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  • Chelsea Haith

'Still a student': Infantilising Labour

I have had over a dozen jobs in the nine years I've been registered at one or other university. The word 'student' tends to be used in an unfairly derogative manner, particularly when the British government is trying to find some social group other than themselves to blame for virus transmission spikes. In case it's not clear, students are adults. Like, legally. Unless you're a child genius who started uni at age 15.


When I had my first COVID test in November 2020 at the Early Alert Service here in Oxford, the nurse asked: "Staff or student? If you're staff we can administer the test for you." I'd racked up over sixteen teaching hours that week, marked too many essays, given pastoral support and dissertation supervision, designed syllabi for the following term, and attended meetings where my professional opinion on some aspect of a Higher Education teaching programme was required. I had done all the things that are more like 'work' and less like 'whatever I want.' Despite all of this 'work', I declared that I am a student. With that admission, I had to administer the test to myself, rather than have a stranger stick a wet ear bud in my nose. Swings and roundabouts.


I have been a student for nine years, which is more than I would recommend. Before that, I was a minor. I'm now twenty-seven years old, and the possessor of a savings plan, a pension, and an expensive futon. During the pandemic, I've been teaching students all over the world, their tired faces joining Zoom sessions from childhood bedrooms in Seoul, San Francisco, Beijing, Southhampton (poor things): every day I see young adults returned traumatically to the crash site of their adolescence.


In this, and the discourse of 'allowing' students to return 'home' for whatever pseudo-Christian festival deemed crucial to our social fabric, I've been reminded of the infantilisation of young people studying for degrees that they believe to be necessary to find gainful employment. They invest thousands of <insert currency here> into their education, the first major investment many will make, on the social promise that a degree or two will result in better employment prospects and the concomitant lifestyle perks. They 'put off' joining 'the real world' by making a play for a better life, a life that is not guaranteed, and their social position is denigrated because they don't 'work'. Apparently.


This my desk, where I don't work, or teach, or proofread, or edit, or have good (and bad) ideas, or write winning grant proposals, or make any money at all. (Beer for transparency).


What's under attack here is not just indolent young people 'fannying about with Wordsworth', but the value of intellectual labour, the value of part-time, shift, and gig labour, and in some ways, the value of autonomy. To be a student is to be in-between adolescence and adulthood because they 'don't know what it's like to work in an office' or 'don't know how easy they've got it'. (I am they, they is we).


Adulthood is thus cast as 'things being tough', and working a nine-to-five with benefits and structured holiday and all that stuff I have never had. This is such an incredibly old-fashioned worldview that is somehow sustained in the way we talk about 'students', even as the rise of the gig economy indicates that for many the only way to earn is to work unusual hours and be untethered to a traditional employer. Lots of people work in this way, and yet the treatment of students (like telling them when they can travel and keeping them inside a caged campus) implies that they are somehow non-contributory and irresponsible pre-adults.


Three years ago Vogue published a piece expanding on some research done into adolescence, suggesting that your 'teens' extend from age 10 to 24. TWENTY-FOUR. The reason given in the article is that young people aren't engaging in independent activities that people were undertaking in the 70s-90s. These days, young people learn to drive later (or not at all). Young people don't buy houses as quickly. Young people don't get married as fast. The blame for this is laid at the door of Gen Z, with whom my generation, Millennials, are apparently in constant battle. I don't know about that, I'm just trying to get them to reference properly.


The delay in Gen Z's entry to 'adulthood' is apparently due to the proliferation of smartphones. Interesting that it is personal tech devices that are to blame, and not a completely fucked economic system and looming environmental collapse. #JustSaying Peter Pan syndrome, as it's called, is part and parcel of discourse that casts 'students' as lazy and non equal contributors to the economic system. This is dangerous ideological territory already because in this worldview if a person's value is tied to their capacity to contribute economically then the mentally and physically disabled are assigned lesser value than seemingly work-capable adults. Oh wait. Yeah, that is exactly how capitalism works. Shameful.


Also shameful: the tyranny of seagulls and the improper use of chopsticks, as exhibited here by a beatific Peter Pan, painted by Edward Mason Eggleston (1882-1941).


Doing the work of becoming an intellectually curious person, learning to think critically and using those skills to not be an asshole is what university, and specifically Humanities disciplines, is about. It's our whole shtick. That's not to say that people who don't study are more likely to be assholes, it's to say that the critical thinking skills taught in Humanities disciplines aren't currently built into free secondary education so people have to pay to learn these skills as adults. It is actually super embarrassing that most secondary education systems don't TEACH PEOPLE TO THINK FOR THEMSELVES. Or rather, and I suspect this more strongly, it's politically convenient (see: Bantu education in apartheid South Africa).


So, why are the Humanities being defunded in Higher Education institutions around the world? For the same reason that young adults are denigrated for being 'still a student', regardless of the economic contribution their later work will have, regardless of their part-time jobs, personal sacrifices, and truly astonishing capacity to live off of beans and beer.


Over the last nine years of being 'still a student' I have held the following jobs, for periods ranging from three months to six years:

- Freelance journalist

- Publishing assistant

- Content moderator and customer service at a prominent dating app

- Project Consultant in tertiary education sector

- Tutor and lecturer in secondary and tertiary education institutions

- Data collector and data analyst

- Research assistant

- Library cataloguing and website integration

- Principal Investigator on an academic research network

- Podcaster

- Content creator for institutional communications

- Judge for creative writing competitions

- Web developer

- Proofreader

- Social Media Manager

- Editorial and Submissions manager at a literary magazine

- Reviews Editor

- & a few one-to-two month gigs that made it possible for me to afford Christmas

presents. #extravagant


In that time I have completed five degrees (four on full scholarships). I've been a full-time student since I was eighteen. Yes, I need a break, yes, I am a nerd. I did all of this because I wanted:

1) to afford to go on holiday sometimes;

2) to create a financial net so that when the studying came to an end (SOON!) I would not go hungry immediately;

3) to have transferable skills coming out the wazoo and;

4) to spend most of my twenties being able to go swimming whenever I wanted to.


The value of a person is not calculated by adding how much money they have plus what their status is plus what they look like and then subtracting how much of an asshole they are, no matter what the cult of celebrity implies. The Wolf of Wall Street is supposed to be cautionary, not aspirational.


Infantilising people who are working, labouring, striving towards knowledge (and the acquisition of an expensive piece of qualifying paper) so that they can eventually contribute to a system that they haven't actually chosen, is cruel and unusual punishment meted out seemingly because those people are... young? Hot? Free to go swimming in the river at 3pm on a Wednesday?


I don't know, but I do care. And I am thoroughly tired of it.

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