Not the kind of financial uncertainties we’re all experiencing, though I’ll be going on a few furlough days come 2009. That could easily be the subject of a post: how the first cost-cutting measure that pretty much every university comes up with is to send administrators, faculty, and staff on unpaid leave. As someone who considers myself pretty drastically underpaid, especially given how entirely overeducated I am, I always get a good, long smirk out of anyone who asks me to take one for the team. It’s all about the students, folks. Or all about the humanities, as my graduate mater reminded me when it asked for a donation recently. But, wait, I already take one for the team! It’s a monthly austerity payment otherwise known as “my student loans.” Or, as Jason cleverly quipped last spring, when he was here for NCUR, “My second, nicer home.”

Without entirely sharing Marc Bousquet’s politics, I think he makes some fine points about the labor situation in academia, which helps put the current call for furloughs in the perspective of a decades-long call for faculty austerity–more students, more courses, more service, less pay:

Many administrators welcome austerity

It’s what they live for. It’s what they know how to do; it’s their whole culture, the reason for their existence, the justification for their salary and perks, the core criteria for their bonuses–the quality way, 5% or 10% cheaper (or 5-10% more entrepreneurial revenue) every year.

Ya gotta be a good earner or pay the price, as quality-manager Tony Soprano liked to say. Toyota plus yakuza, what we used to call “Japanese management theory,” but which now has the unique American flavor of super-casualization and astonishingly crude, hostile anti-labor legislation. (Because we have capital’s gangsters serving in both parties across the nation.)

Not to put too fine a point on it, they’re sweating the serfs in a pretty old-fashioned way: I don’t care how ya do it, ya gotta get me another ten percent next year, or you can “choose” whether you teach more classes or close your department. And they get direct seigneurial rewards–box seats at the jousting, the best cuts of the roast animal, jets and suites for their trysts.

Those of us on the ground in higher education will wonder how much more “productivity” is in fact possible, given that “leaders” have been taking advantage of the rhetoric of crisis for forty years to wring more “productivity”–faculty today teach more students more cheaply than at any point in the history of higher education.

Most of that cheapness has been established by the abuse of the apprentice system–substituting student labor for faculty labor, including increasingly undergraduate labor–or by abusing the notion of “flexibility” to establish a permanently “temporary” faculty working for peanuts. As I’ve been warning for fifteen years, the academy is moving toward realizing a sick ideal: reserving tenure for those who self-fund (by grants doled out by corporations) and those who administer a 100% casual labor force.

[I’ll save a full-fledged discussion of “technology” as a magic productivity bullet for another day, but David Noble and I agree, and most technology vendors admit, that courseware “productivity” gains are all about justifying larger class sizes, greater standardization, and the use of cheap nonfaculty, parafaculty, or student labor. There are good uses of classroom technology, and they all involve more, not less, faculty labor time. Where courseware does sometimes “improve teaching,” it’s generally because the teaching methods had already eroded to “information download” in the first place, typically in huge lecture halls followed by course-content testing.]

This is not a partisan political issue–as I’ve said before, Clinton and Gore via “quality in governance” are just as responsible for “increasing productivity” (but gutting education) by permatemping and extracting donated labor via “service,” “interns” (make your own joke here–I’m not in the mood today), and the like.

Republicans and Democrats share the wrong idea that squeezing the faculty has been to “control costs,” when in fact it’s just been to accumulate pots of either money (to spend on administrator perks, salaries, and sponsored projects or favored activities, especially big-time sports or, at religious institutions, social engineering) or capital (buildings, endowments, media infrastructure, investment in ventures and partnerships).

As a result of bipartisan belief in the fiction of benevolent austerity, the faculty infrastructure has crumbled. Most nontenurable faculty don’t do service; the remaining tenurable minority have seen their service loads double and triple, in addition to increased research expectations, larger classes, greater assessment burdens, longer terms in administration, and so on.

Even among the few tenurable faculty that won’t serve in some administrative capacity or as grant-getters, most have shouldered the permanent, career-long burden of participating in the perma-temp/apprenticeship system: admitting, training, supervising & evaluating grad student employees and/or hiring, training, and supervising the permanently temporary. The majority of both groups leave within a few years, creating a constant cycle of hire-train-supervise-evaluate, and then hire again.

Nevertheless, without going further on that subject, I’ve been worried about something altogether different lately, which is how to structure this blog. I’ve been dithering with a post in response to Gerald Graff recent piece in the MLA Newsletter, but it keeps getting longer and longer. This is what I was afraid of when I started a blog–that the blog would prove to be a welcome distraction from writing that might be publishable in another venue. At some point, this stops being a blog post and becomes an essay, no? And let’s not forget the impertinent pertinence of one of my favorite internet acronyms, TL;DR.

I suppose I’ve got to work out how long is too long.

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