When There is No One What Will Take Care of You?

Faculty and graduate students got together yesterday at the “University Beyond Crisis” mini-conference, hosted by the CUNY Graduate Center, to talk about “what is to be done,” and, unfortunately, I could only get to the last panel, entitled “The University as an Object of Knowledge.” It was a beautiful panel, ranging from Tita Chico’s very interesting analysis of metrics used to account for graduate student “value,” to Edwin Mayorga’s moving account of his position in the university, to Robert Reid-Pharr’s condemnation of racial violence and exclusion. However, it’s Victoria Pitts Taylor’s talk, which addressed the crisis from a Foucauldian perspective and suggested that the university is in a moment of “productive growth,” that I want to address. I’m curious to start there because I want to think through the project of solidarity building between graduate students, non-tenure track faculty, and tenured faculty and to tease apart a couple things that were conflated in the recent “grad school is a bad idea” conversation, which tried to warn prospective students of the “reality” of the restructuring of higher education while simultaneously overlooking the ways in which the transformation of graduate students into endless, cheap labor mirrors the larger, historically evolving practices of post-Fordism.

While some graduate students and new faculty seem all too quick to internalize the blame for this larger “failure,” what I hear in the statistics and “facts” of this conversation (for instance, that only 24 percent of all faculty are tenured, which was mentioned yesterday) is really something simpler: academic tenure is on the way out. Yet there is something about that fait accompli I want to question. One lesson from CUNY, at least, is that while these plans to restructure feel as though they are happening via an invisible hand of broad, smoothing power, if we took a closer look at the actual administrative work that is occurring we would see something much more piecemeal, haphazard, fragmented, and potentially even visionless. I’ll come back to that point later because what I want to ask about are practices (that may or may not exist at the moment), which could give us a better lay of the land and that might allow us to sketch out a map of this rather schizophrenic assemblage, which tells all students “Your degree is worth nothing!” but then turns around and says, “Go to school or you’ll die!”

Yesterday, Pitts-Taylor opened her talk with the idea that we tend to speak of the “crisis” of the university in words like “demise,” “shrinkage,” and “cuts.” Pitts-Taylor, the director of the Women’s Studies Program at the Graduate Center, has felt these rhetorical choices directly as she watched funding for Women’s Studies programs “slashed” from the budget. However, at the same time, Pitts-Taylor is aware that funds are being invested in the school (for example, the Graduate Center is planning to add a new floor to their building in mid-town Manhattan. Probably not cheap or easy to do.) This investment, suggested Pitts-Taylor, should remind us that the moment we are enduring is a very productive moment, particularly for some investors. Here, we would be better off refusing “the repressive hypothesis” and put our attention toward what is being  “made productive” in our midst. The situation in higher education may feel like a “neglect of the social,” but in reality we are in a moment of rapid growth and expansion.

As Andrew Ross has written, “Universities, in short, have become a vital part of the urban growth machine,” which draws together FIRE (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) and ICE (Intellectual, Cultural, and Education) industries in a vision of reviving or diversifying city economies. While FIRE & ICE shares its name with what sounds like a soul-crushing restaurant, it’s actually a much more nefarious entity. Ross offers up Catherine Reynolds as a poignant example of the marriage of FIRE & ICE. Reynolds sits on NYU’s Board of Trustees and also owns a company called Educap, “that makes predatory high-interest loans to students who have maxed out of the federal loan market.” Between the physical expansion of different schools and the astronomical expansion of student loan debt, FIRE & ICE is truly a strategy of mutative growth. For Pitts-Taylor, this version of creative destruction is deeply speculative and, in asking us to recast our vision toward that which is being drawn together in higher education right now, she continued to reiterate a phrase that she had read in the newspaper: “the jobs of the future do not yet exist.” The very marriage of FIRE & ICE, as it is playing out in higher education, is a speculative venture to lay claims to those future jobs. As Pitts-Taylor suggested, this is a moment in which capital, technology, and industry are invested in recasting the University in their own image—in hopes of capturing that future value. To me, this is why graduate student claims that rail against the administration for “being neoliberal” fall on deaf ears. To the administration, this is a way of ensuring their survival. This is a grotesque reproductive strategy of care.

