Sunday, August 31, 2008

How The University Works

My review of Marc Bousquet's How the University Works is long overdue--I received a copy of the book in January and read it in June--but I've been thinking about it all summer and following Bousquet's related blog off and on for most of 2008.

As longtime readers know, I was an organizer for INRU's graduate student union. This was rarely something I enjoyed; in fact, I spent a lot of time resenting the way that the logic of my belief in unionization seemed to commit me to doing more than just signing a card and going on strike once in a while. I hated phone banking and I hated foisting myself on people who had no desire to talk to me, and I made fun of the earnestness and encounter-group-speak of the coordinating committee. Still, I kept doing it. (Come the revolution, Flavia will complain for a week straight--but she'll probably show up anyway, with a checklist and an extra pair of mittens.)

As reluctant an organizer as I may have been, I learned a lot about the history of academic labor and the creeping corporatization of the academy; much of what Bousquet says, then, shouldn't be news--but months after reading his book, I still can't get certain things out of my head.

First among these is Bousquet's treatment of what he calls "job market theory." I thought that casualization (and the complicity of grad programs in this process) was something I fully understood, but by reframing the issue, Bousquet has made me think about it in a new way.

According to Bousquet, the term "job market" was once simply a description of the bazaar-like atmosphere at the annual conventions of the MLA and other professional organizations, where buyers and sellers (or departments and job candidates) came together to check each other out; at some point, though, the term began to be used as if it described an actual labor market, resulting in the widespread belief that "the system of graduate education produces more degree holders than necessary, and that this 'overproduction' can be controlled 'from the demand side' by encouraging early retirements and 'from the supply side' by shrinking graduate programs" (20).

As Bousquet notes, however, the idea of a market "operates rhetorically and not descriptively" (21), and on some level we all know this: the demand for college instruction is no less today than it was a decade or three ago, and it is unlikely that the "oversupply" of PhDs, relative to this demand, is actually very large; what has declined is the number of tenure-track jobs. Despite this knowledge, most faculty and even graduate students regard this decline as a temporary or local phenomenon: the result of hard economic times and belt-tightening at the institutional or state level.

Bousquet argues that this is not only not temporary, but also not a sign of a "'system out of control,' a machine with a thrown rod or a blown gasket. Quite the contrary: it's a smoothly functioning new system with its own easily apprehensible logic, premised entirely on the continuous replacement of degree holders with nondegreed labor (or persons with degrees willing to work on unfavorable terms)" (24).

The use of market language permits faculty inaction (except around the edges, when it comes to reducing the number of admitted students, "professionalizing" those already there, or pulling such strings as may be available for their own advisees) and makes the relationship between faculty and graduate students

paternal, administrative, and managerial. . . . Whatever actions faculty might take to secure their own working conditions, job-market theory defines their responsibility toward graduate students and former graduate students not as a relationship of solidarity with coworkers but, instead, as a managerial responsibility. In multiple roles. . . the tenured [see] their responsibility to graduate employees through the lens of participating in the administration of the "market." (20)

In sum, job market theory frees those who have tenure (or jobs that are tenure-track) to believe that they can do nothing much more than shake their heads and thank their stars, even while labor conditions worsen for them as much as for members of the academic underclass.

The sharp analysis that Bousquet brings to the idea of the job market is present throughout the book. In his treatment of the "informationalization" of the academy (an awful term, but never mind), he points out that the paranoia online education inspires in some faculty is largely misplaced--not because online education doesn't have the potential to eliminate tenure-track faculty (and gut the educational experience in any number of other ways), and not because individual institutions might not be trying to do just that, but because the place that such cynical, cost-cutting moves are really happening, and have been happening for decades, is in the old fashioned, bricks-and-mortar classroom, where courses are already more likely to be taught by adjuncts and grad students; by contrast, the expenses of getting online education up and running often outweigh the potential savings.

As grim as the picture Bousquet paints is, reading his book was oddly inspiring; if the market reflects tough economic times and an oversupply of PhDs, all we can do is hope for the best for ourselves and our students. But recognizing that the system has its own efficient but appalling logic--a logic that serves neither faculty nor student interests--means that waiting it out isn't possible, though action might be.

Time to make some goddamn phone calls.


medieval woman said...

