Friday, January 18, 2008

you didn't really think higher ed. was about learning?

As much as we think we know about the modern university, very little has been said about what it’s like to work there. Instead of the high-wage, high-profit world of knowledge work, most campus employees — including the vast majority of faculty — really work in the low-wage, low-profit sphere of the service economy. Tenure-track positions are at an all-time low, with adjuncts and graduate students teaching the majority of courses. This super-exploited corps of disposable workers commonly earn fewer than $16,000 annually, without benefits, teaching as many as eight classes per year. Even undergraduates are being exploited as a low-cost, disposable workforce.

Marc Bousquet, a major figure in the academic labor movement, exposes the seamy underbelly of higher education — a world where faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates work long hours for fast-food wages. Assessing the costs of higher educations corporatization on faculty and students at every level, How the University Works is urgent reading for anyone interested in the fate of the university.

- NYU University Press blurb for Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low Wage Nation

Many readers and friends of this blog are post-graduates and many more are still in the secondary education field as educators. I hear the pains of this all of the time. Though no longer in school, I like many of you deal with the impact of having been a working class student on a monthly basis. A decade after completing a master's degree, I still have to swallow how my monthly loan payments affect my living standards. I know many who can relate and the fact that we face this debt for the better part of our lives - especially those in the field of the humanities. Europeans have a hard time grasping this hardship. I always had a job at school. In undergrad it was generally 20 hours a week working for the university. In graduate school it took the form of teaching introductory courses for the university - who was I was paying for the privilege :) It seems I got off easy.

Chapter 4 of Barquet's book
-Students Are Already Workers

t discusses the nightmarish experience of working-class students recruited to work midnight shifts five school nights every week at UPS on the promise of education benefits that few persist to receive. Per shift, they earn about what administrators spend on a sushi lunch. Most drop out, and many get injured. Only a fraction persist to degree. In some terms, because of the obligation to pay back tuition remission if they quit this horrendous job “early,” more students were working off their “education benefits” without actually taking any classes than were enrolled.
He also addresses the predicament of the Humanities - although this is happening in other fields too.

Thinking of grad school in the humanities? Are you ready to gamble your future–your marriage–your kids’ future–your health–your retirement? In part 2 of my interview with Monica Jacobe, she describes how graduate school resembles a lottery. “You can do everything right, ” she says, “and you still won’t get a job.” After a median 10 years of study, most humanities PhDs will have dropped out or not received a degree. Of the minority who do earn a degree after ten years, and perhaps four or five years of job-hunting, 40 percent of language PhDs will still not have tenure-track employment. That means no tenure-track job of any kind–not in North Dakota, not in a community college, not at a religious school where you have to sign a loyalty oath to the pastor. And if you do get that job–in what could be your late 30s or even early 40s–what awaits most is a salary similar to a moderately experienced bartender or a 23-year-old police officer. In many fields this means that perhaps 1/4 of the folks who started graduate school over the past decade might get a shot at lousy pay in the tenure track. If present trends continue, that percentage should drop considerably for folks entering grad school this year, to 1/5 or even 1/6. Of course since the vast majority of qualified persons who might have thought about grad school but couldn’t afford the luxury never even applied, talent–especially working class and middle-class talent–is rushing away like water over the falls. And if family wealth determines who can afford the professorial life as a sort of jolly volunteer-ism, the wealth gap means that folks from racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to see themselves as able to afford this particular form of philanthropy.

See artists are the only ones on the edge! This looks like a must read as it ties in a highly overlooked factor in the labor crisis facing this country and the corporatist "farming" of labor sectors. Consider this from the author - "
higher ed produces a vast, captive workforce of students. 78% of undergraduates work an average of 30 hours per week, or twice as much as even the most corporate-friendly surveys think is beneficial (if the work were connected with a course of study–and most is not)." Brain -drain is taking many forms and we're now seeing and paying the vast political, economic and emotional costs together.

I'll close with this commentary by Larval Subjects from the comment section on the blog Perverse Egalitarianism.

One of the more vexing things about this is how it isn’t seriously discussed in academia. In Continental thought, at least, you have all these academics who devote their life to thinking the political, yet when the issue of the academic market comes up they suddenly revert back to conservative ideologues, arguing that they arrived at their positions based purely on merit and their hard work (the American myth of the autonomous self-made man that pulls himself up by his own bootstraps), disavowing the opaque power relations governing advance in academia. On the one hand, there’s the tragedy that would-be grad students have to make life defining decisions very early on, despite often lacking the necessary background knowledge that would allow them to make wise decisions. That is, they need to make informed decisions as to where to study and who to study with. If these decisions are poorly made at the outset, the student, despite doing outstanding work, will often be doomed from the start as they won’t have the necessary professional connections and letters of recommendation to get them noticed on the market (e.g. their supervisors won’t have the clout to effectively pick up the phone on their behalf and contact other departments).

On the other hand, there’s academic “quicksand”. This, I think, is particularly egregious. Chances are, most are not going to get a position (or a desirable position) right when they go on the market. Faced with the brute material question of how to support themselves, they are forced to either teach a heavy load of adjunct courses for a pittance and without healthcare, or take a highly undesirable position at a community college, etc., where they have a heavy teaching load and a number of administrative duties. The reasoning of the candidate is that they’ll do this to make ends meet until they finally do get a position. What they fail to realize is that they’ve already fallen into the quicksand. First, they begin to get the ’stench’ of adjunct work, temporary assignments, or community college on them that looks to job committees like failure (the myth of merit rearing it’s head again: “they couldn’t make it so they had to adjunct!”) Rather than adjuncting being seen as a positive insofar as it confers teaching experience, it is instead seen as a negative implying a failure to effectively navigate the system. Second, and more importantly, the job seekers are mired in quicksand as their heavy workload prevents them from doing the research and publishing required to land a tenure track position. As a result, they end up either leaving academia together and beginning their lives much later than all their peers, or, if they’re very fortunate they land a fulltime community college position (where they’re universally disrespected by people both outside academia and by people at four year schools and research programs).

This state-of-affairs thus functions as a selection mechanism that reproduces the conditions for the possibility of the system of production. That is, those students who were fortunate enough to make informed decisions early on and go to top notch graduate schools (remember, most undergraduates lack knowledge of the top-notch research programs in academia as they are not yet researchers themselves) land the tenure track positions. Whereas those who attend fair but not stellar programs end up becoming the higher education “proletariat” without a real shot of advancing to those positions. There is something deeply wrong when an academic can publish books with highly respected presses, publish articles, have a stellar teaching record, and letters of recommendation from highly respected academics in the field, and still be unable to land a tenure track position (and here I’m not talking a research one position with grad students either, just a liberal arts position in a four year program). I am not sure what can be done about all this, but it does seem to me that the system is dysfunctional and in need of reform… Even if that means shutting down a number of graduate programs or admitting fewer grad students.

All this aside, whenever I hear faculty engaged in some variant of “critical theory” broadly construed (ranging anywhere from Adorno to Badiou) on search committees who begin talking like Reagan conservatives and placing all the onus on the individual, mocking job applicants and deploring how graduate students “whine” about the market, I want to punch them on the nose. It is astounding to me that any political theorist or continental thinker can so easily disavow their own role in these forms of exploitation. - Larval Subjects

For more on this publication check out Bousquet's blog and his YouTube Page.

Great tip via Perverse Egalitarianism and Larval Subjects.

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