1. WORKPLACE is a semiannual electronic journal that asks you to join with
Graduate Student Caucus as the agent of a new dignity in academic work.
This means that most of its contributors will try to convince you that
becoming a WORKPLACE activist is in your immediate and personal best
interest, even by the narrowest construction of careerism.
2. Let me be clear about this. If you're a graduate student, I'm
saying that becoming an activist today will help you get a job in your
3. If you're an undergraduate, or parent, or employer, I'm saying
that a dignified academic WORKPLACE delivers better education.
4. By "dignified" I mean very simple things.
5. I mean a higher-education WORKPLACE in which first-year
students--those most at risk for dropping out and those requiring the
best-trained and most-expert attention--can expect as a matter of course
that they have registered for classes taught by persons with experience,
training, and the terminal degree in their field (usually a Ph.D.), an
office for conferences, a salary that makes such meetings possible, a
workload that enables continuing scholarship, a telephone and answering
machine, reasonable access to photocopying, and financial support for
6. Remove any one of these values, and education suffers. Who would
ask their accountant to work without an office? Or a telephone? Or
training and professional development?
7. Most of the teachers encountered by students in first-year classes
have none of these things. No office. No pay for meetings outside of
class. No degree. Little or no training. No experience to speak of.
8. Little wonder that nobody's happy with the results.
Good News, Bad News
9. The good news is that there's plenty of work in higher education teaching
for those who want to do it. The bad news is that all of that work no
longer comes in the package of tenure, dignity, scholarship, and a living
wage that we call "a job."
10. The present system of adjunct labor resembles the late 19th
century system of lecturers and tutors where only a few made a living wage
and the rest lived as scholars have lived for millenia--as monks.
11. But by 1970, strong faculty associations, academic unionism, and
social enthusiasm for higher education had created historically
unprecendented concrete utopias of the North American campus. At least
3/4 of higher-education teachers worked for a living wage and part-time
salaries were much closer to parity with full-time labor.
12. What that means is that faculty in the mid-20th century *created*
the expectation of a just workplace for higher education teachers, even at
the instructor and tutor level. Everything we associate with the
professoriate--the aforementioned living wage, academic freedom, support
for research, democratic classrooms, faculty governance and so on--were
first imagined and then achieved by a united activist faculty.
13. We've inherited those expectations, but not the habits of
organization and social action that made them a reality. And the
concrete utopia of an earlier academy is slipping away.
Tripping Over Our Gowns: Elaine's World
"For years, I've been trying to make the life of the mind coexist with the
day at the mall."
--Elaine Showalter (*Chronicle of Higher Education,* 1/23/98, page A12)
14. Twenty years ago, a scholar took her first job ABD. Today, it takes a
book contract. By the time most Ph.D. degree holders find jobs, they have
already done nearly enough scholarship to qualify for tenure. Soon
enough, the only way to get a tenure-track job will be to have had one
15. The 1998 President of the MLA, Elaine Showalter, responds to the
failure of dignity and opportunity in academic work with blame-the-victim
pronouncements (graduate students write badly), an embarassing enthusiasm
for the corporatization of the academy (graduate students need training in
organization and management), and an economically-naive effort to get hold
of our working lives and prospects with low-rent market metaphors.
16. Elaine's World is thickly populated. Few scholars of the baby
boom understand the conditions under which they work. An entire
generation has been looking the other way while the college classroom has
been turned over to a teaching corps of graduate students and flexible
labor--really, much too often, just about anyone with a few hours of
postgraduate education and a primary source of income enabling them to
take on first-year teaching as a kind of ill-paid philanthropy.
17. Remember "vulgar Marxism?"
18. Well, you might call the scholars of the baby boom possessed by a
kind of "vulgar liberalism," the peculiarly-naive application to higher
education working conditions of dimly-remembered gleanings from Econ 101.
19. Example. We like to talk about tenure track job advertisements as
the "demand" and recent Ph.D. holders as the "supply" for the annual MLA
20. From these *analogies* we argue pseudo-economic solutions that
will in theory balance "supply" and "demand": senior professors should
retire early, graduate schools should admit fewer students, etc.
