The farce of the private university campus job

Marc Bousquet has commented in great detail about the deliriously bad conditions of student employment in some places (particularly at UPS in Louisville, TN). As of his figures of last year, in 1964 it would have taken 22 hours of minimum-wage work per week to pay for public university education (room and board and all), or 36 hours/week for a private university. Today, it would take 55 hours of minimum-wage work per week (ie, way more than full time) to pay your way through a public university degree, and an insane 136 hours per week to pay for a private university. If you had to pay out of pocket, that is (Financial aid, obviously, might make a huge difference here, and I’m not sure that Bousquet factors it in.)

But just to give some sense of the ludicrous nature of student work at private universities, in a bit of an echo of Bousquet’s argument, I want to share some quick figures that I’ve come up with. In essence, it turns out that if you’re working minimum wage jobs at private universities, you’re arguably still paying the university to be at those jobs.

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Academic boredom and ambivalence

Always strange what one can find in the more obscure corners of the academic world. I get the impression that there are a lot of academics who have written one or maybe two odd articles on academic culture, seldom as their primary research project, and left them to languish in odd corners of the literature.

In 2005, Amir Baghdadchi of the University of Cambridge published an article called “On Academic Boredom.” His argument proceeded in several stages. Boredom, he said, is an institutionally induced affect in academia. It is “the sense that the seminar is never going to end, that the speaker will never get to the point, that the articles one is reading are proceeding at a glacial pace, that one simply cannot get into a discussion, that one dreads getting into it in the first place” (319). Although he doesn’t phrase it in temporal terms, the gist is that boredom is what you feel when time has stopped and you are stuck in a bad present, with no capacity, for the time being, to picture a desirable or livable future.

He then argues that academia in general wears people down and tires them out. “Boredom is corrosive. I have seen my classmates begin their graduate work with great vivacity and curiosity, and I have seen them slowly ground down into duller, quieter, less omnivorously interested people” (320). So boredom, over the long term, is what happens to you when you are saturated or “corroded” by your bad situation, when you become where you are. Boredom, over the long term, makes people permanently more boring. A sensation, an affect, becomes habitual. A moment becomes a regime.

Boredom, he continues, has more than purely subjective origins, since one is bored by some external stimulus; and yet no outside object, he observes, is ever boring in itself, but only boring in relation to its audience. What kind of relation to one’s academic audience elicits boredom, then? He suggests that “boredom occurs when we are unable to make use of a work” (321). But this boredom, he claims, need not be sheer accident. To induce boredom, on the contrary, is to defend one’s work by precluding potentially hostile engagement with it. You (mostly) give up your chance to criticize me if you are too bored to listen to what I’m saying. “Sometimes,” he continues, “it even seems as if we have a Mutually Assured Boredom pact. I get up and bore you, you get up and bore me, and, at the end of the day, we are all left standing. It would not be hard to find graduate students whose measure of a successful conference paper lies entirely in whether they were ‘shot down’ or not. In this situation, being boring is a very good policy indeed.”

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Teaching is like sex

A million things to write, most of them still inchoate. But in the meantime I’ve been reading more articles about critical pedagogy and one of them is by Jane Tompkins. “Pedagogy of the Distressed,” it’s called, in College English from 1990. She comments at one point on her long inattention to her own pedagogy, and on what she views as academia’s distaste for education as a discipline:

“In this respect teaching was exactly like sex for me — something that you weren’t supposed to talk about or focus on in any way but that you were supposed to be able to do properly when the time came. And the analogy doesn’t end there. Teaching, like sex, is something you do alone, although you’re always with another person/other people when you do it; it’s hard to talk about to the other person while you’re doing it, especially if you’ve been taught not to think about it from an early age. And people rarely talk about what the experience is really like for them, partly because, in whatever subculture it is I belong to, there’s no vocabulary for articulating the experience and no institutionalized format for doing so.”

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The future of the “knowledge society”: Philosophy and university politics in contemporary France

There’s so much that I want to write about that somehow I end up not writing anything. So as a bit of a placeholder, let me post a current draft of my diss. research proposal (taken from the NSF research proposal). It’s a bit long for a blog post, I warn you, and is still very much under revision. More new material soon, I promise.

1. Introduction: Clashing futures in university politics
What is the future of French universities in a globalized world? According to the Magna Charta Universitatum, signed by a number of rectors of European universities in 1988, “the future of humankind depends largely on cultural, scientific and technical development; and this is built up in centers of culture, knowledge and research as represented by true universities” (Rectors 2003:6). But not everyone in Europe shares this utopian view of universities as the salvation of the human species. In the midst of French protests against university reforms in 2007, the Department of Philosophy at the University of Paris-VIII held a meeting to discuss the campus strikes. According to the minutes: “Questions were raised about concerns over finding work. That one would worry about one’s future – to say the least – doesn’t mean that one wants one’s concerns instrumentalized by and for projects that will make the future even darker still” (Paris8philo 2007). In other words, in the thick of the political fray, these philosophers viewed academic knowledge not as the future of humankind, but rather as an uncertain defense against a world of scarce employment and darkening futures.

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