Packing my library, or the impossibility of precarious feeling

1. Packing my library

Twelve or fifteen standardized brown boxes of books, covered in dollar store tarps and dust from lizard corpses and asbestos toxins — I’m lining them all up, three by four, three by five. Each box is stamped identically with bar codes, and green icons certify that they are all made from recycled paper, but nothing says where the recycled paper came from, so you wonder, does it come from dead books? Obsolete books? All those textbooks that your students don’t really read — do their carcasses get recycled into your moving boxes?

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The “Age of Precarity” after the doctorate

I have my doubts about whether precarity is always a good category for academic labor organizing. But from within the universe of European precarity discourse, I especially admire Mariya Ivancheva’s recent summary of the situation of early career researchers in her 2015 paper “The Age of Precarity and the New Challenges to the Academic Profession“.

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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
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Early fragments on the intellectual precariat

Contemporary commentators often give us the sense that the increasing precarity of academic work is a recent and novel phenomenon. As I’ve noted before, in the American case this sometimes seems to rest on the historically inaccurate fantasy of a previous Golden Era of tenure, even though tenure, on further investigation, was apparently a rather recent invention that only became widespread in the post-1945 period, only lasted a few decades, and never covered all academic staff anyway. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that there aren’t ongoing degradations in the conditions of academic work; the last twenty years have not been pretty in terms of US academic employment. Things look particularly grim in Britain this year, given the threats of 80% cuts in public university funding; in spite of the fantasy that tuition will increase to compensate, it’s easy to imagine that many humanities departments will be closed down. (Or already have been.) And as I’ve discussed before, France has seen a growing discourse on academic precarity the last year or two.

But it may help our sense of historical consciousness to discover that even a hundred years ago, some people already had a fairly clear discourse on precarious intellectual work. I’m not a historian and I can’t pretend to give the whole picture, but if we search on JSTOR for “intellectual proletariat” the first use of the term is as early as 1884, and the term has been used occasionally ever since, being used on average a few times per year in the scholarly literature since the 1930s.

In 1904, one Frances J. Davenport wrote a review in the Journal of Political Economy of a book by Carlo Marin. Marin apparently set out to demonstrate that “the inferiority of the Italian is by no means innate, but is the result of his extreme poverty.” Davenport went on to summarize as follows:

The fundamental cause of the poverty of Italy, according to Dr. Marin, is the faulty system of education. Numerous but poorly equipped universities train great numbers of lawyers and of doctors, who cannot find employment and form an intellectual proletariat. On the other hand, the few schools of agriculture, industry and commerce are scantily attended, and the instruction lacks a practical character. Reduce the number of universities, improve their scientific equipment, and introduce into every university thoroughly practical instruction in agriculture, industry, and commerce; work directly for economic development and social improvement will follow.

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A sense of precarity

College students who turn more or less consciously and hopefully to philosophy for enlightenment are, at bottom, in search of a satisfying life. They may have a pretty clear idea of what this includes. “It means,” said a football man whom I asked what he meant by a satisfying life, “employment, a fair income, the prospect of a family, and the chance to do something for people on a larger scale than just yourself or your family.” But they feel profoundly insecure as they contemplate the conditions under which this satisfying life must be sought. This feeling of insecurity is due not only to the threat of portentous on-going affairs, but to their own lack of a positive philosophy of life with which to face the world.

This statement doesn’t come from the present or the recent past; it comes from 1939, from a curious little American text by one M. C. Otto called “College Students and Philosophy.” Otto’s main aim is to excoriate his fellow philosophy professors for their anti-instrumentalist view of their discipline, that is, for their rejection of their students’ desires for a philosophy that would be useful in the world. For a short text, it has quite a long attack on philosophy professors’ urges to retreat into the sanctity of pure concepts and “esoteric wisdom.”

But what I think is fascinating here is mainly the early emphasis on precarity or insecurity (as they apparently called it then). Otto reminds us that insecurity is scarcely a uniquely contemporary phenomena, in spite of what one may be tempted to imagine in light of the pervasive sense (in France and the U.S.) that ordinary life is newly troubled. And Otto points out that precarity is not only a matter of economic and material problems but also of available intellectual resources, of “a positive philosophy of life with which to face the world.” Of course, Otto probably underestimates the effect of “portentous on-going affairs” on collective consciousness. I’m no expert on the U.S. in 1939, but I imagine it wasn’t the most cheerful geopolitical moment. (I’m suddenly wishing my grandparents were still alive so I could ask them about this.) But Otto, even if he may push the point out of perspective, does have the great merit of suggesting that disciplinary education may play an important role in forming consciousness and hence in shaping students’ cognitive relationships to the world.

Now Otto seems to have some very un-contemporary notions about forming consciousness, about educating the whole person, about being educated as a general state of being that helps one live through a fluctuating and incomprehensible circumstances. Today education is often considered a matter of isolable and measurable competences, of transferable skills, of favorable position in social networks, of positive career outcomes. Interestingly, even many of the most anti-establishment professors tend to accept this framework insofar as they often fall back on trying to teach skills like “critical thinking.” Or should I say: on trying to teach critical thinking as if it were an isolable skill.

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Testimonials of precarity in French universities, part 2

Here we have a second testimonial of precarious life in French universities, one that comes not from a temporary worker but from a doctoral student struggling to finish her thesis. This one has to be filed under the genre of the public lament: a political genre which, it comes to mind in passing, deserves further cultural analysis. More specifically, this was an open letter sent to Minister Pécresse by a parisian PhD candidate.

