A sense of precarity

College students who turn more or less consciously and hopefully to philosophy for enlightenment are, at bottom, in search of a satisfying life. They may have a pretty clear idea of what this includes. “It means,” said a football man whom I asked what he meant by a satisfying life, “employment, a fair income, the prospect of a family, and the chance to do something for people on a larger scale than just yourself or your family.” But they feel profoundly insecure as they contemplate the conditions under which this satisfying life must be sought. This feeling of insecurity is due not only to the threat of portentous on-going affairs, but to their own lack of a positive philosophy of life with which to face the world.

This statement doesn’t come from the present or the recent past; it comes from 1939, from a curious little American text by one M. C. Otto called “College Students and Philosophy.” Otto’s main aim is to excoriate his fellow philosophy professors for their anti-instrumentalist view of their discipline, that is, for their rejection of their students’ desires for a philosophy that would be useful in the world. For a short text, it has quite a long attack on philosophy professors’ urges to retreat into the sanctity of pure concepts and “esoteric wisdom.”

But what I think is fascinating here is mainly the early emphasis on precarity or insecurity (as they apparently called it then). Otto reminds us that insecurity is scarcely a uniquely contemporary phenomena, in spite of what one may be tempted to imagine in light of the pervasive sense (in France and the U.S.) that ordinary life is newly troubled. And Otto points out that precarity is not only a matter of economic and material problems but also of available intellectual resources, of “a positive philosophy of life with which to face the world.” Of course, Otto probably underestimates the effect of “portentous on-going affairs” on collective consciousness. I’m no expert on the U.S. in 1939, but I imagine it wasn’t the most cheerful geopolitical moment. (I’m suddenly wishing my grandparents were still alive so I could ask them about this.) But Otto, even if he may push the point out of perspective, does have the great merit of suggesting that disciplinary education may play an important role in forming consciousness and hence in shaping students’ cognitive relationships to the world.

Now Otto seems to have some very un-contemporary notions about forming consciousness, about educating the whole person, about being educated as a general state of being that helps one live through a fluctuating and incomprehensible circumstances. Today education is often considered a matter of isolable and measurable competences, of transferable skills, of favorable position in social networks, of positive career outcomes. Interestingly, even many of the most anti-establishment professors tend to accept this framework insofar as they often fall back on trying to teach skills like “critical thinking.” Or should I say: on trying to teach critical thinking as if it were an isolable skill.

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Is the university burning?

Last month I went to a debate organized at the Sorbonne, “Is the  university burning?” (L’Université brûle-t-elle ?) Appropriately, it ended in chaos; but  midway through, there was a bit of performance art.

Actors in masks, some with stockings over their heads, made a pretend argument for burning the university. For the foreigners in the audience, a disjointed translation of their performance was projected on a screen like so:

We want Godard, Proust, the Princess of Cleves, not commercial trash culture

Let us burn the university! No! The University is not for profit! It is there to create more freedom, more riches (that are not material), “Latin is useless and that’s why it’s beautiful!” against the death of “dead languages”, let us burn the university! In the name of all erasmus students, I would like to say I had no time to write a speech, because I work to pay my way and so we say “let us burn the university”!

[They shouted their discourse from the stage.]

Experiment time! First we will build a fire, the first spark. Take your sheet of paper, fold it over, then again, and cut it, and lick it and keep your strip of paper (etc),

[The actors circled back into the aisles of the large lecture hall with sheets of paper, with which they mimed an effort to create fire.]

It doesn’t work!!!!!

[—they said as they pretended to discover that rubbing two pieces of paper together doesn’t make a spark.]

It would be crazy; it would be like killing oneself; like putting one’s head in the freezer, like throwing oneself under a car, like…

[As if they were delighted to discover that they didn’t need to burn the university after all… but the translation trailed off and the actors came through the aisles hugging the audience. Even including the ethnographer, yours truly.]

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Philosophy classroom art

In the Philosophy Department at Paris-8, the biggest philosophy classroom is located just beside the department offices. It has a variety of curious things on its walls.

A painted character hangs from a coat rack. He appears striped. Bald. Stretched out by the neck. Striped shoulderbag too.

