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The Ivory Cage and the Ghosts of Academe: Labor and Struggle in the Edu-Factory

(Image: Max Haiven)

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Recognition of the deteriorating state of academic labor in anglophone universities on both sides of the Atlantic is at an all-time high. Thanks to the tireless work of precarious university employees and their representative organizations (from formal trade unions to informal collectives, from lobby groups to activist knowledge-production outfits and blogs), the story of the exploited adjunct, the glut of hopeless doctoral candidates, and the legions of overworked teaching assistants have graced the pages of many fine books and journals and many leading newspapers and periodicals. Indeed, these stories have become a regular feature of publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education and Times Higher Education supplement and increasingly appear on the agenda at large scholarly gatherings, including the Modern Language Association. Even lawmakers are taking notice. Protests are becoming more emphatic and militant. We are amidst a great thaw, where the taboo topic of academic exploitation, once privatized and blamed on “failed” individual scholars, is being rendered unavoidable and recognized as a systemic and pervasive problem. More accurately, the university’s most vulnerable academic workers are fighting back against the “externalization” of the crisis of higher education onto their shoulders: the downloading of a systemic and structural crisis onto the lonely, precarious individual.

But we are also in a time of tremendous retrenchment. The swelling ranks of the corporatized academic managerial class are, in this age of austerity, marching lockstep toward more budget cuts and increasing the university’s reliance on tuition fee increases and temporary, casual and disposable teaching staff, and they’re being rewarded handsomely for their services. While the MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses) revolution may not fulfill the breathless hyperbole of its star-struck advocates, the utopian rhetoric of MOOCophilia nonetheless functions as a rationale to further dismantle the skeletal remnants of the guild-like tenure system and recalibrate the university into a sleek vehicle for “content delivery” and “value added student experience.” Meanwhile, the corporate infiltration of academe advances apace in terms of the domination of many research units by corporate interests (biotechnology, military, pharmaceutical, etc.), the contracting-out of “auxiliary” university services (catering, maintenance, even marking) to the private sector, and the transformation of students into captive audiences for marketing and corporate recruitment. It has developed a diabolic array of new forms of measurement by which to standardize and discipline the extraction of increasingly frantic academic productivity. This new securitized and militarized ivory tower is, of course, built on top of the mountain of student debt (which has now, in the US, surpassed $1 trillion and represents a huge windfall for speculative capital) and surveys a vista of endless commercialism, where the marketization of education has become a model for the commodification of every aspect of social life.

Welcome to the Edu-Factory

Now, more than ever, the insights of the Edu-Factory Collective and their network of interlocutors are crucial. Founded in the mid-2000s in Europe, the Collective now counts scholars and activists from around the world among its members. Based around a listserv, a series of conferences, a book and an occasional journal, Edu-Factory has sought to explore how the transformations of the university are part and parcel of a broader, more systematic transformation of the global economic paradigm towards an age of “cognitive capitalism.”

Edu-Factory’s central theoretical conceit, “as once was the factory, so now is the university,” illuminates three overlapping ideas.

First, it speaks to the increasing “industrialization” of higher education, the standardization of a universal educational “product” (available in different brands and at different “price points” at various institutions) and the application to university laborers of those forms of discipline and measure once reserved for the factory. In order to compete in a “global education marketplace” (and for lucrative international student tuitions), the neoliberal university has formalized and refined disciplines of learning and courses of study to provide students with “job-ready” skills, typically at the expense of critical thinking, social responsibility and earnest intellectual exploration. Whole departments and areas of study are being shuttered when they fail to meet performance targets or attract student and corporate “investment.” These often have the effect of quenching or obstructing the most dynamic and important insights and tendencies to have emerged from marginalized approaches, such as Indigenous epistemologies, feminist and queer analyses and methods, ethnic studies approaches, and anti-racist and anti-colonial theories. Meanwhile, university administrations have become pathologically addicted to the rhetoric of newness, (disruptive) innovation, niche marketing and the vacuous ideals of “interdisciplinary” and “collaboration” which, more often than not, poorly disguise the caustic restructuring germane to the age of austerity. The result is a highly commodified and increasingly homogenized global educational product, a nightmare version of what critical pedagogy scholar Paolo Freire called the “banking model” of schooling where the teacher deposits discrete chunks of standardized information or parceled skills in the students’ mind for later withdrawal at the exam or in the workplace. To this we can add the tremendous profit actual banks are extracting from the university system through student debt, the financing of university expansion, and the interest on the debt of universities themselves.

