Review of Will Teach for Food

Will Teach For Food
Edited by Cary Nelson
Paperback, 248 pages
Published by University of Minnesota Press
Publication date: April 1997
ISBN: 0816630348

An Inter-Review by Dirk Stratton and Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 5/26/1998

SCOTT: So Dirk, we’ve both read this Will Teach For Food book. The book has got a scary title. And what it says has some horrible immediacy to us as Ph.D. students tenuously approaching a job market that appears to be filled with snapping sharks. We’re not just teaching and learning in graduate school . . . we’re getting ourselves fed into a system which will exploit us just about as far as is conceivably possible. Not that we’re completely free of complicity. We have chosen to enter this profession, well aware of the risks our pursuit of this vita contempliva entails.

DIRK: It wounds me to accept such complicity, even though I do every time we discuss the current situation. If I’m complicit in my exploitation by the university, what that means, in effect, is that I should never have come to graduate school in the first place, that I should have recognized the unconscionable way they treat graduate employees (which I did) and then give up my dream to earn a Ph.D. (which I haven’t). The complicity argument is just a variation of the old “blame the victim” line, as if my acceptance of an exploitative situation completely absolves the creator of the exploitation, namely the university. Just because you can recruit victims willing to suffer doesn’t justify the suffering or excuse it. One message of Will Teach For Food is that the universities, including the faculties, are the villains, and what a sad collection of villains they are. Essay after essay on the Yale T.A. unionization portray the Yale faculty and administration as besotted by their privilege, doing imitations of Marie Antoinette enraged and befuddled that the peasants want some bread. And whereas Nelson and his contributors would certainly understand a graduate student opting out of such a corrupt system, abandoning the workplace will not alter the work conditions. According to this book, if change is to happen, it will have to come from inside the university, through collective bargaining by T.A.s organized into labor unions.

Where I am definitely complicit, however, is in my complete failure to get involved in such an effort. I have the usual excuses, no time, laziness, a sense of hopelessness. And part of it may be that I’m doing things I love: being a student and being a teacher. The joy I garner from these activities seems precariousness enough without antagonizing people with union talk. Lame. I know. But there it is. Sure, I’m being exploited, but it isn’t entirely a one-way street: I am getting something out of the deal. I’m not working 9 to 5, for instance. Though that does not hide the fact that that’s a pretty feeble rationalization for accepting getting treated like an indentured servant, particularly when the “masters” expect us to be grateful for the abuse.

SCOTT: Here’s a few words from the MLA Report on Professional Employment:

the MLA’s latest job placement surveys suggest that if present employment patterns continue fewer than half the seven or eight thousand graduates students likely to earn Ph.D.s in English and foreign languages between 1996 and 2000 can expect to obtain full-time tenure-track positions within a year of receiving their degrees.

That’s us, pretty much, that they’re talking about there. So we spend a decade studying in the university for at best a fifty-fifty shot at a living wage. And that “within a year” factor should not be interpreted as meaning that it gets any easier for someone after they’ve been out on the job market for a few years.

DIRK: In fact, as Nelson describes in his Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, it gets worse, since the people who fail to get a job one year don’t simply disappear. Say 5000 Ph.D.s get degrees but don’t get jobs this year; they’ll be back on the market next year in addition to the new crop of seven to eight thousand. The surplus of Ph.D.s seeking jobs continues to expand as the number of jobs declines. Of course, eventually people get exhausted and give up the search, but never enough to eliminate the oversupply.

SCOTT: Graduate students and part-time faculty at universities across the country are familiar with the terms of this debate. There is an overflow of academic labor, and the university, it turns out, is even more willing than the private sector to exploit the situation.

Also from the MLA Report:

In Ph.D. granting departments, graduate students taught 63% of the first-year writing sections, part-timers 19% and full-time non-tenure track faculty members 14% on average.

