April 15, 2003

the road to poverty

There is a great post over at Invisible Adjunct on academic labour. The description fits what is happening to the humanities in our corporate universities in Australia.

"A humanities Ph.D. takes many, many years to complete. The pursuit of this degree involves an enormous investment: not just financial (e.g., salary foregone) but mental, psychological and emotional. And entry and/or attempted entry into the profession places you in a peculiar situation, wherein you experience a strange combination of the conditions of both alienated and unalienated labour. The conditions of alienation are bleak enough, and they are real: low wages, unemployment, under- or sub-employment, genteel poverty, exploitatation, and ramen noodles."

All this is spot on. I did it this number. All up, I did it the best part of a decade making dam sure that I got the trade certificate. It was all or nothing. Break through or bust. It was back-breaking (soul destroying) torture though. Nearly broke my spirit. But it toughens you. Its all about character building.

So why do it? It is not rational activity in terms of the marketplace to deny yourself a modest middle class life. Who wants to live a life of genteel poverty? Why choose a path that leads to a dead need---no decent job?

Well, one reason is the promise of jobs that are never there--in the philosophy discipline in Australia just as much as in history discipline in Canada. But the jobs are not that great. Lots of teaching, poor work conditions, grumpy colleagues, a bit of research, low salaries, not much glamour and living in a ghetto. So it was not the job per se. A middle level bureaucrat is better off.

Another reason is the attraction of the life of the mind and being a scholar. Not its not wisdom. None ever talked about that. Its very seductive life the scholar who stands outside the sordid world of the market and politics. The universities spin it big time because that is, or was, their core business. You have the image in your mind of the independent thinker and explorer of ideas who lightens up the path for others.

What you actually get at the end of the process is a trade certificate. The Ph.D says you have certain skills and capacities associated with being able to think critically. The long process of training and education means that you have developed a certain sort of comportment, or certian way of being in the world.

Invisible Adjunct puts it this way:

"...if you have the passion and the interest to stick it out and finish the degree, you will probably also experience a kind of unalienated labour. You're not punching a time clock and putting in X number of hours to earn X number of dollars. No, no, you have your "work," and your work becomes an important part of who you are. You will develop and deeply internalize an identity as someone who does/as someone who is this work. You are your work, and your work is who you are."

You become a professional who thinks critically all the time, rather than just being a 9-5 teacher. It is a way of being in the world that is so much a part of who you are that it can no longer be shrugged off. You cannot back to the pre-philosophical life, as it were. The critical gaze is turned onto your love life, relationships and other aspects of everyday life.

If you leave the academy and work in politics then you are still continuing thinking critically about the world around it. You have to adapt it---into strategic political thinking about public issues---but its the same critical virtues at work. You are thinking about public issues rather than texts. When yopu read the texts --newspapers, electronic media government reports, media releases---you are deconstructing within a strategic political context.

The problem with the academy is that it has gone corporate and so it meets increased demand for its services through cheap, casual deskilled labor. Invisible Adjunct puts it this way:

"The use of adjunct faculty in higher education continues to grow as the number of people looking to further their education increases." This suggests an inevitable causal link: more students leads to increased reliance on adjunct faculty. But this leaves out an important part of the equation: more students plus lack of funding and decreased support for education leads to increased reliance on adjunct faculty."

And adjunct faculty means casual labor on a hourly basis. Its a bit like working in a ban or in a pub. Its all long way from the 'life of the mind' stuff. The life of the mind these days is more like the artist in the garrett holding down shit jobs to keep the writing going.

Of course the universities never say this. Nor do the various disciplines. But its true. Unless you take the other option of being a teacher getting the student numbers through. The life of the mind in the humanities is a road to poverty for all but the few who can catch the wave.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at April 15, 2003 02:20 PM | TrackBack

"Soul destroying" is exactly the term.

In my very first blog entry, I said "the black dog of depression is snarling at my feet." I guess I meant: I want my soul back.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on April 15, 2003 02:43 PM

Getting your soul back is easier said than done. Some of my friends try and do it by privatising their intellectual life--work from home--and are supported by their partner who earns the money.

Others go and work for non-governmental organizations eg., environmental groups in civil society.

Those who gain tenure are resigned to academic life and find their soul in family life.

Its much more difficult when you are an adjunct or causal academic labourer. I found it pretty much a road to nowhere because the humanities were on the skids.

Depends on what you mean by getting your soul back.

