[Marxism] How the university works

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jun 19 09:07:58 MDT 2008


 From the issue dated April 4, 2008
'How the University Works': Required Reading on the Future

Despite 10 years of reports and rhetoric, the economic conditions of 
academic labor are considerably worse


Marc Bousquet's How the University Works should be required reading for 
anyone with an interest in the future of higher education, including 
administrators, faculty members, graduate students, and — even more 
significantly — undergraduates and their parents.

Published this year by New York University Press, the book confirms 
one's darkest fears, but it also offers some hope. On his Web site (see 
howtheuniversityworks.com), Bousquet, who is also a Brainstorm blogger 
for The Chronicle, sketches the culture of academe a generation from 
now, based on current trends — and it's not a pretty picture for most 
professors and students:

     * More than 80 percent of the "faculty" will be adjuncts; 
upper-division undergraduates will do much of the teaching of 
lower-division students.
     * Tenure and curriculum will be the privilege of administrators.
     * At most institutions, whole fields of the liberal arts — 
philosophy, history, music, literature — will no longer be represented 
by departments.
     * Basketball coaches will earn as much as $10-million a year, while 
"part-timers" teaching eight classes a year will earn less than the 
minimum wage.
     * While 10 percent of undergraduates will not work at all, the 
remaining 90 percent will pursue degrees while working 40 hours a week 
serving lattes to the nonworking students, correcting their papers, and 
doing their laundry and nails.

Bousquet's alternative to that dystopia is one in which the academic 
workers — including the so-called graduate "students" — continue to 
organize and push back against corporate-style administrations. How the 
University Works makes a strong case that unionization is the only 
realistic solution.

I first heard Bousquet speak at the Modern Language Association 
convention in 1997 in Toronto when I was on the academic job market for 
the first time. I hadn't had much success, but my advisers told me not 
to be daunted by that, since I was still A.B.D. and most positions were 
being filled by people who not only had the degree in hand but also had 
several peer-reviewed publications and considerable teaching experience.

The entry-level market was flooded with postdocs, lecturers, and 
visiting assistant professors. I was not yet competitive in that 
context. I had only been in graduate school for six years, and there 
were people ahead of me who had been preparing for a dozen years or more.

What alarmed me was that I also knew people many years ahead of me with 
all of those credentials and no success in their job searches, either. I 
am talking about candidates with degrees from top departments, with 
famous advisers, multiple publications, luminous personalities, glowing 
teaching evaluations, and dissertations already under contract for 
publication. Beyond a certain escalating level of basic qualifications, 
the job market looked like a lottery, although most of us still publicly 
believed in the myth of academe as a meritocracy.

Even if you were a graduate student with serious doubts that kept you up 
at night — "I've wasted my 20s and gone into debt for nothing" — you 
probably didn't say anything for fear of being branded "unprofessional." 
If you complained, your adviser might just snuff you out with a few 
subtle, negative remarks in a letter of reference.

At that MLA convention, someone handed me a leaflet describing the 
"Welcome Session" for graduate students. The featured speakers were 
several senior professors offering sage advice on such matters as 
targeting your cover letter to the needs of the search committee (as if 
that could be known reliably from most job descriptions), keeping 
informed about the latest scholarship, looking out for conferences at 
which to present your dissertation chapters, and crafting your 
dissertation as a book from the beginning.

Well, duh.

They didn't seem to know that they were speaking to a cohort that had 
been manically professionalizing ourselves — conferencing, publishing, 
and networking — from the first semester of graduate school. Moreover, 
we had been told by our advisers — thanks to a 1989 study by William G. 
Bowen that was widely off the mark — that there would be ample 
tenure-track openings before the end of the decade. And now it turned 
out that if you were among the 40 percent who had clawed your way 
through graduate school, you probably had less than a 50 percent chance 
at a full-time job in academe — not just this year but ever.

After all that work, your life was a coin toss.

The speakers were obviously well intentioned, but you could feel the 
rising anger of the audience. If someone had called for the occupation 
of the MLA conference headquarters, I think most of the room would have 

That was the context in which Bousquet — then president of the MLA's 
Graduate Student Caucus — gave his talk on the "Excremental Theory of 
Graduate Education." He came out from behind the conference table and 
stood near the audience, saying that he would need to read some portions 
of his talk because he wanted to get it right. He didn't look like a 
radical — he wore a suit and a tie — but his talk helped to reignite the 
academic labor movement within the MLA.

Essentially, as Bousquet explained, the "job market" is a fiction that 
coerces us into competition with each other instead of asking questions 
about the constructed nature of the academic workplace. The primary 
purpose of graduate programs, he argued, was not to produce 
degree-holders but to provide cheap, nondegreed teaching labor for the 
universities. The predicted job crisis had been solved by an influx of 
graduate students encouraged by the prospect of future job 
opportunities. That was the new job system, and it was working perfectly 
well. As a result, the completion of a doctorate in the humanities now 
marked the logical end of one's academic career rather than the 
beginning of it.

We were waste products who needed to be flushed from the system to make 
way for the next serving of exploited "apprentices."

Higher education — which I had always assumed to have my best interests 
at heart — had become a kind of pyramid scheme with us at the bottom, 
the new academic proletariat. And the situation would continue until we 
stopped thinking of ourselves as "students" and started organizing on 
the local and national levels.

Bousquet's talk — the urtext of his current book — was the first time I 
had heard anyone explain the labor system of higher education in a way 
that corresponded to my experiences. It applied the tools of critical 
analysis to our own circumstances. Instead of directing our energies at 
some amorphous and distant "discourse" — the obligatory gesture of 
scholarly production in those days — the academic labor movement, as it 
grew, began to identify specific institutions and individuals as 
responsible for the exploitation of thousands of people, and to take 
direct measures to hold them accountable. The movement exposed the 
corrupt bargain that rewarded a shrinking number of professors who often 
posed as radicals while acquiescing to corporatization of the university.

Under the leadership of Bousquet, Kirsten Christiansen, Gregory 
Bezkorovainy, Mark Kelley, and Cary Nelson (who is now president of the 
American Association of University Professors), among many others, the 
caucus used the media and the existing governance structure of the MLA 
to force the organization finally to give significant attention to the 
changing nature of academic careers. The "tenured bosses" would have to 
include the perspectives of graduate students and adjuncts — now the 
majority of the profession — in their formerly exclusive deliberations.

How the University Works marks a decade since that time, and, while much 
has certainly been done in terms of reports, resolutions, lamentations, 
and now-fashionable expressions of cross-generational empathy, I am 
sorry to say that little has been accomplished in terms of the 
experience of the average academic worker. If anything, the conditions 
of academic labor nationally — now including those of the undergraduate 
worker-student — are considerably worse than they were a decade ago, as 
Bousquet's book indisputably documents.

So it's one step forward and two steps back, year by year. If there is a 
flaw in Bousquet's analysis, it might lie in his apparent confidence in 
our society's willingness to support higher education, particularly the 
humanities, in an era of escalating tuition costs and declining 
opportunities after graduation.

Complicating that question is Bousquet's apparent optimism about the 
fungibility of academic resources, as if an administration could even 
consider cutting the basketball coach's salary or postponing a new 
laboratory to finance the health benefits of a few hundred adjuncts. 
Even the most intelligent, humane, and principled administrators — and I 
know many such people exist — can only nudge the direction of the oil 
tanker without powerful support from multiple constituencies, including 
the larger culture.

Unfortunately, the students, the alumni, the voters, and many trustees 
care about sports and business partnerships in ways that they will never 
care about faculty members in the humanities. The business community, 
outside of the very top levels, does not seem to want graduates who are 
going to ask hard questions about the tyranny of the market, such as 
whether it really is a "market" at all.

Neither is diversity of thought valued by the polarized factions who 
dominate our national conversation. Even worse, thanks to decades of 
right-wing propaganda and left-wing self-caricature, the public is 
generally hostile to humanities professors, whom they regard as 
hypocritical, pampered elitists spouting unintelligible jargon, instead 
of as middle-aged mothers with ongoing student-loan payments who teach 
remedial composition at three colleges for $20,000 a year.

There is simply no narrative available in our culture for the professor 
or graduate student as exploited worker. And most people no longer seem 
to believe that the humanities have anything relevant or useful to teach.

Even at my own liberal-arts college, students sometimes show resentment 
at having to take general-education courses. I suppose that is a more 
virulent expression of American anti-intellectualism (see Susan Jacoby's 
new book, The Age of American Unreason), but I am sure it is also an 
outcome of the currently constrained conditions of employment for the 
young. Struggling under increasing debt loads and the need to work 
full-time as undergraduates — as Bousquet describes in his most 
startling chapter — most students can't afford to care about anything 
beyond career preparation.

In the end, academic labor has to find a way to speak to a larger 
audience — to change the dominant narrative — and How the University 
Works provides a blueprint for the next phase of that project.

The growing parallel in the experiences of students and teachers strikes 
me as the most important part of Bousquet's book: The student who spends 
six years working 40 hours a week and taking out loans to pay for 
college, only to discover little besides a string of part-time, 
low-paying jobs after graduation, if they graduate, has a lot in common 
with the majority of college teachers these days.

And both groups, despite what looks like privilege, now know what the 
average American worker has learned over the last couple of generations. 
In that common experience of economic injustice, lies the real potential 
for a transformation of higher education.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate 
professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He writes about 
academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at 
careers at chronicle.com. For an archive of his previous columns, see 

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