Tag Archives: Labor

University of Toronto: Boundless Exploitation–“Business as Usual” IS the Problem

The following is an invited post by Sarah Williams and Jennifer Gibson.* 

“It’s business as usual at University of Toronto”, the Provost’s messages proclaim. These messages, meant for students and the media, assert that CUPE 3902 Unit 1’s decision to strike has had no impact on undergraduate classes or the daily operations of Canada’s largest university, recently ranked number 20 in the world. This union represents more than 6,000 graduate student employees. The provost’s claims seek to undermine both the value and importance of graduate student labour and justify the administration’s hard line against raising the minimum funding package, stalled at $15,000 per year, to an amount closer to, though not exceeding, Toronto’s version of a poverty line, the “Low Income Cut-Off” (LICO), which is $23,000. However, underneath the calm and unaffected airs of the university administration lies the reality that over 800 undergraduate classes and tutorials are no longer meeting or have been cancelled for the duration of the strike. As finals draw closer, so too does the possibility that students’ graduations may be delayed.

Photo: Daniel Kwan
Photo: Daniel Kwan

At base, the aim articulated by striking CUPE 3902 members is one of structural change to the funding relationship between graduate students and the university. The guaranteed minimum funding package achieved as a direct outcome of this union’s last strike, fifteen years ago, has dramatically diminished in real wage value thanks to the rapidly rising cost of living in one of Canada’s most costly cities, and has not seen any increase to account for inflation since 2008. Meanwhile, tuition––particularly for international students––continues to climb to the maximum rates legal in Ontario ($8,000-20,000––the highest rates in all of Canada). Combined, it is these two issues that have led to the now 21 day standoff between graduate student contract workers and the administration. If any tentative agreement is to achieve ratification, two core demands must be addressed: meaningful increases to the minimum funding package, and significant reductions in post-funded-cohort tuition. Continue reading

A day for adjuncts

In case you didn’t know, today is National Adjunct Walkout Day.  If you need to catch up, here’s a good piece from Democracy Now.  For some more background, check out this recent piece from Inside Higher Ed.  It’s a good day to think about all those adjuncts, lecturers, part-timers and other contingent workers in academia–and what the university is, perhaps, versus what it should be.

Most importantly, I think, it’s time for those who are doing relatively well, and in relatively stable positions, to think about the current labor situation in academia, and how that is affecting the system as a whole.  As Sarah Kendzior argues, this is everyone’s problem, not just those who are working those low-paying, contingent academic jobs.  If we’re going to do something about this issue, it’s going to require attention–and solidarity–across the academic ranks.  The tenured, the retired, comfortable, and the secure need to pay attention and speak up…right alongside these adjuncts and others who are putting themselves out there to raise awareness.  Now, onto some links and excerpts (from me and others).  Please feel free to share your links, comments, and thoughts below. Continue reading

Unpacking an Erotic Icon: The Sexy Librarian

I recently came across the blog post Naughty Librarians and the Eroticism of Intellect, which purports to explain the enduring appeal of the image of the “sexy librarian” in modern life. Aside from the post’s dismissable evolutionary psychology conclusions, the author raises some interesting points about the ways the image of the librarian in our culture intersects with and embodies certain aspects of modern eroticism, grounding his or her (the author is identified as “J.M. McFee” with no bio) argument in a highly individualized literary psychological approach.

The trope of the sexy librarian as an aspect of the American sexual psyche has interested me for a long time — in fact, it was what triggered my academic interest in sex in American culture and eventually drove me into Women’s Studies. So I was quite interested to see what this J.M. McFee had to say. Unfortunately, in the absence of any sort of historical or cultural context, I found McFee’s musings rather toothless. For example, the contention that “eyeglasses and print media are already sufficiently antiquarian to have become as fetishized as garter belts and riding crops” could be true (though I rather doubt it, since eyeglasses and books are very much part of our daily lives in a way that garter belts absolutely aren’t) but even so, it doesn’t tell us very much about why librarians have become so idealized and not, say, book store clerks, editors, or opticians.

The sexualization of the librarian does not stand alone in our cultural erotics, nor can it be cleanly separated from the whole structure of American (possibly Western) sexuality. While I can’t profess to have the whole story, I hope here to give at least an outline of what the whole story might look like. Continue reading

Faculty Privacy

For some time now, I’ve been meaning to write something about the Harvard email controversy because I think it teaches us something important about how we think about academic labor. First, a brief recap:

Last summer…Harvard was hit with scandal: “College officials [said] around 125 students may have shared answers and plagiarized on a final exam.”

Word about the scandal got to the news media in part thanks to a leaked email.

