Being a graduate student in a time of BDS: Experiences, lessons, and the academy

By Omar Sirri
Submitted to Session P4392 (Hey you, precarious worker: Are you afraid of BDS? Graduate students, untenured faculty, and the politics of political commitments, 2016 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
This paper investigates the experiences of graduate students engaged in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. I unpack the intersection of the neoliberal university (Thornton 2012) and the rise of BDS activism on university campuses. First, I highlight how the entrenchment of neoliberal regimes on graduate student education has created particular pressures on graduate students, namely heightened demands to “publish or perish”; significant decreases in institutional funding for graduate education; and an evermore precarious academic job market for aspiring scholars. Second, I provide a detailed genealogy of the rise of the BDS movement since its inception in 2005, with particular attention to its growing prevalence on university campuses. Third, the main contribution of this paper comes in the form of interviews with graduate students who are also BDS activists at universities in North America.

I argue that the mechanisms of the neoliberal university – most prominently cuts in basic graduate funding – have forced graduate students to seek out more external sources of funding, including more contract teaching hours, and various bursaries and fellowships. This has also reinforced graduate student dependency on faculty supervisors and dissertation committee members who are increasingly relied upon to vouch for their students’ research projects and credentials as teachers and scholars. My findings suggest that this renewed dependency has created challenging power dynamics for graduate students to navigate, especially those organising around BDS. Many of these students have found that their faculty supervisors are unsupportive of their political activity, and in some instances outwardly hostile towards it and them.

I conclude the paper by detailing the strategies and tactics deployed by graduate student activists to mitigate the discomfort, opposition and backlash they experience as BDS organisers. My findings suggest these graduate students/BDS organisers have found success as both scholars and activists through renewed commitments to collective action. This has come in the form of active student and faculty support from across academic disciplines, and the institutionalisation of scholar-activist networks that seek to address threats to academic and political freedom in the age of the neoliberal university. For example, supportive faculty have formed interdisciplinary working groups to support the research and activism of these graduate students. And graduate students engaged in BDS activism have established committees in their student and labour unions with explicit mandates to both advance the BDS campaign, and protect students who experience backlash because of this organising.