The university acts as a social, cultural and economic force, not only on the fate of individuals, but on cities and regions.

Second, the idea of the “edu-factory” refers to the emerging socio-economic centrality of the university. Where once, in the industrial age, the factory was the iconic institution and dominated or influenced the lives of the vast majority of people (workers, their families, people who sold things to workers, people denied the opportunity to be workers, colonies that fed the industrial system), now, in the allegedly “post-industrial” era (or, more accurately, an era when manufacturing has been grotesquely globalized), the university has come to be seen as a key economic pivot that shapes a huge number of lives and forms of labor. A growing number of people pass through universities (though this tendency may be leveling off or abating), especially in an age where the hollow answer to un- and under-employment is the constant exhortation to individuals to “retrain” and invest in their own “human capital” to have a better chance of winning the middle-class job lottery. Being unable to afford a university degree, or attending the wrong institution or program, or failing to obtain the right credential or recommendations all have tremendous impact on one’s economic survival and future prospects. The university acts as a social, cultural and economic force, not only on the fate of individuals, but on cities and regions: Universities are among the largest employers in many post-industrial locales and increasingly regional and national governments are restructuring post-secondary education in an attempt to leverage broader economic growth. Meanwhile debt, the bitter residue of study, dominates the lives of graduates long past their college days, compelling many to accept jobs for which they are often overqualified and underpaid. While we should maintain a fair degree of skepticism toward claims that we have entered a new phase of “immaterial” capitalism, it is hard to deny the centrality (at least in the “West” and increasingly elsewhere) of knowledge or the way that post-secondary education has become a mandatory prerequisite for even many highly material and manual occupations.

Hence, the university has become a key flashpoint for social tension and an important ground for struggle. Just as the factory was the key institution of power and wealth in an industrial society, and, hence, the key target of strikes and protests, so too, today, is the university a hub of powerful interests. Major financiers and economic elites sit on the boards of trustees of top universities, and top-branded institutions have become the training ground for the next generation of increasingly ruthless and competitive social elites. Meanwhile, for a critical mass of young, disaffected debtors, the university in general has become a powder keg, a zone where the sense of defeat, hopelessness and apathy germane to our society’s young people might be kindled into anger, resistance, refusal and the desperate search for alternatives. While the extent to which knowledge work and universities actually create economic “value” (and, hence, their strategic location within the paradigm of capitalism and resistance to it) might be debatable, it is difficult to deny the affective and structural importance of the university in society and the consciousnesses of individuals, nor the critical mass of people now caught up in the institution’s orbit.

In other words, far from a reclusive cloister or merely an institution of privilege, the university has become central to the operations and reproduction of capitalist economic and social relations.

In other words, far from a reclusive cloister or merely an institution of privilege, the university has become central to the operations and reproduction of capitalist economic and social relations, and the crisis of the university today cannot be separated from the crises of the capitalist system of which it is an intimate component: the financial crisis, the post-Fordist crisis, the ecological crisis, the crises of social reproduction and the overarching ideological and imaginative crises that haunt capitalism today.

Is it any surprise, then, that some of our era’s most prominent social movements have emerged in the shadow of the university? The Occupy Movement in the US traces its roots in part back to university occupations. Meanwhile, in Quebec, students organized and rose up against a planned increase in tuition fees and, in contravention of draconian emergency measures outlawing street demonstrations, staged massive popular protests that effectively brought down that province’s government. Massive student demonstrations and faculty strikes have rocked the UK system. Debtors movements are emerging that explicitly link student debt to the low-wage precarious economy. And across the United States, a new wave of union organizing among adjuncts, teaching assistants and other precarious academic workers represents a brave fight – a fight actively and sometimes violently repressed – not only for labor rights, but for the spirit of the university itself.

The University as a Haunted Externality Machine

Most students will graduate to a life of work that will look more and more like what adjuncts have been experiencing for years: part-time, casual, disposable, poorly paid and hierarchical labor conditions where individuals are blamed for lack of success and where one must cobble together a variety of tenuous contracts not merely to make a living but simply to keep up with loan payments.

Many of these labor struggles have been framed around the degradation of the quality of education. The fact that somewhere in the range of 70 per cent of university classes in North America are taught by precarious, temporary or part-time professors, we are told, fundamentally erodes the quality of education. While these professors may be excellent teachers, their working conditions (and growing class sizes) leave them little time to attend to their individual students and refine their teaching methods, let alone pursue original research. But, ironically, who better than the haggard adjunct to teach the next generation, if not in terms of the content of their classes than by their own gaunt example? Most students will graduate to a life of work that will look more and more like what adjuncts have been experiencing for years: part-time, casual, disposable, poorly paid and hierarchical labor conditions where individuals are blamed for lack of success and where one must cobble together a variety of tenuous contracts not merely to make a living but simply to keep up with loan payments. The adjunct in this regard is the perfect teacher of today’s “hidden curriculum.”

