Internal contradictions in the academic labor market

By | December 21, 2014
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In the December 16, 2014, issue of the Inside Higher Education blog, there’s a story called “One Course Without Pay”, describing the plan of Arizona State University to require their full-time non-tenure-track faculty members to teach five sections per semester (of twenty-five students each) of first-year writing courses. As the article notes, “In effect, the university has just increased instructors’ teaching workload by 25 percent, without offering an extra dollar for the effort.” These sections use to consist of only nineteen students, but the University raised it a few years ago, also without extra pay. Since the full-time salary here is just $31,000, many of the students were already teaching an extra session for overtime pay; these students will actually be now working the same amount for a 25% pay cut. There is reportedly a degree of protest among these faculty members, including a website and petition, but the University seems adamant and it is likely that the new working conditions will be implemented as planned.

Teaching first-year writing to new undergraduates, many of whom as the article notes speak English as a second language, is already a daunting proposition. Effective teaching requires a great deal of personal coaching, repeated drafts, extensive feedback, and in general a high level of personal interaction with the students. Moreover, it is a critical skill for subsequent academic performance. If these new students do not acquire good basic writing skills, their academic horizons will be significantly limited, and their employment prospects significantly reduced. Teaching first-year writing must be considered as a “core technology” of a major university, particularly one presumably dedicated to improving the upward mobility of its students. You would think, therefore, that the workers who effectively implement this technology would be granted high status and a degree of preference by the University.

Obviously, they’re not, and the reason is simple and consistent with my earlier description of the academic labor market. The low pay and status accorded to these instructors and their probable acceptance of the new working conditions are made possible by the constant availability of new people to take the places of any who resign or are fired because of advocacy or any other reason. But here is the most perverse part of it all. As the article notes, large numbers of the instructors are graduates of the University’s own English program. Presumably, the program continues to churn out new graduates, generally fired up by the prospect of a burgeoning academic career, carefully nourished by the tenured faculty. After all, it’s the number of graduate students in the department that justifies the presence of the tenured faculty in the first place, and allows them to concentrate on the more enjoyable graduate seminars while leaving the awkward business of teaching first-year writing to the adjuncts. As they graduate, they often become part of the local academic employment pool that keeps replaceability high and enables the University to unilaterally dictate working conditions and maintain the race-to-the-bottom.

It’s reasonable to think that if local academic employment conditions are so dismal, why don’t those graduates just move away and seek better jobs somewhere else? That’s what a rational economic model would dictate. The problem, of course, is that residence and employment depend on many socioeconomic factors not generally incorporated into rational economic models. Many if not most of them undoubtedly have strong local ties. Even if they weren’t from the area originally, several years at the University will almost certainly have generated a community of friends and connections that is very hard to give up. University towns are generally pretty great places to live in. And, after all, the academic labor market and conditions elsewhere aren’t likely to be a lot better. So it’s probably better to stay put where you at least have a community and connections of some sort, rather than start from scratch somewhere else. And in Phoenix, at least it’s warm.

Here we have the classical Marxist analysis of the crisis of capitalism played out before our eyes. A factory generates a product (students), some proportion of which go on to become its workers. Those workers can’t easily relocate, and thus become essentially captives of the factory. Because of the pressure for ever-increasing profits (tuition and fees), the factory over-produces new workers, which increases the potential labor pool and depresses pay and working conditions (which are essentially trade-offs for each other).

Eventually, the size of the pool will depress wages to the point where the workers simply can’t survive, and conditions can become revolutionary. There is no internal corrective mechanism within the factory-university model to alleviate this result. Only a complete change of paradigm out of the capitalist/factory model would offer hope for improvement all around, but that would require some external intervention. The managers of the factory are themselves trapped by an inexorable inner logic with internal contradictions that constitute the seeds of its own destruction.

Any production model that devalues its most important and technologically essential workers by turning them into fungible “human resources” – in essence, commodities – is unstable at its core. But this model is being enacted over and over again around the world in production settings of all sorts; there’s no reason to be surprised at its being played out within the context of the large modern university.

Just when and where the crisis will come to a head is unclear, but it’s going to happen. The internal contradictions can’t be avoided forever.