What makes students jump

All week, student protests have continued in France, in conjunction with a much larger and more economically important strike by transportation workers. Liberation has an article that juxtaposes “what the law says” with “what students fear.” It’s the clearest introduction to the politics of the confrontation I’ve seen so far – in spite of everything that it probably leaves out about the sociopolitical context. Let me summarize the major points of contention:

  1. State disengagement. The law mandates that universities manage their own budgets (a major innovation in the French context); it increases the power of the university president and diminishes the power of currently-existing administrative councils. Students fear that this is just an excuse for the state to abandon universities to their own devices, decreasing state funding for higher education.
  2. More social selection. The law mandates “l’orientation active,” which is defined as “aider le lycéen à faire un choix d’orientation éclairé,” i.e. helping the lyceén to make an enlightened choice of their program of study. Students view this as a process of “sélection,” which corresponds loosely to what in American universities is called “selectivity,” that is, the screening process by which some students are chosen over others. And they view this as a disavowed means of reproducing social inequality. (See also a longer analysis of social selection at café pédagogique.)
  3. Increased registration fees. Official statements to the contrary, students say it’s obvious that in the absence of state funding, universities will look to their students for financial resources.
  4. Closing of fields of study. The law says nothing about this, but the worry is that universities will be inclined to get rid of un-profitable fields. Interestingly, it seems to be students in human sciences and languages who are the most worried about the law in general. Also, Libération comments that:

    Derrière cette crainte, il y a aussi le refus de la professionnalisation des filières, des licences pros trop liées aux besoins du marché, et la volonté de défendre une université lieu de transmission du savoir.

    Behind this fear, there’s also a refusal of the professionalization of academic fields, of professional degrees too closely linked to the needs of the market, and the will to defend a university as a place of knowledge transmission.

    The whole problem of the university’s general societal role comes up here, and of its dependence on, or partial autonomy from, its economic circumstances. Even in the U.S., there are periodic conflicts over whether college education should be directly vocationally oriented. It’s remarkable that French students, not just professors (whose self-interest is obvious in this context), would defend the right to an economically irrelevant field like philosophy.

  5. The two-speed university. According to the law, each campus will be treated equally. Students suspect, however, that there will be increasing differentiation between major Parisian research universities and small provincial teaching campuses.

Last month, some visiting French anthropologists suggested that I look into the workings of the Pécresse law as it takes effect. Along these lines, I’m tempted to think of this Libération article as a set of five empirical hypotheses whose truth will emerge over the coming years.

Student activism in Serbia

Jessica Greenberg‘s 2007 dissertation, “Citizen Youth: Student Organizations and the Making of Democracy in Postsocialist Serbia,” chronicles the students’ response, among other things, to the still ongoing European Bologna Process. Apparently, in contrast to Western Europe, where at least some professors view it as an instrument of neoliberalization and creeping audit culture, the students saw it as a welcome source of needed reforms. (Serbian professors and administrators, however, remain more equivocal on the topic.)

Greenberg starts with a general history of Serbian universities, saying that they were “decentralized,” with each faculty an autonomous legal entity. (Universities in Serbia date from this century, several having been started in the 1960s and 70s.) Apparently they were an instrument by which the state could consolidate its power — although the threat of subversion from within the universities remained a real concern to state power, and the university thus became “a highly politicized site of critique and protest.” Greenberg adds that “student protest was often exacerbated because expectations created by ideals of higher education were constantly foiled by social and material practices within the everyday workings of the university” (7). (Of course, this is true in America as well, and in France – although I wonder whether it also works in reverse. Is it possible that our social practices are constantly being foiled and disrupted by our dysfunctional educational ideals?)

Serbia is an interesting case of student activism, anyway, since it seems that students had a major role in the defeat of Milosevic in 2000. But after this victory, the student movement lost its unity, refocusing itself on reform of universities. In the context of traditional pedagogy and limited institutional resources, “many student leaders saw the forms of standardization, credit systems, quality assurance and transparency of testing and educational requirements as the solution” (14). Moreover, it was evidently viewed as “a way to make Serbia more properly European” (15). Indeed, Greenberg’s work centers on how Serbian students work through the difficulties of citizenship and democratic organization in their universities. Unfortunately, from the introduction, I get the impression that she doesn’t investigate the university as such, as an institution, as a complex social structure – it seems to be very much cultural anthropology. But for the time being, I just want to emphasize this fascinating case of a neoliberal, regional reform – the Bologna process – being reused and reappropriated in local politics.

experts on french student movements

Apparently there is a group of French historians specializing in academic contestation: “Jean-Philippe Legois est historien spécialiste de la contestation universitaire, membre du Germe (groupe de recherche sur les mouvements étudiants) et de la mission Caarme (pour la création d’un centre d’archives sur les mouvements étudiants).” Legois was interviewed in Liberation; he thinks that the strikes could either grow substantially or remain small. Which is obvious. A more interesting point is that he thinks the question of the “politics” of student groups – which seems to be code for government accusations that they’re a front for the “extreme left” – is a nonissue, the real question being the creation of contingent coalitions of different groups in different circumstances. As for the question of the Pécresse law’s opening of the university to big business, he seems equivocal.

