Monday, February 15, 2010

Walmart University

After a long weekend of a soccer tournament at which my eight year old daughter was a guest player (truth be told, she was invited mostly to sit), I'm back at the computer, several texts demanding my attention at once. There is the long prose piece by John Ashbery that my graduate students are reading, which begins this way:

"The system was breaking down. The one who had wandered alone past so many happenings and events began to feel, backing up along the primal vein that led to his center, the beginning of a hiccup that would, if left to gather, explode the center to the extremities of life, the suburbs through which one makes one's way to where the country is." (53)

The second is by Political Science professor and Kumu Kahua actor, Neal Milner, from Sunday's Honolulu Advertiser. He writes about the three sustainable urinals installed in his department's restroom, urinals advertised to save water and reduce costs. It's as if he's translating Ashbery's breaking down systems theory:

"The middle urinal is in fact as sustainable as a toilet can get. It uses no water at all because it has been broken for months, covered with a large gray plastic trash bag. You can't get any easier maintenance than that. No one expects it to be fixed anytime soon. No one complains. It is no longer a problem to be solved. It is now a fact of life. Sustainability versus the old order at work. The old order is winning, as it has for years."

But of course Milner's toilets are also stand-ins for the University of Hawai`i itself. "AT UH," he writes, "the old order is the most sustainable thing of all." That is, if the old order does not include hiring new faculty (which my department cannot do this year, even in the face of eight retirements); maintaining our wages (after turning down a first contract offer from the Administration, the second one passed, cutting our salaries by the satanic figure of 6.66%); or paying for toner cartridges, new computers, and postage for presses like Tinfish.

Add to the tragi-comic toilets and the farcical proposal by a Republican state senator in Utah to dispense with 12th grade, since no one learns much that year anyway, the actual tragedy this past week at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, where a biologist killed several of her colleagues in a workplace shooting, and there seems much to lament about public education in this country. The Chronicle of Higher Education published an essay by Thomas H. Benton (sounds familiar, that name!) called "The Big Lie about the 'Life of the Mind'" in its February 8th issue, which evoked passionate responses on my Facebook page. Among his assertions is that "graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon 'the life of the mind.'" Where some of the comments that arrived quickly to my "wall" came in support of Mr. Benton (a pen name, after all) and attacked graduate programs themselves, others argued that he was simply complaining and one should really go out and read Marc Bousquet's work.

So, knowing a long weekend was coming, I went to that heaven of on-line purchasing, Amazon, and ordered How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation by Marc Bousquet (New York University Press, 2008) and read it. It's the most devastating portrait of work I've read since Fast Food Nation's dissection of the meat industry and McDonald's. What the book accomplishes is to make a firm connection between the academy and the sweat-shop, between intellectual labor and the kids who flip burgers for a living. Bousquet argues that these people are often the same people. Students work more and more hours while in college; instructors work more and more hours at highly contingent jobs (non-tenurable, lacking health care and other benefits). Forget the graduate programs; it's the entire economy that works this way.

But Bousquet does not claim that the system is breaking down; his more sinister argument is that everything is working exactly as it "should" for those who aim to make money. The ever-increasing numbers of administrators in higher education, with their high salaries and insistence on assessment, are like lunas in plantation era Hawai`i (ok, that's my simile, not his). The university is now managed to make money, increase "efficiency" and raise the numbers of untenurable labor even as the tenured class remains as a dying relic of the old order. If I, at my office desk where I look at a dying computer and dead printer, feel that my system is breaking, it's because someone else's version of this system is succeeding. If my husband and daughter get many Fridays off this year, it's not that the education system is floundering, but that the governor is "saving money" and hence de facto privatizing schools and the child care system. A tenured full professor, I feel demoralized by the comment streams in the newspaper about my institution (it's always the "greedy professors and their unions" at fault), but I do not feel as contingent as the Ph.D. student who doesn't know where next year's money is coming from, or my office neighbor, a lecturer with a Ph.D. and a MBA, who never knows if he'll be teaching next semester. He keeps his hotel job, because that one has benefits. [Ed. note: it turns out his situation is much more difficult than I describe here, but he does not want me to write about his situation in any detail, so that his future job prospects are not endangered.] Over the years my department has tried several "fixes" to the contingency problem, sometimes exacerbating it (by laying off a tier of "Visiting Assistant Professors" in the early 1990s) and sometimes coming up with clever, if one-off, solutions (creating another layer of untenured assistant professors, some of whom now have tenure, if not the SAME tenure I have). But "the university clearly does not prefer the best or most experienced teachers; it prefers the cheapest teachers. Increasingly, that means the creation of nontenurable full-time instructorships and other casual appointments, a casualization that has unfolded unevenly by discipline and is especially pronounced in English and writing instruction" (Bousquet 204).

