I received a strange piece of advice recently. As… well, as nearly everyone knows, I’ve been struggling to finish my dissertation for a couple of years. Between personal crises, departmental woes, and a struggle to make a livable income, I just haven’t been able (or, to be honest, as willing as I’d like) to put the time in I need to finish the damned thing. So I’m talking to a colleague back east, a well-respected anthropologist who is, nonetheless, not attached to any academic institution, and he asks me if teaching is what I really want to do.
“Yes, it is,” I reply. “I love teaching.”
“Well then,” he says, “maybe you should give some serious thought not finishing your dissertation, to not finishing your PhD.”
(Not actual quotes, of course – just roughly what was said.)
His logic was this: in today’s academic world, there is an increasing bifurcation between the “stars”, the top researchers who work at the top schools (and mostly are not expected to teach much) and the rest of us, the day-to-day teachers at the community colleges and the state universities and the private liberal arts colleges. As schools come to rely more and more on adjunct and part-time labor – generally offering abysmally low pay – holding a PhD is coming to be a barrier to employment, an over-qualification in the eyes of many school admins. In places like New York City, where starving graduate students are thick on the ground, a PhD is the Kiss of Death for an academic – schools are paying $1500, $1200, and even less for a 3-credit course, rates which are explicitly aimed at attracting grad students and repelling more qualified (and often more experienced) PhDs.
A few weeks later, another friend emails me about his battle with his department at a 2-year college in the midwest. He works full-time, outside the field, to support his family, but likes to teach a couple of classes a semester, to keep his hand in as well as for the extra income. Despite his best efforts, his school seems intent on adding classes to his roster. “I am worried,” he writes, “that I am being gently slipped into teaching 3 classes…part time.” Of course, being an adjunct means being “free” to turn down classes that don’t fit our schedule. He did that at the last school he taught at – and was never asked to teach there again.
Both of these incidents came to mind when I read the following quote at Anne Galloway’s blog, Purse Lip Square Jaw:
One of the reasons that graduate employees are so vocal is because the transformation of graduate education accomplished by the three-decade conversion of the university to a center of capital accumulation needs to be viewed as a profound form of ‘employer sabotage’—most graduate employees find that their doctorate does not represent the beginning but instead the end of a long teaching career: as I’ve observed in another venue, the ‘award’ of the doctoral degree increasingly represents a disqualification from teaching for someone who has already been teaching for a decade or more. In the course of re-imagining the graduate student as a source of informationalized labor, the academy has increasingly evacuated the professional-certification component of the doctoral degree (the degree plays a key role in the way professionals maintain a monopoly on professional labor; however, now that work formerly done by persons holding the degree is done by persons studying for the degree, the degree itself no longer represents entrance into the profession). The consequence of this evacuation is that the old fordist sense of the doctoral recipient as the ‘product’ of graduate education has little meaning—instead, the degree holder must now be understood in systemic terms as the waste product of graduate education—not merely ‘disposable,’ but that which must be disposed of for the contantly-churning system of continuously-replaced student labor to function properly (Bousquet: 3.8).
The quote is from Marc Bousquet’s article, The “Informal Economy” of the Information University, in the journal Workplace (October 2002). Bousquet examines what the shift to an “informationalized” academia means for labor, and the folks – the professors – who provide that labor. By “informationalized”, Bousquet is not referring to the provision of information – we’ve always done that, right? – but to the way that information, and the labor that goes into its creation and transmission, is accessed. Consider the example of the “informationalized carburetor”:
A fully informationalized carburetor is available in the way that emectronically-mediated data is available – on demand, just in time. When you’re not thinking about your carburetor, it’s off your desktop. When you need to think about it, the informationalized carburetor lets you know. When it does manifest itself it gives the illusion of a startling thransparency – you have in the carburetor’s manifestation the sense that you have everything you need to know about carburetors: how they work, fair prices for them here and in the next state, and so on. Informationalization means that artifacts are available on an information logic: on demand, just in time, and fully catalogued; they should feel transparent and be networked, and so forth (Bousquet: 2.5).
My friend in the midwest is experiencing exactly what it means for the academic to be available “on demand, just in time, and fully catalogued”? Among other things, it means “flex-time” – our time flexing to fit what is increasingly their (the administration’s as well as the students’) schedule. “Constrained to manifest itself as data, labor [like the carburetor above] appears when needed on the management desktop – fully trained, ‘ready to go out of the box,’ and so forth – and after appearing upon administrative command, labor in this form should ideally instantly disappear (Bousquet: 2.5).” All the other aspects of living – the necessities to, in Marxian terms, reproduce that labor – are conveniently disappeared as well. Health care, travel expenses, cost of living, retirement plans, down-time employment, none of the trappings of the Fordist/Keynesian labor regime have a place in this purely informationalized economy, a point which was brought home all to forcibly for me this summer.
Unlike my midwestern friend, I have struggled to fill out a schedule that would provide a reasonable living. Last year, I took on classes at the university in addition to my full schedule at the community college, which means that for the first time in many years, I’m pulling in something like a living wage (or would be, if gas prices and real estate speculation weren’t driving the cost of living here through the roof). Since both the university and the community college are part of the state education system, this has pushed me into a new status, effectively “full-time adjunct” which, wonder of wonders, comes with benefits. Not full-time benefits, though – my benefits start each semester when my contract starts, and end ach semester when my contract expires, meaning that I am effectively uncovered during the summer months. (Aside: technically, I teach in the summer, but there’s a hitch: my benefits start on the first of the month after the start of the semester. Since my session this semester started on the 3rd of July, that means my benefits could have started on the 1st of August – but I’m not teaching in August. My contract expired in July.)
More importantly, I was off work in June. I’ve always counted on teaching a June session, but this year they cut the summer schedule nearly in half, and there were no June sessions available. Back in April, I called the unemployment office to see if I was eligible for unemployment during this down-time. They said yes. They lied. Educators are not eligible for unemployment if their unemployment was brought on by the end of the school term, a regulation that went into effect several decades ago apparently in an attempt to stem abuse of the system by teachers and professors who were, at the time, mostly on year-round contracts and therefore getting paid during their periods of unemployment. The world has changed a lot since then, with universities coming to depend on adjunct labor to a degree unheard of in the ‘70s when the regulation went into effect, but the law hasn’t.
So, like an increasing number of my peers, I was left stranded when the unemployment office finally (after 6 weeks) came down with the decision they always knew they’d make. Which sucked for me, but more to the point, did not suck for my employers. “Laboring in an informatic mode means laboring in a way that labor-management feels effortless… called up effortlessly, dismissed at will, immediately off the administrative mind once out of sight” (Bousquet: 2.8). The effort expended to make this happen – the 30-mile drives between classes, the fast-food lunches gulped on the run, the child-care and health-care and everything else – may well be far greater for both labor and management, but it’s invisible, transparent, compartmentalized – it’s literally someone else’s problem (that is to say, it’s my and your problem).
Bousquet’s article hits me, as it did for Galloway, right in the gut. There’s a lot more to the article than what I’ve touched on here – I may revisit it down the road somewhat as it sinks in more. For now, though, I’m wondering what a different it might have made if I’d read this three years ago, when it came out – and when I took my first adjuncting job.