Unplanned Obsolescence

Solidarity and sympathy in online culture and social media are fleeting things: you are only as good as your last response rather than a lifetime of responses, and only as welcome as you are permitted to be within a particular conversation. Discussions that start by drawing the “circle of we” with a circumscribed perimeter resist expansion or redrawing, often appropriately so.

So rather than beg for an ally’s badge, my best reaction to some of the latest complaints against tenured faculty and academic institutions might be to propose some alternative “circles of we” that recast the nature of the conversation.

Asking sharp questions about the imagined endgame of a critique is not about holding that critique up against utopia and finding it wanting if it does not have a road between here and that endpoint. It’s about asking for the strategic vision of that critique in the here and now. If one starts from the proposition that higher education in the U.S. (or more globally) was a basically positive, healthy institution in some previous heyday (most likely the expanded, more democratic, more accessible academy of the 1970s), then a critique of the labor practices, economics, and culture of the present is or should be sharply intent on the difference between then and now. This is how I have largely read Marc Bousquet’s arguments in the last few years: that there is no need to accept moves like programmatically limiting the supply of doctoral candidates, adopting novel institutional reforms, abolishing tenure altogether and so on in order to fix the inequalities in academic labor markets. Instead, all that’s needed is an internal reallocation of institutional budgets to hiring more tenure-track faculty and fewer administrators, a re-emphasis on the core missions of higher education (teaching and the production of knowledge) and a restoration of public funding. You can take a different line than Bousquet and still have roughly the same strategic vision, that some concretely past academy is the one that we want.

If on the other hand, the conclusion is that academia was always elitist, always exclusionary, always unfair both to its workers and apprentices and to its publics, that there was never any golden age to restore, then the strategic vision even now has to be clear: is there an imaginable higher education that could be comprehensively better? Or does the problem lie in the very idea of a professionalized faculty and in the institutionalization of education? There are good, honorable arguments of long-standing that point in either of those directions: one is not left having to craft a critique from scratch. But they have very different implications right here, right now, however far or improbable the endgame might be.

Not the least among those implications is who can be expected to join a coalition of the willing and who cannot. There’s no reason to make tenured faculty your first, preferred targets if you’re chasing restoration unless you genuinely believe that existing tenure-track faculty were the primary agents who produced casualization of academic labor, the diversion of internal budgets to administrative purposes, and the reduction of direct and indirect public budgetary support for higher education. Even in that case, you’re not against tenured faculty as a concept, since that’s the labor dispensation that a restorationist wants to return, just against the particular inhabitants of that role in this particular historical moment (or even, potentially, you are set against some past particular group who did the dirty deed rather than the present incumbents). In this vision, the conventional culture of academic life is largely something worth valuing, preserving, and continuing, and it would be foolish to do it damage in pursuing reform.

If there is some concrete assembly of labor practices, institutional budgets, internal culture, habitus, and so on that is imagined as preferable not just to the present but to any past dispensation, the coalition of the willing is very different depending on which kinds of transformations are being envisioned. There are people inside and outside of academia who envision a technologically-mediated transformation of how we teach and publish, of how we name and employ scholars and experts, of how higher education becomes a new kind of public good, who are also very committed to the reform of academic labor, the diversification of faculty and students, and the refinement or tweaking of the culture of academic professionalism. That’s a reformist politics that sets some faculty against others, that mixes contingent and tenure-track faculty on both sides of the debate. If on the other hand the academy-to-be is the one that American neoliberals, conservatives and libertarians sometimes imagine, where practical learning overthrows the liberal arts and efficient managerial approaches reduce costs, then contingent and tenure-track faculty alike are almost universally going to line up against that possibility.

If in the end there is nothing about institutional education and professionalized academia which appeals, nothing to reform or restructure short of practices which would have to be so comprehensively different to any present or imaginable dispensation, then throw all the rotten tomatoes that come to hand at every target in sight: all faculty, all administrators, all students. They’re all, in this view, doing a very profoundly wrong thing and doing it at great expense. I don’t outline this position to mock it. It has a long lineage of great intellectual profundity and political force behind it. Someone drawn to this position doesn’t need to invent a comprehensive alternative, because this sort of critique by its nature is only sure about what education or learning or training or knowledge production aren’t and shouldn’t be. But don’t expect anyone who is even modestly invested in the institutions we inherit to join in the tomato-flinging. And don’t bother with any particular rage against a particular group, because the argument is so much bigger than that.


