11.1.11

THE LIMITS OF WISHFUL THINKING. There have been a few technical difficulties to start the new year, some self-inflicted (why does the transition to a new computer have to involve reloading all the programs from scratch?) and some exogenous (the joys of running electrical and telephone cables in the same tunnel). Thus a stack of books waiting to be reviewed, and we commence the 2011 Fifty Book Challenge with Book Review No. 1.

Sometimes, when the post-modernists work at being serious, they are at their funniest. So it is with Marc Bousquet's How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. It's definitely in the cultural studies tradition, with promiscuous use of scare quotes and sesquipedalian prose. Cary Nelson, he of the American Association of University Professors, Defender of the Faith, writes a foreword that sets the tone.
To theorize the contemporary university is to recognize that there was nothing inevitable about its formation. It did not have to be, and it can still be dismantled. Set a $200,000 limit to faculty salaries and a $300,000 limit to upper administrative salaries. Limit coaches to $300,000 as well. At my institution, even the president's assistants earn $300,000; I'd cut their salaries by 50 percent. Redirect the money saved to hiring assistant professors, raising part-timer salaries to parity and graduate student employee wages to the cost of living, and eliminating all tuition payments for poor and lower-middle-class students. Deny administrators the right to fund gratuitous pet projects at the expense of a principled salary schedule. If administrators refuse to comply, sit in their offices, sit in front of their cars, block campus streets, block access to buildings, picket their houses. Use nonviolent civil disobedience to force change. Or, if that seems too confrontational, form a union and negotiate those matters at the bargaining table. Increasingly, graduate employees and contingent faculty are doing just that. The key decisions about the job system are made on your own campus when budget priorities are set. Take the money in your own hands. You have nothing to lose but your colleagues' chains.
The focus of the work is on the supposed business model being deployed by universities. There are some ideas that might merit further study, although someone with a working understanding of actually existing business, organization theory, economics, and the proper use of plain English is likely to do a better job. Thus does Professor Bousquet draw comparisons between the behavior of health maintenance organizations and institutions of higher learning. There is one absent referent, however. Both medical care and higher education are full of third-party payments. Nobody really knows what the opportunity cost of a textbook or a passive progressive splint is. His discussion of the origins of management fads as a way to stress the supply chain is intriguing. One wonders, though, whether organizations prone to stressing themselves rather than maintaining their core focus are injuring themselves (creatively destroying themselves?) and whether coming up with the Next Big Thing in operating systems or automotive drive trains has anything in common with helping the young skulls full of mush develop their jive detectors. His metaphor of the university as a computer desktop is interesting, in part because of what he doesn't understand. Perhaps it is instructive to think of the senior manager as a coordinator, facing a computer desktop, clicking on the right icon, and getting the task done, never mind the stresses that mouse click causes on the circuits and individuals responsible for getting it done.

That's where Professor Bousquet's lack of understanding of economics bites him. The point of a division of labor society is to have individuals in place to do the things one does not know how to do, and one contributes by doing for others the things they do not know how to do. (Alfred North Whitehead got that right.) Markets exist to provide incentives for people to develop those talents rather than develop other talents. That's not how Professor Bousquet sees it (pp. 90-91):
Charles Eliot's University Administration portrait of faculty life radiates a confident paternalism that remains viable in many ways today. Despite sporadic press coverage of the term faculty and graduate employees who do 75 percent of the teaching in higher education, the public image of the professoriate remains that of Stanley Aronowitz's "last good job in America": tweedy eggheads effortlessly interpellated in a system of rational, meritocratic reward, administered on a generous scale by a trusteeship of honorable men. Indeed, for faculty in certain overwhelmingly male-dominated disciplines, Eliot's picture is accurate enough. In engineering or business at a research institution, the phenomenon of a generously compensated young male wage earner on track to a quadruple family wage (say, $140,000) by the age of forty is quite common.
To an economist, there's a simple explanation. Market tests exist. In the Wolkenkuckucksheim of cultural studies, however, that's too simple an explanation.
For most others, and especially the majority of women faculty, like "Lucy Snowe" working off the tenure track in the feminized liberal arts, the wages are similar to those of the women who stitched and laundered Eliot's shirt. (The author's use of the educator-heroine of Charlotte Bronte's Villette refers to the condition of nineteenth-century schoolteachers, who often compared their compensation unfavorably to that of needleworkers, whose circumstances were then, as now, a byword for extreme exploitation.) In every region of the United States, women faculty teach for as little as a few hundred dollars per course, frequently earning less than $16,000 for teaching eight courses a year, without benefits.
Supply and demand don't exist in this formulation.
A chief component of Snowe's oppression is the very idea that this arrangement is fair or rational, the inevitable -- and impersonal -- consequence of some such guarantor of the public good such as a "market" in the wages of women (and the men who do such "women's work" as writing instruction in higher education). She characterizes her injuries in the terms employed by survivors of domestic violence with the intention of underscoring the systematic solidarity of the oppressor's logic -- the web of beliefs, loyalties, privileges, and institutions composing the patriarchy itself, not just the individual abuser.
Neither do there exist testable implications. The paragraph rambles to an observation that the oppression requires the sanction of the victim -- but it does not require a John Galt to lead the vanguard into hiding, all it requires is fewer people to enroll in doctoral programs generating that excess supply of Ph.D.s Withdraw that sanction and the substitution of graduate students and temporary faculty for tenure-line faculty fails for want of an industrial reserve army. (Professor Bousquet uses that argument to rebut the suggestion that graduate programs enroll fewer students, as the students provide the cheap labor, giving the management the incentive to keep running the graduate programs. But without the novices and postulants, the order collapses.) That's too simple. The author has to establish his common room cred hence (turn to page 195 and pour yourself four fingers of vodka).
Berelson and Allen don't need the idea of "the market" because they don't need to fantasize an elastic relationship between demand and supply such that controlling the "supply" represents an action affecting the whole system. For Orr, the problematizing of the concept of the supply is a real intellectual convenience, because it both (a) offers the fantasy of doing something to "the market" (i.e. balancing it) by "controlling" or "regulating" supply (1186, 1191), and (b) diverts attention from the real problems of "demand" (i.e. the willingness of administrators to use nondegreed flexible labor instead of degreed persons in jobs). Orr and his successors need "the market" to legitimate the fantasy of a supply-side fix, a fantasy that averts the consciousness of political struggle that would quickly transpire if the concept of "demand" were problematized.
Sound and fury, signifying nothing. No wonder cultural studies is failing the market test. It does not have to take all of higher education down with it.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

No comments: