Workers’ control in academia.

15 06 2012

I’m sure new readers will be shocked to learn that my original field was American labor history. I still teach it once every two years at which time I always get exactly enough students to keep the class from being canceled. Like a lot of labor historians I know, I’ve developed other interests. Still, what I’ve learned can be very useful for understanding the situation currently faced by everyone in my profession.

I’ve written about Harry Braverman in this space before. The title of this post is a variation of a book title by the late David Montgomery. However, my favorite labor historian has always been Herbert Gutman. To my mind, Gutman’s first collection of essays, Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America, is the best labor history book ever published because it’s all so accessible.

Since I don’t want to set foot in my office any more than absolutely necessary this summer, I’m going by memory here: Throughout the book Gutman explains how nineteenth century industrial workers had different priorities than their bosses. Since many were immigrants, they came to America with a pre-industrial mindset. They were perfectly willing to demand a barrel of beer to drink at work because work was alienating and producing non-stop for ten or twelve hours at a time was generally not an appealing prospect. Over the course of the 19th century, their employers broke the power of these workers through mechanization and the division of labor.

Skilled workers could once set the pace of production or even drink on the job because they had control of the shop floor. Once managers broke that control, more of the profits from industrialization inevitably flowed toward capital.

I’m not suggesting that professors start drinking on the job. However, I am suggesting that online education is a threat to our control of the shop floor. In fact, it entirely eliminates the shop floor we once controlled. Online educators can hardly even interact with their students at all without negotiating a space controlled almost entirely by their employers.

Yet unlike in nineteenth century America, there is no guarantee that increased production serves the best interests of society. Is teaching more students a good thing if the education they get is superficial and impersonal? I say “no,” but even if you say “yes” don’t you think actual educators should have a major role in answering that question? After all, public education is not supposed to be a private profit center.

Ever heard of shared governance? It’s a principle that has guided American higher education for decades now. It means that faculty should play an important role in the way their universities operate. After all, without them there would be no university at all. Shared governance also suggests that faculty maintain at least some of their prerogatives as the terms and conditions of their employment are determined to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s why when non-profit university administrators insist on acting like Robber Barons, the cause of education isn’t served.

What can faculty do in response to John D. Rockefeller-like behavior? First, wake up and smell the coffee. Your job is being redefined right under your nose and most of you don’t even realize it. Second, insist on participating in the conversations about what your job will become. Third, if you aren’t treated with the respect you deserve, then organize. It doesn’t have to be into a trade union. Even the simple act of joining the AAUP will do wonders for your understanding of how the university works. The more people who understand what’s happening, the more people will be willing to do something about it.

In any event, you have to do something. History suggests that once you lose control of your shop floor, it’s darn near impossible to get it back.

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5 responses

15 06 2012
tom abeles

Think of a university as a large zoological park but instead of area called the plains for ungulates, the ocean for fish and the mountains, it has schools and departments. The faculty “plays” in their area which has been carefully constructed with food and other resources. This occurred when the wandering academic agreed to take the “king’s shilling” (including finding students and money) in exchange for the “freedom” for intellectual pursuit. After all, the Prussians launched a public (Lutheran) university to counter the Catholics.

LIke Cypher in the Matrix, the academic has chosen to reject Morpheus’ and Neo’s “reality” and dive back into the Matrix, knowing full well that it’s an illusion. For academics, that illusion is a past that never was- all that John implies, e-learning and the ululations in the writings of David Noble not withstanding. Control of the “shop floor” was given up centuries ago.

The rise of “scabs” in the form of adjuncts, grad teaching assistants and high school teachers allowed to award college credit in brick space makes this more visible than any e-learning program which may restore faculty at the expense of having to leave the Matrix, the academic zoological park.

Make sure there are no holes in the pockets of your academic robes

15 06 2012
Set During The Nineteenth

[…] […]

15 06 2012
Music for Deckchairs

For me, as you might expect, this connects to the question of the way in which our interaction with students occurs in spaces designed and managed by large corporations who are not even our employers. Spend some time in LMS configuration meetings, and you get a very clear sense of the ways in which learning is shaped by decisions to turn particular tools on or off.

I don’t find this different, however, from the way learning is shaped by the cultural assumptions that design the look and layout of university campuses, assign offices to professors, or build lecture theatres so that everyone faces the front and doesn’t talk to their neighbour etc. From time to time, someone tinkers with these settings, but in the end we revert to teaching in spaces whose design was established a long time ago, because that suits our assumptions about the enduring nature and purpose of teaching.

It therefore seems to me that a newish tier of shared governance involves better sharing of ideals and aspirations between academic (and other) unions, and edtech companies. We’d be wrong to assume that the individuals in those companies aren’t concerned about labour issues, even if they’re not typically unionised.

18 06 2012
Original sin: What responsibility do tenure track faculty have for the rise of adjuncts? « More or Less Bunk

[…] not comission. What you can rightfully blame us for is short-sightedness. This is where I think Tom Abeles’ zoo metaphor fits well: Think of a university as a large zoological park but instead of area called the plains […]

5 07 2012
Are college professors working class? « More or Less Bunk

[…] administrations that contract their services want to do with that power? Push teachers of all kinds off the shop floor so that they have to accept any terms of employment that they are offered if they want to teach […]

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