This in the end would be my own modest proposal: that most of the arguments about the unfairness of academic labor practices and academic culture are too small. In a sense, they prove that even the strongest critics accept and are a bit blinded by a belief in the specialness of academia, because they even think its unfairness or inequity is special to it.

There is a bigger landscape to consider, one that might either further catalyze a politics of reform (or revolt) or that might bleed out the energy of such a politics within the vastness of history.

Talk of “crisis”, either within some subset of academia or about the whole of it, is often properly met with skepticism. More often than not, when you’re told that there is a crisis, it’s best to quickly check your wallet, because that kind of talk is a favorite distraction by neoliberal pickpockets. But think on a big scale and crisis talk makes a different sort of (mostly upsetting) sense.

The casualization of academic labor started before the rise of information technology and online media, during the 1970s. That is often overlooked even (or especially) by the newest generation of the casualized. But in different forms this is something that was happening to almost all of the professions that rose out of bourgeois life and culture in the West during the 19th Century. And often efforts to extend or erode the boundaries that had been drawn so brightly by the alliance of professional associations and the state during the first half of the 20th Century were not spearheaded by neoliberal corporatizers or conservative anti-intellectuals but by progressives of one kind or another who were either seeking to extend the benefits of public goods beyond what poorer states could afford (say, with “barefoot doctors”) or were trying to break the dominating power of socially exclusive professionals over their subjects and clients (say, with the move to allow competing forms of professionalism like midwifery or homeopathy their own legitimacy). That second move gained particular force among progressives in the wake of Foucauldian-inspired critiques of professionals and their institutions, a perspective that made it hard to simply repeat older liberal arguments about the professions as a form of beneficient service to an enlightened society.

But what is happening now is not just an intensification of this earlier attempt to extend professional services or to make the boundaries and power of professional institutions more porous. What is happening now in the realignment of professional economies and technological infrastructures is possibly something more akin to an industrial revolution. Almost none of the interested parties drawn to that scene of transformation really fully understand or master it, whether they are snake-oil salesmen speaking of “disruption”, visionaries considering new modes and methods of educational practice, or justly rageful victims watching social contracts being broken right before their eyes. How can we understand it fully? That’s the nature of this kind of transformation, whether you find yourself on the barricades or in the guillotine.

But it is happening to more than academia. It is happening to law. It is happening to psychiatry. It is happening to accounting. It is happening to medicine. It is happening to anything and everything that organized itself as a profession, that licensed people with special training as the only legal or proper source of valued services. Some of the work of the professions is being automated. Some of it is being crowdsourced. Some of it is being simply deemed too expensive or unnecessary. And some of it is being taken out of the hands of the professionals and hitched to the wagon of a new class of owners who turn professionals into workers, who demolish the idea that the defining value of professional service is the knowledgeable autonomy of trained experts within their own institutions and in their own practices of service.

So in this sense to say that tenured faculty are to academic labor as white people are to racism is both to think too small and to misfire the structural analogy. Too small because the same thing could and should be said of all professionals whose terms of employment today are still set within the economies and norms that existed in the mid-20th Century, who still can largely believe in and defend the habitus of their profession as it once existed. Which means, equally, that contingent faculty banging on the closed door have many potential allies across a wide range of professions–but to make common cause with them still requires some of the choices I outlined earlier. Namely, were the professions as they once existed a good thing in those former terms? Or do we want to tear down their remaining shreds and fragments in order to make something radically new?

