Losing the Excellence Sweepstakes

In France, one way that the Sarkozy government has been financing major projects on universities is with a large loan it took out in 2010, termed the “Grand Emprunt.” (I would translate this as “major loan” — “grand loan” would sound a bit silly in English.) Part of the funds have been directed towards so-called “Excellence Initiatives” (Idex, initiatives d’excellence) in the universities—the sums offered were large, and many campuses felt obliged to compete for the money. Apparently the president of one regional council was disappointed that his region’s universities failed to get their Idex, and wrote a letter to that effect which has become public. The following letter was one striking rejoinder:

Monsieur le Président,

I must say that it is with consternation that I read the letter you sent to university administrators in your region. This letter has made the rounds of the country, since I myself received it nine times. I can understand your disappointment in learning that the Idex wasn’t chosen in the Grand Idex Sweepstakes. I understand as well that, faced with drying up ministerial funds for higher education and research, the regions have done what they could to help their academic institutions—yours perhaps more than others.

But how is it possible that this desire to do right, this will to defend your region has managed to blind you to the point of not seeing how the “Major Loan” in general, and the “Idex” even more so, are fraudulent? Maybe you forgot that the President of the Republic himself announced that the interest paid out from the loan will be compensated by deductions of regular funding—making it quite officially a zero-sum game, where the losers pay for the winners? Moreover, you obviously haven’t taken into account that the loan procedures are aimed at systematically removing any role from elected academic bodies and at further demolishing our system. How can you not see that it takes a grandiose stupidity to put Montpellier and Marseille, Lyon and Grenoble, Bordeaux and Toulouse, Paris 2-4-6 and Paris 3-5-7 in competition? That in such tournaments, whole territories in the West, the North and the Center will not have the slightest chance, in spite of their efforts?
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Ashamed to be apolitical

What happened to activist anthropology? To solidarity and support for those fighting injustice and inequality? At the AAA meeting in Montréal support for the Occupy Wall Street movement was conspicuously absent. As the masses converged upon Le Palais, I was anticipating a strong show of support. Yet, when the activists began shouting “Occupy….Montréal….Occupy…Wall Street,” they were met with disdain and not open arms. Are we just armchair anthropologists, all about observation and indignant toward participation? I was told activist anthropology was gaining steam, but that did not seem to be the case in Montréal. Where were the impromptu meetings or discussions dedicated to the most important movement of our day?

It is said that those who do not think something can be done should get out of the way of those people doing it. I guess that is what the majority of anthropologists chose in Montréal— simply get out of the way. When the activists stormed the meetings, I heard several anthropologists uttering “This is not the time or place,” “Someone should alert security,” or “They’ll let anybody in here.” Others ignored their chance to join the movement…

…It is because of corporate greed and profits over people that there are not enough jobs in anthropology and in education in general. Margaret Mead once said: “It only takes a few like-minded individuals to change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Unfortunately, it seems many anthropologists have no interest in changing the world. They seem content doing anthropology from their armchair, waiting on the younger generation to fix the problems that they helped create. For the first time in my life, I was ashamed to say that I was an anthropologist.

I have some quick comments on this. I was there too, and I agree with Montgomery that most anthropologists reacted with indifference to an effort to have an Occupy-style assembly in the lobby of the convention center. I didn’t hear the outright contempt or snark that Montgomery reports, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been some of that too. And, generally speaking, I strongly relate to his frustration with academics who think their role in the world is to study other people’s politics, but not to act themselves.

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Full of question marks

Continuing my analysis of the April 2010 debate at Paris-8 over the passage to “Expanded [Managerial] Competences,” which I invoked in my last post, I wanted to give a snippet of that discussion, since it says a lot about how French academics grapple with the future of their institution. I haven’t gone through the whole recording yet, but I wanted to just present a little fragment as an example of (a) how my informants debate institutional politics and (b) of the fragmentary, partial nature of ethnographic evidence. The following was the speech (they call it an “intervention”) of one senior male professor, a fairly outspoken character as I recall:

Est-ce qu’on va l’année prochaine, est-ce qu’on va pas l’année prochaine, à mon avis c’est vraiment une fausse question, et l’argumentation pour nous expliquer qu’elle était la bonne est surréaliste. C’est-à-dire ou alors on nous dit que la loi n’existe pas, c’est-à-dire que si effectivement le prochain président est un navré zozo, qui va appliquer la LRU dans toute son horreur, il aura la loi avec lui, donc, ça ne sera pas très compliqué de défaire les trois motions qui ont été voté par le CA, il aura assez de majorité, et pour ailleurs le CA qui votera trois motions contradictoires différentes, et basta. Donc l’argumentation de pourquoi il faut y aller maintenant me semble extrêmement étrange ou alors il me manque quelque chose que je n’ai pas compris. Par contre, le vrai débat est, puisque nous sommes tous d’accord que cette loi est une catastrophe, ils ont dit ça au tribune ce que le gens se sont dits (???), la question c’est, comment on résiste à une catastrophe et comment même, si on sait que la loi c’est la loi et que Paris-8 n’est pas dans la stratosphère en dehors de la loi, en dehors de la réalité, de comment on se met en position de pouvoir résister le mieux et avoir les meilleurs gardes-feu qu’on peut se ???. Peut-être que c’est effectivement de réfléchir à la question, est-ce qu’il n’y a pas une solution pour sortir de la logique de la loi LRU, est-ce qu’il y a pas une solution pour réinventer le statut expérimental ? Je dis pas que c’est possible, je dis que la réfléxion de la porte est là-dessus. Et je dis le même en ?? de l’argument en disant, mais, attention, la LRU n’est que la prémière étape de la ?, dont la deuxième, là on est ??. Donc la vraie question c’est quelle stratégie prend l’université ? Quel contenu elle défend ? Quelle spécificité elle défend pour que, malgré l’offensive de restauration qu’il y avait avec la LRU, premier état de refuser, nous ? pas toute la trame ? C’est ça, le débat. Et je ne sais pas la stratégie qu’on prend l’année prochaine si on prend cette alternative c’est quoi la différence ? Il y a une différence politique pas [??] Tout le monde sait que c’est différent de dire et ben oui et hélas la stratégie [cherchait la dissolution??] et comme je suis dans un état de droit m’oblige d’appliquer la loi, ah, bon, y a une loi, nous allons l’appliquer, ah bon, que nous soyons contre. Si personne ne voit la différence, c’était trop. Continue reading “Full of question marks”

