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.

I’m from the silent majority that doesn’t have a research grant, that juggles between paid work and self-financed studies. I’m from the silent majority that has no real status: as a student and a worker at once, I get neither the advantages of workers nor the advantages of students (discounts and such…). I’m from the silent majority whose future opportunities look like a dense fog. This last sentiment is particularly strong among my colleagues in human sciences, in spite of the fact that, when it comes time for a debate on national identity or some other media polemic, people go straight to the researchers in human sciences — to historians, sociologists, anthropologists — to take the pulse of our society. I am one of these future PhDs in human sciences, I’m eight years into university studies and, when I find I can’t trade a job as a receptionist for a better job in administration somewhere, I find myself worrying about finding the nth next short-term contract — the idea of a paid vacation not yet being part of doctoral students’ vocabulary. We hear talk about billions of euros that the government is about to release for higher education and research. Me, I’d just like to know how to pay my bills and defend my thesis. That said, I don’t mean to draw an intentionally miserable picture of my situation. I made the choice to get involved in research, and I made it with conviction. I believe in my abilities and competences as a young researcher, and in those of many of my colleagues; I believe in the quality of francophone research and of its scientific results. I’m only wondering about what’s becoming of it. What is happening, Madame Minister, when ultimately the only option that presents itself to new French PhDs is to look abroad if they hope to make a living in their fields?

I am not a renowned researcher or recognized specialist; I am only a doctoral student among many others; I am not up to date on the latest figures, statistics and predictions that your Ministry has available; I have nothing but a few figures I’ve discovered, my coping strategies, and a lack of visibility on the horizon. But I’ll keep going tomorrow, keep working on my research project somehow, not just so I can frame my diploma on the wall, nor even to open up new job opportunities. I’ll keep going tomorrow because I believe in my work. The one thing I deplore is simply that in France, the country of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, I find myself faced daily with the echo of Precarity. And in thanking you very sincerely for your attention, I hope you will accept, Madame Minister, this expression of my best regards.

Klara Boyer-Rossol
PhD Candidate in History, University of Paris-VII

I’m really not sure I’ve captured the prose style of the original, its peculiar mix of bluntly personal revelation with courteous formalities; and I worry that this blog is becoming more of a private translation laboratory than a useful resource. The more I translate, the more it feels like translation is a craft of its own demanding a long labor of apprenticeship. There’s no choice there, of course, but to keep doing it and see if things get better; though I do find that publishing, even here on this blog, is a good minimal guarantee of quality assurance. The thought of having a reader is a good motive for proofreading…

Analytically speaking, I’m struck by the strong rhetoric of French national-scientific virtues that comes out in the last paragraph. It’s as if, as the conclusion of the letter drew near, it suddenly wasn’t enough to base a moral critique of the institution on the fact that it produces precarious, anxious, inefficient actors; and it suddenly became necessary to make a further appeal to apparent contradictions in national ideology. In other words the argument here isn’t just precarity is unlivable but also that precarity is out of place in the revered French national image.

I guess I’m just much more cynical than this author, but I’m also struck here by the rhetoric of sincerity (a term which also rhymes with “precarity,” by the way). In particular, I’m interested in the moment where the author says: I assure you, I actually do believe deeply in my work. This reminds me a lot of the general conclusion drawn by the national report on precarity I wrote about a few weeks ago: there too the general contradiction was that many people believe that their precarious work is unlivable and yet they remain deeply committed to it. Maybe one of these days I should find out what philosophy folks of my acquaintance are talking about in their incessant references to La Boétie’s “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude.”

5 thoughts on “Testimonials of precarity in French universities, part 2

  1. I think that publicly describing one’s own situation unlivable, and yet claiming to remain deeply committed to it, is often a sort of defense mechanism designed at once to inspire pity (or a form of pity), but also to ward off the projected response that these conditions are, themselves, part of an apprenticeship, and that if one can’t handle them, perhaps X professional field is not for her/him.

    Not that we should always doubt the expressed sincerity of people who make formal complaints of this nature. In fact, I think that academia, on every level, instills the virtues of commitment to one’s project without regard to compensation. The same feelings of virtue are expected from K-12 teachers in America, and pretty much anybody engaged in a form of lower-tier public service. To think about compensation in the midst of one’s Important Duty is crass, if not borderline taboo.

  2. Yeah, Max, on second thought I probably should have been more sympathetic in the post. I mean I certainly sympathize strongly with people in this condition (I’m not all that far from being there myself). On the one hand, one wonders if it actually makes any sense for anyone to be strongly committed to academic work: when you think about the triviality and delusions of grandeur that accompany many academic projects, it seems a bit hard to justify wholesale, lifelong commitment. (I guess a Buddhist would go so far as to say that any wholehearted attachment whatsoever is problematic.)

    On the other hand, of course, one of the worst aspects of the contemporary world is the constant practical and ideological pressure to reduce all values and attachments to a cash value. So I do admire people who manage to retain really strong attachments to the unpractical… like the author in question here.

    About the broader question of having nonmonetary attachments, the most interesting thing I’ve read about this is David Graeber’s Army of Altruists. You should totally read it if you haven’t!

  3. I think it’s a good thing to value fulfilling work without regard for compensation. But when you know that your lack of compensation is the result of ever-more-invasive bureaucratic decisions, rather than a longstanding, well known part of the job description, I think that thoughts of compensation are warranted. It seems the “altruists” of the world are too often the ones called upon to make sacrifices (probably because they’re the easiest people from whom to extract sacrifices).

    Also, I wish I had a Harper’s subscription so I could read that article!

  4. “It seems the “altruists” of the world are too often the ones called upon to make sacrifices (probably because they’re the easiest people from whom to extract sacrifices).”

    Well said!

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