Here is what Harvard said happened next:

Consequently… a very narrow, careful, and precise subject-line search was conducted by the University’s IT Department. It was limited to the Administrative accounts for the Resident Deans… The search did not involve a review of email content; it was limited to a search of the subject line of the email that had been inappropriately forwarded.

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What do we know about struggle?

[This month, Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Donya Alinejad]

“For the first time I feel like this is my university.” Over the past year, hearing this comment – and ones like it – from colleagues in the hallways has been no coincidence. This past year at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) has been marked by plans for a set of deep and unprecedented budgetary cuts and reorganizations that will mean things like jobs lost, fewer student services provided, and workloads increased. But this period has also been one in which national media and political attention turned, however briefly, towards a bottom-up, employee-led movement (that we started building at our university against these damaging measures. During this period colleagues referred to a sense of ownership over the university. It was a budding and unique engagement among the many of us involved in this workplace movement. But the feeling was also fleeting, a rupture that plainly demonstrated the contrast with how marginalized the university’s employees normally feel.

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Annual Meetings as a Regressive Tax

Just to follow up on the last two postings about the tenuous position of adjuncts, I think it is worth asking if there isn’t another way that our discipline contributes to the pauperization of the untenured: the annual AAA meetings.

A quick look at the AAA budget (on page 15 of the 2011 annual report) shows the AAA’s big sources of revenue are: publications, which is more or run at cost (i.e. contributes to the pauperization of libraries and tax-payers), membership dues, and the annual meeting. 

That’s right — the annual meetings make the association $628,328 a year, as near as I can tell.

Who goes to these meetings? Well, lots of people. But who has to go? Job applicants and people trying to build a CV — exactly the people who can’t afford to go.

$628,328 is a little more than it costs to keep the sections of the association running. It’s sobering to think that adjuncts and graduate students are not just doing the lion’s share of teaching in our universities, they are bankrolling their prof’s academic institutions as well.

Of course the real expense of attending the AAAs, the things that really hurts people’s budgets, don’t go into AAA coffers. They are the travel costs: plane fare, hotel room. This isn’t money that the AAAs get, but the cost is very real to the under- and un-employed.

Now yes, of course, not all of that half-million dollar is paid by adjuncts, many professors attend the AAAs, and the AAA has progressive rates for conference and membership fees. Still, I would be interested to see how the numbers break down: how much of the million-plus that the AAA grosses from the conference comes from tenured professors, and how much comes from the untenured? How many job seekers come to the meetings compared to those who already have jobs? I am sure the AAA could pull this data out of their records.

Perhaps I am wrong — I certainly hope I am. But as far as I can tell, our annual conference is a regressive tax on some of the most financially vulnerable members of our discipline.

Dance Lessons: A Comparison of Precarity and Contingency in Contemporary U.S. Choreography and Ethnography

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Laurel George, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Laurel’s prior posts: post 1 & post 2]

In last weeks posts, Deepa and Ali both talked about a professionalized model of fieldwork in which intellectual work happens under certain practical constraints and towards certain ends.  Deepa also pointed to the benefits of doing ethnography on the sidelines, talking about how “parcelable” time working towards someone else’s ends can free up time for other, more reflective work. And in a last week’s post, I, too, talked about the sometimes-sunny side of ethnography-for-hire, as often enabling new forms of creativity and teamwork and as offering clearly-bounded projects, research goals, and timelines that produced results, i.e., got my team and me to write.

Like all of the contributors and commenters in this series, I have a stake in thinking about the possibilities for ethnography and anthropology beyond the traditional forms and institutional contexts of long-term, immersive fieldwork underwritten by graduate fellowships or university tenure-track positions.  But I also believe that as we move on to new ways of imagining ethnography, we must face head-on what we stand to lose as a result of precarity and the increasing trend of the casualization of academic labor.  My research with experimental U.S. choreographers may be a useful backdrop against which to explore the dynamics and effects of job precarity in fields of cultural production.  It has helped me to see how precarity affects not only producers (dancers and choreographers), but how it affects the product itself (the dancing and the choreography).  More dance ethnographic specifics in a bit, but first a look at how the jargon of self-determination and flexibility that often accompanies discussions of contingent positions can disguise power imbalances and modes of domination that precarity engenders. Continue reading

Digital Money, Mobile Media, and the Consequences of Granularity

Nicholas Negroponte famously insisted that the dotcom boomers, “Move bits, not atoms.” Ignorant of the atom heavy human bodies, neuron dense brains, and physical hardware needed to make and move those little bits, Negroponte’s ideal did become real in the industrial sectors dependent upon communication and economic transaction. In the communication sector, atomic newspapers have been replaced by bitly news stories. In the transactional sector, coins are a nuisance, few carry dollars, and I just paid for a haircut with a credit card adaptor on the scissor-wielder’s Droid phone.

