In so many ways, academic work is hard to recognize as being work in the standard wage-labor sense of that word. It can take place at all hours of day or night, outside of standard workplaces, without wearing standard work clothing — in bed with the laptop at midnight, perhaps. American popular stereotypes allege that teaching is outside the realm of productive action and thus second-rate — “those who can’t do, teach.” That’s a maxim which devalues the feminine work of reproduction in favor of an implicitly masculine image of labor, but I digress; my point here is just that such claims reinforce the image of academic work as being in a world of its own.
The motivations for academic work are similarly supposed to be other than pecuniary. One is supposed to work for existential reasons, or out of commitments to higher values that go beyond the purely economic — the “pursuit of knowledge” in some quarters, the dedication to making citizens or producing social justice in others. Yet it’s no criticism of these values to observe, as many have already observed, that these higher values can become alibis for an amplified self-exploitation. “You’re doing it out of personal commitment,” they tell you as you donate your weekend to the institution.
A strange moment in this process, though, is the moment where colleges and universities beg their own employees for charitable donations.
Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake is a well-documented and systematic analysis of what we might call American-style neoliberalism, which applies itself more through market pressure and managerial ideology than through direct state regulation (as in many European cases). The book focuses on what he terms the “devolutionary cycle” of privatization of U.S. public universities. While these universities have remained legally public, Newfield defines privatization not in terms of formal legal status or ownership but in terms of practical “control”: who wields influence, sets expectations and creates incentives. One of the great conceptual strengths of the book is its demonstration that privatization as process can be at once partial and paradigmatic, a totalizing system that may nevertheless benefit from leaving occasional gaps that can serve it as alibis. As he observes, ”the privatization of public universities is a complicated pastiche of mixed modes, which is why so many people can plausibly deny that it is happening” (28). Nevertheless, as he discovers firsthand, the decline of public support and financing has become an unquestionable fact (rather than a contestable policy choice) for many senior administrators. “State money isn’t coming back,” Newfield gets told bluntly by an assistant to the University of California’s chair of the board (188).
I have my doubts about whether precarity is always a good category for academic labor organizing. But from within the universe of European precarity discourse, I especially admire Mariya Ivancheva’s recent summary of the situation of early career researchers in her 2015 paper “The Age of Precarity and the New Challenges to the Academic Profession“. First she comments on the poverty wages and immense structural sexism that characterizes the post-PhD situation:
… a whole generation of junior academics is exposed to an ever growing casualization of labor. In Ireland alone, as a study of the collective Third Level Workplace Watch shows, a growing number of casual academics win on average 10 000 € annual income for an average of eight and a half years after finishing their PhD. In 63% of the cases this income is generated by hourly paid work, done in 62% of the cases by women. In Ireland again, a recent study by the Higher Academic Authority has shown that men still get 70% of all permanent academic positions in all seven universities in the country. The situation is similar in other countries where despite the fact that women make for the majority of completed PhD dissertations, the ratio of employment is still at their detriment. Women are particularly exposed to vulnerability with less access to permanent positions, and more emotional labor and care-giving functions both in and out of the academy. While those who have children feel losing the academic game because of the domestic burden of care in ever decreasing welfare conditions, those who do not have children feel deprived of private life due to growing imperative to do replacement teaching and administrative work.
The actual data (from 2011) is quite revealing as well: women are 57.6% of French public university undergraduates and Master’s students, 48% of doctoral students, 42.4% of junior faculty (maîtres.ses de conférences), only 22.5% of senior faculty (professeur.es des universités), and only 14.8% of university presidents. (French University presidents are elected from among the permanent faculty, so it makes more sense to put them on this scale than you might think.)
I’m planning on writing more about French higher education policy in the next few years, since even after my dissertation there’s a lot to learn. For instance, there’s something curious about the national origins of the French system of diplomas. Here are the standard types of university degrees in France:
A License of 3 years is approximately analogous to an American Bachelor’s.
A 2-year Master, similar to an American Master’s, can be either a “Research Master” or a “Professional Master.”
The Doctorat (Ph.D.) theoretically takes 3 years, but often more, after which one gets to be called Docteur. (The doctorate in French had a great deal of institutional complexity over the years which I won’t go into here.)
The Habilitation à Diriger des Recherchesis derived from the German Habilitation: it’s a post-PhD degree usually given mid-career and required to supervise doctoral students. (Fortunately, this has no equivalent in Anglophone academia — though overproduction of PhDs is such that one might venture that something like it would logically have to be created as a new form of status differentiation.)
Thus the most advanced degree types are both named after German precursors; the License is strictly a French invention; and the intermediate degree, the Master, borrows its name from English. If this was a hierarchy and not a historical accident, one would see that the academic system put Germany at the top, Anglo-America in the middle, and France at the bottom. (German and American universities have been the dominant foreign references in modern French academia, as Christophe Charle has shown.)