The fallacy of blaming universities for unemployment

I feel obliged to respond to wretchedly short-sighted articles like this one in Salon that critique liberal arts programs for not preparing people for the brutal job market. I’m just going to say this as simply as I can: It makes no sense to blame universities for producing graduates who can’t get jobs, because the problem is the employers, not the employees. We don’t have a “shortage of qualified graduates”; we have an employment system that’s broken and harmful, an employment system that prioritizes the needs of business owners and managers over those of society and the general population, an employment system, in short, whose constant failure to sustain collective life and common dignity is scarcely to be blamed on the educational system. In the end, education is only one input into the employment system, and when the problem is that system itself, it just makes no sense to dump all the blame onto one of the system’s inputs. If you put someone through a meat grinder, no matter how well prepared for the experience they may be, no matter how much they’ve been educated to be a good, flexible, attractive lump of raw flesh, they come out ground to pieces.

Now, contrary to received wisdom, unemployment is in no sense inevitable. In fact, anthropologically speaking, the phenomenon of unemployment is an aberration. The majority of human societies have had no such thing as unemployment. This should be obvious, if we reflect for a moment on the structure of work in small-scale agrarian societies where people work primarily for themselves and for their household. There were, for example, no unemployed people among the Nuer of Sudan, at least not when E. E. Evans-Pritchard studied them back in the 1930s. He informs us that “there [was] enough land for everybody on the Nuer scale of cultivation… it is taken for granted that a man has a right to cultivate the ground behind his homestead” (p. 77). Or take the Gawans of Papua New Guinea, in Nancy Munn’s account. Gawan men and women alike were expected to work, and the lazy were condemned; as among the Maenge, “passivity [was] the social defect par excellence.” Nevertheless, “daily work,” which focused on the family’s garden, “is planned by each person or nuclear family… [and] a person’s participation in any wider group arrangements for work depends entirely on individual decision” (p. 75, p. 30). For that matter, Michel Panoff, writing about the neighboring Maenge, notes that it took an average of four hours of daily work per adult to feed a nuclear family.

A world where a normal family with no money could work four hours per day to keep itself comfortably fed is, to us, unimaginable. A world where people by default have decent access to the means of sustenance even if they’re not wealthy and haven’t done well in the “brutal job market” is, for us, somewhere past the horizons of our collective imaginations. A world where there wasn’t a harsh competition to be able to participate in reproducing the material basis of our world is, basically, inconceivable. And the limits of inconceivability are accepted as normal; and the fact that our society is an anthropological aberration is utterly unknown.

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“Nothing left but the fac”

I’ve just started reading the most prominent book on French university reforms of the past year, Refonder L’Université: Pourquoi l’enseignement supérieur reste à reconstruire, which translates to “Refounding the University: Why higher education awaits reconstruction.” It came out last October from La Découverte, and has spawned debate at, for instance, ARESER (the Association of Reflection on Higher Education and Research), at a seminar last November on the Politics of Science, and more generally within the remnants of the faculty opposition to Sarkozy’s education policy.

I may write more about this in the future (once I’ve finished it!), but I was struck by the very beginning of the introduction (pp. 15-16), which gives a nice capsule summary of how the university is seen as being at the absolute bottom of the prestige scale in French higher education. I’ll translate; bear in mind that “la fac,” short for “the faculty,” is French slang for “the university.” Bear in mind, also, that a major distinguishing characteristic of French public universities is that they’re open to everyone with a high school diploma, while other kinds of higher education have more selective admissions.

Bastia, August 2008. Conversation with a taxi driver. He finds out that his passenger is an academic. He brings up the case of his daughter, which he’s worrying about. She has just received her high school diploma, science track, with high honors. She wants to enroll in a private school in Aix-en-Provence to be a speech therapist. It’s a dream she’s had since childhood. This is the best school for it, it seems, but the tuition fees are high and you have to pay for lodging too (no dorm housing if you’re not enrolled in the public university). But above all, the results are uncertain: there are only a few dozen places for several thousand candidates. The academic tries to convince the taxi driver that it would be good for his daughter to enroll simultaneously in psychology at the university. That would at least guarantee that she’ll get a degree. Neither the taxi driver nor his daughter seem to have thought of that…
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Rage, repetition and incomprehension in precarious work

The following is the text of an open letter sent to the President of the University of Paris-8 by a teacher in visual arts. She’s losing her job because of a particularly Kafkaesque circumstance: she doesn’t make enough money from art to maintain her tax status as an artist, and in France there’s a regulation that says you have to have a “principal occupation” to work as an adjunct. At any rate, this text, which tends to express its outrage through repetition and irony, is a particularly rich example of the emotional consequences of precarity.

