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.

Paris
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.
EVERY DAY IS BEAUTIFUL.
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
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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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“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.

AGAINST THE LRU

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

http://rondeinfinie.canalblog.com
bloginfi@gmail.com

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Academic boredom and ambivalence

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

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

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

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

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