The proportion of all faculty members who are part-timers grew from 22% in 1970 to 40% in 1993

The university is pretty much systematically eliminating funding lines for full-time faculty and replacing them with part-timers, who will only be paid a fraction of what a normal full-time employee would cost the university, usually without benefits. There’s not only too many of “us” job-seekers, but the number of above-sustenance-pay-level jobs is also being dramatically cut. Graduate programs produce people qualified to be professors, but then the university replaces the decent jobs those qualified people might have filled with scandalously underpaid part-time positions. I’d go so far as to say that if what has happened to academic labor at American universities over the past twenty years were happening at American automobile factories, the assembly lines would have ground to a halt more than once by now.

DIRK: There is a certain irony in the fact that the intellectual elite of this country find it more difficult to protect their economic rights than the blue-collar workers many academics would scorn as “uneducated” or “lower class.”

SCOTT: I think if Upton Sinclair were alive today, he’d skip the meat packing plant and head straight for the university.

When Nelson spoke here at the University of Cincinnati he compared the position of contemporary English Ph.D.s to that of migrant laborers. More than a few of our colleagues have bounced around from part-time position to part-time position, maybe a one year appointment here or there, never quite achieving a wage substantial enough to make any progress on their student loans.

DIRK: I remember reading an article years ago about “gypsy scholars”–profs who went from visiting professor appointments to one-year replacement appointments, maybe taught a class here and there at his local community college. The crux of the article was that such folks, while not exactly rare, were not the rule, or shortly would not be since the academic labor crunch was just around the corner. I think the rumors of an academic labor shortage have turned at least four or five corners and thus have entered the world of myth. What we have is the reinvocation of that irresistable story: the “Golden Age,” in this case, another seller’s market like existed during the fabled 60’s, when if you were within sniffing distance of a Ph.D. a job was waiting for you. I can recall reading at least three different versions of this myth over the course of the past 20 years; each time the birth of the Golden Age was pushed up half a decade. We’re still waiting.

One of the most disturbing things about reading all the essays in Will Teach For Food about the Yale imbroglio was all of the evidence demonstrating that Yale has decided to emulate the ruthless business practices of corporate America. An extremely wealthy, non-profit institution, that, I assume, at one time espoused liberal, humane values, and presumably sought to teach such values–this institution has decided that it is in their best interests to squeeze every penny they can from their workers, not only their graduate students but their service, maintenance, clerical, and technical workers. And for what? Maximizing the earnings of their endowment. Nelson is correct when he states that one of the worse messages Yale’s action sends is that if a rich institution like Yale supposedly can’t afford to pay people a living wage, what are the chances that poorer institutions will suddenly find the money necessary to do what Yale claims it can’t?

SCOTT: The real crime is what they do with the money that they do have. They’re always willing to spend it on the physical campus. Donors and corporations like to see their name on shiny new buildings. Our campus at the University of Cincinnati is constantly under construction, expensive buildings, designed by the world’s most famous architects. Millions and millions of dollars are being spent, but on bricks and mortar: not on bringing university employees up to a decent standard of living. This is going on nearly everywhere. Implicit in the spending trend is the idea that what “university” means is a better set of buildings, and not the people who work in them. Knowledge workers are understood to be interchangeable, and disposable. The buildings are what is important to the typical Board of Trustees; not, apparently, what goes on in the classrooms.

DIRK: Another irony is that at the same time as the systematic impoverishment of a majority of their teaching workers continues, the university loudly mouths platitudes about the importance of undergraduate teaching to worried parents and suspicious politicians. No matter how dedicated an individual is to teaching, no one is going to do their best work if they have to continually worry about food, health insurance, child care, etc. etc. or have to commute between two or three campuses to teach. Since in America estimates of quality have been reduced to finding out how much it costs or how much money it generates, do this test: whenever you hear a university promote their belief in quality teaching, ask them how much they’re paying to get this “quality.” T.A.s and part-time adjuncts are extremely valuable to universities because they’re cheap, not because they’re expected to provide excellent teaching. In other words, university words are not backed up by university practice: if universities really valued teaching, they’d reward those who taught with the only commonly recognized sign of merit in this country: cold hard cash.