April 28, 2011

Mr. President,
The honor I feel in writing to you is coupled to the hope that you will be able to spare a few moments.

In terms of the facts, all resemblance to the life of Christine Coënon is not accidental; in the form of the writing, all resemblance to John Cage’s Communication (Silence, Denoël Press, 2004) is not accidental (in italics).

I am a visual artist, an adjunct [chargé de cours] in Visual Arts [Arts Plastiques] at the University of Paris-8 since 1995.
I am 48 years old. High school diploma in 1980, two years of college (Caen, 1980-82), five years in art school (Caen, 1982-87) and then the Institute of Higher Studies in Visual Arts (Paris, 1988-98).
Holding a degree in art (DNSEP, 1987), more than twenty years of research and artistic production, fifteen years of teaching at the University of Paris-8… my pay as an adjunct in visual arts is rising to 358€ per month.
What if I ask 32 questions?
Will that make things clear?

Every week I teach two classes, a practical and a theoretical class, which comes to 128 hours of teaching per year.
All my classes are paid at the “discussion section adjunct rate [chargé de TD].”
Do you think my pay is fair, compared to the pay of a tenured professor whose hourly quota is less at 200 hours?

The adjunct is paid for the time spent in class: two and a half hours, although the time slots are currently three hours long. Should I refuse to answer questions after class? And course preparation? And correcting people’s work? And grading? And tutoring the seniors?
What is the difference between an adjunct and a baby-sitter?

In 2005, the semesters were changed from 15 weeks to 13 weeks; after which adjuncts were paid for 32 hours instead of 37.5.
32 = 13 x 2.5?
Why didn’t someone teach me to count?
Would I have to know how to count to ask questions?

Why, when a visiting lecturer [vacataire] gets a gross hourly wage of 61.35€, am I getting 40.91€ (compare to the rate of a visiting foreign lecturer)?
I was told that the hourly rate of 61.35€ corresponded to what an adjunct costs the university.
So if I just add the bosses’ overhead to my own salary, everything adds up.
Do I understand that adjuncts are supposed to be paying the bosses’ overhead?
These things that are not clear to me, are they clear to you?
Do you think it’s fair, this special system?

Why don’t adjuncts, who agree to work for a trimester or a year, get contracts?
They do, however, sign an agreement to work, and after that it’s a “maybe.”
If I start a semester, am I just supposed to imagine that I’ll be there at the end? The same thing for a year?

The adjunct is paid hourly, and thus doesn’t have the right to paid vacation or to an end-of-contract bonus. [NB: The French have something called an indemnité de précarité, which is supposed to be paid at the end of short-term contracts to “compensate for the precarity of the situation.”]
Is there any point in asking why?

Why is it that an artist must have money to make money?
Why does the university refuse the House of Artists’ regulatory framework? I pay them fees as a good taxpayer. [NB: The House of Artists is the professional association chosen by the French state to handle artists’ social security.]
Why does Visual Arts at the University misrecognize the artist’s situation, characterized by precarity?
(The median earnings of affiliated artists are 8300 euros per year, which is below the poverty line, and 50% of artists earn less than that…)

Is an artist who has “insufficient earnings” insufficient?
Why do I have the feeling of only being a chit for the accountants?
Why is the teaching artist considered “lucky” to get underpaid for teaching only if her research is profitable?
Why, paradoxically, does the University only recognize artists’ sales, and under no circumstances their research and teaching?
(I’ll permit myself to mention that in 2008 I got a research fellowship from the National Center of Visual Arts [CNAP]).

Is this the 28th question?
Have we got a way to make money?
Money, what does it communicate?
Which is more communicative, an artist who makes money or an artist who doesn’t?
Are people artists within the market, non-artists outside the market?
And if people on the inside don’t really understand, does that change the question?

Why do I teach at the University? (Some say there are Art Schools for artists!)
Why? Because I was invited there and, naturally, I found myself a place there.
I say “naturally” because, whether at an Art School or at the Institute for Higher Studies in Visual Arts, I have always felt a complementarity between the historian and/or theorist and the artist.
Too naturally, no doubt, I got invested and, too passionately, I have continued in the conditions that you know.

Is there always something to wonder about, never peace or calm?
If my head is full of uncertainty, what’s happening to my peace and to my calm?
Are these questions getting us somewhere?
And if there are rules, who made them, I ask you?
In other words — is there a possible end to these uncertainties and, if so, where does it begin?

Are there any important questions?
The semesters are getting shorter, the quota of students per class is rising…
60% of teachers in visual arts are precarious, their pay rising a few hundredths of a euro each year.
I ask you, given that experience emerges over time, what will happen if experience is sacrificed for momentary profit?
Are these questions getting us somewhere?
Where are we going?

Mr. President, I hope that you will be able to understand these questions, and able to answer them too.

I inform you that in spite of the recognized interest in my classes, they are going to be canceled because I am subject to the House of Artists system (which is not even a professional obligation for me), and my earnings are below the threshold for being a full member.
“Fired for insufficient earnings”: my courses are being canceled because my earnings are too low.
Faced with the aberration of this situation, and without a response on your part, I will choose to make this letter public on May 19, 2011.