This is interesting, Flave - and I must admit that I do often thank my stars that I have a t-t position now - I feel like I just managed to get into the elevator before the doors shut. And I particularly like the way you've outlined that bit about the change in the relationship between advisors and their students - I would suggest that it's always been paternal - but it's certainly become managerial. Moreover, we're told that we need to prepare our students for this new market economy in new ways all the time. It's no longer about helping write a good, solid dissertation (were they ever good and solid anyway? Hee, hee) - but like professional athletes, we tell them to "bulk up" their resumes with conferences and as many publications as they can. Someone once told me that a connection can be made between many grad school publications and performance-enhancing steroids. I thought it was at once shocking and kind of creepily familiar.

So, my follow-up question would be: if we can't wait it out, what action might we take? Does Bousquet have any suggestions?

Great post!

Flavia said...

MW: oh, I won't pretend I don't feel that way, too--or somewhat self-satisfied that my current job is unionized (as was my lectureship) and that we do much better by our adjuncts than the two private R1s in town.

I'm not sure that Bousquet offers precise suggestions for action (we're coming up against the limits of my memory here!), but what I see as implicit is the importance of fighting for structural change--through one's union, faculty senate, or professional organization.

That is, rather than thinking that it's enough to be really really nice to one's own personal adjuncts (by taking their schedules into account or doing everything possible to ensure that they get 2 classes a semester [which at RU means they get medical benefits]), fighting to get all of them higher wages & benefits, union representation, etc.

(Not that the practicalities of doing such things aren't a bitch, of course.)

And yes, MB talks a lot, and very compellingly, about the mangerial turn in college administration, and the faculty acceptance of this language; one interesting chapter is about the way composition has become--thanks to its heavy reliance on adjunct and grad student labor--a "management science."

Anonymous said...

thanks for this, i definitely need to read...

Doctor Cleveland said...

Depressing, but interesting.

In Ohio, state law forbids non-tenure-track faculty from unionizing. That keeps the whole public system as ruthless as possible.

Shane in Utah said...

Delurking here to comment on a great post. I also had some experiences with the graduate employees' union at my doctoral university that soured me on academic politics ever since. But I've been meaning to pick up and read Marc's book. Maybe it will have the same inspiring effect on me that it did on Flavia...

Oh, and it seems to me that the single smartest action for people who want to change the economic structures of the academy is to join the AAUP. It's far from a perfect instrument, but many of its limitations result from how relatively few professors are paid and active members. If we all joined up--everyone from grad students to full professors--it would be an organization with serious political, financial, and PR clout. In its currently infeebled state, though, the AAUP is just another isolated voice in the wilderness, like the MLA. For a more compelling argument than I can offer for joining the AAUP, read this piece by Bérubé:

Join here:

Jack said...

Flavia, dare I say that you are, with this post, in fact actively organizing of your own free will. And thank you. If your blog can’t convince anyone, we are all lost.

As someone who also got lucky (and screwed) enough to find herself in the middle of some serious unionizing trouble in grad school (and incidentally also HATED phone organizing, I mean I went to grad school for English lit for Christ’s sake, that’s for library dorks not the socially adept), I’ve heard these arguments before and they are, I have come to firmly believe, most undeniably and transparently true. I was at an MLA Delegate Assembly meeting a few years ago at which there was a presentation (with pie charts, mind you) explaining how blah blah blah there were fewer available jobs and blah blah blah too many new PhDs. Who is still buying this? Apparently most of the assembly. One man got up in the back during the Q&A and said: “Well I got my PhD 30 years ago and I’ve never had trouble finding a full teaching load, just healthcare and a full time salary.” Everyone ignored him. Poor, sad adjunctman. Must be hard not to have a tenure line job AND not be able to read pie charts.

Anyway, you know I could go on. But I won’t. For now. I guess one thing we could all do is look into who’s trying to unionize in our areas as well as participate more in our own union if we are so lucky as to have one. Sadly, I think it’s going to take a whole lot more membership and action before even the unions and organizations that we can get recognized have gain any real power over the nature of the freakishly successful (from a capital standpoint) university system. I do like the AAUP idea. It was often represented to me as a totally impotent entity by my advisors and other powerful people in my grad school life, which indicates to me it's not a bad place to start. Plus the fact that Bousquet seems to be suggesting membership could involve dressing in spandex unitards. Nothing like unitards to make a movement. Seriously, nothing.

Flavia said...


Aw! Well, if I am indeed organizing via blog post, it would share with my actual organizing the features of being belated, ocasional, and easily disregarded. My own organizer kept insisting that what made me such a good organizer was how unlikely an organizer I was. I was willing to be told that--and to put a different face on the union than the Very Zealous organizers from outside the English Dept., whom most of my peers disliked and distrusted--but really, she didn't have much in the way of options: virtually no one from English would do it.

Had I know that unitards were a possibility, however, my effectiveness would have been greatly increased.