[URBANTH-L]Political Economy of Academia (especially with regard to Social Sciences and Humanities)

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Fri May 4 22:33:49 EDT 2007

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From: Eric Charles Thompson <socect at nus.edu.sg>

Political Economy of Academia (especially with regard to Social Sciences
and Humanities)

Here is the story:

Academia - specifically universities - expanded rapidly in the mid-20th
century (certainly in the US, with the post-WWII "GI Bill" and general
move toward tertiary education as a social norm; plus Cold War
imperatives, etc.).

With the dominance of neo-liberal economic hegemony (as opposed for
example to state-mediated distribution of and support for social goods,
such as education and medicine), the problem faced by social sciences
and humanities in particular is that there is not a clear economic
market for anthropologist or English literature majors or PhDs.

The business model of social science and humanities (and it may be true
of other disciplines; but not sure about that) is as follows:

1. Shift the bulk of undergraduate teaching to Temporary Visiting
Fellows and Teaching Assistants (who are PhD students; entailing
substantial expansion and over production of PhD's). Basically employing
people under similar conditions to the female factory labor force in the
contemporary "global assembly line"; in which young women are employed
from their late teens to early twenties, but the expectation is that
they will leave the workforce upon marriage, before they gain
substantial experience or demand higher wages. (The insidious difference
is that while third world factories make this model fairly explicit, the
university system pretends that the PhD is actually a step toward a
better job within the system; which increasingly it is not).

2. Maintain a skeleton crew of mid-career "associate professors". The
glut of PhD's produced effectively suppresses salaries in general, but
especially at the assistant professor level, with knock-on effects for
associate professors. And if there is any truth whatsoever to
neo-liberal, rational-choice economic theory the downward pressure on
salaries will degrade the quality of the workforce as well (smart people
will go elsewhere where they are better compensated).

3. While one large amount of resources (money) is put toward employing
many, many cheap teaching assistants, at the other end, very large
amounts of money are spent on buying the CV's of "superstars". (Job ads
in the British system now explicitly state that they are looking for
candidates who will make the department look good in the nationalized
research evaluation system). Whether good scholarship and teaching is
sustainable in a system made up primarily of a relatively small numbers
of "superstars" and a very large number of amateur apprentices (i.e.
TA's) with fewer and less qualified "working class" academics in between
(i.e. Assistant and Associate Professors) is questionable? (Literally -
maybe it is, maybe it isn't).

So there is a shift from the use of tenured, life-long staff to
non-tenured, temporary staff. Specifically, very large numbers of young,
cheap Teaching Assistants are substituting for more expensive Assistant,
Associate and Full Professors. These Teaching Assistants are under the
illusion that they have a reasonable chance of a tenure-track job. But
they (not as a personal intention, but as a systematic process) are
eliminating the very jobs they hope to obtain by out competing the
tenure-track professoriate economically (because they are willing to do
the same work - standing in front of undergraduate masses, babbling
about any old thing - for far less money). Roughly, I would guess that a
university can hire 3 teaching assistants for 1 tenure track professor.
In the absence of any substantial 'quality control' on the content of
classroom teaching (other than student-driven popularity contests; which
probably favor the dashing, personable, easy-going, closer-to-my-age
TA's in any event), there is little or no incentive for universities to
hire tenure track professors. The system as such itself perpetuates the
"glut" of PhDs.

Eventually (now?), it will become apparent that university academic jobs
are not viable professional jobs for highly skilled "knowledge workers".
It will only be viable for those who (A) have very minimal material
aspirations or (B) those who can do it as a "hobby" (such as individuals
who are independently wealthy; the return of the 19th century 'gentlemen
scholar') or those who can do it on a second income basis.

It will probably take a generation or two for a whole-scale
transformation, but systemically this will degrade university education
and scholarship. These are powerful systemic forces. As I see it, there
are two main avenues to resist these forces (neither of them
particularly strong at the moment). One is so-called "unionization".
Leftist academics like this idea, because it brings to mind romantic
images of working class solidarity. But the reality is that we are not
talking about a working class Internationale; we are really talking
about an elite professional guild, similar to the American Medical
Association (AMA). The purpose of such a guild is to protect
professional standards as well as the profession in general (and
protection here in large part means keeping wages high by setting high
standards and barriers to entry into the profession). I think one can
make a reasonable case (self-serving, but still reasonable) that this is
important for maintaining quality education and scholarship. The other
mode of resistance to the systemic downgrading of university education
is ongoing political lobbying on behalf of education in general as a
social good, which like medicine, food, housing and other social
necessities, is not served well by a neoliberal market system (which,
although it creates certain efficiencies, systemically concentrates
wealth - and whatever goods are entailed, such as we see with worldwide
real estate property markets - in the hands of very few people). In a
sense it is fine if only a few people have access to all the Rolex
watches and BMWs in the world; it is not so useful for only a few people
to have access to all the education, medical care, housing and food.

Dr. Eric C. Thompson
Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology
National University of Singapore
AS1 #03-06, 11 Arts Link
Singapore 117570
Tel: +65 6516-6070
Fax: +65 6777-9579

Profile: http://profile.nus.edu.sg/fass/socect/index.htm
Unsettling Absences: http://www.nus.edu.sg/sup/9971-69-336-4.html

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