Please accept, Mr. President, this assurance of my best regards,

Christine Coënon
Continue reading “Rage, repetition and incomprehension in precarious work”

Testimonial from French protests

So as everyone who reads the news has probably heard, there has been a major “social movement” here the last few weeks, basically opposing the government’s reform of the pension system. There have been a number of street protests, major strikes of public transit and railroad workers, and fuel shortages because of industrial strikes. I’m not going to take the time to give links to these ongoing stories, because you can look it all up on google. (I recommend French-language coverage, if possible, and otherwise maybe the BBC. Americans seem to be prone to idiotic analyses like this one.)

To be honest, as an ethnographer, I haven’t been extremely curious about this whole political affair; it’s only peripherally about the universities, and I’m mainly interested in the politics of the university system. And I’m not the only one who feels separate from this movement: at a faculty activist meeting a week ago, teachers commented that their concerns about the institutional situation were radically different from their students’ involvements in the pension question, and they weren’t sure (at that point) what points of commonality with the students they were going to find.

University discussion of the movement has, nonetheless, been ongoing, and I was particularly interested in one sociology student’s testimonial from the barricades in Lyon. I’ve taken the time to translate it; there’s something important to learn, I think, from stories of what happens when privileged, educated people suddenly find themselves subject to irrational and overwhelming state violence.

Thursday, October 21, 2010. Testimony of events on Place Bellecour, Lyon.

I arrived around noon at Place Bellecour, accompanied by some student friends. A protest was supposed to start at 2pm, on Place A. Poncet just beside Place Bellecour, with college and high school students, partnered with the CGT [a major union] and SUD [a left autonomist union]. A number of young people were there, mostly high schoolers and middle schoolers. You crossed a police cordon to enter the square. There were several dozen of them at every exit from the public square, which is one of the largest in France. They were armored from head to foot, with helmets, shields, nightsticks, pistols… There was also a truck from the GIPN (National Police Intervention Group, who had an armored truck and wore masks) and two anti-riot water cannon trucks. A helicopter surveyed the site from a low altitude. Half an hour later, after a few stones were thrown towards the police and their vehicles, the cops went into action and fired tear gas grenades. The crowd dispersed.

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Academic activism flier, september 2010

I confess I’m not sure this will really interest anyone besides me, but on the off chance… this is a quick translation of the higher education flier that accompanied the street demonstration I wrote about a few days ago. It’s useful if you want to get a sense of what oppositional faculty are talking about. I’m attending the OECD conference on higher education management this week, and something else at the French Ministry of Higher Education, so I should shortly have lots to say about the political contrast between official and oppositional discourse. Plus I’ll get to feel fair and balanced.

Mobilize together!

Working and studying conditions in research and higher education

As this school year starts, staff and students are seeing no improvement in their working, studying and living conditions. The government’s reform of teacher education [mastérisation] is showing all its negative effects: there are former job candidates who can’t apply twice, candidates who pass the hiring exam but still don’t get jobs [reçus-collés], acrobatics aimed at creating [new] “teaching MA” programs after a parody of accreditation, interns put in front of classes without any real professional training, whose secondary school colleagues have refused to tutor them… The university and research map has been profoundly modified by the accelerating restructuring of research organizations (new Instituts at the CNRS, merger between the INRP and the ENS-Lyon) and of universities (with processes of inter-campus “fusion”), which have lurched into being through bidding on the government’s recently borrowed infrastructure funds [Grand emprunt]. The multiplication of individualized research grants (PES, PFR, …) threatens teamwork, essential in our sectors. Precarity is rising among the students, under the combined effects of rising fees set by the government (tuition, student health insurance [sécurité sociale], campus dining halls) and rising housing expenses.

Job cuts

We have already seen a freeze in government workers’ salaries for 2011, cuts of 36,000 public sector jobs, and a drastic fall in the number of teaching jobs up for hiring (11,600 jobs versus 15,125 the year before, with a 55% decline for primary school teachers). Under the cover of “deficit reduction,” the latest government announcements presage new public sector blood-letting, further falls in our purchasing power, accelerating degradation of the services offered to the public, and accelerating degradation of staff working conditions, with an ever-rising growth of precarity.

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Higher education marches against xenophobia

Last weekend there was a march in support of immigrants and against the expulsions of the Roma from France. The march was called “In the face of xenophobia and the politics of pillory: liberty, equality, fraternity,” and was a commentary on increasingly harsh French policing of immigrants this summer. My friend Moacir, who came to the march with me as an honorary participant-observer, has some interesting comments on the mechanical reproduction of its political messages, i.e. on how most people carried pre-typed, printed political signs and how this doesn’t necessarily discredit them, but rather constitutes a show of unity.

It strikes me, in hindsight, that it’s worth emphasizing that the march bore a diversity of political messages. While an anti-Sarkozy, pro-immigrant message was certainly the predominant message and the one picked up by the media, there were also, for instance, a number of people marching on behalf of higher education and research, attempting to add their own message to the mix and to show political solidarity with the larger project.

To the left was the “Recherche Publique Enseignement Supérieur” (Public Research Higher Education) balloon.

Later on, I found the banner of Sauvons l’Université (“Save the University!”). I asked someone what the political situation was in the universities this fall. “It’s the rentrée [ie, homecoming, the start of the year],” I was told, “so there is no situation yet; it remains to be created.” I rather like that tiny comment as a fragment of local political temporality.
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La Manifestation: a fictitious political collectivity

Une manifestation is the French term for a protest march in the street. It’s a pretty standard local political ritual, mocked and memorialized by local jokes and international stereotypes alike. “Don’t bother going today if you don’t feel like it,” an  American grad student tells me one day when I feel lazy, “there will always be another one.”