21. Of course these solutions are mostly bunk.
22. The jobs of most retiring professors are eliminated, not replaced,
and nearly all graduate schools admit students to fill labor quotas.
(Look at what happens to the 'graduate programs' in foriegn languages at
large universities when the administration scuttles the foriegn-language
requirement: presto, they vanish.).
23. Any economist will tell you that the chief determinants of higher
education working conditions are law ( in the form of appropriations and
statutes) and institutional policy.
The Institution and Other Artificial Horizons
24. At public universities, working conditions are profoundly influenced by
state law, as in New York State, where the legislature annually renews,
the Governor eagerly signs, and the Mayor cravenly applauds, a bill
encouraging the retirement of tenured professors.
25. It is *official* fiscal policy to rid the university of tenured
faculty, create "graduate programs" and deprive the undergraduate of
instruction by tenured faculty with an active research life, academic
freedom, expertise, pedagogical experience, and a pedagogically sound
26. It is official policy to tax graduate student earnings as work
(and not financial aid) while denying graduate students the social
benefits of work (such as unemployment insurance and compensation for
27. It is official policy to make student debt (acquired on the bogus
promise of apprenticeship) unforgivable in bankruptcy.
28. Most states restrict the access of teachers and graduate students
to many of the rights of labor.
29. I have heard--and I hope it's not true--that the Florida state
legislature has established by statute the number of pages to be produced
in its composition classrooms.
30. These other notions--of supply and demand, and free markets and so
forth--have an important place in the intellectual history of economics.
But any connection they have to our working experience is chiefly
rhetorical. There just isn't any such thing as a free market, any more
than there's a world of Ideal Forms.
31. The idea that our working lives unfold in a "marketplace" only
escapes inanity to the extent that it is actively pernicious.
The Excrement Theory of Postgraduate Education
32. Even if there were such a thing as free market of academic labor
(as the MLA in gorgeous innocence of economic thought after Adam Smith has
consistently fantasized) the "supply" of that labor is not the Ph.D.
degreeholder, but graduate students and part-timers.
33. The degree holder is the waste product of a job system that
produces Ph. D. holders but does not use them in any significant numbers.
In language and literature more than any other field, the first-year
teaching machine runs on non-degreed labor.
34. Crunch the numbers with your own brain. At your typical large
research institution's English department, you might see--in a good
year--one full-time hire. But you'll see about forty graduate students
admitted that year.
35. The newly-hired degree holder will teach about 4 classes a year,
mostly to English majors. The new nondegreed persons will collectively
teach about 100 classes a year, all to the general student population.
36. It doesn't take Einstein to pick out the real "labor supply."
37. The fact that some of these graduate students eventually get
degrees is an entirely incidental byproduct of a system that needs ever
more non-degreed laborers (graduate students are nice, but not necessary)
and ever fewer degree holders.
Who's Teaching Johnny?
38. While degree holders are snapped up in increasing numbers to do
the communications labor of corporations, political elites, and mass
entertainment; the actual teaching on the college campus is done by
persons without significant experience, with little or no training, no
certification, and in most cases a teaching future of fewer than four
39. Most part-timers do not hold the Ph.D. and never will.
40. Neither will most graduate students. Dropout rates of sixty to
eighty percent raise no eyebrows in top-20 language programs. Perhaps
half of those who do get degrees ever teach in the tenure stream: this
means that--even in good programs--perhaps one out of every eight or nine
persons who are permitted to teach as graduate students subsequently go on
to teach as an assistant professor.
41. This makes Navy SEAL training look like a cakewalk. ("Look to your
left. Look to your right. Only one person in your row will ever go up for
42. Nor --speaking of the armed forces--does it take exceptional
genius to observe the emergence of a professionalized standing army and
the corresponding development of a deprofessionalized, flexible, amateur
43. Your average American youth can name more weapons than parts of
44. Most North Americans pass through a regime of required language
studies and most do it without ever encountering a person holding a Ph.D.,
or even someone with a telephone number--much less an office!--to call
45. First-year courses are the courses through which, often, everyone
who goes to a given school *must* pass. Distressingly, this means
that--where taught by graduate students, as at the "better schools"--the
courses that nearly everyone takes are typically taught by persons who
have zero to four years of teaching experience, persons who more likely
than not--by virtue of circumstance, inclination, or capacity--simply have
no future in college teaching.
