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.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Under the influence

It's true what conservatives say: we college professors exert a dangerous influence over our students.

Walking into class today, I was hailed by a student who had taken Shakespeare with me last semester, but whom I'd known only slightly. After a moment or two of how-was-your-summer chit-chat, she held up her inside right wrist to show me the tattoo emblazoned there: MEMENTO MORI.

"That day you brought in the skull?" She said. "And wrote this on the board? That really stuck with me."

So there you have it: I inspire students to deface their bodies and meditate on death. And I couldn't be more proud.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

For those keeping track:

Cost of academic regalia ÷ number of wearings thus far = $160.00 per use.

As a return on value, that's not so bad--in just two or three more years the cost will be the same as if I'd shelled out for rentals each time.

By contrast, consider this equation:

[(money earned over three years of full-time employment + money earned over six years in graduate school) - (educational debt + consumer debt related to the profession)] ÷ nine years = an average annual salary too grim for me to contemplate.

Conclusion: as extravagances go, pretty clothes ain't got nothing on graduate school.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Summer reading

As serene as I may be in the knowledge that four whole weeks of summer stretch out before me, my first day of classes nevertheless arrives on Tuesday.

It would be hard for a summer to be worse than last summer, but even given its modest competition, this summer still feels like the most pleasurable one I've had in years. I haven't taken any big vacations, and though I've gotten a fair amount of work done, no huge hurdles have been lept or grand visions acquired. Really, the most notable thing I've done is read.

Now, I read all the time, but usually I'm reading in catch-up mode: gotta get this book read for class on Thursday, or that one before my reading group meets tomorrow--or this other one in order to finish off my article revisions. Such obligatory reading can still be quite pleasurable, and I've spent long lovely hours in bed with a cup of tea and The Faerie Queene or in a coffee shop with a notepad and some volume or other from Cambridge University Press. Still. . . it's obligatory.

But this summer, for all my to-do and to-read lists (and my tiresomely Protestant tendency to see all projects as self-improving ones and thus Not To Be Shirked), I felt that I actually had time to explore. My fellowship allowed me to look at all kinds of random Early Modern shit; prepping for my new fall class sent me through dozens of articles and perhaps a half-dozen books; and spending a month in a city where I knew no one gave me an excuse to work through several scholarly books only tangentially relevant to my own research.

I'd characterize all of the above as relatively fun reading--on the grounds that anything not immediately necessary must be fun--but this summer I also did more leisure reading than I have in years.

A couple of months ago Prof. de Breeze had a great post on how little leisure reading he himself does these days. It was a post I related to, as I'd been worrying about the declining number of novels (&c.) I've been reading over the past few years; a couple over winter break and a couple over the summer, usually, tending to fall into two categories: either Classics I Should Have Read Long Ago or temporarily engrossing but ultimately forgettable contemporary fiction. I was starting to wonder whether maybe I just wasn't a leisure reader any more--or whether there was something about my life that made contemporary fiction feel less relevant.

As someone who has always read and whose livelihood depends on students who themselves identify as readers, that possibility was disturbing but not unplausible; I'd long since stopped reading the short fiction in The New Yorker, at least in part because it felt the least urgent: given the finite amount of my reading time, I concluded that the nonfictional stuff was what was interesting, topical--and much more likely to come up in dinner-party conversation.

So I'm pleased to report that, this summer, I got my leisure-reading groove back. This is what I read:
August Wilson, The Piano Lesson
Richard Russo, Straight Man
Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
David Mamet, American Buffalo
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach
Tom Perrotta, Joe College

(Plus eight to ten Hernandez Brothers comics and the opening chapters of The Yiddish Policeman's Union.)
Some of the books I read were merely good--a fun way to pass the time and a means of shoring up, ever so slightly, my claims to familiarity with the current literary scene. Others, though, reminded me of what made me a reader and a writer in the first place.

And if that isn't a justification for 14 weeks away from the classroom, I don't know what is.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Where's my syllabus?