Nietzsche is a good read on all this. He left the academy to save to save his soul. He thought of philosophy as a way of life rather than as an academic discipline.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on April 15, 2003 03:07 PM

Sounds rather like the secular equivilent of taking 'Holy Orders' to me.

I would have loved to have done history myself- I'd love to learn Russian and dig through the old Red Army archives and study WW2 from the Russian point of view. But how practical is that? It's just an intellectual hobby, and I can't ask society to support me while I do it.

The monkish discipline of the academic life isn't for me.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein on April 15, 2003 04:47 PM

Calling it monkish is dead on--it's at least medieval. When I was doing divinity work in Boston, the president there mistook the medieval hierarchy of the university for the absolute monarchy of the early modern period. But because of the medieval structure in place, there was very little that faculty could do about it. How much of academia's problems stem from its medieval roots? Should we be talking about "de-medievalizing" it? (Here in Atlanta we talk from time to time about keeping the "plantation ethic" in check. Not dissimilar.)

Gary, a while back you said that Foucault went a long way toward bringing back philosophy as a way of life. I agree, and think he might have gotten all the way there had he lived another five or ten years. And the same for Nietzsche.

So what is about these folks that makes them lifestyle philosophers? What is it about academia that is so inimical to lifestyle philososphy? Who are some other recent lifestyle philosphers?

Along that line, are there any "founding documents" for the University as an institution? Something akin to a sacred text? Might be a good place to start some genealogical work...

When I was in Boston, it was often said that hard part of getting a Harvard PhD was getting out without splitting your personality or developing schitzophrenia. But, following IA's comments, perhaps that's just the inevitable outcome of throwing a medieval institution together with a modern sense of self and expecting them to get along?

Posted by: chutney on April 16, 2003 02:35 AM

I actually think i live a philosophical lifestyle.

My dolebludgering, my blogging on dolebludgering, are all driven by an examination, if earnest, of my interaction with the world. It is powered by the failure of marketing to influence my inner life (yes it does, no doubt, influence my purchasing decisions).

Of course the same earnestness leads to a failure of employment as well.

Mr Economy hates me because my heart has spurned him.

Posted by: meika von samorzewski on April 16, 2003 11:29 AM

Regarding "demedievalizing" the academy, one could make the argument that the problem with contemporary academia is not too much marketplace, but too little, that the "corporate university" is inimical because it introduces a half-assed, faint-hearted market logic into what is valued and not valued within the academy and that this interacts exceptionally poorly with the sacred, artisanal, guild character of the academy.

So maybe it should be fish or cut bait, that "valuable knowledge" should either "knowledge that people will pay for". OR it should be "knowledge that is sacred". But if it's the latter, then the entrepreneurial expansion of knowledge and disciplines in the academy is totally untenable: we need to go back to core curricula, "tight" disciplines, and stronger filtering systems for what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable knowledge. I don't think that can happen, even if you wanted it to. So maybe we should ask what would happen if value in the academy was even more market-driven than it is now, if we had a true "marketplace of ideas".

Posted by: Timothy Burke on April 18, 2003 02:01 AM

Good point about the "half-assed, faint-hearted market logic." But what if academia went all the way in its embrace of market logic and market culture? Would this produce a flourishing marketplace that would allow for a broad and diverse range of ideas, including those that we now associate with the sacred, artisanal and guild character of the traditional university? Or would the more traditional areas of knowledge go the way of the 19th-c. artisans whose work was made redundant by the processes of industrialization?

From the perspective of the humanities, the problem with "knowledge that people will pay for" is that people may not be willing to pay (or not to pay very much) for humanities knowledge. There is a minor movement toward a return to core curricula (which I support: I teach in a core curriculum programme and -- apart from the fact that I do so as an adjunct -- it's the best teaching experience I've ever had). But this probably won't get very far in the end. I don't know what the answer is, but I do firmly believe that people in the humanities need to start facing these problems headon -- or go the way of the stockingers and weavers.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on April 19, 2003 03:04 AM

The Universities in Australia fit your description of being in transition and are only partially governed by the market. The current reforms will make them more governed--eg. students paying full fees for some courses.

Australian universities cannot be fully governed by the deregulated market because many of the regional ones would go the wall and that would be politically unacceptable.

If the academy is more market driven than now, then the humanities would suffer because the lack of good, well paying jobs for those with humanities qualifications: ie., a liberal education. That's the experience in Australia.

So the new educational management of the corporate universities are only acting rationally when they downsize these disciplines and put their resources where the money is. The disciplines disappear and become a module in a common programme---eg., critical thinking----in all but the flagship or elite universities(eg., ANU in Canberra).