The human consequences of the bitification of atoms go far beyond my bourgeois consumption. This shift, or what is could simply be called digitalization, when paired with their very material transportation systems or networked communication technologies, combines to form a powerful force that impacts local and global democracies and economies.

What are the local and political economics of granularity in the space shared between the fiduciary and the communicative? To understand the emergent political economy of the practices and discourses unifying around mobile media and digital money we need a shared language around the issue of granularity. Continue reading

Regarding Japan Part 2: Affective Loops and Toxic Tastings

Eleven weeks have passed since the earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan.  Although bodies are still being found amidst the wreckage, the rest of the world has long since moved on.   The media waves of shock, horror, heroism, heartbreak, and heart-warm continue to push and pull us through a relentless series of events: from Libya to Tuscaloosa, Kate and William to Bin Laden, Donald Trump to Strauss-Kahn.

The affective loop is dizzying as it moves us between distant places and local homes, political upheavals and natural disasters, raging storms and individual stories, the serious and the absurd. Unable to catch my breath between blows or steady myself according to some sense of scale, I feel like so much has happened since the tsunami struck. And yet, I don’t know what to make of any of it.  Are we just bracing ourselves for the next thing?

In an April article entitled “The Half-life of Disaster” Brian Massumi discusses how this media cycle leads us into a perpetual state of foreboding that brings together natural, economic and political threat perception in a configuration that fuels what Naomi Klein termed “disaster capitalism”. The horror is never resolved or replaced; rather, it is archived, infinitely accessible over the Internet.  Cast into the web of other events, the unendurable tragedy of a particular event dissipates, or as Massumi says, “it decays”.  In today’s catastrophic mediashpere, observes Massumi, the half-life of disaster is at most two weeks. Continue reading

What’s behind YouTube and Mechanical Turk?

This is the second provocation on the theme of digital labor from me and Ramesh Srinivasan. To warm up, check out Saskia Sassen at last year’s Internet as Playground and Factory as she warns us about how financial logicians uses networked technologies to manipulate human ingenuity:

Free Use as Free Labor on YouTube

YouTube, subsidiary of Google, serves as a notable example of how a company creates value through free, user-contributed labor. User-producers upload content to YouTube for free and are given the opportunity to freely use Google’s immense, proprietary data centers (commonly called the “cloud”). Adding content, commenting, tagging, and even browsing all add value to the corporate product, though the amount of user investment and creative immersion differs in each of these cases. In the process, content creators facilitate Google’s ability to place targeted advertisements. These advertising schemes are monetized via the billion+ views YouTube receives per week. Commenting, tagging, and browsing are more passive forms of labor, as each adds to YouTube’s ability to build a social space that users will continuously return to, and optimize algorithms that allow for more efficient retrieval and browsing.

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Your own private griot

[Reposted from the SLA Blog.]

In her now classic 1989 paper on language and political economy, Judith Irvine talked about situations where language doesn’t merely index political and economic relations in the way that accent is linked to class in Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but where speech acts are themselves a form of political and economic economic activity. Her example is that of the Wolof griot “whose traditional profession involves special rhetorical and conversational duties such as persuasive speechmaking on a patron’s behalf, making entertaining conversation, transmitting messagesto the public, and performing the various genres of praise-singing.” She discusses how while not anyone can be a griot — you have to be born into the right caste — it is the “most talented and skillful griots” who “earn high rewards and are sought after by would-be patrons.” Irvine then goes on to discuss not just the verbal skill of the griot, but “cases where a verbal statement is the object of exchange.” It is worth quoting this discussion in full:

Recently there appeared a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine, entitled “Flattery getting someone somewhere” (M. Stevens, 28 July 1986). “You’re looking great, Frank!” says a man in business suit and necktie to another, perhaps older, man with glasses and bow tie. “Thanks, Chuck! Here’s five dollars!” Bow Tie replies, handing over the cash. The joke depends, of course, on the notion that the exchange of compliments for cash should not be done so directly and overtly. We all know that Chuck may indeed flatter Frank with a view to getting a raise, or some other eventual reward; but it is quite improper in American society to recognize the exchange formally, with an immediate payment. A compliment should be acknowledged only with a return compliment, or a minimization, or some other verbal “goods.” If it is to be taken as “sincere,” it is specifically excluded from the realm of material payments.

Some cultural systems do not segregate the economy of compliments from the economy of material transactions and profits, however. It is doubtful, for example, that the cartoon would seem funny to many Senegalese. With a few suitable adjustments for local scene, the transfer it depicts is quite ordinary. There is, in fact, a category of persons-the griots-specializing in flattery of certain kinds, among other verbal arts. The income they gain from these activities is immediate and considerable, often amounting to full-time employment for those whose skills include the fancier genres of eulogy.

