Living and Teaching in the Information Economy

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.

25 thoughts on “Living and Teaching in the Information Economy

  1. You won’t be suprised by my response: Get real and finish your dissertation. SERIOUSLY, dude.

    What exactly do you want to do with your life? Teach as an adjunct forever? In that case do NOT finish your Ph.D. and you can live that idyllic lifestyle all the livelong day! Teach at a community college? Then perhaps not finishing is in fact a smart strategy — although finishing for the sake of closure and then JUST NOT TELLING ANYONE would also work.

    While I imagine it is true that the rise of adjuncting has resulted in serious shifts in the hiring and firing of the professoriate, the situation is not nearly as polarized as you paint it. A Ph.D. is NOT a disqualification for a job at a small liberal arts college where teaching is paramount. The goal for someone who has invested over a decade of their life (and tons of $$) in a dissertation ought to be to get over the hump and get one of the good jobs, with better pay and lots of opportunities to be a teacher and a mentor in ways that adjuncting does not allow. Ways that include dental and vision and small class sizes.

    The other option is to leave the academy entirely and do something else you like and live the life of the mind in your free time — an admirable and often better-paid endeavor. But one in which you are more attractive to pretty much anyone if you are Dr. Oneman. Unless you wouldn’t be, in which case you can JUST NOT TELL ANYONE

  2. Rex — thanks for your concern. Not finishing is really not an option. Though, to be honest, I already have the small classes — my largest ever was 33. In the spring my dept at the uni is launching a pilot class with 100 or so students, but the full-timers have to teach those. But for the record, I don’t intend to follow my colleague’s advice — what intrigued me is that we live in a time where such advice can be given with the expectation that it be taken seriously and not just laughed off.

  3. Well you are probably teaching small classes than me then! I think that not finishing a dissertation or not going on to teach (a “terminal Ph.D.”) is actually a time-honored tradition. I wonder whether it’s increased visibility is due to new public fora like the Internet?

  4. oneman–I’m convinced that finishing your dissertation is what you really want. [Not aiming to move too close, I might b wrong, of course.]

    Heres my favourite line from Aphrodites Child: do it.

  5. This is one of the most whiney rationalization for being incapable of finishing one’s dissertation that I’ve ever seen. If you are capable of finishing your dissertation, just do it, if you aren’t, then don’t; but please don’t embarrass yourself with such public displays of tortured logic. If you want to be an adjunct for the rest of your life, then please continue to find excuses for not writing your dissertation, but if you want a living wage job, then logoff savagemind and write your dissertation.

    There really are reasons why search committees look to see how long candidates were ABD. Most committees see anything over three years as suspicious (there are exceptions to this general rule). Some have problems with this as a measure, but as a single parent who worked fulltime, raised my child, and wrote and published my dissertation on a tight timeline, I think it is a pretty good measure of one’s capabilities to focus and complete tasks.

  6. *sigh*

    Remind me to punch whoever came up with the “open with a funny story” approach in the mouth. How likely is it that I’d give up years of work and you-don’t-even-want-to-know-how-much money so I can stay an adjunct at under 30k a year for the rest of my life? Come on, people — this isn’t a post about me.

  7. If “The Nuer” isn’t about EE Evans-Pritchard, why does it start and end with EE Evans-Pritchard?

    You did happen to notice all that stuff in the middle about the informationalization of the academy and all that, right? I’m not sure that using my own experiences to illustrate theoretical positions — or, vice versa, using theoretical work to make sense of my own experiences — is all that removed from normal anthropological practice, is it?

  8. Oneman writes:

    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).

    But somehow everyone wants to treat it as if its only Oneman’s problem, not ours … I think it is very important to think about how these problems are our problems and not an issue of “motivation” on oneman’s part. I’m not concerned about oneman, if anyone will finish it will be him – but there are many people out there who will never finish and the system is just fine with that.

    The thing is, finishing your Ph.D. is not enough to make a difference these days. I know many people in NY who have Ph.D. in hand and are still making the kind of figures Oneman talks about adjuncting at top universities in NY. They could make more selling hot dogs, but they want to be professors. The simple truth is that a Ph.D. doesn’t even cut it any more. You need to either be lucky, or also have your dissertation published as a book right after you graduate. Otherwise you can pretty much count on a few more years working povertly level adjuncting positions.

    And the problem here is that oneman isn’t motivated? Give me a break!