Still, while administrators and new constituencies or, as Ross calls them, the “permanent government,” of various cities gather together to care for themselves and their offspring, they wage a more unpleasant battle on the rest of us, namely workers and students. What is interesting to me here is that at least we know where students fit in this speculative schema: they are marked for debt slavery and future labor. The plan for them looks more like indentured servants in the new company town of “student loan debt,” which as theNew York Times reported, will, for the U.S. Government, account for more money than Ford makes from selling cars.

What is more curious to me is where faculty fit in this schema. Yes, the future scions of techno-capital could use a few celebrity sycophants to make sure that the speculation is not questioned. This path to creating a small circle of elite tenured professors started years ago, and the use of adjuncts as a second-tier labor force to protect that status is not new. However, it seems to have become a saturated strategy now that adjuncts are teaching nearly half of all college courses. Adjuncts have become for many, including themselves, an unsustainable “problem.” And yes, as we never seem to learn properly, problems can only be “solved.”

So… enter the MOOC.  A few weeks ago, on Twitter, I wrote, “MOOCS are a labor issue. Period.” What I meant to stress was that we are currently focused on the potentially catastrophic pedagogical implications of these courses but we might also realize that they are the next powerful step in the devaluation of academic and scholarly labor in general. In fact, in the demented dystopian vision of care that the university is currently working with, MOOCs may be the appropriate training for the “jobs of the future.” Aaron Bady has suggested that computers cannot teach students to communicate with other humans. I know what he means, but he is only right if you are maintaining a nostalgia for a type of communication that may have taken place before the digital itself became an expressive terrain of social life.

Just to be clear, I am saying that this is a nasty vision for students (and those who think that this arrangement of school, debt, and adjunctification doesn’t belong in a classroom might want to take a cold look into that future). However, and this is why I think we need to focus on our labor here, we cannot simply turn to students and say school is a bum deal—unless we are also willing and able to remake economies that will support people outside of this current system of credentialing and mobility. This is true for undergraduates as well as graduate students. MOOCs are a direct threat to adjunct labor. In fact, when I asked at yesterday’s conference what the university would be like without its current adjuncts, I received this reply: MOOCs coupled with a new student body of global elite students.

Most graduate students probably already realize that they have more in common with outsourced and downsized “workers” (maybe more than they’d like to imagine), but graduate students have also reached out to the labor movement for support in organizing their own unions and fighting for health care and better wages. This is a real practice that has had real effects. Unfortunately, it is not enough to protect the bigger issue of tenure. Moving forward, we need full-time faculty to address that they too labor at the pleasure of a currently schizophrenic assemblage of interests. The two-tiered system put in place to protect tenure has only worked for so long, and in the “jobs of the future” schema adjuncts may disappear, but so does independent scholarly work and thought. As Keguro Macharia’s beautiful post here attests, that type of thought is delicate labor, and it requires deep and strong protections.

I think what I am trying to ask of all faculty is: Who or what is speaking for you in this current moment of growth? If the answer is something less than desirable, can you also see that there are gaps in this speculative project? I want to suggest that we need one another in order to sense those gaps and to see from different perspectives within the assemblage. Reframing the statement “don’t go to graduate school” to one that fully addresses the attack on tenure helps us see and recognize one another, and our labor. I think it also helps us to identify new partners who might be able and interested in challenging or modulating some of the forces at work in educational restructuring. These might be students, workers, prisoners, teachers, community leaders, and even politicians and investors who may wish to be represented as the link between the “jobs of the future” and higher education is being negotiated. To use the market’s own logic, they may still “value,” want access to, or desire to participate in the practice of delicate labor. My feeling is that tenure, as a labor practice intended at its base to protect thought and scholarship, needs to exist somewhere. If not in the University then where? The answer to that last question is really the answer to the adjunct who is wondering about the elusive Plan B.

Originally posted:


 OpenCUNY » login | join | terms | activity 

 Supported by the CUNY Doctoral Students Council.