The “manif,” as it’s called, strikes me as a paradoxical social form: imagined as a massively, even paradigmatically collective event, its collectivity nonetheless has a somewhat fictive quality. Most marchers stick to little groups of their friends, paying attention mainly to the people immediately around them. Phenomenologically, a manif is fractured and disorganized, with people leaving and showing up, wandering back and forth, stopping perhaps to take a leaflet or a snapshot. For a marcher, the crowd is a visual jumble of strangers’ bodies crisscrossing. As if to make sense of the constant random motion, a curiously quantitative consciousness descends at times even on the defenders of the most radical causes. The march’s success gets perceived as proportional to the apparent size of the crowd; it can become almost actuarial. People take note of who shows up and of who didn’t make it.

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Student strikebreaking in early 20th-century America

Via John K. Wilson, I came across a fascinating 1994 article by historian Stephen Norwood, “The Student as Strikebreaker: College Youth and the Crisis of Masculinity in the Early Twentieth Century.” It’s published at JSTOR but the full text is also available at findarticles. (Norwood was in the news last year for more controversial research on the 1930s Nazi-friendly attitudes of various universities like Columbia, but I haven’t read that yet.)

Basically, the article tells a disturbing story about the labor politics of early 20th-century American college students. In essence, college students from such places as Columbia, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Berkeley, Univ. of Minnesota, Univ. of Chicago, Tufts, Brown, Univ. of Michigan, Stanford, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Univ. of Southern California, and various engineering schools volunteered to serve as strikebreakers in a large number of labor disputes. It’s not news that college students of that era were elite and conservative, but their extreme hostility towards organized labor is nonetheless striking. Some 9 of 10 of Yale students, we’re told, “subscribed ‘to anti-labor attitudes with fervor'” as of 1910 (334); but the heart of their anti-labor sentiment was expressed less in political statements — as they were apparently too frivolous on the whole to articulate any clear political philosophy — than in the sheer violence of their physical confrontation with striking workers.

Norwood explains that not only did elite college students (a redundant expression, by the way, given the times) replace striking workers at their posts, they also relished the brawls that often broke out as they crossed picket lines. In New York in 1905, “Stories circulated around Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute that ‘Poly’ students working on subways had ‘bested roughs [ie, workers] a dozen times’ ” (331). Two years earlier, “hundreds [of students] answered the Minneapolis flour millers’ call for strikebreakers. Among the first to volunteer were varsity athletes from the University of Minnesota, who with a ‘lusty Shi-U-Mah’ (the Minnesota cheer) formed a wedge, and blasted through the picket line” (338). In 1912, students “joined the militia companies sent in to quell the Lawrence [Mass.] textile strike… students enjoyed the opportunity to precipitate violence, as they enthusiastically disrupted picketing and strike parades” (339). A few years later, in 1919, students were themselves victims of retributive violence. “In riots in the streets of Boston, Cambridge, Providence, and Malden, which were sparked by the strikebreaking of students from Harvard, MIT, Tufts, and Brown, the working class took its revenge on the collegians, badly mauling several. In Boston, for example, some student strikebreakers were beaten unconscious and one had his teeth knocked out” (339).

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Student elections in Aix-en-Provence

Last week I went to visit Aix, which might become one of my major fieldsites next year. The university building itself was falling apart; as it turns out, it was the one featured in last year’s complaint about the physical decrepitude of French universities. In spite of the physical decay, it was all lush with plant life.

Now as it happened, the week I arrived they were in the last days of campaigning for student elections to various university administrative councils, primarily the Administration Council (Conseil d’Administration, which is the major decision-making body) and University Life and Study Council (Conseil des Etudes de la Vie Universitaire, which handles pedagogical matters). Graduate students are also eligible to sit on the Scientific Council (Conseil Scientifique), which sets research policy.

This was the courtyard by the main entrance. In the center of the photo you can see the little group of people handing out leaflets, in what became practically a competitive sport to reach the maximum number of potential voters.

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Student violence in Aberdeen, 1861

I was reading a curious old book called The Rise of the Student Estate in Britain (by Eric Ashby and Mary Anderson, 1970) and I came across a rather shocking passage:

This happened in 1860 in Aberdeen. The students wanted Sir Andrew Leith Hay, the ‘local candidate’, and there was in fact a numerical majority for him, since the numbers in the ‘nation’ which comprised the Aberdeen constituency were greater than those in the ‘nations’ which came from outside Aberdeen. Reckoned by ‘nations’ and not by numbers, there was a tie between Hay and Maitland, the solicitor-general. The principal gave a casting vote in favor of Maitland. This was taken as a deliberate move to back the professors against the students. In March 1861 Maitland came to deliver his rectorial address. The academic profession, along with the magistrates and the town council, entered the hall. Cheering, hooting and yelling greeted their appearance; this was to be expected: it was the traditional accompaniment to every rectorial address. But then the scene became ugly. Chunks of splintered wood hurtled across the hall. The audience were, of course, expected to come unarmed, but some of them had brought in hammers and other instruments with which they uprooted the seats and smashed them into pieces suitable for projectiles.

The principal took his place at the rostrum and called on the meeting to join him in prayer. Out of respect for the kirk there was a temporary lull. But the uproar resumed as soon as the oath was administered to Maitland, and he stood at the lectern to give his address. At this point some of the professors left the platform ‘to remonstrate personally with those taking a leading part in the row’.The rector kept smiling and endeavoured to proceed with his address, but at this stage blood was trickling down his face. The more respectable students were ashamed, and added to the pandemonium by hissing. There were cries of ‘Call in the police’. After ineffectual intervention by the principal, several police were ‘brought up to the hall door, but no force was used by them. . . ‘. The rector calmly and impressively completed his oration, the principal pronounced a benediction, and the proceedings, ‘which had lasted upwards of two hours’, were brought to a close. (20-21)

I’d like to imagine that these days outright violence is no longer a part of university politics, but there are just too many counterexamples to take that claim seriously.