Ask most precarious academic workers why they do it: They’ll almost all tell you it’s because they love and value teaching, and they remain hopeful on some level that one day, they’ll be recognized and rewarded. This permits an austere and competitive market of academic laborers who readily “self-exploit,” who are willing to sacrifice their own prosperity and endure belittling working conditions, horrifying wages, no benefits, endless (dangerous) commutes (between multiple campuses) and more – conditions familiar from the rest of the “service sector” and which are quickly becoming the norm for all workers across the economy as stable, lifelong middle-class jobs are systematically broken apart and deskilled into fragmentary and episodic forms of employment. Like ghosts who cannot relinquish their attachments and move on to the great beyond, precarious academic workers (and workers more broadly) remain tethered to an exploitative economy in part by the ever-deferred (and, really, hopeless) promise that their selfless passion will be rewarded and return them to the world of the living. That, or, like ghosts, they have dwelt between worlds so long they have lost all sense of time, of hope or of purpose.

If the price of academic labor has been so cheapened for corporatized universities, who pays the real costs? In the corporate world, “externalities” refer to those costs of production and operations not born by firms themselves, such as the costs of environmental destruction or of the destruction of communities by mining companies in countries and regions where they can get away with it. What are the “externalities” of the corporatized university, those costs that the institution need not pay, but on which it relies? We can observe that precarious academic workers often represent the most generous and least acknowledged patrons of the university: were their “lost” wages ever tallied, they would represents tens of millions of dollars in subsidies for their employers. But we can also speak of the mental, emotional and economic costs to precarious academic workers themselves, who typically suffer a great degree of stress, anxiety and depression thanks to their working conditions. We can speak of the way these individuals must increasingly rely on spouses, partners, families, friends and neighbors for support. We can speak about the way many precarious academic workers end up paying a huge amount of interest on debts they can never surmount. And we can note the way that all of these costs that are “externalized” onto the academic worker are much more difficult to bear if you have modest means or lack access to various forms of social and economic privilege or power based on race (see also here), gender (also here), ability or citizenship status. Hence the depressing statistics that indicate that middle-class, white, straight men still dominate what remains of the tenured or permanent professoriate in most fields. Meanwhile, as higher education is increasingly commodified, anti-racist and other challenging forms of pedagogy become liabilities, and teachers thereof come under administrative attack and surveillance. And, to the extent that universities fail to afford those with racial or gender privilege the entitlements they have been habituated to expect, they become dangerous breeding grounds for backlash reactionary movements aimed at women, people of color and other perceived interlopers, marked in part by the persistence of sexual assault as a widely accepted feature of campus culture.

Of course, no one is compelled to go to graduate school, and precarious academic laborers are (as we are constantly told, as if we could ever forget) free to quit the treadmill at any time. And go where? The truth is the rest of the economy doesn’t look a lot different. There are practically no non-objectionable or non-hyper-exploitative forms of employment left. Or if they do exist, they are quickly being dismantled into an array of temporary contracts and part-time employment “experiences.”

The Ivory Cage and the Ghosts of Academe

The university is a sinking life raft ravaged by the storm of austerity capitalism which must constantly be bailed out through the free labor and self-sacrifice of its students and workers.

The university is a sinking life raft ravaged by the storm of austerity capitalism which must constantly be bailed out through the free labor and self-sacrifice of its students and workers. It is for this reason that the struggles over the university are about much more than the preservation of the privileged professoriate. The plight of the precarious academic laborer reflects the condition of a generation as a whole: an endless socio-economic purgatory, waiting for the redemption of a middle-class job that will never arrive. As the baby boomers slowly recede into retirement (or defer it, for lack of capital), their successor generations find a desolate employment landscape in their wake. The gutting of the tenure system and of the idea of lifelong work is a bell-weather of a much more general evisceration of economic security in society more generally. The university (and, increasingly, graduate schools) today act as massive human warehouses where youth must borrow exorbitant amounts to pay to wait out an economy that has no real use for them or their expensive qualifications and credentials. Governments throughout history have rightly feared mass youth unemployment as a source of social discord and, sometimes, upheaval. Our society has chosen to deal with this problem through the leveraging of the university into a debt machine, effectively incarcerating a generation in an ivory cage.