A broad spectrum of feelings is apparent in the comments on the article. One says:

au fond ceux qui manifestent ne sont-ils pas en plein desarroi? on leur a fait croire que l ‘université était accessible à tous, tout le monde pouvait être docteur, chercheur ……. et non même à la fac il y a un filtre( à la sortie) il vaut mieux faire des etudes modestes et respectables, que de “longues études” qui ne menent à rien! je suis d ‘accord dès que le privé sera dans l ‘université alors celles-ci brilleront davantage comme à l ‘etranger c ‘est vrai mais attention la fac n ‘est pas faite pour tout le monde! il faut l ‘accepter et accepter ses limites. (on voit même des bac pro s’inscrire en medecine sic!, en science!) l echec est programmé non?

Which means roughly:

at heart, aren’t those who protest in total confusion? they were led to believe that the university was accessible to all, everyone could be doctor, researcher…. and that even at the fac there wasn’t a filter (at the exit). it’s better to do modest and respectable studies, than “long studies” leading to nothing! i agree since the private [sector] will be in the university, they’ll shine like they do abroad, it’s true. but pay attention, the fac isn’t made for everybody! you have to accept it and accept its limits. (one even sees vocational high school students enrolling in medicine, in science!) failure is planned, no?

It’s a very conservative pragmatism to argue that “the fac isn’t made for everybody,” but I think it’s an interesting claim that failure is planned. There’s more to look into when it comes to planned failure and disappointment in academic institutions.

American universities and class anxiety

Sometimes you hear claims that Americans don’t discuss social class. That it’s not a topic of public discourse. That it’s absent from our collective consciousness. (The late Molly Ivins, or else it was Barbara Ehrenreich, once claimed that ‘class’ was the one taboo topic in the op-ed pages.) To me it seems more accurate to say that class provokes collective anxiety in Americans. Certainly, this anxiety is unevenly distributed across the population; there’s a lot of rejection of class as a category, a lot of individualism, coupled to the ideology that “hard work has its just rewards.” But the anxiety keeps streaming through the social body, and occasionally it forms more pronounced eddies and ripples here and there.

Two essays in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education serve as excellent examples of this anxiety. One is a statement of overt class guilt by William Pannapacker (pseudonym Thomas Benton). He tells us he dreams of going back to his old neighborhood, only to comment that:

I also know the old neighborhood is the Tahiti of the former-working-class imagination: a dream of unselfconscious authenticity, acceptance, and deep familiarity with the rules of social interaction. Of course, it is a self-serving myth.

I know that I don’t belong in the old neighborhood, either. I made my choices long ago; or perhaps others made them for me. No one is awaiting my return. I think I can hear what they’d say: “You seem to like playing the working-class hero for rich people. Whatever. Do it if it works for you. You never belonged here anyway, even when you were a kid. If I could get out of here, I would. So get on with your life. We’ll be fine without you.”

Meanwhile, back on the job as a tenured professor — certifying the inherited status of his middle-class students — the self-proclaimed “academic class traitor” romanticizes his alienation and mocks his own naïve posturing. He realizes there are no people whom he can serve without some inner conflict.

I like this as an analysis of the dynamics of class fantasy. The professor with working-class roots (a) romanticizes his past; only to (b) reject his fantasy as a dream of acceptance; followed by (c) fantasizing his own rejection by his old associates; and finally concluding (d) with the thought that all social life involves psychic conflict and contradiction. Which is true; but it’s a conclusion that entails resignation, depoliticization, disempowerment. Pannapacker ends by remarking that he tries to deal with these contradictions by keeping an eye out for working class kids and encouraging them as he can. This is certainly better than wholly abandoning academia to the affluent, but it will never lead to political change. After all, to aid working class kids in becoming upwardly socially mobile is to presuppose the existence of class divisions that one can only cross on a purely individual level.