Invisible Adjunct is quite right: the old humanities disciplines disappear---just like the stockings and weavers----because their knowledge is no longer required in the new knowledge economy.

So there is a need for re-skilling or re-inventing, or transformation of these disciplines and the way they have been traditionally understood. Hence the movement from
English literature to cultural studies: from Jane Austen to Madonna under the sign of postmodernism.

But even that return to everyday life in the 1980s and 1990s is probably not enough to save the Humanities. It probably gave them a breathing space; it was a holding operation because of the lack of jobs in the university. Many hundreds of Phd's in cultural studies but only a dozen or less jobs in the academy.

The Americans are better off here because they have a broader understanding of intellectual practice-----eg., all those think tanks they have. More jobs.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on April 19, 2003 03:26 PM

Part of the problem is that the value of an education is very difficult to assess before you have it. Only afterwards can you say what it has done for you. The assessment of value must therefore come from those who have already gone through it, and that assessment is relevant only insofar as they make that education a requirement for others. If people in business and government are convinced that education makes a difference, they will demand it of those who work under them.

My experience would suggest that many people in business and government do consider their education to have been important to them and that they want a similar education for those they will work with. Nor are the only things of value trade-related. In fact, these may be less so, since trades change rapidly and much is learned on the job. A liberal arts education is helpful in the marketplace, partly because there are "spiritual values" in it, such as openmindedness, working with others, problem-solving skill, communication, etc.

Unfortunately, I don't think that most academics, myself included, have a good sense of what they are doing that might be helpful to someone else. And that is largely our fault. The academy fosters what Hegel calls the "law of the heart," which is the romantic conviction that what is important to me should be important to everybody. This is a problem that must be faced.

At the same time, the university should not, to my mind, become as consumer friendly as it is attempting now. As I said before, the consumers, i.e., the students, are not in a position to judge the value of the product. That needs to be done by those who have completed their formal education. The university should set its own standards, and those universities will succeed that manage to satisfy the most people. If we help shape successful people, they will encourage others to follow after them.

Posted by: Eddie Thomas on April 20, 2003 03:30 AM

I agree with much of what you've said, but can't (at least for the moment) share your optimism.

I'm not convinced that the university is in a position to set its own standards. Who pays the piper calls the tune. We have already gone pretty far toward the student as consumer model, and students (and their parents) are increasingly inclined to see the liberal arts BA as a luxury degree that they cannot afford to pay for (an English degree would be nice, but it won't pay the bills.)

What I think might happen (what I think is already happening): the humanities will survive, and perhaps even flourish, at the level of the elite schools: the Ivies, the liberal arts colleges, the really good state universities. But they will not survive as we now know them, and certainly not flourish, at the vast majority of insitutions of higher ed. If so, a liberal arts degree might well become a marker of privilege (which is what it obviously was before the enormous expansion of higher ed. in the 1960s): if you can afford to take this "useless" degree, it's because your position in the upper-middle to upper class is pretty secure.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on April 20, 2003 04:08 AM

I don't always share my optimism either!

One thing I see happening is the creation of an administrative class that is fundamentally uneducated but influential in determining the credentials needed in business and education. I don't consider these people productive in any sense of the term. They bring their stock managerial rules into every situation without any serious awareness of what the situation calls for. It is my belief that this parasitic entity cannot exist forever. (More optimism.)

Posted by: Eddie Thomas on April 22, 2003 12:30 PM

"It is my belief that this parasitic entity cannot exist forever. (More optimism.)"

Not forever, no, but long enough to do a good deal of damage, some of it perhaps all but irrevocable (more pessimism!).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on April 24, 2003 06:02 AM

enjoy your thoughts

Posted by: johnnycockatoo100 on November 17, 2003 03:19 PM

Is there a way to prevent uncertainty from ruling the evil events of world society and a way of dealing with religion to stop it from contributing towards the initiation of unstableness in the future.

Posted by: Joost Holstege on January 4, 2004 09:26 PM

A lot of whining . . . if you do a Ph.D. you've made a choice � this "the university doesn't tell you" stuff is ridiculous. If you've got eyes in your head and access to job listing and veteran academics you have no excuse for such childish whining.

And for God's sake, expand your vision! Academia is NOT the only thing you can do with a Ph.D. � there are many other avenues if you take the time to look and turn those thinking skills to creativity.

Grow up, get a grip � and make your life!

Posted by: Theresa on May 5, 2005 01:18 AM
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