essentially, half of the administrative apparatuses around campus would call me by my deadname while the others would not. Perhaps the most frustrating of these cases is my LoboMail — the first place students turn to contact their professors — where “Penelope” shows in some areas but my deadname in others. This amplifies the confusion created by my old name showing up on the course listing.
There is no way to steel yourself. You can be going as Penny all day long until the University decides to put you back in your place out of nowhere, and then you are back to remembering that this will likely recur in some fashion for the rest of your life, even after the legal process is over with. My deadnaming was simply determined to be an institutional reality beyond the purview of any of its bureaucrats, despite the occasional sympathetic and helpful listener.
The way I see it, the University was essentially clocking me by deadnaming me in public contexts. Everyone acknowledged that it was wrong, but nobody really intended to do anything about it.
My situation is unique, but this is generally how the University thinks of graduate workers: expendable and unworthy of respect. I face additional challenges because I am trans, but this is the daily reality of being treated with no respect by the University.
When you are a graduate student worker, the University thinks of you as expendable. Graduate students occupy an uneasy position between lucrative undergrads and highly exploitable adjunct professors, who exist essentially as a source of cheap labor and a perk for a higher class of professors.
This is reflected in the treatment of trans people in an educational environment. The existing “preferred name” system was designed (apparently rather haphazardly and incompletely) around undergraduate students. And I don’t exactly see my tenure-track trans professors being deadnamed by the University publicly like I am, but as part of the academic underclass, my deadnaming was not considered worth addressing by anyone I spoke with.
I was therefore unsurprised when the UNM administration claimed that graduate students were “graduate student learners” rather than workers. It rang as eerily familiar.
Occupying an institutional middle ground between undergraduates and professors, graduate students are treated as a low-priority population by the University system. The average stipend for a graduate student at the University of New Mexico is around $15,000 — well below the standards for a living wage in Albuquerque and graduate student pay at UNM’s peer institutions. There is almost no way to live on this income in Albuquerque unsupplemented — everyone knows this.
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By claiming that graduate students are “learners” rather than “workers,” the University can play both sides: graduate students can take on all the responsibilities of a lead instructor with none of the payment, benefits or protections. Our pay can be artificially inflated with “tuition remission,” a technique deployed frequently by universities to justify the poverty wages of their instructors. They can also claim that being a graduate student is only a “half-time” appointment, despite the recognition of everyone involved that the expectations for graduate students normally well exceed 20 hours a week.
In other words, just as the University will use bureaucratic channels as a source of mystification and excuse for deadnaming me, so too will they use framework to justify their exploitation of other graduate students.
The University of New Mexico has done everything in their power to stall the progress of the graduate student union precisely because of the value that they place on this highly exploitable labor. But New Mexicans are smarter than the University is giving them credit.
By saying that they do not value their graduate workers, UNM is also saying that they do not value their undergraduate students or their own educational environment. Undergraduates often recognize that many of their courses are taught by underpaid graduate students and adjunct professors. They are not idiots, so they begin to ask the question: If I pay tens of thousands of dollars every year for this, and a significant bulk of my instructors are paid effectively nothing, where is all this money going? The answer is of course: more administrators, presidential bonuses and crackpot union-busting lawyers.
Does that sound like an institution that values the education of its undergraduates? How can a graduate student with an untreated toothache be a good listener? How can someone be expected to teach in a high-level academic environment when they are battling hunger and homelessness? How many “hustles” and “side-gigs” would you like your professors to have? The answer is obvious.
Everyone at UNM would stand to benefit from a living wage and meaningful protections for graduate students because graduate students are a large part of what makes the University work.
UNM must fulfill its promise to New Mexicans by ending the bureaucratic games, bargaining with the graduate student union and begin making amends to a vital part of their community that they have systematically undervalued and underappreciated.
Penelope Haulotte is a Ph.D. student at the University of New Mexico