46. These are persons who simply cannot have more than four (or
perhaps six) years of experience--because the system of first-year
teaching is designed to annually dispose of each and every one of its
most experienced teachers, inexorably replacing them with entirely new
persons, all of whom have one in thing in common--
47. Years of experience: Zero.
48. The logic of this system is replacement, not apprenticeship. If
its logic were fully played out, it would run without producing degree
holders at all. It doesn't create good teachers; it just teaches cheaply.
49. This is not to say that graduate students and part-timers don't
teach with energy and commitment. On the contrary, it takes extraordinary
quantities of both to teach when your office is the trunk of your car.
50. But unless first-year teaching is the only activity at which adult
humans don't improve with experience, training and professional
development, offices and telephones, the expectation of a future and a
living wage, it seems obvious that Johnny's education will improve more or
less in direct proportion to improvements in Jane's working conditions.
If It's Not a Market, Why Do We Call It One Anyway?
51. The reason we think about our working conditions, freak out, and reach for
the absurdly-inappropriate intellectual toolkit of the market is the
soothing logic of laissez-faire. The idea of the "market" tells us that
an invisible hand will magically intervene and resolve the problems of our
working conditions without any intervention on our part. Which is wrong,
hugely wrong, but really very appealing.
52. As the result of sustained graduate-student agitation, there have
been first, hesitant gestures toward an other-than-market epistemology of
academic labor in recent MLA communications. Most notably, the report of
the Committee on Professional Employment (CPE), largely authored by Sandra
Gilbert, attempts the important substitution of the concept of "job
system" for job"market" in its historical analysis.
53. Nonetheless, laissez-faire logic is still dominant in MLA
54. The well-meaning CPE report is a good example.
55. To its credit, the report acknowledges that academic labor is
shaped largely by complex political, social and economic factors--and it
in this analytical section of the report that its collective author
struggles visibly to abandon the entrenched language of "market."
56. But in framing solutions, the CPE ducks all of the difficult
questions raised by its historical overview.
57. It is inescapable that to address a political, social, and
economic circumstance, it is necessary to frame political, social, and
economic solutions. Which is to say that we must commit political,
social, and economic actions. (Such as those proposed over the past two
years by Graduate Student Caucus and passed by MLA's Delegate Assembly
over the sustained and vigorous opposition of the Executive Council,
staff, and Organizing Committee: see Kelley's report in this issue.)
58. But the CPE backs away from this simple conclusion. Frantically
resurrecting market logic, the CPE rather sweetly and hopefully suggests
that departmental self-study will resolve the labor crisis, holding onto
the myth that degreeholders are the labor supply and that there are
somehow too many of them.
59. (There is in fact a huge *shortage* of degree holders. If
degreeholders were the ones doing the teaching, there'd be far too few of
60. You see, the CPE resurrects the goofy idea that degree holders are
"overproduced" in order to ignore the thornier problem catchily
describable as the "underproduction" of jobs.
61. This is really just the *recovery* of jobs given away while our
minds were wandering the mall: in 1972, the City University of New York
had more than 10,000 full time faculty. Today, it has fewer than 5,000.
62. The CPE's nutty return to market ideas shows that their market
theory is really just an excrement theory. The CPE's real commit to
department self-shrinkage, department re-tooling toward "market" needs,
prospective graduate student caveat-emptor, and alternative careers shows
a primary dedication to flush away the degree-holding waste product, not
to employ them as teachers.
63. Showalter's victim-blaming and wildly counterfactual recent
"President's Column" (MLA Newsletter 30:1, pp. 3-4) goes further than the
CPE report in embracing the excrement theory.
64. Graduate students, she insists, deserve to be dumped on because
they are a pretty shiftless bunch. If you'll pardon the liberty, she
basically insists that graduate students *are* excrement. They write
badly. They lack communications skills transferable to corporate and
public life. They lack the ability to organize, manage, and negotiate.
