“I didn’t know we had a pool.”

7 12 2011

While I’m still thinking about WALL-E, do you remember why both Mary and John, those two hover-chair bound colony dwellers who eventually discover each other, both say the line with which I’ve titled this post? It’s because they’re so obsessed with their video-phones that they have to have their technology turned off to see the real world around them.

It’s kind of the same thing with me and the 80% or so of my profession working in higher ed today who do not have tenure track jobs. I knew we had a large pool of contingent faculty in academia, but I recently remembered that I’ve forgotten them on this blog of late as I’ve been busy ranting (mostly) against the same kind of thing that kept Mary and John from seeing their pool at all.

My occasion for this realization was the appearance of Marc Bousquet at the Colorado AAUP‘s annual meeting. I drove to Boulder in a snowstorm last Saturday in order to meet him, hear him and get my copy of How the University Works signed. I can tell you without hesitation that it was well worth the difficult trip. There is absolutely no way I could possibly do his whole speech justice, but I do want to try to pick at least a few threads in what follows.

Marc began with an attack on the Duncan/Obama Walmart higher education policy of ruthless austerity designed to increase efficiency and improve access. [He didn’t mention this, but tech is obviously part of that strategy.] Yet despite such policies, universities still do their best to accumulate capital. “Why does the university accumulate?,” Marc asked. Because they’re being run like businesses. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. It’s not that universities have copied businesses, Marc argues, instead businesses want to copy universities, especially their just-in-time supply of sub-minimum wage labor that yields an enormous amount of “profit” per employee.

To me, the most provocative part of Marc’s paper wasn’t when he suggested that all our professional organizations should be “occupied,” but that if we want to fix higher ed we should direct our solution towards the community college dropout. What’s the problem with community colleges? Too many students. Not enough resources. Underpaid, often under-qualified, overly-harried professors. Subsidize the students there and you’ll not only stimulate the economy, you’ll create plenty of demand for good higher education jobs to teach the new recruits.

Improving the number of research-oriented positions, on the other hand, would be like saving the filet mignon while the rest of the cow is getting ground into hamburger. Marc argues that the existing system is designed to keep the top 20% afloat while everyone else is left underwater. For example, as Marc explained in his book, there is no “job crisis” in the humanities. There is a just a demand crisis because administrators have restructured the kind of work available to most new Ph.D.s so that anyone in their right mind wouldn’t even want it.

Marc also spent a little bit of time addressing the ed tech question. The same professors who get their noses bent out of shape by the notion that they could be replaced by a video tape, he suggested, are often the same ones who are willing to teach courses with 400 students and five TAs (thereby eliminating three or four tenure track jobs right there). He’s right, you know. Without fixing the structural labor market problems in higher education, saving history teaching from a future of online mediocrity is still going to be a losing battle. We’ll just have face-to-face mediocrity instead.

Giant lecture halls and online classes both derive from the same kind of MBA thinking that’s ruining higher education all over the world. But flip that around for a moment: Solve the problem of MBA thinking and professors will be free to pick the kinds of educational technology tools that can enhance learning rather than merely make it cheaper.

Wouldn’t that be so cool?


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5 responses

7 12 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Yes, yes, yes, it would be cool.

I agree with you: the structural labour and business problems are the ones that are determining the outcomes that concern us. Technologies of various kinds might figure in the plan to do more with less, but they’re honestly not driving them. Educational technology companies, like big publishing, are trying to figure out how to service what looks like an emerging need. But the emergence of the need is on our side of the fence, and it’s on our watch.

So the do-more-with-less drivers are nested in the economy and expressed in the institutional business plan — but they’re also responding to something like popular and political ambivalence about the value of higher learning, that’s creating a different culture of demand and dissatisfaction with what colleges (at all levels) are there to do for their national economies.

I don’t think we’re yet sure what’s driving that.

8 12 2011
Is it time? | Music for Deckchairs

[…] need to take action for adjunct colleagues, and Jonathan Rees who is as worried as anyone about the structural problems of the academic labor market. But there are now plenty of others calling for advocacy on this matter, including the excellent […]

10 12 2011
Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

[…] I didn’t know we had a pool. […]

20 12 2011
“Now we see the violence inherent in the system!” « More or Less Bunk

[…] hate to sound like a broken record here, but there isn’t a shortage of tenure track jobs in the humanities or elsewhere. The problem […]

26 03 2012
What can tenure-track faculty do about the adjunct problem?, Part 1: Don’t work so hard. « More or Less Bunk

[…] I heard Marc Bousquet talk in Boulder last December, he pointed out that when we someone teaches a class with 400 students and […]

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