the academic precariat

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Maresi Starzmann (an archaeologist and anthropologist who quit academia in 2016) discusses academic alienation and suggests that we work toward "freeing cognitive labor from the grip of capitalism"--in specific regard to the corporatization of the university:

Universities today follow profit-maximizing strategies, including in labor management, that closely mirror those of private businesses. As climbing enrolment is met with a blown-up administrative apparatus, the majority of teaching jobs are shifted to temporary, part-time and contract gigs that are managed from the top. The result is not only a widening wage gap between administrative and teaching positions, but also a new form of exploitation of cognitive labor.

Starzmann decries "a university system in which fewer than 30 percent of professors are tenured (compared to 67 percent in the 1970s)," while noting that "the average cost of tuition and fees has soared over the past 20 years." The current crop of debt-laden students, however, "may not realize is that the debt they amass is a claim on their future labor:"

Upon graduating, many will be forced to sell their labor power to the university. They will end up in the same labor pool of adjunct teachers and postdocs that they currently complain about. Their precarious economic situation today will create the conditions for their lives as precarious academic workers in the future.

Another brick in the adjuncts-and-grad-students edifice is the concept of "flexitime:"

At first glance, this may appear to be part of a noble pursuit of granting employees non-traditional work arrangements that can accommodate individual lifestyles (transportation schedules, childcare, workout routines, etc.) to achieve a healthy work/life balance. In reality, however, flexitime often means nothing other than a non-stop work schedule. In the neoliberal knowledge economy, most academics find themselves under immense pressure to meet standardized performance criteria, focusing much of their energy on the marketability of their work. These intellectual workers don't clock out after an 8-hour day, and many are in fact running on a 24/7 schedule. For them, there is no end to the workday and no more life outside of work.

"Given that the majority of available teaching and research jobs today are part-time, short-term or contract positions," she continues, "increasing numbers of university workers piece together several jobs to make ends meet:"

This reflects the changed working conditions outside the university, where more and more people work longer hours for ever lower wages.

The existence of an academic underclass almost entirely at the university administration's mercy when it comes to hiring and firing decisions is underwritten by the nature of work in the neoliberal university. Work here is precarious, competitive and individuated. In an academic temp system, the university can draw on a massive pool of under- and unemployed academic workers who are desperately waiting for a job. This gives administrators immense negotiating power, including the ability to reduce teaching hours or discontinue an existing contract on short notice because there are always others who will gladly take the job.

The corporate university advances an economic paradigm that capitalizes on the intellectual labor of a growing "academic precariat" in hitherto unprecedented ways. This leaves many academic workers feeling hopeless and exhausted. They lack not only the energy to produce critical thought that could constitute an intervention into the competitive impulse for academic excellence (read: productivity); they also experience that they can barely set aside the time to organize for their rights as workers.

"It is true that academic labor is not the prototype of alienated work," she continues, "but under post-Fordist capitalism, cognitive labor has become exploitable as well:"

Organizing academic workers remains essential to the struggle against the neoliberalization of the university and the commodification of intellectual work; the academic precariat must realize that it has the choice as well as the power to fight for collective bargaining rights. Yet, in order to stand a real chance of success, those academics involved in labor struggles also need to devise ways of liberating academic knowledge from the grip of capitalism. [...]

The prerequisite for this kind of transformation of the university is the recognition that cognitive labor can no longer claim to be situated outside of capitalist relations, but that intellectual work is just as exploitable as other forms of labor.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on May 9, 2018 11:24 AM.

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