Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Subverting professionalism to challenge the neoliberalization of higher education

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting the renowned labor sociologist Ruth Milkman at a luncheon in in my department. I got to speak about my research and was told I could ask Professor Milkman a question - it could be about anything I was told, public sociology, her research, whatever.

I thought about what I would ask her for quite some time and kept coming back to one conclusion: I had to ask about the neoliberalization of higher education and the fight to defend public education, and how we could best do that.

The idea of asking some clever question about methodology, or some feel good public sociology question felt like a betrayal of everything I stand for. Doing so would be a capitulation to the theater of academic culture - you know, when we pretend that we aren't on a sinking ship, and we talk about the possible futures of graduate students, as if the very future itself isn't sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

According to data sent out by my department chair recently, half of those who start our program don't complete the PhD. And only half of those do do finish end up hired in a tenure track job. That means that merely a quarter of those who start out in my program with the dream of an academic job ever see that dream. And while my program isn't UCB or Chapel Hill, those are still much better odds than the general population of PhDs. The most recent data I can find says that 75% of new hires are adjuncts. Gone is the day of tenure, the corportization of the university has significantly shifted the power dynamic from labor to capital, and now even getting the most education possible doesn't guarantee you a good job. One quarter of people with PhDs are now on food stamps.

Yet despite the fact that we are on a sinking ship we rarely talk about it. If anything the opposite is true. I was once given "the talk" by a faculty ally who was trying to be helpful, but it came across more as a suggestion for self-policing, that I really should consider my presentation of self, my reputation in the department, because it would be bad if people thought of my as the activist. He said hes seen mediocre students have faculty lined up to work with them, while good students were viewed more as untouchables, because they were perceived as not making their professional development their #1 priority.

This got me thinking about the musicians on the Titantic who played while it sunk. While that is truly an epic swan song, and a great self-sacrifice since we know that there weren't enough life boats for everyone on the ship, we aren't literally on a sinking ship, its just a metaphor that evokes a certain helpful imagery. Unlike the Titantic higher education CAN be saved, and made to be even better than before - more accessible, more centered on the public, and more focused on practicing - not just teaching or thinking about- social justice.

So am I suggesting that academics are the musicians on the Titantic? Not exactly. Again, the metaphor isn't perfect. A more accurate description of the current state of academic labor would be the following:

A group of highly skilled musicians are playing a last song for a sinking ship. But they are doing so from a lifeboat, they are not on the ship itself. They will not be going down with it. They will live out their lives playing music and being merry. On the other hand, there's a group of aspiring musicians on the ship who have no lifeboat and are being told to practice very hard - practice practice practice! A quarter of them or so will be given a spot on the life boat, and the rest of us will go down with the ship. But this reality isn't ever acknowledged. We don't realize we are in some Hunger Games situation. Instead we are told to just keep practicing, and to take things seriously. We are expected to spend our last moments watching with envy the musicians playing for everyone, and hope that someday that will be us - even though we won't live to see tomorrow.That is, not unless we put down our instruments and start plugging the holes in the ship. But when we do that we are told that we apparently don't care about being a musical performer on the ship! We are told, explicitly or implicitly, that doing so will hurt our chances of getting a spot on the life boat.

So this is why I had to ask Professor Milkman about the brutal assault on public higher education. I love "music" (sociology) and I want to "perform" (teach and research) but I see the situation in its totality, and I have a very sober understanding of what will be happening very soon. I don't want to contribute to a culture that has us all practicing our violins while we are on the verge of drowning in icy waters. I want to rally all of those who love music and get them organized, get a plan, and start to repair and rebuild the ship.

I have been reading Larson's The Rise of Professionalism (2013), and much of what she argues reaffirms things I already thought about the ideological role of professionalism. That it functions to both a) be a boundary of distinction between professionals and the broader working class, thereby becoming a conservative ideology because it rejects solidarity and instead seeks to separate itself from other works and b) that this is how a group of workers enters into a patrimonial relationship with the ruling class, particularly through the state. Professionalism is the opposite of labor militancy and solidarity unionism. It is an explicit project to reject the framework of radical labor and to instead promise to "be good" in exchange for certain rewards - better positions in the labor market and control over one's work. This is why, as Larson mentions in the introduction, that the UCSF faculty strike was seen as "unprofessional" by their faculty peers. Professionalism is about bodily control and ideological control over a certain sphere of workers. Workers are agreeing to self-police and to remain "neutral" in the class war raging on around them, so long as they get the benefits of being "professional".

However this profession-capital accord is based on the premise that labor (professional or otherwise) can ever truly make peace with capital. And this is why we see academia and other professions totally caught off guard and completely unable to stop the attack on their profession. Instead those most insulated from it don't have to confront the reality, and they take lead in perpetuating a culture which refuses to confront the apocalyptic truth. In fact, I would argue, that acting professional is more important now than ever before. The bubble is about to burst, and the denial is at its strongest. Those who have so far been insulated from this attack must at least subconsciously recognize that they will lose a lot if they now decide to break from professionalism. In fact, I had a professor in my department actually try to argue to me that she (and other tenure track faculty) have more to lose than any other campus worker, and that's why they aren't out on-the-ground fighting back with us. When about 90% of campus service workers are on government assistance, when grad students are overworked, over stressed, plagued with mental health issues, and facing a grim future, and undergraduates are more indebted than any group of students in history, how can someone making $80k+/year and just a few years away from job security for life honestly think that they are the most vulnerable type of worker on campus?

That mindset is the epitome of what professionalism is. It shows no solidarity with other workers, or acknowledgement of one's privilege, and instead turns its back on other's problems and asks "What about me?" What a perfectly (self-)disciplined labor force.

To get back to my question to Professor Milkman, this is why I asked her

What do you think of the possibility for an insurgent group of graduate students and adjuncts to take over the existing professional associations, the American Sociological Association (ASA) the Modern Language Association (MLA) etc. and to utilize this existing organization and network to launch a counter attack against the neoliberalization of higher education? These organizations are there for the taking, and could be used somewhat similarly to an International Union or a political party in the way that they provide organization across large spaces connecting existing networks, and providing resources.

Professor Milkman's response was very pessimistic, she didn't focus so much on the take over of the professional associations, but more on the inevitability of the current trends. She said that in 10-20 years she thinks that all working class higher education will be online classes (or MOOCs) and that there will be a small vestige of what used to be the university, and they will be very expensive and exclusive liberal arts universities, because she said, the rich have always wanted that kind of quality education, small class sizes, and critical thinking, for their children.

I'm more optimistic, and less deterministic. I think there's huge potential, if we organize right, if we challenge the limiting, disarming, and self-policing ideology of professionalism, and if we organize a major defensive campaign for public higher education, and what better place to start than the very professional organizations themselves. If we are going to transform academia, then we need to begin with our own organizations.

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