POST #28 :: Some Brief Spoken Comments on Comp/Rhet, Academic Labor, and the Future of English Studies (CUNY Graduate Center, April 3, 2014)

For the time being, I’m going to talk about material realities shared by comp/rhet and its others, rather than their differences.

There are all kinds of things I could say about the disciplinary and labor crises in our field, but for now I will focus on an interrelated set of areas with some brief comments, criticisms, or proposals for each: academia’s prestige economy, organized labor, graduate admissions, advisement, the “star system,” and, last and most importantly, undergraduates. Some of these thoughts and recommendations are very small, and some are quite a bit larger.

For starters, campuses, programs, and departments have few if any internal material incentives to make transformational structural changes to the existing divisions of labor. The current arrangement exists for a number of interrelated reasons, but surely one of the most pertinent reasons is that it’s economically beneficial for institutions to organize labor in a tiered wage and title system, with no-contract or low wage or no-benefits work, with labor delivered ‘just-in-time,” etc. Hence the enduring importance and prominence of labor strikes as one of the few bargaining tools still available to workers.

But these material disincentives to transforming labor relations are also manifesting themselves in the opt-out movement, in the turn toward documenting and disseminating stories of academic penury and disenchantment. I’m thinking of the #altac constellation of discussions, the Adjunct Project, and the ongoing work of bloggers and essayists providing up-close and incisive accounts of labor in the trenches. Faculty and administrators downplay or ignore this work at their peril, as it is providing a window into the profession in our time and place that is far more consequential than whatever new field or subfield or area of study is “hot” at the moment. Where are some of the places where we have been doing the most damage to the overall goal: not just workers’ dignity or security, but workers’ power, workers’ control?

First: prestige and the cultivation of an air of selectiveness, elitism, and such remain a significant part of the willfully cultivated mystique of higher education. This is much truer as you go “higher up” the academic ladder: Research 1 universities, for example, are far more obsessed with and invested in the prestige economy than the much more workmanlike state colleges, community colleges, technical and vocational schools, etc. In these more image-conscious (I will not say superficial) institutions, where pride is so fundamental to institutional self-fashioning, an additional strategy emerging from the labor strike and the opt-out movement, but transportable into other realms as well, would be pride’s obverse, shame. Generally speaking, organizations don’t improve conditions by being shamed into doing so (a simple withholding of labor will be far more effective in the short run, as we’re seeing play out at this very moment, again, at the University of California). However, we shouldn’t discount the political utility of something like shame understood as a dynamic, variegated process: not just the shame of having one’s exploitative labor conditions exposed, or of feeling pressed to counter the growing narratives of discontent with more vigorous PR, but of a much more fundamental manipulation on the workers’ parts of the institution’s professed principles. Though increasingly the university is run like a corporation, there still persists a deep sense (true or false) of a direct and meaningful social mission for higher education. Some have made excellent arguments that this vaunted mission itself is hollow, regressive, interpellated, pure ideology, and so forth, and they are partly right.

But for the sake of argument let us say that the university still does have at least some redeeming social function. If this is the case, and if the school wishes to promote itself and enrich itself by arguing for the merits of that social function, then let that pride be put to the test in all possible ways. If a fast-food chicken restaurant or a social media platform can occasionally be shamed into doing right by its consumers, users, etc., why not the corporate university? If the idea of the university is meant to stand for freedom of expression, social justice, mobility, opportunity, and such, let us speak about where it has lived up to those ideals, and where it has not. In a situation where lofty professed principles are placed alongside actual conditions on the ground—and until we just openly start talking about academic “shareholder value”—one of them eventually has to give.

Admissions Processes. Those actually involved in various elements of the graduate-school admissions, recruitment, retention, and preparation processes can manifest this move away from prestige rhetoric and toward a clearer and deeper focus on actual material conditions in a number of ways. Historically, departments and campuses have a very poor record of systematically gathering and disseminating several pieces of information that prospective or incoming students should have. These would include placement rates; labor contract status; pay scales and comps; tenured-to-adjunct ratios; class sizes/caps; time-to-degree aid and bridge aid; market-defraying costs, etc. This is the kind of seriously consequential information that a new cohort of graduate students needs. In short, material-focused, back-end focused – rather than the front-end prestige narratives about the joys and selectivity of being chosen.