SCOTT: I think you’ve hit on a general trend in the academy as whole. There is a real shift towards a corporate influence, and a corresponding corporate approach. From the Coca Cola Commons at Emory to the Procter and Gamble School of Nursing here at the University of Cincinnati, universities are depending more and more on big corporations for their funding. While I’m not saying we should necessarily turn away every gift horse that shows up at the door, we ought to make sure it’s not a Trojan before we let it go galloping through the gates.

DIRK: I realize that this is going to expose me as a dangerous, pink-eyed, obviously hopelessly out of touch with contemporary values, liberal or something, but all these crimes are being done in the name of business values, or because the university has to become more like a business. Excuse me, but isn’t “business values” kind of an oxymoron? What values does business teach? I’m willing to concede that business may be a necessary evil, but when did it become something that everything else is supposed to emulate? What has business done for us lately? Poison our air, water, land, and food, move thousands of jobs overseas, buy our political system, made billions for a few, while poverty increases, etc. etc. Business cuts corners whenever it can and frequently has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the realm of legality. And this is admirable? I’d prefer the nebulous concept of “family values” with all its pitfalls to “business values.”

SCOTT: Standing in the checkout lane of this new supermarket-style formulation of the university, I constantly find myself wondering: whatever happened to the idea of liberal arts? Call me idealistic, but I still think that education is meant to be preparation for living a better life in toto, not just a training in business values, or in a the technical procedures of a particular profession. University administrations are changing the conception of what higher education in America is meant to be.

On the one hand, it makes sense to train people, to give them practical skills. But the university is shifting towards a completely consumer-based model, and the consumers, surprisingly, are not the students or their parents. The consumers are the major corporations who need employees trained to their particular specifications. Not that the human resources department at your average Fortune 500 corporation necessarily knows how to best educate the kind of critical thinker that will make for an inventive and productive employee in the 21st century. A person’s education is not the same thing as his or her job description. I think it is important, as well, to realize that the English classroom is not without economic value. The ability to write well is becoming increasingly valuable in the new information economy. The skills that we teach are vitally important to the future success of college students, in business and in life.

DIRK: Returning to the notion of complicity with which this desperate conversation began, Nelson bluntly accuses university faculties of, more or less, profiting from the exploitation of graduate students. That is, since there are limited resources, if T.A. salaries and benefits are to be increased, the money has to come from somewhere, and Nelson suggests that that somewhere is out of the pockets of the full-time faculty. Which is not something I’m going to hold my breath waiting for. For some of the essayists in Will Teach For Food, this competition for resources explains the Yale faculty’s surprisingly intemperate approach to graduate student unionizing. Them’s that gots the cake, want to keep it.

SCOTT: As Nelson says, tenured faculty members need to speak up for their less-privileged peers. I think that the first step is acknowledging that the money necessary to rectify the horrible economic disparities of the current system needs to come from somewhere in the university. Change at this point has simply become necessary. If a university wants to lay claim to any kind of ethical justification for its existence, it needs to back up its supposed values with the way it spends the interest on its endowment. Tenured faculty have an ethical responsibility to see to it that the discipline which they inherited is not completely rendered “valueless” on their watch. Faculty need to object to the state of affairs, and they need to do it in public.

DIRK: As Nelson puts it, how can English faculty claim to be humanists, while simultaneously benefitting from the exploitation of fellow human beings? Of course, to question one’s ethics is quite a bomb to lob into the genteel parlor of most faculties, who have completely bought into the idea that they’re powerless, that the Administration is solely responsible for the horrible working conditions of adjuncts and T.A.s, and that that gets them off the hook. The worse part is that if by some miracle I actually do get a tenure-track job, I’ll become complicit in the system that is currently exploiting me.

SCOTT: Well Dirk, that could get ugly, I suppose, but certainly not paralyzing. I think the trick is for English faculties to stop waiting for change to come from on high, and to start working towards it from within. False consciousness is the watchword of the day.

DIRK: Agreed. But, you know, right now I’m kind of depressed. Let’s go get a drink.

SCOTT: As long as you’re not talking about hemlock. . . .

You can visit Cary Nelson’s Faculty Page at the University of Illinois.

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