I'm out west at the family homestead, seeing the relations, enjoying the weather, sleeping nine hours a night--and, oh yeah: slaving over my syllabi.

Now, my syllabi aren't those eight-page jobbies bursting with university bylaws, detailing every assignment, and showing off their author's facility with graphic-design software--but neither are they a single double-sided sheet consisting of contact information and a rough schedule of readings.

Syllabi are, of course, the first introduction that students get to me and my class, so I want an attractive and readable layout, an engaging descriptive paragraph or two, and a sufficiently detailed course outline. Syllabi are also a kind of contract: a document that can be referred to whenever there's a question about grading standards or the precise penalties for everything from absenteeism to plagiarism. But the real reason I take syllabus design so seriously--and why it feels so effortful--is my awareness that my syllabus is often the only thing standing between me and pedagogical disaster.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I have an awful lot of exchanges like this:
Student: "Hey, when are our second papers due?"

Me (feigning preoccupation): "In a couple of weeks. It's on the syllabus."

Student: "Okay, great. . . but I've got training around then, so I need to plan ahead--is it before or after the eighteenth?"

Me: "It's on the syllabus. Check it when you get home."
Or this:
Student 1: "Which play are we starting next week? I don't have my syllabus with me."

Me: "Macbeth."

Student 2: "Did we change that? It says here that we're reading Othello. . ."

Me: "Oh! Well, if the syllabus says we're reading Othello, then we're reading Othello."
In other words, I often have no idea what we're doing more than a class or two in advance. Once the semester starts, I rely on my syllabus to order my readings logically and to ensure that certain topics (not to mention assignments) appear at just the right moment. This isn't to say that I never make changes mid-semester, but usually they're minor responses to immediate exigencies. A well-considered syllabus keeps me on track--as well as performing the even more useful function of allowing me to appear to be on track.

But as I've been working on these three syllabi, I've been thinking what a pity it is that I don't have one for my life, or at least the next three to five years of it. I wouldn't expect it to be more than a rough document, but I'd happily put in whatever effort were required if I could sketch out with some assurance when (and if) certain events might occur: home ownership? a book contract? marriage? tenure?

I mean, sure: I have a sense of the appropriate order of things when it comes to my professional life, but I don't have the slightest idea what the personal side will look like or even what I want it to look like--much less how the two sides will intersect.

What I need is a much more experienced, much more long-range syllabus builder to rough that stuff out for me, lay down the standards, expectations, and penalties, and tell me what it's all about. Then I'd know whether it's a class I can commit to.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Flavian calendar reform

At about this time every year, I start operating according to my own Very Special Calendar.

My summer begins around May 15 or May 20th, after I've submitted my grades and my annual faculty activity report, and it ends a week before Labor Day. This means that I have 13 or 14 weeks of summer--absolute oceans of time in which to write. But as August winds down and I look with increasing apprehension at the to-do lists that I came up with in May, I start reassuring myself that summer doesn't really end until September 21st.

Now, if the past few years are any indication, I'm actually quite productive during August and the first few weeks of September--deadlines and the fear of public shame will do that to a girl--and refusing to admit that summer is OVER also keeps me from spending too much time worrying (or really even thinking) about my new classes.

But what this means is that my "summer" somehow becomes 18 weeks long, during which I get at best nine weeks' worth of work done--and by "nine weeks" I mean not nine 40-hour weeks, but whatever the writing/research equivalent is: twenty hours? thirty?

The Flavian Calendar, you see, also involves some Very Special Math.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

High anxiety

I awakened this morning from a succession of dreams that went something like this:
I was four months pregnant. This was not a planned or desired state of affairs, but apparently one I had accepted--until somehow, over the course of a doctor's visit, I started to suspect that maybe I wasn't! I mean, I hadn't gained any weight. And there were other physical signs to the contrary. My doctor, however, had no time for my objections; she lectured me on vitamins and disappeared. I sat there for a while, trying to piece together the evidence, when suddenly it occurred to me that hey: even if I was pregnant? I didn't have to keep it! I could give it up for adoption! But how to figure things out or make a decision if no one would listen to me?