For prospective graduate students, the most common anxiety is about whether or not they’ll get in, when it’s really the nature of getting out that should concern them. The fact that entry-level graduate education discourses are so heavily invested in the rhetoric of selection and academic accomplishment and achievement is a convenient way to paper over the fact that their main task will be to provide a steady supply of underpaid labor to their institutions until such time as their labor is replaced with someone else’s. Admissions and recruitment procedures that ignore this reality are exploiting old myths about education’s unassailable social and economic virtue, and it should be stopped.

In fact, we could say that the entire rhetoric of academic accomplishment is nearly always unhelpful, and often directly counterproductive, to the work of transforming academic labor. Beyond the prestige economies of school’s vaunted missions, academia still tends to imagine itself as a kind of hierarchy with a hall pass: that is, there are clear gradations separations of title, rank, job security, influence, space, voice, vote, power, etc in the academy, but these are often most subtly coercive to everyone involved because we have internalized this notion of its guildship/apprenticeship model, which even a basic glance at the data reveals to be largely without merit for large percentages of talented and qualified academic workers. So maybe quit talking about it as if it is a guild or a special club with direct material privileges, since it really isn’t.

Employment in academia is now, more than ever, a long game. Hiring committees should implement procedures that actively disregard or suppress candidates’ degree-filing dates. These dates are increasingly irrelevant as markers of anything pertinent to the individual candidate’s qualifications or abilities. This was always true, but even more so post-recession: to consider how recently or how many years ago a prospective candidate earned her degree is not only a fairly unsubtle form of ageism (and thus openly discriminatory), but it’s another of the relics of a time when the transition from degree to career was smoother, faster, and much more common. To insist on transcripts with dates or to expect that information to be included on CVs is, to my mind, unnecessary and unfair (and maybe also illegal).

Another relic to dispose of is the publish-or-perish expectation. Many junior scholars today are researching, writing, and thinking circles around their predecessors, and guess what? It’s not enough. To continue to insist that publication is the passkey to job prospects contains just enough truth to be invidious, and to perpetuate the myth that academia is first and foremost a meritocracy. This persistent belief marks someone out as “active” in their field, but quietly chooses to ignore the fact that hundreds and hundreds of others are just as “active.” When everyone is working twice as hard for half as many opportunities, insisting on more and more and better and better publication records, book contracts, etc can very easily shade from an assessment of the candidate’s scholarly effort and rigor to a fairly familiar kind of managerial work speed-up, fundamentally identical to those enacted under Taylorization of factory labor over the past century. The fact that so many people in the profession assume this model is sacred even as everyone jokes about how nobody really reads any of this stuff anyway is perverse, exploitative, and actually anti-intellectual, if that word is to have any meaning any more.

TAships. Graduate students compete every year for scarce TAships. Somewhere along the way academics got into the habit of describing grad student instructors who run their own sections of their own classes and grad students who perform the bulk of more esteemed, overbooked professors’ classwork (grading, office hours, etc.) as “TAships.” As people who profess to care about language, let us consider the language of these alongside their economic status. The “TA” who runs her course – who designs it, teaches it, in short, does all the labor – is not assisting anyone, except in the perhaps unintended sense that her exploited labor assists the college in its mission to extract as much labor for as little pay as possible. But as a purely descriptive title the term is completely erroneous. There is no “A”; it’s all Teaching, all the time. It is not like a basketball assist. She is running the course. It is hers. She is teaching it and expending all of the labor. To call her a “TA” is just another subtle way to diminish the herculean labor involved in the enterprise.

And where grad students actually assist senior faculty by serving as “TAs” for their courses—where they routinely handle all grading, interaction with students, and even in many cases a share of the lecturing and class preparation—in short, the vast majority of the labor that goes into the practice of teaching—the title “TA” is invidious for a different reason. It is yet another of the instances where her labor is considered secondarily important even as it daily demonstrates itself as the primary labor of the course. A teacher is not an assistant, and an assistant is doing more of the work for the person who they’re supposedly assisting. New names and new vocabularies aren’t going to win the battle between labor and capital, but you’d be amazed how easily such outmoded or erroneous linguistic markers come to serve as convenient ideological markers. By design, they obscure relations of production and the all-important power hierarchies that sustain academic life. So in reference to ourselves and to others, these seemingly insignificant things—like the phrase “contingent” labor—should be abolished and replaced.