65. With due respect, I've never met this sort of graduate student.
And I don't know anyone else who has ever seriously attempted to describe
graduate students in these terms. Much less the president of an
association of which graduate students make up one-third of its present
membership (and all of its future membership).
66. Most of the graduate students I know do, have done, or certainly
could do journalistic, creative, and technical writing--generally for pay,
often very good pay. They not only have the sort of transferable skills
that Showalter suggests would be swell for them, they do in fact transfer
them into public, corporate and creative life easily and gracefully. They
are organizers, managers, and negotiators, usually very good ones: they
produce more scholarship while doing more teaching in more creative ways
than any previous generation of scholars.
67. The primary symptom of the commitment to excrement theory is the
grossly erroneous conviction held by Showalter and the CPE that persons
who have earned a doctorate in language and literature need help in
finding non-academic work.
68. Yeah, right.
69. Most degree holders can find nonacademic work in a heartbeat.
Most degree holders have had to do some of kind of nonacademic work to
support themselves en route to completing the degree. Your typical
graduate student knows a hell of a lot more about nonacademic life and its
pecuniary options than her department chair.
70. Instead of urging that departments use their resources to set up
non-academic placement bureaus, Showalter and the CPE should be issuing
sticks to degreeholders to beat away the corporate recruiters trying to
hire them away from their vocation.
71. Ph.D. degree holders don't need MLA's help to find corporate work.
They need MLA' s help in preserving the dignity of teaching work.
Shaking the Billion Tree
72. The MLA's proper business is making sure that teaching is done by degree
holders--and that means getting busy on the political, social, and
economic fronts. It means telling the truth about who's teaching Johnny.
And for how much.
73. It means that we have to write bills and get them sponsored and
lobby for their passage.
74. It means that we have to stop running from those who diminish our
work and make our case, that the failings and triumphs of today's vital
new print cultures are inescapably mediated by the triumphs and failings
of our scholarly and pedagogical engagement with the traces of past print
cultures. It means that our care for the dignity of students in our
classrooms must be matched by an equally affirmative politics aimed at
ensuring the workplace dignity of all of our colleagues.
Activism Doesn't Just Make Jobs; It Gets Activists Hired
75. Now, I promised you that the writers of WORKPLACE would persuade you that
being an activist was in your very own personal and very own short-term
76. I think that when you read these tough, smart people, you'll say
to yourself, yeah, I belong with this crowd. And I think that you'll
then be part of the movement making jobs out of this work, which is in the
general best interests of all.
77. But I can give you three straight-up reasons why going activist
today will better your personal chances of getting hired tomorrow.
78. Number one.
Activism builds character, and degreeholders need character in
abundance. Right now, it takes 3 to 5 years of generally very
humiliating job searching to land a position that the candidate
identifies as satisfying. Only activists have the stamina for that. This
makes a certain painful logic: your average careerist gives up and goes
where she can find a career.
79. You might even say that at this historical moment, there are no
"careers" in the academy--only struggle--and activism is the modality of
living with struggle.
80. Number two.
Junior faculty play a big role on hiring committees. These are
people who have already found that speed-up continues even more feverishly
on the other side of getting the job. They aren't looking for colleagues
who can only talk about themselves. They are looking for colleagues to
stand shoulder to shoulder with them and say, hey, get real, slow this
damned thing down.
81. Junior faculty want colleagues who can articulate across the
divide of the interview space our collective position in this mad labor
82. Number three.
Activism improves your work. Let's say you accept the principle
that all study of past cultural practice is a contribution to the history
of the present. And let's say that you also accept the testimony of your
exhausted body that the present is a time of struggle for the profession.
83. Then it follows that activism--which is after all nothing more
than constructive engagement with power at the present time--it follows
that activism is a kind of necessary precondition for doing really good
84. I think so, anyway.
85. Do make WORKPLACE and the Graduate Student Caucus part of your
life and thought and work.
86. I can't promise you a revolution. But I can promise you some very
butch shoulders to lean on.
(Fall 1998: University of Louisville)
Marc Bousquet, Indiana University