Then I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when a dude I'd dated for about a week in January--with spectacularly negative results--suddenly appeared and wanted to know why I'd never called. He was with two women whom I apparently knew professionally, so I couldn't tell him off but had to make nice for blocks and blocks and blocks.

After I succeeded in shaking them, I had some urgent reason to call my mom--but I had a new cell phone in which my contacts weren't arranged alphabetically or even searchable by name. I kept randomly hitting buttons, trying to find her number, and instead getting those of people I barely knew and thought I'd long since deleted.

And finally? It was possible that I was going blind. But there was no way to be sure, so I'd just have to wait and see.
I hate my subconscious.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The perils of being female in public

Now that it's finally hit me that I have two substantial projects and one tiny one due in the next four to six weeks--while classes at RU begin in three and a half--I've been hunkering down and trying to get some work done.

Since I seem incapable of doing anything other than reading or course prep at home, for the past week or so I've been writing in a nearby café. The place has good coffee, lots of tables, and huge windows that let in tons of light. The music is loud, but it's a big space with high ceilings, so somehow the music seems backgroundy even while it successfully covers up the conversations going on around me.

It's a nearly perfect workspace. I love the staff. And when I need a break the people-watching is awesome. The only problem is that, among the flotsam and jetsam of the place's patrons--couples on blind dates, political activists plotting their next rally--often enough there's some guy who decides that, of all the lone individuals bent over their work, I'm the one he needs to talk to.

These tend to be men rather older than I, odd-bally but not especially creepy, and, as far as I can tell, they're not hitting on me. They just think I want to hear whatever they have to say.

So there I am, revising a chapter draft in longhand. I have a printout I'm carefully interlineating, a legal pad for longer additions, and several stacks of notes spread out around me. I do not think that I look interruptable. But suddenly there's a 50-something dude hovering over me.

"Grading papers?" He asks.

I look up and smile briefly. "Nope. Not during the summer!"

"Oh. So you're a--you must be a student? At [Local R1]?"

"No, I'm a professor at [RU]."

I return to my work. He keeps hovering.

"So--do you know anything about early Christianity?"

This is startling enough that I look up again. "Um, I guess. Some."

This, of course, is just the in he's looking for. He starts nattering about this ancient manuscript that has overturned scholars' assumptions about the early church. I don't catch the name of the manuscript, and I don't totally understand what's revolutionary about it, but since this isn't the least interesting thing I've heard all day, and since I'm trying to be minimally polite, I ask one or two questions--it's a Gnostic text, is it?--No no no no no! he says impatiently. I'm thinking of the Dead Sea Scrolls! Those were discovered much later!

After five minutes I've had enough. "Well, that's interesting!" I say with finality. "Thanks for telling me about it!" He hovers for a few more moments, but when I don't look up again, he drifts away.

Of course, he doesn't actually leave, and comes back at least twice to ask me how I take notes--do I use index cards? he never figured out how to use those, himself--then to tell me that I should really go to XYZ Pub, on Wednesday nights--well, some Wednesdays, he doesn't know which ones--because some professors have a philosophy reading group there. He's seen them. And he's sure it would be right up my alley.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn't a big deal. Guys like this aren't actively offensive or inappropriate, and when I'm really not in the mood, I can shut anyone down. But somehow it's easier when they are obnoxious, or interrupting me and my friends at a bar, or whatever. When they're just harmless pests, I feel like a bitch when I don't at least paste a pro forma smile on my face and give them a tolerant few minutes. As Dr. Virago wrote a couple of years back, it's exactly this assumption--that because you're female and in public you're required to be nice--that permits behavior that is, at bottom, aggressive and inappropriate. (Would this guy have pestered another man, however young? I doubt it.)

After all, he's just being friendly! Geez, lady: what's your problem?