Occupied “free space” at Paris-8

For about two weeks this month, a large space by the entrance to Paris-8 was occupied by students. It had formerly been a coffeeshop operated by a private company, but had been closed months or years ago.

To enter after hours when the campus was supposed to be closed, you had to climb up on that chair and through the window and down a little stepladder on the far side.

One of the occupants’ favorite activities was decorating the walls of adjacent university buildings. This wall was, as far as I recall, pretty much blank before the occupation began; the slogans now read “Bureaucrats outside!” “McDonald’s, we’ll burn you.” “State Rabble.” “Screw the government’s cleansing system before it screws you.” “Riot!” “Fuck may 68, fight now!” “Anti-France” (I have no idea what this one means, by the way). “Drops of sunshine in the city of ghosts.” “Long live the canteen and worker’s self-management” [this refers to a recent campus event I can only describe as student-organized Food Not Bombs for undocumented workers]. “Popes, popes, popes, yes. But nazi and pedophile popes?” “Burn the prisons, destroy the immigration detention centers.”

We can deduce from this photo that someone had invested in numerous colors of spraypaint.

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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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“Our profession does not easily accommodate resignation”

I’ve been spending more time lately with La Ronde Infinie des Obstinés, the Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn, the little group which, in spite of all instrumental considerations, persists in marching every Monday in front of the Ministry. I said in my previous post about them that I was going to translate their tract, so now you (anglophones) can all have another sample of French political rhetoric.

Madame Minister,

For the past two years, we—teachers, researchers, staff and students—have declared our total disagreement with the LRU university law, with the teachers’ education reform, and more generally with the spirit guiding the majority of measures and initiatives that come out of your ministry.

In spite of the longest strike the university world has ever known, you have refused all negotiations on the universities’ status, concerning yourself solely with your career as a politician.

In spite of last year’s general refusal to fill out the auditing forms that inaugurated the teachers’ education reform, this year your government is set to continue every measure that brought us out in the streets last year. You are even adding dangerous, aberrant rules about internships.

Madame Minister, our profession does not easily accommodate resignation.

Research, creativity and the transmission of knowledge all imply a freedom quite at odds with the reforms, these reforms that are turning us into petty administrators of social selection. For us to accept these reforms in silence would amount to renouncing our own idea of what a university should be, a university bolstered by a centuries-long tradition of research, a university engaged in creating a future that cannot be dictated by short-term economic needs.

Madame Minister, the university will not understand itself, it will not manage itself, and it will not evaluate itself in terms of productivity and profitability, for it is based on the inherent risk of research. This risk is at the base of the formative gesture that brings students and professors together, and it falls to universities in the public service to keep this risk alive. Yes, the university needs reform—indeed, we know this better than you do, we teachers, researchers, staff and students who ARE the university in all its contradictions, and who are devoted to preserving and restoring a democratic future for the institution.

Madame Minister, on every one of our campuses, we are working to invalidate each one of the measures you hoped to use in your project.

Madame Minister, beyond these points of resistance and days of protest that will mark our defense of public education from nursery school to the university, we believe it is indispensable to show the public that we resist your policy of dismantling the university, to re-establish the truth against your lies, and to remind the world that the university is a common good that should not be open to corruption by politics. This then is the reason why, having already held vigil for a thousand hours last spring in front of the town hall, we are now going to revive this Infinite Round of the Stubborn. You can find us every Monday starting at 6pm, from here until the day when real negotiations over the universities’ status are opened.

Our stubbornness is total because, in wanting to transform our universities into corporations, you have gone past the limit of what is tolerable.

Our stubbornness is total because we are in no respect inclined to renounce the freedom without which there would be neither research nor creativity.

Our stubbornness is total because, whatever the difficulties of battling your policies, we know that the university community is massively hostile to them.

Our stubbornness is total because of the high stakes we defend, stakes which go far beyond any simple categorical reading of this conflict.

[Second Page:]

Why we are stubborn:

-To remind everyone that the university is a common good, one not open to corruption by a political ideology.

-Because we refuse a third-rate teacher’s education brought about by the disappearance of practical training.

-Because we refuse a university conceived as a business, thrown open to competition between campuses, between employees, between students.

-To defend everyone’s access to quality education—freely chosen, secular, and free of tuition.

-To defend independent research.

-Because we refuse the coming rises in tuition fees and loans that logically follow from the reforms.

-Because we refuse the social selection that will become part of the university admissions process, as budgets come to be calculated in proportion to graduation rates.

-To show the public our resistance, in the face of the dismantling of the whole system of public services.


The Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn
meets every monday starting at 6pm
in front of the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, 1 Rue Descartes

[email protected]

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French press release: Putting an end to precarity

Monday afternoon this week there was a big meeting in a fancy auditorium at the CRNS (National Center for Scientific Research). I say it was fancy because the audience’s chairs were padded bright red, a long coat rack held a long row of dark coats, and, unlike the plebian amphitheatres at the public universities, this room had a soft carpet. Everything was semiotically calcuated to make the afternoon’s discussion of precarity take place in an environment of visible luxury.