In a 2015 essay by David Harvey (need I add, “the venerable Marxist geographer”?) that reflects on the relations between different radical currents in the academic field of geography, he gives an interesting comment on his own conditions of institutional survival:
Given my situation, in a university that was ruthless about publication, the only way to survive was to publish at a high level. And yes I will here offer a mea culpa: I was from the very beginning determined to publish up a storm and I did emphasize to my students and all those around me who would listen that this was one (and perhaps the only) way to keep the door open. It was more than the usual publish or perish. For all those suspected of Marxist or anarchist sympathies, it was publish twice as much at a superior level of sophistication or perish. Even then the outcome was touch-and-go, as the long- drawn out battle over Richard Walker’s tenure at Berkeley abundantly illustrated. The Faustian bargain was that we could survive only if we made our radicalism academically respectable and respectability meant a level of academicism that over time made our work less accessible. It became hard to combine a radical pedagogy (of the sort pioneered by Bill Bunge in the Detroit Geographical Expedition) and social activism with academic respectability. Many of my colleagues in the radical movement, those with anarchist leanings in particular, did not care for that choice (for very good reasons) with the result that many of them, sadly, failed or chose not to consolidate academic positions and the space that we had collectively opened was threatened.
I’ve been working on a paper about the failure of left-wing internationalism at the “European counter-summits” (at least the two that I was able to observe in 2010 and 2011), and I’ve gotten interested in this love letter to the organizers of the 2011 Dijon counter-G8 university summit. A student left it on the ground in marker as they left the event, which was politically pretty unsuccessful, as my paper explains.
The letter reads as follows:
Camarades, merci de votre accueil, c’était sympa, on a bien ri, ici, il fait beau, pour une fois!
Votre fac c’est joli (si on regarde Bron) mais c’est un peu mort quand même. C’est vrai qu’on peut pas tout avoir. Si vous venez pas le 14, je sais où vous habitez.
Je n’oublierais pas de vous inscrire sur le ML de XYZ.
Voilà. Je me casse et je rentre à ma maison. Gros Bisous. 💘
I’m teaching an Anthropology of Europe class and I decided we’d end by talking about current events. So the week before this, we talked about the Greek economic crisis and Syriza. This week, we talked about Brexit. On Thursday, we talked about Islam and political violence in Europe (France in 2015 — Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan — and then, by way of contrast, Germany in 1993 — the Solingen burning of a Turkish family’s home).
So we talked about crisis, basically. But this was only a crisis within a crisis, because crisis was already omnipresent in our classroom environment. The whole class has been a slow-moving affective crisis, for me. (This is saying something redundant, admittedly, since most crises feel like slow motion at the time, the slow motion of shock at least, or the slow motion of ambiguity, even if they get reframed in hindsight as events; and most crises are affective, except for the ones that you don’t yet know how to sense…)
It’s been the sort of class where, a lot of the time, after you leave the room, as the teacher, you feel obscurely broken down and sad, and then the feelings linger into the evening, and then they emerge again with the next class, or at most they get vaguely attenuated without dissipating. I actually do think my students have learned a number of important things about Europe (they had barely heard of Franco, or even of socialism), and their papers and homework show a lot of thinking and knowledge, but I don’t think they think they’re learning something. Instead, they largely feel disaffected about the whole endeavor. So this — how shall I put it? — this collective mood of detachment frowns down on the classroom as soon as I open my mouth. It just hasn’t gone away in months.
It’s been a fun year for me (leaving aside here, you know, many disturbing political events, trends, pomps and circumstances, because this isn’t that kind of blog) because some of my post-dissertation work is actually in print:
I’ve been teaching a class on anthropology of education this fall, and we spent the first several weeks of class reading various moments in educational theory and philosophy (Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Dewey, Nyerere, Freire). The first week, we read Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, which (famously) explains how the need for an educated “guardian class” emerges from the ideal division of labor in a city. Our class discussion focused mostly on Plato’s remarkably static and immobile division of labor, a point which rightfully seems to get a lot of attention from modern commentators on the Republic. (Dewey put it pretty succinctly: Plato “had no perception of the uniqueness of individuals.”)
But I was more intrigued by Plato’s remarkable, zany account of the origins of ambivalence, which I don’t think has gotten so much recognition. We have to be a bit anachronistic to read “ambivalence” into this text, to be sure, since the term in its modern psychological sense was coined by Eugen Bleuler in 1911. Nevertheless, I want to explore here how Plato comes up with something that really seems like a concept of ambivalence avant la lettre. It emerges in the text from his long meditation on the nature of a guardian, which is premisedon the initial assumption that the guardian’s nature (or anyone’s nature) has to be singular and coherent.