In that choice, professionals of the ancien regime are to newer workers not masters or owners. They are the woeful artisans staring out the window of their cottages at the dark satanic mills rising all around them. And this might explain much of the rageful antagonism between the ancien professionals and the new workers. It always seems as if artisans and workers should be on the same side against the new owners but it rarely turns out that way, and often only for the briefest of conjunctures. Because in the end their interests are different. The artisans know that their work can’t scale to the needs both created by and creating the industrial producers. They can’t make enough room in their cottages for all the workers even if they wanted to. And the workers need a job, right now: they rightly cannot give two fucks about how it used to be great in the old days when folk sheared the sheep in the spring and wove all the summer long. They want fair wages, good work conditions, a chance for advancement. Their best hope lies in the progressive remaking of the factories, the forging of new social contracts, not in the incremental carving out of a few more apprenticeships in the old guilds.

The artisans and the workers don’t have to be against each other either, necessarily. Oh, the artisans can try to smash the new machines if they like, but they shouldn’t expect much sympathy from the people whose meal tomorrow depends on the continued working of the assembly lines. The workers can feel sorry for the old folk up the valley if they like, but they should hardly be expected to endorse the traditional claims of their guilds within the marketplace.

You can have a marketplace that has room for small producers of high-priced artisanal goat cheese and big industrial producers of Velveeta where the workers in each setting are non-rivalrous, indeed, hardly think of one another at all. Maybe that’s where higher education is going, where the few elite institutions that still have tenure are the producers of high-value craftwork in teaching and scholarship, a quaint variation on slow food available to those who can afford the price. And education or training or certification in some other massified form has its workers with their struggles for dignity and fairness to come, struggles that will have almost nothing to do with the old-timey crafters.

To set yourself against that future rather than just drifting down the river of time resigned to its flow, means making clear choices right here and right now, maybe choices that have never been made before within similar conjunctures. Maybe we do want more cottages, a landscape alive with professionals who have forcefully recaptured their monopolies and privileges in new assemblages and institutions. Maybe we just want public goods to be public goods again, which might take a rededication of professional work to the ethos of service. Maybe we want to tear it all the fuck down and build a platform for some future day of the rope against the new owners. All I’m certain of is that many of the arguments out there right now within and about academia are too parochial in some fashion and thus often as much contributing to the drift down the river as they are struggling against its flow.

This entry was posted in Academia, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Unplanned Obsolescence

  1. Parry Riposte says:

    “Unless you’re going to make a revolution, enough already with your little concerns” was the tone I heard throughout this article. “The grand things matter, the little people in their little struggles should look into that,” in other words. “The whole system is flawed, has been flawed, etc and the tiny compartmentalized complaints overlook the big picture, nothing can come of it unless a systemic change is in the cards. It’s not worth struggling for unless it’s big and fundamental.” It reminds me of what happened when our struggles as undergraduate students against various oppressive practices on campus were met with derision by ersatz campus Marxists. They were the first to jump on the bandwagon once our little successes started to create a stir. Or what happened while a small bunch of us in the graduate student union worked day and night to get equal pay for equal work among graduate students, and a proper pay increase for all grad students; the people who pooh-pooh’ed us by saying grad students have always been this way, that we were working for nothing, that unless we changed the system, these small gains were meaningless, gladly took the successful results of our struggle, and of course acted like they were the champions of our cause, the pioneers of a grand and imaginary revolution. Revolutions don’t happen by waiting for the big stuff to change, waiting for grand confrontations, by not taking on battles too small for the grand ambitions; they happen with hard-won, blood-and-sweat tiny achievements that *might* snowball into something else, usually in ways few expected. And yes, tenured faculty do have a responsibility in having created and maintainted (directly, indirectly, actively, passively, does not matter) this academic lumpen-proletariat for decades, there’s no easy conscience-rinsing here, no easy way out, despite the fact that far larger processes have shaped their involvement and the creation of this situation. Just because they are part of a larger machine, just because their own choices are limited does not mean they should be exempt from criticism. So I don’t buy this “it has been like this for a long time, unless you’re going to address the inherent elitism of academia and fundamentally change the system, your fight is worthless and hopeless” approach. Change starts at the tiniest level, at the smallest interaction, at the most fleeting moment of personal decision. The barricades and the flags and the “masses” chanting the Internationale are the foam at the top of the wave, nothing else.