Whereas if we read Gary Lavergne’s “College Admissions as Conspiracy Theory,” (a book review of recent work on the inequities of higher education,) we get the opposite, a rejection of class guilt, but one that also seems to lead towards naturalizing economic privilege:

It irks me to read four books telling me that my children are “privileged” or that I’m part of an “alliance of equals” oppressing the poor. In these books my children are “privileged” because my wife and I stayed married, have good jobs, paid attention to what our children did, bought them books, got involved in their schools, and shared the benefits of an education we earned — all of which resulted in our kids’ not being poor and not getting Pell Grants (which apparently makes them rich). I don’t remember seeing any distinction drawn between a “privileged” family like mine and one with five generations of Yale graduates in its lineage.

Lavergne comes from a poor Louisiana background and made his way “upward,” I gather from the surrounding paragraphs. Needless to say, there’s lots of social differentiation that doesn’t directly correspond to wealth or class status per se, and he’s right to point out that there’s social differentiation among the affluent. And an interesting theme here is the importance of intense parental labor in helping their children to reproduce their class status – by helping them to get suitable educations. (Educational institutions remain central to the social reproduction of elites, as they have been for a long time. Apparently medieval monasteries got a substantial fraction of their members from the unwanted children of the nobility.) But the key move here is the claim that Lavergne’s poor origins make him less a member of the upper middle class. In other words: his past becomes a way of disavowing his class privilege in the present.

Lavergne goes on to argue that:

All parents, even the rich ones, want what is best for their children. The parents considered “privileged” in these books aren’t spending their time forming alliances to oppress others. What are they supposed to do? Not use what they have, nor do what they can, to achieve what is best for their children?

And consequently he suggests that the fundamental problem isn’t that elite students are overrepresented but that there simply isn’t the institutional capacity to give good educations to all qualified applicants. He rightly points out that there isn’t the political will to fund public universities at an adequate level or capacity. He concedes, of course, that “elite colleges are overpopulated with affluent young people,” but he ends by arguing that:

Every day I see thousands of “privileged” students sent to our campus by their once-underprivileged parents. It wasn’t easy for many of them to get there. They don’t deserve a guilt trip. For millions of us, social mobility is alive and well in capitalist America.

It strikes me that Lavergne, who manages admissions research for the University of Texas-Austin, has to confront the ugly facts of class stratification in America more than most, and we might view his book review as an attempt to manage the same class anxieties that Pannapacker articulates more clearly, the anxieties that seem to accompany upward mobility in America more generally.

But it bears notice that, in the same issue of the Chronicle, an article describes a rampant sense among academics that they’re imposters, that they don’t deserve to be there, that they’re constantly afraid of being found out as fakes or phonies. Apparently such feelings befall people from many social backgrounds: as the journalist sarcastically comments, “we have come so far in the American postindustrial meritocracy that everyone has equal access to guilt-ridden feelings of fraudulence.” Valerie Young, who is on a lecture tour to publicize her findings, seems to send the message: relax, and accept your success! “We couldn’t have all gotten here for crap reasons,” a graduate student apparently commented after Young’s lecture.

These articles reveal an active ambivalence about the social order of American academia and one’s individual place in it. But they also portray an active struggle to naturalize the status quo, to get one to accept one’s role, to stop worrying, to put an end to anxiety. To me, it’s a relief that these struggles aren’t successful, that anxiety persists, and that restlessness may ultimately lead to reform.

French student strikes gaining ground

Protests against the loi Pécresse are mounting rapidly today, it seems. The law decentralizes the universities, gives more power to university presidents, and allows universities to own their own property directly. Twenty universities are on strike, according to Liberation. Students claim to be against the “privatisation” of universities and against the police. Their communiqué is interesting:

EXIGEONS L’ARRET DES POURSUITES !

Vous êtes tous au courant : les facs vont bientôt se mettre en grève contre la loi Pécresse et la privatisation des universités. A Paris 8 aussi évidemment : la privatisation devrait aboutir d’ici quelques années à la fermeture d’une bonne partie des facs non rentables, à commencer donc par Paris 8, « la fac du 93 ». Même les profs vont faire grève : ils n’ont pas trop le choix s’ils veulent pas se retrouver au chômage.

La privatisation ça commence par le retour à l’ordre. A Paris 8, c’est déjà fait : vigiles, caméras, et conseils de discipline. Vendredi 26 octobre c’est au tour d’une étudiante en philo de comparaître devant la section disciplinaire de l’université. Que lui reproche-t-on ? D’avoir protesté contre le fonctionnement bureaucratique du service des inscriptions. Le service des inscriptions, vous vous souvenez ? Le bureau où vous avez failli pété un câble après avoir fait la queue pendant trois heures ?