Paris, February 22, 2010

Madame Minister,

I’ve decided to write to you to offer my personal testimony about the current conditions of doctoral students in France. It is exactly 10:30pm, and after a day of full-time work (to make ends meet), I’m starting the second part of my day, the part dedicated to my research work. In the fourth year of my dissertation, I should be putting real effort into writing up my thesis, but given the lack of time and resources, I’m just trying to keep these activities afloat. Some days, my will to continue emerges from my intrinsic interest in research; other days, I’m remotivated by the long years I’ve already spent on my work. And on other days still, I work double shifts because of the 552 euros I had to pay at the start of the academic year. In the end, on certain evenings like this, I find it hard to see the sense in this situation. I’ll sum things up: I had a good academic record, oriented towards professionalization (with publications, conference talks, fieldwork, teaching…), with encouraging results; but in spite of all this work, all this willpower spent, I don’t know how, materially speaking, I’m going to be able to finish my thesis.

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Testimonials of precarity in French universities

When the report on precarity in higher education was first publicly released, the presentation was followed by a number of panel discussions. Here I’m going to try to translate a few people’s personal tales of precarity. Today we’ll start with that of Aurélie Legrand.

Moderator: We have all been precarious at one time or another… perhaps not all but many of us. We have picked a few people who represent the different categories [of precarious work] we presented a moment ago, with all their complications. Our precarious colleagues aren’t here to cry over their lot… Do you want to introduce yourself?

“Aurélie Legrand, I’m 33 years old, I’m at the master’s level in my studies [bac+5], with a decade of professional experience in the private sector. It’s been a little more than a year that I’ve been a contract worker at the university, and so I’m part of what they call the precarious workers of higher education. So I work on a short-term contract (CDD) as a research engineer (ingénieur d’études) in a social science lab at the university. The post became available on May 1st, 2008. I came to apply for it in December 2008, and… I can tell you that it was a little bit hard for me to accept this post, even though it did represent a good opportunity for me at the time. It was hard to accept because they offered me a very short-term contract. So, I had an interview in December, and they offered me a short-term contract (CDD) from the beginning of January 2009 to May 1st 2009, so a 4-month contract, because the permanent occupant of the job who went to the private sector on May 1st of the year before could return to their job on May 1st the year after. So… I had to leave the region where I was coming from because [unclear], anyway for this 4-month contract.

“Finally I accepted this offer, and the permanent person [titulaire] didn’t take the job back on May 1st in 2009, so they had me sign a second short-term contract from May 1st to June 30th. A two-month contract. It had a gap of two months built in for the summer. So honestly the situation wasn’t really good at all. But finally, when they brought me in to sign this second short-term contract, they realized it was a category A job, so there wouldn’t be a break in the contract. So they extended the contract to August 31st 2009. And… what else was I going to tell you… so during that summer, sometime around mid-July, I got a letter from human resources indicating that I was summoned on September 1st, in the early morning, to sign a new contract, this time from September 1st until August 31st — so a year-long contract. So I was brought in to sign this new contract and things more or less worked out because that was the end of this deal with the two-month summer interruptions.

“That said, I was pretty much astonished by the way the human resources people had us sign the contracts. We were brought in collectively, all the contract workers summoned on September 1st. They had us in a room that might be about the same as this auditorium. There was no real group welcome, everyone waited in their own corner, and finally two people came in with the contracts. The group was divided in two, maybe from the letter A to the letter L on one side and the rest on the other, and everyone lined up to sign their contract. So you didn’t have the time to really read all the conditions in the contract; you signed, and if you had questions it was pretty hard to ask them, to have any personal discussion of your work contract. Voilà.

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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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Testimonials of precarity in American academia

I’m about to post a few things about precarious jobs and political responses to precarious jobs in French higher education, but before I do that, I wanted to call a bit of attention to this fragment of a personal narrative of precarious work in American higher ed, which I came across by chance in an old story on Inside Higher Ed:

I don’t know how I’ve gone this long without discovering Inside Higher Ed, but I’m very glad I finally have. This is clearly a hugely valuable resource and I appreciate it very much. I’ve been adjuncting @ 2 institutions for just 1.5 years now, after teaching as a grad assistant for 2, and am actively trying to figure out where the hell to take my career. The article here, as the others, and especially the dialogue in the comments are hugely valuable to me, not least because they just make me feel less alone in my outrage over the “white-collar Walmart” set-up, as another commenter coined.

I looooooooooooove teaching, like crazy, and I don’t even want a PhD. It took me 9 years to complete my BS and MA altogether, I’m 36, and I’m tired. I just want to work & learn with students about textual meaning-making, and do my best to arm ’em with those literacies that will best empower them to get what they need/want.

Before this gig, I’ve been a waitress for going on 20 years, a job I loved, but needed to get out of, due to a chronic injury and a certain amount of going stir crazy within its intellectual limits. Teaching gives me everything I love about waiting, without the arthritis, crazy hours, and bathroom-cleaning. The only seriously huge glaring problem, of course, is that waiting tables, I can and have pulled in a pretty comfortable, lower middle-class income, and get health insurance and a frickin’ 401k.

Something’s gotta give, certainly. I have every confidence that somehow, I’ll make a career that works enough to avoid true abject poverty when I retire, and I’m even more positive that I will find a way to have fun while I do it. I knew what I was getting into, job-wise, when I went for the MA. But I’ll tell you what, if I hear one more tenured/tenure-track faculty at my 4-year institution cluck sympathetically at me about how awful it is that the life of an adjunct is so hard, but take absolutely no advantage of their position to advocate for any change in our treatment, I will lure them to the bar I still work at on the weekends, so I can throw a beer at them on my own turf.

(Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to link directly to a comment on Inside Higher Ed, but if you scroll around you can find the original.)

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