I may be the only person around who finds it ironic that Chumbawamba broke up while I’m deep into re-reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class because I never owned that “Tubthumping” album. I did, however, buy their “English Rebel Songs 1381-1984” from the discount rack the last time I was in London and have been using it in my Labor History class ever since.
“Poverty Knock” as well as the early part of Thompson’s mammoth book are mostly about what English workers lost when they went into the factories. Before industrialization, spinning thread was supplementary to agricultural labor. You and your kids could do it at home when you weren’t farming. You weren’t rich, but you were together. You also controlled your own time and were probably at least marginally happy about that.
Industrialization introduced what Thorstein Veblen referred to as the “discipline of the machine.” You show up at the bell. You do your job all day. If you don’t, your bosses will see you and you won’t work at all. They wanted not just your body, but your mind in the work because they thought they owned you.
I think you can see this online education analogy coming from a mile away, but it’s actually worse than just what you expect. There is something weirdly retrograde about turning people’s homes into education factories, and that’s exactly what online education does. They can give you online office hours, monitor your keystrokes, read every word you write to your students – all while you’re in the friendly confines of your own home because they’re too cheap to find you a proper office.
Everybody wonders what students are going to do when they can’t go to keggers at frats anymore. What are professors going to do when they can’t meet and talk at the office? Seriously, you think meetings are bad now? Wait until they’re all online. Separating us into our own homes also makes it harder for professors to cause trouble on campus. After all, we might demand crazy inefficient things like shared governance and other lost relics of a bygone age like tenure, health insurance and a work/life balance.
To put it another way, when traditional teaching gets destroyed all we’ll have left is the work. If higher education becomes entirely about production, then the workers aren’t going to be allowed to do anything but produce. Here’s a quote in Thompson from a Manchester silk weaver (p. 297) that I marked for future reference:
“Labour is always carried to market by those who have nothing else to keep or to sell, and who, therefore, must part with it immediately….The labour which I…might perform this week, if I, in imitation of the capitalist, refuse to part with it…because an inadequate price is offered me for it, can I bottle it? [C]an I lay it up in salt?”
No you can’t, and your administration knows this too. They also know that the vast majority of us (especially the adjuncts) are already working ourselves to death as it is, so the only way to make us more efficient is to tie us to our machines 24/7.* You’ll wish you had wings because that’s the only way you’ll ever get out at that point. It won’t stop when you get home because you’ll be home already.
Move your work entirely onto the machine and you’ll have to sell your labor all night and all day because that will become the new normal when our time is all that we have left to sell. The pathetic thing about we professors is that so many of us are willing to ruin our lives voluntarily by helping to make this transition happen.
* I’m not kidding about that 24/7 thing. Do you know how many people sleep with their phones on near their bedsides these days?