The exploitation of humanities graduate students is not a conspiracy.

1 02 2010

I continue to be unimpressed by everything I’ve read about Louis Menand’s new book on higher education. The latest thing I’ve seen is Michael Bérubé’s review in the NYT. This is the line there (part quote/part paraphrase) that makes me particularly frustrated:

Along the way, Menand notes that most graduate students don’t earn Ph.D.’s, and that most Ph.D.’s don’t get tenure-­track jobs: “There is a sense in which the system is now designed to produce ABDs” — graduate students who have completed all but their dissertations — who can teach introductory courses for a pittance.

Isn’t it convenient how the system spits out underemployed people who it can then exploit? Well for one thing, I know from Menand’s Harvard Magazine piece that his solution to this problem is to shorten time in grad school and turn this into a fait accompli. How is that going to help contingent faculty earn a living wage if doesn’t limit supply or increase demand?

Equally importantly, who said there is any kind of design to this system? It’s not like every grad department in the country got to together and said “Let’s ruin some smart people’s lives!” Humanities graduate departments are cash starved. Grad students have tuition dollars. They can also serve as teaching assistants, thereby making the average large lecture class a more pleasurable experience for the professor and that professor only. The strongest incentives are based upon short-term convenience, not long-term cost savings. Besides, in my experience graduate departments seldom employ their own students as adjuncts on a long-term basis. They exploit the surplus Ph.D.s of other departments. That way, the faculty don’t have to empathize with or even get to know the people whose lives are being sacrificed for their comfort.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to Menand going on so little here, but if the book lives up to the title of The Marketplace of Ideas, doesn’t there have to be a bogeyman (the functional equivalent of government in a University of Chicago style economic tract) that’s preventing that market from functioning properly?

I’m not sure any kind of normal marketplace is a good analogy for academic labor issues. The exploitation of humanities graduate students is based upon an incredibly skewed power relationship between employer and employee. There’s no conspiracy needed to prevent it from functioning freely. Exploitation is the premise upon which it’s built.

To me, the job market for graduate students is more like the Tragedy of the Commons, and the grad students aren’t the sheep. They’re more like the grass.


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5 02 2010
Thoughts on No University Is an Island, Part 1. « More or Less Bunk

[…] on No University Is an Island, Part 1. 5 02 2010 Last week I saw that my dean was reading Louis Menand’s latest seemingly dull work on higher education. In order to keep up my side of the employment equation, and thanks to a nice […]

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