The occasion marked the results of a major study on precarity in French higher education and research. Precarity, needless to say, can become a contested and complicated concept, and I want to write about this too but first I need to read more of the prior literature. But the funny part, as it turns out, is that the researchers themselves seem to have faced these very same agonies of literature review and conceptual clarification; and, wanting to avoid having to settle on a single definition of precarity, they decided to let precarity be defined by the research subjects. Hence if you considered yourself precarious, you counted as such in this survey, which had 4,409 responses and appears to be a fairly representative sample of French disciplines and institutions. In practice, I venture to add, ‘precarity’ seemed to come down to a fairly straightforward matter of having a temporary, hence unstable, job situation.

The gist of the study is that precarity is rising fairly rapidly in this sector, the non-permanent workforce having for instance increased by 15.5% at the CNRS between 2006 and 2008, and university workforces currently being estimated at about 23% precarious (looking across all categories of university staff). The major findings of the report included a marked feminization of precarious jobs, a notable concentration of precarity in the social and human sciences (which Americans would call “humanities and social sciences”) in relation to the hard sciences, a definite group of young precarious workers (under 30) combined with a significant group of older “perma-temps,” a range of rather low wages (as someone put it rather sarcastically, temporary contracts are not being compensated for by better salaries), and, subjectively, a set of waves of anxiety and uncertainty about the future. As one would guess, there’s also a lot of struggling to make ends meet through multiple jobs (apparently a few even teach under assumed names, to circumvent age restrictions on some teaching assignments), a certain amount of disdain and nonrecognition from the tenured staff, and a set of inferior working conditions coupled to a lack of workplace rights in the face of the organizational hierarchy.

This has to be taken as only a quick provisional summary; the actual research report is 83 pages long, and I’ll write more about it when I’ve read it all the way through. But what I wanted to post for now was a quick translation of the political declaration announced at the end of the afternoon, after the research results were explained, after a panel of precarious workers had testified, after a distinguished roundtable had chewed things over. At the end there was a long line of academic union leaders (100% male, surely not accidentally) who sat in a row and released a joint statement. It reads as follows:

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The red flags of the stubborn

“We shall wish our minister an execrable new year on Sunday, January 11th,” they announced sardonically on their blog beforehand.

This is the scene. The group is La Ronde Infinie des Obstinés, the Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn, which I wrote about a little bit last summer. Now it is winter. They have been meeting again every week to make the rounds. Two hours. Six to eight. At night. On mondays, right in front of the Minister of Higher Education. It has a regularity to it. A rhythm. If you’re going to walk in circles for hours on end, you better have a high tolerance for repetition.

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Schematic of a French political system

I’ve been working on a grant application for next year and thinking about how to simplify my field situation for the sake of the grant reviewers. I started drawing some diagrams in the process, and while procrastinating from actually writing the text of my grant request, thought I would figure out how to make computer-generated flowcharts of these diagrams. So here’s a diagram – one of many such possible diagrams, of course – of the structure of French university practice and politics:

(Diagram generated with lovely charts. Click through for a larger image.)

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Race, French national identity, and disciplinary politics

I saw the following statements posted on Sauvons l’Université. I have, of course, no personal knowledge of the facts of the situation, but it’s a culturally interesting scenario:

Academics solicited for participation in a “debate” about “national identity” (nov-dec. 2009)

Mail addressed to a teacher-researcher at a university in Nantes

In the framework of the debate over national identity, on Friday December 11th, 2009, at 6:30pm, the prefect plans to welcome Monsieur Jean-François SIRINELLI, professor of contemporary history at SciencesPo and director of the SciencesPo history center.

The prefect, Jean DAUBIGNY, will preside at the meeting. Monsieur SIRINELLI will speak on the theme of “National and Republican Identity.” His comments will be followed by those of Monsieur MENARD, regional delegate for research. The debate will then be opened to all.

The prefect would like to see the audience composed of high school and university students. He would deeply like to see university students and teachers in letters and languages participating in the event.

He would be grateful if you could please distribute this invitation to students and teachers. You will find the invitation attached.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me at …

very best wishes, […]
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Four theses on university presidents’ speech

Recently I got an interesting email from my university’s communications department with a link to a speech recently given by the university’s current president, Robert Zimmer. They said they had appreciated my prior comments on academic freedom and were curious to hear my comments on this speech.

Never having been asked to comment on anything on this blog, I felt a little puzzled, but eventually thought, why not? So here, if you like, are some theses on understanding this instance of a presidential speech.

(1) A presidential speech is a balancing act, a diplomatic performance; and as such, it is almost inevitably produced under severe institutional and diplomatic constraints. One might put it like this: university presidents enjoy no right to free speech. Or at least, no free speech without the threat of retribution from any of numerous quarters. If you read Dean Dad’s wonderful blog about his life as a community college dean, the first thing you find out is that university management (call them leadership or administrators if you prefer) operates in a state of constant compromise and constraint. In a great recent post, he explains something about the constraints on what one can say in his role: “When I spoke only for myself, it didn’t really matter what I said. But as a leader in the institution, comments that once would have been merely snarky were suddenly taken as indications of larger directions.” Just think of Larry Summers. As president, one is heavily vetted to begin with, continuously accountable to multiple constituencies, and under pressure not to rock the boat. And as Dean Dad points out, “front-room talk” isn’t the same as “back-room talk”: even if presidents may be frank in private, they are seldom unguarded when acting in their ceremonial role. First thesis: presidents are not free agents. Corollary: a presidential speech on academic freedom invokes a value that it cannot practice.