  2. There is another consideration at work here, as well. I think of it like this. In the era of glasnost, Soviet high school students were told it was OK to discuss Soviet history in ways that did not line up with what their textbooks told them. So this happened (from an AP story in 1988):

    “Gennady Kaztman, whose father works as a printer, made his classmates and teachers roar with laughter by telling this bittersweet joke about the legacy of the 1917 Russian Revolution:

    “When the Bolsheviks seized power, Gennady said, a Russian countess whose grandfather had been a 19th-century revolutionary summoned her maid to see what the shouting in the streets was about.

    “‘Why, Madame, it’s the revolution,’ the maid replied.

    “‘Oh yes, grandfather dreamed of that. Tell me, what do they want?’ the countess asked.

    “‘Why, they want a society where there are no more rich people.’

    “‘Strange,’ the countess replied. ”Grandfather wanted a society where there were no more poor people.'”

    OK, most tenured faculty aren’t rich, but you get the point. Anyway, this post is exactly right about the past forty years of deprofessionalization, and about tenured faculty and other professionals as artisans. (I think you are probably right, unfortunately, about the tenure/ slow-food-for-elites analogy.) And “the workers need a job, right now: they rightly cannot give two fucks about how it used to be great in the old days when folk sheared the sheep in the spring and wove all the summer long” made me laugh, albeit ruefully. See “bittersweet joke,” above.

  3. Thomas Carey says:

    Does the recent emphasis on student outcomes at the institutional level create an opportunity for us to more fully demonstrate the value of professional engagement as teachers? I think the distinction between professionals and artisans needs to be highlighted: professionals use multiple sources of knowledge and expertise to inform their work – exemplary practices and resources from their community, evidence from research, and their own understanding of local context and needs.

    If we as teachers are basing our designs for learning on this knowledge, and tracking outcomes at all levels from topic through to program, we should be able to make the case for the benefits of our professional engagement beyond a commodified approach to instructions (and instructors). Perhaps one class of new outcomes can come from our sharing with students the professional processes by which we design and evaluate designs for student learning, as exemplars for engagement with knowledge in their own professional careers (and their roles as community members and global citizens)?

  4. I think this is exactly right. I’ve written at length about these things on my academic blog recently, so I won’t belabor the point too much. But I have had the same basic dynamics happen in this conversation over and over again. (I take part in it all the time; I think it’s essential to do so.) Two consistent frustrations:

    For one, I ask what the particular goal is of people making the arguments and how the best want to get there, and I don’t get much in return.

    For another, I point out that while many faculty are complicit in the system, and faculty writ large certainly should have done more historically to oppose these changes, it simply is a fact that it is not faculty who created or perpetuate these problems. That one gets me accused of all manner of bad things. But it’s just reality: in today’s university, the administrators and the legislators have the power, not the faculty. And the near-total absence of critique of those people in those pieces just baffles me. I can’t understand it, from a practical perspective.

    From an emotional perspective, it makes sense. When I talk to people who bitterly complain about recent TT hires– who make not a lot of money and who are relatively powerless within the system– I think that the recent anger over hiring decisions, and the fact that it was faculty who made them, colors the discussion. Besides: the university presidents and governors who actually control the universities are very remote. The people who got hired are part of the social and cultural cohort of those who didn’t, and we tend to resent those who are more like us and who we have access to resent rather than those who actually cause the real problems.

    Which is fine; as I’ve written over and over again, I’m sympathetic, and I accept the basic structural critique as plainly true. But in times of crisis it’s absolutely necessary to remain dispassionate and material in our critiques, and no matter how annoying or guilty faculty members are, the critique that matters is the critique of the masters of the univers(ity).

  5. Dave says:

    I think it’s possible to acknowledge both that large-scale systemic forces are working to proletarianize the academic economy, and that many tenured faculty are entitled assholes whose particular vision of themselves as agents of revolutionary change is starkly at odds with others’ view of their privilege.

