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Monday, April 2, 2012

Monday, April 2, 2012

Day of Higher Ed

On March 27th, Day of the Digital Humanities, Readywriting blogger Lee Skallerup Bessette (not pictured at left) declared April 2 the #dayofhighered. I've been a regular Skallerup reader because she is so astute about the detailed work of teaching in the overall context of academic work. The point of #dayofhighered is to render public and visible the actual labor and its accompanying skills and passion that make universities both possible and valuable. Here's Skallerup:
We need a Day of Higher Ed (hashtag #dayofhighered). While many of us have written posts broadly outlining what we do in a day (and how disgusted we all are by the at best misleading and at worst dishonest portrayal of our work), few of us have ever taken the time to actually record, in minutia, what we do as professors from the moment we wake up to the minute we fall asleep. All the work we do that contributes to our job as educators.
Skallerup belongs to an academic generation that is about 3/4th non-tenure track.  The 40-year meltdown in the university teaching profession is of staggering proportions.

 This figure is based on AAUP data and undermines the common claim (made even by good economists like Robert H. Frank, who should know better) that having full-time faculty is an extraordinary budgetary burden for universities. In fact, universities don't actually have full-time faculties.  
 
The work of Skallerup and others shows that universities have for three decades been pioneering deprofessionalization without deskilling. Her descriptions of everyday teaching practice detail both the enormous skill teaching requires and the continuous effort involved in applying skill to ever-changing situations. This last is a feature of human labor that our self-replicating machine ages, especially under the Schumpterian spell of all-value-from-technology, have been trying to forgot.
 
Another feature of contemporary academic labor is the end of the 40-hour week and the destruction of leisure.  The fact that Skallerup is by appointment a member of the non-tenured "New Faculty Majority" does not allow her to limit her commitment to a faculty function that has lost its boundaries.  In a post last month she describes a weekend that is relaxed enough to remind her that weekends in academia are in fact never relaxing:
These kinds of weekends, where my husband and I are both home with the kids and there are no looming deadlines or obligations hanging over us, causing us to rush, stress, and generally need a day-off from the weekend, are rare. For so many of us in academia, the weekend isn’t for resting but instead for getting everything done that you didn’t have time to do during the week. We grade, we research, we write, we answer email, we get administrative tasks done over the weekend. For every Thursday afternoon we’re seen at the store, there are countless unseen weekends in the office at home or at school working to try and keep our heads above water. Often those Thursdays at the store are so that we don’t have to try and do battle with the crowds and/or our kids on the weekend.
So that we can get more work done.
I don’t remember the last time I had a weekend where I did nothing (ok, very little). Sometime in October, I think. And I’m not even sure if I should count that weekend I’m thinking of because I was really sick and thus didn’t do anything. No, I’m talking about those weekends where you get to do something you enjoy and at the same time not feel guilty on Monday for avoiding/neglecting/setting aside your professional responsibilities. A time when you actually enjoyed yourself over the weekend.
There are conferences; deadlines for abstracts, revisions, and submissions; grading; open house weekends; recruiting trips and fairs; more faculty meetings and other administrative work; campus social events that we “have” to show up for; thesis defenses and the celebratory drink afterwards; on-campus interviews; grant application deadlines; dates for submitting progress reports towards tenure; class prep, but also beginning to choose your books for the next semester; scheduling meetings; curriculum meetings; professional development courses...This is, indeed, what we signed up for when we became academics and an academic couple. But the demands of the day bleed into those hours set aside for family, like evenings and weekends.
These descriptions of everyday faculty life describe an industry which is structurally understaffed.  It describes a professoriat whose creativity is under continuous pressure and where invention in fact requires exceptional effort.  This is at bottom a management problem: managment's core function is the productivity of its employees, to put the issue in managerial terms, and for at least a generation management has defined productivity entirely through the cutting of labor costs: working conditions and hence work output, that is, research and learning, have during my career never been seriously discussed. Most of the "reforms" now on offer continue this low-concept trend of reducing teaching and research  capacity even further.  
 
Luckily, the current generation of bloggers on academic work offer abundant material for a reconstruction of university teaching and research. Traditional asinine misconstruals now have only about an hour of uncritqued peace before getting blistered in the blogosphere--see, for example, Middlebury prof Laurie Essig's gutting in her CHE blog of someone named David C. Levy's Wapo claim that professors don't work hard enough.  This blog makes a similar effort by publishing senior faculty descriptions of the actual work involved in being a successful principal investigator with many extramural grants (e.g. anon),  of creating and running an internationally known on-line course (UC Berkeley Prof Phllip B. Stark), and descriptions of staff life under consultancy-driven structural adjustment (e.g. "Shared Services") and we would like to publish much more of this. In general, the profession is generating alternatives to the austerity consensus that is reinforcing the downward spiral (e.g. Marc Bousquet) in the moment that public universities need their biggest upgrade in modern history.

So Happy #dayofhighered. And on the first day of spring quarter, Happy Academic Labor Day to everybody involved.


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