(2) The presidential speech is a kind of self-instituting, self-authorizing ceremonial language that functions to assure or reassure the continued dignity of the institution. And a presidential speech is hence less an empirical report on an institution than a moment in the reproduction of an institutional self-image. As in commercial advertising or a political campaign, one puts one’s best foot forward. It’s less that what is said is false as that campus life is glossed with the veneer of an institutional fantasy. This fantasy — one can see it in Zimmer’s speech — implicitly embodies its own criteria of evaluation, which are essentially aesthetic. In such a speech, institutional reality vanishes into the self-satisfied ether of institutional desires for beautiful self-representations.

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A university call to arms after an unsuccessful strike

A question that has interested me since my arrival in France has been the following: how do participants in last spring’s university protests sustain their political hopes in light of the seemingly limited success of their actions last spring? I asked around last June about this and got some nebulous answers about how you just have to keep trying, as if hope was normative even when dismay was the real political feeling of the moment. It would I suppose be exaggeration on my part to say that last spring’s strikes “failed”; certainly they may have slowed things down, and they caused an immense ruckus and drew attention and majorly developed critical analysis of the university and put a major thorn in the side of the education minister — who is still Sarkozy’s Valérie Pécresse, in case you wondered. But they didn’t manage to get the government’s university reforms withdrawn and neither did they manage the radical transformation of universities that many said they desired.

In this light, I wanted to translate a current call for a General Assembly next week at my field site in Paris-8. It goes like this:

“We have even more cause than last year to be angry and to keep fighting.”

This declaration was placed at the start of the communiqué of the National University Coordinating Committee*, which met at Paris-8 on September 30. It perfectly summarizes the feelings of everyone who was there — the representatives of 29 establishments of higher learning and research. We all know that it’s not possible to have a strike comparable to the one we had last semester; we all know that there’s no single form of action that alone would manage to make the government give in; but we all know as well that doing nothing would end up giving the government free reign to impose the worst on us.

For we must not have the slightest illusion on this point: the passage to complete university “autonomy” will wind up threatening the status of ALL workers in higher education. A small cast of mandarins and their lackeys aside, this reform will, before the end of this coming decade, force us all to have to defend our jobs in terms of criteria that the government will wholly determine.

—Autonomous to manage our own fiscal destitution,
—Autonomous to inflict the costs on the students and raise their tuition,
—Autonomous to spread precarious working conditions throughout the educational system,
—Autonomous to impose permanent competition between ourselves.

Last semester’s strike led the government to slow down in its destruction of the public service. But let’s not get this wrong: if we let down our guard, our universities will soon become service stations working under contracts with the State. The State will then retain for itself the autonomy that we claim for ourselves: that is, the autonomy to set scientific programs and pedagogical methods. And given the way the minister acts towards our university today, as in the case of the IFU, we can genuinely fear the worst.

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The origins of university real estate

A friend of mine recently asked if I knew anything about the history of the college quad as a place of free speech and debate. I didn’t, but I’ve done a tiny bit of research in the last couple of days and the results are interesting. Among other things, I observe something of a historical transformation in the scholarly literature: an older era’s work concentrated mainly on college architecture as an aesthetic form in itself, tracing the origins of campus buildings and the progress of architectural styles. Many campuses have their own histories; they are often adapted to the rhetorical needs of campus self-promotion and self-consecration, the sort of thing written by loyal emeritus professors to please the president. On the other hand, a more recent, more modern, more critical literature takes up a different problem, that of the university’s relation to its town, to its broader environment, to its social context; this research tends to be darker, looking at university’s sometimes problematic involvement in urban development, in racial exclusion, in slum clearance, in gentrification. I’ve posted before about Gordon Lafer’s history of Yale urban development and about Kate Eichhorn’s paper on the “abject zone” of copyshops around the University of Toronto — typical examples of this more recent literature.

I have a bunch of photographs of university quads to look at here, and some more recent articles from the U.S. context to think about, but to start off this new set of posts I wanted to begin with this extract from a History of the University in Europe. It offers a very suggestive picture of how universities began to acquire real estate in the first place:

“In the late Middle Ages, as student populations grew and universities ceased to migrate, universities acquired buildings and movable property. For a long time time in Paris and Bologna the administration had not needed to take care of buildings, because there were none. Lectures were held in houses rented by the masters, examinations and meetings in churches and convents. In Paris, however, both the theological faculty and the nations began renting property as early as the fourteenth century, and acquiring it in the fifteenth century. With lecture halls in the rue de Fouarre and many other places, with colleges and lodgings, and with churches (all of them on the left bank of the river), the Quartier Latin became the university quarter of Paris. The young Bologna studium, too, contented itself with private houses and religious or public buildings for lectures, meetings, and ceremonies.

Growing numbers of students, some of them very young and needy, made housing facilities more necessary as time passed. College buildings arose everywhere, but especially in universities with large faculties of arts, such as Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and later on the German universities. Italian studia also looked for lodgings for their students. The comparatively few colleges in northern Italy were founded in and after the fourteenth century, at first in converted private homes. After 1420 a special type of building appeared, the domus sapientiae (house of wisdom) or sapienza, a teaching college modelled on the Collegio de Spagna in Bologna, built in 1365-7. The rooms were grouped around an arcaded courtyard. Gradually the sapienza ceased to be dwellings and in early modern times became the official university buildings with lecture rooms, discussion rooms, a library, rooms for accommodation and administration, archives, and a graduation room. The palazzo della sapienza became the current name for these sumptuous university buildings. (136-7) Continue reading “The origins of university real estate”