Tag Archives: dubious economics

Academic work as charity

In so many ways, academic work is hard to recognize as being work in the standard wage-labor sense of that word. It can take place at all hours of day or night, outside of standard workplaces, without wearing standard work clothing — in bed with the laptop at midnight, perhaps. American popular stereotypes allege that teaching is outside the realm of productive action and thus second-rate — “those who can’t do, teach.” That’s a maxim which devalues the feminine work of reproduction in favor of an implicitly masculine image of labor, but I digress; my point here is just that such claims reinforce the image of academic work as being in a world of its own.

The motivations for academic work are similarly supposed to be other than pecuniary. One is supposed to work for existential reasons, or out of commitments to higher values that go beyond the purely economic — the “pursuit of knowledge” in some quarters, the dedication to making citizens or producing social justice in others. Yet it’s no criticism of these values to observe, as many have already observed, that these higher values can become alibis for an amplified self-exploitation. “You’re doing it out of personal commitment,” they tell you as you donate your weekend to the institution.

A strange moment in this process, though, is the moment where colleges and universities beg their own employees for charitable donations.

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The farce of the private university campus job

Marc Bousquet has commented in great detail about the deliriously bad conditions of student employment in some places (particularly at UPS in Louisville, TN). As of his figures of last year, in 1964 it would have taken 22 hours of minimum-wage work per week to pay for public university education (room and board and all), or 36 hours/week for a private university. Today, it would take 55 hours of minimum-wage work per week (ie, way more than full time) to pay your way through a public university degree, and an insane 136 hours per week to pay for a private university. If you had to pay out of pocket, that is (Financial aid, obviously, might make a huge difference here, and I’m not sure that Bousquet factors it in.)

But just to give some sense of the ludicrous nature of student work at private universities, in a bit of an echo of Bousquet’s argument, I want to share some quick figures that I’ve come up with. In essence, it turns out that if you’re working minimum wage jobs at private universities, you’re arguably still paying the university to be at those jobs.

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