I remembered this article because something I read made me wonder about the claim that it is “quite improper in American society to recognize the exchange formally, with an immediate payment.” It was a piece in the Washington Post by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh entitled “Five myths about prostitution.” The second of these five myths is that “men visit prostitutes for sex.”

Often, they pay them to talk. I’ve been studying high-end sex workers (by which I mean those who earn more than $250 per “session”) in New York, Chicago and Paris for more than a decade, and one of my most startling findings is that many men pay women to not have sex. Well, they pay for sex, but end up chatting or having dinner and never get around to physical contact. Approximately 40 percent of high-end sex worker transactions end up being sex-free. Even at the lower end of the market, about 20 percent of transactions don’t ultimately involve sex.

Figuring out why men pay for sex they don’t have could sustain New York’s therapists for a long time. But the observations of one Big Apple-based sex worker are typical: “Men like it when you listen. . . . I learned this a long time ago. They pay you to listen — and to tell them how great they are.” Indeed, the high-end sex workers I have studied routinely see themselves as acting the part of a counselor or a marriage therapist. They say their job is to feed a man’s need for judgment-free friendship and, at times, to help him repair his broken partnership. Little wonder, then, that so many describe themselves to me as members of the “wellness” industry.

So here we seem to have a situation where Americans do pay to be told how great they are. The difference, of course, is that this activity is illegal, and it is private. While a woman at a Japanese hostess bar may be paid to listen and make complements in a public setting, in the US this activity seems to have been relegated to the private sphere – between the man and his griot.

Facebook as a Potlatch

Are you familiar with the concept of a gift economy? It’s an interesting alternative to the market economy in a lot of less developed cultures. I’ll contribute something and give it to someone, and then out of obligation or generosity that person will give something back to me. The whole culture works on this framework of mutual giving. The thing that binds those communities together and makes the potlatch work is the fact that the community is small enough that people can see each other’s contributions. But once one of these societies gets past a certain point in size the system breaks down. People can no longer see everything that’s going on, and you get freeloaders. When there’s more openness, with everyone being able to express their opinion very quickly, more of the economy starts to operate like a gift economy. It puts the onus on companies and organizations to be more good, more trustworthy. It’s changing the ways that governments work. A more transparent world creates a better-governed world and a fairer world.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook

Trouble brewing in New Orleans?

Those who just recently joined the AAA might not know about the 2004 battle over whether or not the conference would be held in San Francisco. At issue was a strike by UNITE-HERE, a hotel workers union. In the end, the AAA chose not to cross the picket line and there was a change of venue. I played a small role then, having helped set up the AAA-UNITE blog and email list, although my involvement pretty much ended there. Robert O’Brien, however, went on to join the Labor Relations Commission (LRC) which was set up to help avoid having similar problems in the future.

Now O’Brien seems to have had enough. After a long silence, he has a new post up on the AAA-UNITE blog, where he writes that he is suffering from “commission-fatigue” —

the creeping death that sets in when you’ve been part of a successful organizing campaign that is co-opted and turned into a rubber stamp for the policies you’d been fighting.

At issue is this year’s conference in New Orleans. There is no strike in New Orleans, but the LRC members are angry that the conference is being held in a non-union hotel.

According to O’Brien, one of the things that happened after 2004 was a vote by the AAA Executive Board mandating that all AAA meetings be held in unionized venues. Now, you may disagree with this position, but it seems to have been arrived at as the result of a democratic process by the AAA leadership. For some reason, which O’Brien doesn’t explain, this policy was downgraded from being a “requirement” to being merely a “preference.” It isn’t clear if this is simply a difference of opinion, or if it was a change made by fiat by the AAA staff?

In either case, the choice of venue this year runs contrary to that preference/requirement, and the LRC is urging action. While O’Brien has personally decided to boycott the meeting, other members of the LRC are hoping to use the meetings to push forward for reforms. Specifically, they want to “change the conference organizing firm that AAA uses from the corporate-friendly Conference Direct to the labor-friendly INMEX.” They are urging individual sections to adopt proposals in favor of this change, and are planning to propose such a motion at the business meeting in New Orleans, as well as with the Executive Board. You can read the full letter over at the AAA-Unite post.

If you would like to sign on to the letter, please email Steve Striffler striffler@hotmail.com or Paul Durrenburger pauldurren@verizon.net.

Pluto Press and U. of Michigan Retain Business Ties

I’ve been somewhat absently following the story of U. of Michigan Press’ reconsideration of its relationship with UK-based Pluto Press, since my forthcoming book Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War is being released on Pluto Press and the loss of an American distributor would limit its availability in the country that it most directly deals with.  So it’s with some relief that I see that Michigan has decided to continue its relationship with Pluto Press. 

The issue was set off by Continue reading

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: Continue reading