My friend Emmanuel proposes that we translate this as, “At Paris VIII in the philosophy department, I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by LMD.” Alternatively, “had our minds blown by LMD”… the Law LMD being one of the first university reforms of the last decade (2003). I’m not sure who’s represented by this skeletal face: the government? the philosophers? But I note the little hint of Greek architecture in the broken columns: classical Greece often seems to be iconic of philosophy in France (more, I think, than in philosophical circles I’ve come across in the U.S.).

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Testimonials of precarity in French universities, part 2

Here we have a second testimonial of precarious life in French universities, one that comes not from a temporary worker but from a doctoral student struggling to finish her thesis. This one has to be filed under the genre of the public lament: a political genre which, it comes to mind in passing, deserves further cultural analysis. More specifically, this was an open letter sent to Minister Pécresse by a parisian PhD candidate.

Paris, February 22, 2010

Madame Minister,

I’ve decided to write to you to offer my personal testimony about the current conditions of doctoral students in France. It is exactly 10:30pm, and after a day of full-time work (to make ends meet), I’m starting the second part of my day, the part dedicated to my research work. In the fourth year of my dissertation, I should be putting real effort into writing up my thesis, but given the lack of time and resources, I’m just trying to keep these activities afloat. Some days, my will to continue emerges from my intrinsic interest in research; other days, I’m remotivated by the long years I’ve already spent on my work. And on other days still, I work double shifts because of the 552 euros I had to pay at the start of the academic year. In the end, on certain evenings like this, I find it hard to see the sense in this situation. I’ll sum things up: I had a good academic record, oriented towards professionalization (with publications, conference talks, fieldwork, teaching…), with encouraging results; but in spite of all this work, all this willpower spent, I don’t know how, materially speaking, I’m going to be able to finish my thesis.

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Testimonials of precarity in French universities

When the report on precarity in higher education was first publicly released, the presentation was followed by a number of panel discussions. Here I’m going to try to translate a few people’s personal tales of precarity. Today we’ll start with that of Aurélie Legrand.

Moderator: We have all been precarious at one time or another… perhaps not all but many of us. We have picked a few people who represent the different categories [of precarious work] we presented a moment ago, with all their complications. Our precarious colleagues aren’t here to cry over their lot… Do you want to introduce yourself?

“Aurélie Legrand, I’m 33 years old, I’m at the master’s level in my studies [bac+5], with a decade of professional experience in the private sector. It’s been a little more than a year that I’ve been a contract worker at the university, and so I’m part of what they call the precarious workers of higher education. So I work on a short-term contract (CDD) as a research engineer (ingénieur d’études) in a social science lab at the university. The post became available on May 1st, 2008. I came to apply for it in December 2008, and… I can tell you that it was a little bit hard for me to accept this post, even though it did represent a good opportunity for me at the time. It was hard to accept because they offered me a very short-term contract. So, I had an interview in December, and they offered me a short-term contract (CDD) from the beginning of January 2009 to May 1st 2009, so a 4-month contract, because the permanent occupant of the job who went to the private sector on May 1st of the year before could return to their job on May 1st the year after. So… I had to leave the region where I was coming from because [unclear], anyway for this 4-month contract.

“Finally I accepted this offer, and the permanent person [titulaire] didn’t take the job back on May 1st in 2009, so they had me sign a second short-term contract from May 1st to June 30th. A two-month contract. It had a gap of two months built in for the summer. So honestly the situation wasn’t really good at all. But finally, when they brought me in to sign this second short-term contract, they realized it was a category A job, so there wouldn’t be a break in the contract. So they extended the contract to August 31st 2009. And… what else was I going to tell you… so during that summer, sometime around mid-July, I got a letter from human resources indicating that I was summoned on September 1st, in the early morning, to sign a new contract, this time from September 1st until August 31st — so a year-long contract. So I was brought in to sign this new contract and things more or less worked out because that was the end of this deal with the two-month summer interruptions.

“That said, I was pretty much astonished by the way the human resources people had us sign the contracts. We were brought in collectively, all the contract workers summoned on September 1st. They had us in a room that might be about the same as this auditorium. There was no real group welcome, everyone waited in their own corner, and finally two people came in with the contracts. The group was divided in two, maybe from the letter A to the letter L on one side and the rest on the other, and everyone lined up to sign their contract. So you didn’t have the time to really read all the conditions in the contract; you signed, and if you had questions it was pretty hard to ask them, to have any personal discussion of your work contract. Voilà.

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