Il va de soi que la loi Pécresse ne passera pas, comme les autres provocations du même type que la droite avait tenté en 1976, 1986, 1994, et 2006. Mais au-delà de la loi Pécresse, il est clair que la marchandisation des universités a commencé depuis longtemps, sous la droite comme sous la gauche. En témoignent les hausses régulières de frais d’inscription, l’augmentation de la sélection, la présence de patrons dans les conseils d’administration, et la création de diplômes d’entreprise.

Au-delà de la loi Pécresse, c’est ce processus qu’il faut combattre au niveau local : la marchandisation, et le flicage qui va de pair. Pas de supermarchés sans vigiles, pas de flics sans patrons ! Que ce patron s’appelle « l’Etat » ou « Coca-Cola ».

C’est dans cette perspective qu’il faut combattre les conseils de discipline, pour ce qu’ils sont : le bras répressif de la bourgeoisie dans les universités. C’est dans cette perspective qu’il faut défendre tous les étudiants qui passent en conseil de discipline, que ce soit pour fraude aux examens ou pour s’être révolté. Parce que la lutte contre le capitalisme, ça commence par la résistance contre le travail. Parce qu’à l’université, la fraude aux examens est la première forme de résistance à la sélection sociale ! Contre l’université policière, luttons pour l’abolition des conseils de discipline !

Roughly translated:

We need an end to the persecutions!

You’re all up to date: the facs are about to go on strike against the Pécresse law and the privatization of the universities. At Paris 8 it’s already obvious: in a matter of years, privatization will lead to the closing of a large part of the unprofitable facs, starting with Paris 8, “the fac of 93.” Even the profs will go on strike: they will have no choice if they don’t want to be out of work.

Privatization begins with the return to order. At Paris 8, that’s already taken care of: watchmen, cameras, and disciplinary councils. Friday October 26th, a philo student appeared before the university’s disciplinary section. What was he accused of? Of having protested against the bureaucratic functioning of the enrollment services. The enrollment services, you recall? The office where you snapped after having waited in line for three hours?

It goes without saying that the Pécresse law won’t get through, like the other provocations of the same type that the right has tried in 1976, 1986, 1994, and 2006. But beyond the Pécresse law, it’s clear that the commodification of universities began a long time ago, under the right as under the left. As demonstrated by the regular raises in enrollment fees, the increased selectivity, the presence of managers in the administrative councils, and the creation of business degrees.

Beyond the Pécresse law, it’s this process that must be fought at the local level: commodification, and the policing that goes with it. No supermarkets without watchmen, no cops without bosses. Whether this boss calls himself “the State” or “Coca-Cola.”

It’s from this perspective that we have to fight the disciplinary councils, for what they are: the repressive arms of the bourgeoisie in the universities. It’s from this perspective that we must defend all the students who go before the disciplinary councils, whether for fraud in exams or for rebellion. Because at the university, fraud in exams is the first form of resistance to social selection! Against the police university — let’s fight for the abolition of disciplinary councils!

In the U.S. I’ve seldom heard of students protesting the commodification of education as such. And the class rhetoric is much more potent than I usually encounter. And finally, it’s interesting that the Right has supposedly tried to privatize universities four times already; I should look into that. See also this site.

academic writing in common english

Sometimes you hear people, non-academic people, telling you that postmodern writing is gibberish. But remember the old Yankee saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure?”

Likewise with writing: what’s gibberish to my parents is, I must admit, pretty comprehensible to me. This is because academic language is a tool of social differentiation, used to separate academics from laypeople. But even so, translation is possible. Take the following snip of academic language I saw in an email:

Hi Everyone,

The discussion of the relationship between place and power and the idea of being ‘out of place’ is one that I find truly fascinating. Landscape is often implicated in power relations. Probably because of my geographical location, I have most often seen this subject matter approached from a post-colonial point of view, focussing on colonial re-inventions and subsequent representations of land and place as a strategy in establishing notions of ‘rightful’ ownership. The gendered representation of ‘place’ and ‘land’ in is often tied closely with this colonial project. In my own work I have examined this in relation to the 1930-50 governmentally sponsored ‘Nation Building’ projects in South Africa, and focused on the representations of the gendered landscape in Afrikaans literature and painting.

I am currently preparing for a joint series of lectures on landscape. Some of the areas we will be investigating include the use of landscape in computer gaming, and in comics. As comics have not in the past been my major field of study, and academic material on comics in South Africa is rare to say the least, I was wondering if any of you could point me to easily obtainable readings on the subject of ‘land’, ‘landscape’ and ‘place’ in comics. (Incidentally, that list that went around last week with general readings has already been insanely useful and I have several of the books on order from the US already)

Alana, is your paper published anywhere I would be able to get a copy? Any help on this would be greatly appreciated.