  9. Well said, Kerim. Motivation is important. No telling where I might have wound up if college teaching had ranked higher in my goal hierarchy than finding a job at which I could make a decent living and “do what a man’s gotta do,” support his family. But explaining away behavior in terms of motivation alone, leaving out talent, material conditions, social structures, and being in the right place at the right time….That isn’t anthropology. That’s Neoliberal mystification.

  10. “Come on, people—this isn’t a post about me.”

    Come on, oneman–ALL your posts are about you.

    @stegmann–you actually point to the real problem. Does the time a work takes to be finished really tell you anything about its quality? Do you really want to say someone who gets her degree faster than someone else shall be considered as the better academic?

  11. Oneman,

    Nice post, that Bousquet piece is great! For a psychedelic counterpoint, check out R. B. Fuller’s “Education Automation” published 42 years ago (, in which he predicts that “two-way TV” will function as a technology that enables truly universal liberal education, generates a public adequate to fulfil the promise of enlightened democracy, restructures the economics of the education industry in a way that “releases” scholars from professorial drudgery, and transforms the social values attached to education from bourgeois elitism to Aquarian communitas.

    One wonders just where it all went so terribly wrong.


  12. /me sighs

    I think Oneman just needs to look at his posts more carefully to get a sense of how they read to people who aren’t Oneman.

  13. Rex, this is personal writing, to be sure. But it’s about adjuncts, and more generally about the academic system we adjunct in. As it happens, I know my own adjuncting better than I know anyone else’s, so yeah, I autoethnographize. I’m big on reflexivism anyway. And I think the experiences I relate here have a value beyond my own desire to vent. But these are not just my experiences — my colleagues in the story face the same pressures. I’ll be your colleagues at your school, and in your grad school cohort, face the same pressures. I’ll bet you face the same pressures.

    Should I have been clearer that abandoning my dissertation was not an option? Apparently so — that seems to be what folks ’round these parts are fixating on. But there, it’s as clear as I can make it — can we focus on the rest of the post now?

  14. I’ve been reading Savage Minds for a long time, but having just returned from a field site where internet access was difficult, I’ve never commented.

    Given that this posting is also categorized under ‘labor,’ I’m surprised there’s been no discussion in the comments on the issue of academic organizing.

    What unions (I don’t mean academic professional organizations, which seem to be completely uninterested in acting aggressively against their employers to secure livelihood and decent working conditions) exist for academics? This is a serious question. I am aware of only one (see the IWW page for educational workers) which really does so, but since it organizes industrially rather than by trade (so, janitors working for universities belong to the same union that the professors do), it would likely have little appeal to those who are more concerned with preserving prestige than improving overall working conditions. Any thoughts?


  15. @Stegmann:

    interesting to see that there might be an academic version of the “fifteen-miles-each-way-everyday-uphill-both-ways-in-a-blizzard ” story to pass onto our juniors when they have the temerity to complain about how tough they have it.

    but seriously, i think that the presumption that completion time is a reliable measure of anything relating to the intellectual process is a striking example of precisely the situation that Bousquet describes so trenchantly. assessing an individual’s intellectual project based on their “capabilities to focus and complete tasks” is exactly as ludicrous as measuring a child’s intellectual promise by considering solely their ability to sit straight and quietly in class and to be punctual in their return from recess. oftentimes being disciplined (in the multifaceted ways outlined by Foucault) is thought essential precisely because it is antithetical to any real, creative process. i know that i would much rather write a dissertation that satisfied my own intellectual curiousity than one which satisfied my department’s (totally unrealistic) guidelines regarding time-to-completion.

  16. As Erik says, if we are going to discuss this as a labor issue, then we should also look at the ways that adjuncts functionally reduce academics’ labor power in much the same ways that scabs reduce labor power in other workplace settings. I only adjunct in unionized community college systems where unions require we be paid a decent wage, those who do otherwise are just asking management to take advantage of all laborers.

    If you don’t like how these labor relations contribute to these conditions, then take some time off from all this autoethnographizing and organize.

  17. Kerim, good stuff on that site, thanks for the link. I was encouraged by the solidarity work apparent there. If I may ask a question, for anyone interested and knowledgeable, does this effort primarily work as a solidarity organization (providing support and organizing boycotts, etc., for other unions and workers), or primarily as an organizing organization (organizing and pushing for improvements for those in its ranks)? All unions have both elements, but I was concerned that, for instance, Robert O’Brien’s Report on Activities to Date rendered organizing activities (such as graduate student organizing) in the briefest of all sections. For unions to prosper, they must, it appears to me, serve the people who organize in addition to serving others. And since this was the (legitimate) gripe raised by Oneman, it seems valid to raise it here.

