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.