    This is of course a major issue inherent in the holier-than-thou competitive Oppression Olympics which has grown up as a substitute for a more broadly-based critique of social structure in the past 40 years. The invention of the term “intersectionality” to cover the frankly bleedin’ obvious point that there is more than one form of inequality in the world, and the capacity to throw around the accusation of lack of it as if it devalued anything anyone had to say who wasn’t a radiant saint of radical purity, is just another small example of why progressives have been losing, will continue to lose, and will go down to epochal defeat, damning each other much more loudly than their real opponents.

    That many of those progressives will deserve the curses of others, for being clueless, self-absorbed assholes whose divisive actions contributed to preventing change, is a relatively small irony in the circumstances.

    And meanwhile, of course, the Marxists are still the real wankers.

  6. Withywindle says:

    What follows is from the bitterness of my heart. I may feel otherwise at different moments–say and think more kindly things. But the bitterness is part of me, so I’ll say it here.

    You don’t mention politics–the near blanket exclusion of anyone who isn’t left-liberal from tenured positions, above all in the humanities, and the role tenure plays in that exclusion. Among other things, this means your political base of support for the system is fragile–no one outside the narrow political range of acceptable hires has any incentive to support the system. Bluntly, personally, since I couldn’t speak my mind on any political subject while trying to get an academic job, I don’t give a damn what happens to academics, and I wouldn’t lift a finger or pay one dollar for any of you. (Well, $10 annually for my alma mater, but that’s about it.) I take your collective miseries as deserved. Since you do a pretty lousy job educating the students on basics like reading and writing, you aren’t even useful. I don’t quite wish you all to suffer for suffering’s sake, so I wish this system’s death agonies to be as swift as possible. But that’s about as far as my milk of human kindness extends.

    I don’t always think this way. But at this moment, I do.

  7. ADM says:

    Nice. I’m glad you wrote this, because at the moment, as I catch up on all the brouhaha, I’m too pissed off to blog about it — plus it’s a bit late. Although I may, because even if TR’s response was condescending or silencing, or whatever, Schuman’s rant just offends the hell out of me. After spending as many years as I did as contingent faculty, and having a position at a place that did away with tenure years ago, I’m going to suggest that perhaps getting a full-time academic position is no guarantee that I’ve got no empathy.

  8. It sounds like tenured professors are a middleman minority– like Jews collecting taxes for Polish nobles.

  9. Pat says:

    I think Thomas Carey has the right idea. The next step with it is to identify to whom we should make the case: I suggest accreditation agencies.

    Almost all of criterion 3.C at the Higher Learning Commission’s web site (http://www.ncahlc.org/Information-for-Institutions/criteria-and-core-components.html) can be interpreted as condemning reliance on ill-paid and poorly supervised adjuncts. Both full-time faculty and the general public can submit third-party comments pointing this out through pages such as http://www.ncahlc.org/Information-for-the-Public/visit-list.html. What would happen to the visibility of this issue if accreditors routinely received third-party comments condemning the use of adjuncts, and if colleges routinely had to defend such use when they were visited by accreditors?

  10. notsureyet says:

    As someone currently pursuing his PhD in history without funding and without serious future plans of getting a job that requires said PhD, I should probably just shut up cause I ain’t got no skin in the game. But of course I am surrounded by people who take their studies more seriously and so have a lot more angst. What worries me is their concerns over the fucked up economics and politics of academic life (which I acknowledge but luckily avoid) increasingly crowd out, and even worse, influence (control?) the content of their scholarly pursuits. As academic positions become more scarce and/or the competition over them more fierce I see my peers over and over again succumbing to the temptation to study and say that which they believe their tenured overlords or administrators or funders want them to study and say. Not that this problem hasn’t always existed but the current economic squeeze has made it worse IMHO.

    I’m actually not that sympathetic to my peers concerns about the “unfairness” of the system, but I am concerned that the system is increasingly eroding our ability, particularly in the humanities, to produce knowledge that is minimally affected by internal academic political and economic considerations. The humanities is already irrelevant enough to the average joe/ann. Muddying our creations with office politics is only going to make things worse.

Comments are closed.