I would translate this banal bit of prose as follows:

The discussion of the relationship between place and power and the idea of being ‘out of place’ is one that I find truly fascinating.

“I am an academic, and I am fascinated by The Man and thinking about where The Man lives — and where The Man doesn’t live.”

Elaboration: “I enjoy taking common words like “place” and “power” and treating them as major conceptual problems. I consider this activity truly fascinating. “Place” and “power” could mean any of a huge number of things, but I’ll probably just talk about them in connection with some minor research problem of my own. However, I will make sure to distill any particular places into the abstract, general idea of “PLACE.” Likewise with “POWER.” What I mean by ‘power’ is basically what kids in the street call “the Man” — it has dim connotations of the government, or big corporations, or colonialism, or parents, or all of these and more… And now, an additional twist! Since we’re supposing that there’s some kind of general relationship between POWER and PLACE, we can then ask what happens to POWER when someone or something is ‘out of place.’ Why the scare quotes, you ask? Well, they mean that being ‘out of place’ is also being made into a rarified academic concept, disconnected from popular usage. But wait — one final note! Since other scholars have also been talking about these abstractions for some time, I will be able to make myself matter by joining their discussion.”

Landscape is often implicated in power relations.

“The Man has ideas about how the world should look and how landscapes should be put together.”

Elaboration: ” ‘Implicated in’ just means ‘related to.’ And ‘often’ is completely meaningless in this context — I don’t really mean that most power relations involve a landscape, because a moment’s thought suggests that lots and lots of power relations don’t have much to do with landscapes. I just stuck in the ‘often’ to make it sound like I’m doing work on something important, and to make myself sound legitimate — which is an important part of making yourself a good academic, OK? so get off my back!”

Probably because of my geographical location, I have most often seen this subject matter approached from a post-colonial point of view, focussing on colonial re-inventions and subsequent representations of land and place as a strategy in establishing notions of ‘rightful’ ownership.

“People near me usually think about The Man and landscapes in terms of who owns what and how they justify owning it.”

Elaboration: “I live in South Africa, and people down here naturally tend to think about academic questions from a South African perspective. We used to be a colony, but now we’re a post-colony, so we consequently have a post-colonial point of view. One of the things we study is how people try to prove their rights to own land by using certain ideas about land. These ideas have been changing since the colonial era.”

The gendered representation of ‘place’ and ‘land’ in is often tied closely with this colonial project.

“People think that land has something to do with gender. That has something to do with colonialism. I wouldn’t want to say what exactly.”

“Again, the words ‘often’ and ‘closely’ have no meaning here aside from making me sound important.”

In my own work I have examined this in relation to the 1930-50 governmentally sponsored ‘Nation Building’ projects in South Africa, and focused on the representations of the gendered landscape in Afrikaans literature and painting.

“I studied Afrikaans literature and painting in the 30s-50s and wrote about all these ideas in connection with those.”

I am currently preparing for a joint series of lectures on landscape. Some of the areas we will be investigating include the use of landscape in computer gaming, and in comics. As comics have not in the past been my major field of study, and academic material on comics in South Africa is rare to say the least, I was wondering if any of you could point me to easily obtainable readings on the subject of ‘land’, ‘landscape’ and ‘place’ in comics. (Incidentally, that list that went around last week with general readings has already been insanely useful and I have several of the books on order from the US already)

“Recently I got this sweet new gig — but honestly I’m not really ready for it and probably not all that qualified for the job. Can anyone help me out?”

Alana, is your paper published anywhere I would be able to get a copy? Any help on this would be greatly appreciated.

“If you help me, I might put your name in the Acknowledgements section of my next essay.”

So, if you put the whole translation together, it looks like so:

“I am an academic, and I am truly fascinated by The Man and thinking about where The Man lives — and where The Man doesn’t live. The Man has ideas about how the world should look and how landscapes should be put together. People near me usually think about The Man and landscapes in terms of who owns what and how they justify owning it. Also, people think that land has something to do with gender. That has something to do with colonialism. I’m not saying what exactly. Anyway, I studied Afrikaans literature and painting in the 30s-50s and wrote about all these ideas in that connection. Recently I got this sweet new gig — but honestly I’m not really ready for it and probably not all that qualified for the job. Can anyone help me out? If you help me, I might put your name in the Acknowledgements section of my next essay.”

critical anthropology of academic culture