    This is in no way to denigrate the apparently very positive efforts made over there (I saw your name all over it, Kerim, including as regards Graeber’s situation – thanks for that work), but to ask questions that concern me, and apparently a few others.

    BTW, I was part of the student unionizing effort in Seattle back in the late 1990s, and am extremely gratified to see that expanding as successfully as it has, despite the ongoing problems.


  18. One of the things that has shocked me as a new professor is the refusal to address the problems faced by our part-time colleagues and to join in solidarity with them. I taught adjunct for four years while writing my PhD (which, apparently, is “suspiscious” to hiring committees, and may explain the paucity of job offers I received), and now teach at a campus of a state-wide “teaching university” (i.e., four-year university with limited master’s programs, no doctoral programs; where professors teach 4/4 loads but have viritually the same research requirements at professors in the Big State Research university; and where fully 55% of our courses are taught by part-timers.

    The proletarianization of academic labor feels far too real to me. Adjuncts on one hand are being exploited for their expertise (although to be fair, the adjuncts at my university system unionized 10 years ago and are significantly more secure than at other places around the nation) and in my university are being used as leverage to manipulate and control full-time faculty. The man who runs the entire network of 30-some-odd campuses is a CEO (i.e., not an academic) and whose primary job is to save the state money. His explicit, public plans are to eliminate full-time faculty all together; these views are shared by our campus’s president, likewise a non-academic former businessman.

    I feel like I’m living Max Weber’s and Karl Marx’s combined nightmares, as the faculty are made into cogs, the bureaucracy grows. The state is demanding so-called “accountability” of faculty for the “outcomes” on their student population. Instead of making students responsible for their own education (e.g., doing their homework), faculty will not hae their “efficiency” measured by the skills of their students upon completion of the course. All of this will be measured by standardized rubrics and rationalized examinations, outside the control of the actual professoriate, and instead administered by educational doctors (whom, somehow, I’m supposed to respect as colleagues).

    I love being a teacher; and I love researching. The reality of the state of the profession and of academia in general is so far removed from what I saw as the lives of my older mentors that, I’d be lying if I said I was anything but disappointed.

  19. Correction to last paragraph: To clarify: the evaluation of professors by “outcomes” has been institutionalized at my campus, but so far there are only proposals as to *how* to accomplish that, other than individually approving all of our syllabi. So far, there are no exams, although that has been proposed as one possible ‘method’ to make us accountable.

    This also reflects larger problems in my state, which has among the worst K-12 education systems in the nation. One half of all incoming freshmen into the university I work for have to be remediated in BOTH math and english.

    My state wants to educate an enormous population without paying for qualified professors and without providing adequate education for children before they arrive at the University gates.

  20. Comment to Todd’s posting of aug., 12th at 11:46 am:
    Todd, you haven’t seen Canada! Weber, Marx and Brezhnev combined! I have decided to quit university altogether to FINALLY do the research that I want. In the meantime, I am training as a forklift operator. Better money and MUCH less bullshit than being a sessional, not to mention more time and mental space left for research. So, maybe the “proletarization” of academics should be taken one step further 🙂 ? We still will be able to go to conferences, do research and publish… Maybe, somebody will even hire us someday…

  21. I have decided to quit university altogether to FINALLY do the research that I want. – as opposed to soliciting various CIA-by-proxy grants to help some unfortunate savages who happened to live upon an oil field or have heroin to spare 🙂 … Juicy grants those are! It seems that most of the anthropological research in the land of freedom is running on those grants!

  22. Finish the diss.
    I’m just starting my PhD, funded, and I work as an adjunct too. Quite honestly, books and parking would have taken most of my pay otherwise. Even if I can’t get a job when I finish in however many years, I still will get a really really nice raise on the adjunct market for having the PhD, and I have a good reason (what I’m already being paid) to argue for higher pay as an assistant professor.

    My situation is this:
    1. Benefits come from my PhD institution.
    2. Money for bills comes from my adjunct position.
    3. Fellowship money goes directly to savings.

    Is adjuncting hard? Sure it is. I had an *8* class overload last year, which will never be possible with my PhD schedule, but my supervisor respects that and seems to work around it. But that overload, at $1500 a course? Oh yeah, that just paid for everything for my first year or so of school (books, supplies, computers, etc.) I wouldn’t change what I’m doing NOW for the world, but I won’t be doing it forever.

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