So the ivory tower on its hill now appears as a haunted house, rife with ghosts. Predominantly, it is haunted by the specter of a vanquished future, of the sort of life that some of us were told we could expect with a university education: middle-class security and prosperity and the right to have a job that was meaningful, allowed us to exercise our minds and didn’t destroy our bodies or our sanity or our spirits. Both within academe and in society at large, such a future exists only as a taunting apparition, mocking us for what appears to be our individual failure to live the dream. The halls of academe too are haunted by all those would-be professors who have succumbed to the mental, financial and physical toll of a system and “dropped out,” literally or metaphorically. And those who boarded the last tenure ship to sail usually suffer a sort of survivor’s guilt that makes them uneasy or unwilling to acknowledge the ghosts in their midst, let alone build meaningful forms of solidarity with their precarious kith and kin. Meanwhile, students emerge from the edu-factory tormented by the unrelenting ghoul of debt, whose icy grip forecloses on our futures as we are each compelled to accept worsening labor conditions for fear of (re)possession by our creditors.

Yet, still deeper, we can find the ghost of academic freedom, largely hollowed out of any substance in an age where most academic workers lack meaningful job security. Alas, those with academic security are, ironically, some of the least likely to exercise it as the university weeds out dissident and provocative thinkers well before they apply for tenure or promotion, or, more sinister still, transforms them into highly disciplined producers of obscure jargon aimed primarily (in spite of much sanctimony) at generating academic capital. Ironically, it is all too often the precarious academics who take the lead (and take the significant risks) in the struggle for what remains of the university, while the tenured or otherwise permanent professoriate is (with some heroic exceptions) more timid, careerist and quietist than ever, even while our times demand outspoken public intellectuals, activists and organizers as never before.

Beyond the Ivory Tower

For all these reasons and more, we must understand that the crisis of the university and the crisis of precarious academic labor cannot be solved by better institutional management or even by the unionization of academic staff. We cannot and should not imagine that the university will ever be restored to what we imagine to be the “golden age” of ennobled tenured/permanent faculty in cap and gown, selflessly serving the public through their quest for knowledge and truth. We cannot imagine that any government will see fit to increase or restore funding to post-secondary education, or that a kinder, gentler breed of university administrators will emerge and thrive to redistribute the academe’s rewards more fairly. Union and student struggles against tuition and debt are vitally important and make real differences to people’s lives, but they will inevitably be fought on the defensive.

We must give up on the trashy romance novel narrative of the university, where the brooding, often violent yet heroic institution can be tamed by our tender affections and become worthy of our selfless devotion. Rather, this is a gothic tale; we are romancing a monster, trying to avoid becoming monsters, balancing between survival and annihilation.

We must give up on the trashy romance novel narrative of the university, where the brooding, often violent yet heroic institution can be tamed by our tender affections and become worthy of our selfless devotion. Rather, this is a gothic tale; we are romancing a monster, trying to avoid becoming monsters, balancing between survival and annihilation.

To speak of the future of the university is always, in some way, to speak of our hopes and aspirations for society at large. We want high quality, free and pluralistic higher education because we believe it produces better human beings on the other end, ready to take up the work of building a fair, equitable and just society. We want secure, fairly remunerated and fully supported academic work not only because it leads to better teaching and research, but because these things should be offered to all workers, not just those with PhDs: job security, decent wages, health and dental care, sick and parental leave, and more. We want open, free access to universities not simply because we identify tuition fees and the debt they cause as odious and inherently unjust, but because we believe that a space for study, debate, research, and difficult ideas is vital to healthy communities, common prosperity and the ideals of freedom. It is my opinion that such a society cannot be created under capitalism, but in any case if we fight now for the university, it cannot be a nostalgic rear-guard action, but a broader struggle because we must believe that, somehow, even in its corporatized and bastardized form, the university remains a critical point of leverage through which the spirit of society as a whole can be transformed.

Can we reimagine the university in such a way, with all the “externalities” included? What would it mean to recognize and valorize the incredible amount of collaborative, creative and genuine energy that is dedicated to the university by academic workers, students, staff and the public and reclaim its value? Currently, this energy is harnessed by an institution and by administrators who use it to reproduce a hierarchical, commercialized, debt-driven institution which disempowers its inmates, degrades the value of academic labor and sells it to the highest bidder and undermines the critical function of education. But what forms of resistance, revolt and reinvention are possible when those incarcerated within the ivory cage recognize that it is they who produce all that is valuable? What common specters of collective power might, even now, be haunting the university, and what would it take to materialize them?

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