Another corrosive element of the star system, the academic hierarchy, and the use of rank to differentiate and segregate academic laborers from each other manifests itself in what we might call the academic fanboy culture that all of us are familiar with, and that many of us embrace and perpetuate. For all our critiques of power, authority, etc., many academics are still enamored of the luminary model of academic life, organizing our gatherings and our discourses around an array of experts, exemplars, and critical authorities. But in many cases, as Ann noted in her essay, the success of these scholars in their fields is dependent on the academic labor pools they so often wish to ignore as material realities, preferring instead the purer “content” of intellectual analysis that ignores its own material conditions. One of Ann’s most astute arguments is that this is an atrocious state of affairs. But I arrived at a somewhat different conclusion than she did. She quite rightly chastises leaders in their fields for ignoring or downplaying the material realities workers in those fields face today, and calls on senior scholars (in their positions of greater authority and security, wider audience, and such) to do much more. They should. But to my mind, this might be another occasion to reevaluate the strangehold that a culture of authority has on so much of our academic lives.

If “esteemed” scholars are detached from the real conditions that undergird our collective intellectual enterprise, don’t invite them to speak any more. Don’t pay plenaries out of funds that are already stretched thin; don’t award visiting professorships; don’t hand them as many TAs as they desire; don’t perpetuate the hype machine that sees every campus visit from a luminary as some kind of incredible achievement. We have reached a point where the number and range of people in the field with something smart to say extends well beyond the coterie of esteemed scholars (however much we love their minds). Many of the smartest thinkers in and out of the profession are not tenured professors at all. If the rock stars and the “prominent emissaries” are content to keep talking about a world in which the immiseration of a huge laboring underclass isn’t deserving of serious attention and action, then we should start devoting more of our time and resources and column inches and funding to people who do. And to Ann’s equally important point that many faculty in an average department are still delivering the same tired “advice” to grad students today as they were decades ago (publish more, teach more, etc.), department leaders might need to start thinking seriously about what they need to do to lead regular refresher-courses in the realities of the profession: the market (such as it is), numbers, placement, etc. This way, faculty who still insist on the old chestnuts will not have a convenient ignorance to fall back on anymore.

Lastly, Undergraduates. Undergrads are the lifeblood of the campus, and yet it’s astonishing to me how seldom they feature, as subjects or, better yet, as participants, in any conversation or action about the future of higher education. Yes, alliances between tenured and non-tenured faculty are critical: office space should be reallocated, adjunct faculty should be involved in more decision-making and governance, there should be a collective fight for better pay, longer contracts, etc. But if we’re interested in a diversity of tactics (and we should be), greater involvement of undergrads is essential. I’m not talking about proselytizing in the classroom, which I actually have no interest in and don’t even think is effective anyway, but rather about involving undergrads in the process of worker education across campus (or, even better, getting involved with the worker education undergrads are already doing). I say “involve” (or “get involved” with) students rather than “radicalize” students because a call to “radicalize” undergrads assumes a knowledge and power differential between unenlightened undergrads and wise instructors that may not actually obtain on the ground. Undergraduates are in many cases future graduate students and professors and intellectuals and professionals and other things besides. And many of them are already workers by any kind of definition: in their unpaid work as students, but also, increasingly, in the low-wage precarious work they do in the rare hours they’ve not involved in schoolwork. So in many cases, the students are the last ones that need to be “educated” about the grim economic realities that beset them, their professors, campuses, and broader economies.

We also need to transform the way undergraduates are employed on campus in low-paid or often unpaid “tutor” or “TA” positions, where they earn credits or—that most magical of capitalist words, “experience”—while mostly supplying cheap labor to programs with as little capital outlay as possible. We should seriously examine who genuinely benefits materially from these arrangements, which are in many cases simply relabeled internships, with all of the unpaid work associated with that term. In case it’s still unclear to anyone, internships (regardless of how young someone in the position is, or the “experience” or “credits” or “networking” to be derived from it) are a nakedly exploitative labor practice, and should be stopped.

But there are other, much larger consequences for undergrads that we ignore at our peril. Exploitation of teachers is exploitation of undergraduates. And here I don’t mean in the Romantic or evangelical sense that, as some have pleaded, “If we really cared about our students, we should pay their teachers a fair wage! Students will learn better when their teachers are granted greater pay or job security,” etc. No. I mean instead that while we’re all running around trying to teach our students about culture or the hermeneutics of suspicion or the canon or Virginia Woolf or whatever, the material conditions and treatment of their teachers may be the only, and most valuable, thing they “learn” from college: that it is, like every other site of capitalist struggle, as committed to labor exploitation as any corporation is. And if that’s the lesson more and more of our undergrads are learning, aside from what it feels like to be young and buried in debt, that is a lesson that they certainly aren’t going to need to go through the economic horrors of college to learn.


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