So, according to Bousquet, there are not too many Ph.D.s or graduate students at all. There are not enough jobs for them because they are too expensive. Like casual labor at Walmart or UPS, these workers get worn down and tossed out. The most telling chapter of his book to me, perhaps because it's one subject I had heard nothing of before, is about how UPS hires casual student laborers, promises to pay for their education, then puts them on grueling late night and early morning shifts where they get exhausted and injured. Most of them never complete their education; many sustain injuries to last a lifetime, and none of them is able to live off the wages UPS provides. It's a terrible scam, one that promises advancement through education, but actually uses workers up and spits them out.

In the late 1990s, my husband Bryant and I played on a local softball team in Kailua. We ran into our coach at a Halloween party; he was dressed as a gypsy, as I recall. He began singing the praises of the football coach, then came on with an attack on UH faculty. "How many hours a week are you in the classroom?" he asked me, insinuation in his voice. When I said that the football coach only coached his team three hours a week, he argued that the coach was responsible for the lives of his young people! I tried to explain that I was, too, advising students, working on thesis committees, serving on departmental committees, doing all the real work that sounds so unreal to anyone outside the academy. He would have none of it. His solution to the budget problem that afflicted us even then was to get rid of the art and dance departments, saving only music, because they trained the marching band. (I gather that to be a "practical" use of music.)

While I wonder how to explain what I do to people for whom it seems frivolous to sit around a classroom and talk about poems or about how to write an argument or even to chew the fat about the university's situation, Bousquet suggests a more active solution. He wants us to organize, not simply among ourselves, but across the borders of this economy of contingency. His ending is happier than not, happier than seems merited by the book itself: "It is at least possible that soon enough the majority feeling among graduate employees (who eventually become all of the labor in the system, term faculty and tenure stream alike) will become the concerted will to make the 'market' responsive to their needs, and not the other way around" (209). This seems more hopeful than Benton's declaration that higher education is at fault, or than the "Broken things stay broken for so long that no one considers them broken anymore . . . Don't fix them or replace them. Put it on the user," that Milner mutters sardonically at his urinal, or John Ashbery says to us from a time of contemplation that seems alien to us in this era of overwork:

"The allegory is ended, its coils absorbed into the past, and this afternoon is as wide as an ocean. It is the time we have now, and all our wasted time sinks into the sea and is swallowed up without a trace. The past is dust and ashes, and this incommensurably wide way leads to the pragmatic and kinetic future" (106).

In the allegory we are living now "Goods" has been divorced from "Good." Shave off that s! Let's replace the false pragmatism of cost-cutting with a truer pragmatism, argue for the usefulness of education workers. Then, as Bousquet suggests, if we are valued for what we do, then education may be valued for itself (again?).


a.k.a. "Joe" said...

Hm. Now who's depressing [me] . . . ?

Krib's Ink said...

Susan, as a lecturer I spend a lot of time with my fingers crossed hoping for scholarships and a stable job (that I can live with, literally and figuratively). I read this is the New York Times a while back. It's titled, "The Case of the Vanishing Professor."

So with this article in mind, I checked out UH's stats on the AFT Higher Education site.


susan said...

Thanks for those stats, K.H. They say a great deal.

Unknown said...

this is great, susan. btw, i'll be contributing something benton-esque to CHE next month. I actually see Bousquet and Benton arguments as quite compatible. The larger structure is as Bousquet describes, and it is aided and abetted by the sanctioned ignorance of those faculty (the vast majority where i teach) who can't or won't admit to themselves and their students the corporatization of their workplace and it's low-ranked workforce.

susan said...

Let me know when it's out, Karen.

tyrone said...

Since our faculty is currently debating adding another tier of untenured faculty--"permanent" full-time non-tenurable instructors with full benefits--to the ranks of the exploited, I'm going to copy a great deal of this essay, if that's okay, Susan. By the way, I still haven't read anything better than Graff's PROFESSING LITERATURE, now over twenty years old, which does both the micro (Benton) and macro )Bousquet) analyses from the 1830s to the 1960s.