June 15, 2003

Oh, Sh*t: Marc Bousquet's Excremental Theory of Graduate Education (Part I)

'Teaching is a very difficult job and it needs to be a respectable middle class profession,' says Ann Marcus, Dean of the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University.

-- Marylena Mantas, NYU Dean of Education: Ann Marcus

'We need people we can abuse, exploit and then turn loose.'
--Dean Ann Marcus, NYU, on how to hire adjunct professors in the School of Education.
From a caputured e-mail.

-- Benjamin Johnson, Patrick Kavanagh, and Kevin Mattson eds., Steal This University: The Rise of the Corporate University and the Academic Labor Movement (NY: Routledge, 2003).*

If you feel you're being treated like sh*t, Marc Bousquet tells graduate students and adjuncts, it's because you really are the waste product that must be flushed out of the system.

A few months ago, in a post entitled "Adjunct as Activist: A Brief Introduction", I promised to write "two or three postings over the next couple of weeks" on this theme, and declared my intention of beginning with Marc Bousquet's "The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible," Social Text 20.1 (Spring 2002): 81-104 [available online through Project Muse, subscription-only). This I have yet to do. I was, however, in the middle of writing something when my system crashed last Friday (and of course I lost the entry, which I hadn't backed up, so have had to start from scratch).

Unfortunately, the article is available online only through subscription (but for a shorter, more programmatic statement of some of the ideas developed in the "Waste Product" article, see this "Workplace Forward: The Institution as False Horizon"). Since the article is not readily accessible, I want to summarize what I take to be its main points, while adding a few thoughts of my own.

In my reading, the three main arguments are as follows:

1. There is no academic job market.
2. The purpose of PhD production is not to produce degree-holders for tenure-track jobs but to provide cheap non-degreed teaching labor.
3. The problems of the academic labor system can only be solved through collective action.

And since this entry has grown monstrously long and I'm not sure how to use the "extended entry" option (yes, I know, basic stuff, but I'm a bit of a Luddite: if I'm not clear on how it works, I'm afraid of messing it up completely), I'm going to divide my discussion into two entries. This entry deals with point 1 (there is no academic job market), the next post will discuss points 2 and 3. Let me say at the outset that I'm pretty much with Bousquet on point 1; that I both agree and disagree with him on point 2; and that I'm more than a little sceptical of point 3 (hint: this is in part because, as a Canadian, I can't help looking north of the border, where the same employment trends are occurring even though -- yes, Canada is different -- virtually all graduate student TAs and all faculty there are unionized).

1. There is no academic job market.

Bousquet begins by looking at the famous, or infamous, Bowen report of 1989, which projected "'a substantial excess demand for faculty in the arts and sciences' by the mid-1990s, with the consequence that early in the new millennium we could expect 'roughly four candidates for every five positions.'" To quote directly from the brief 1989 President's Report that William G. Bowen prepared as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, "The results of recent research persuade us that there will be serious staffing problems in essentially all fields within the arts and sciences," with "very substantial shortages" of PhDs predicted across "the humanities and social sciences." So here we are in the early millennium, and as we've known since the mid-1990s, Bowen's estimates turn out to have been shockingly wrong. "What was wrong with Bowen's assumptions," asks Bousquet, "that he strayed so outrageously into fantasy?" In brief, Bousquet argues that

Essentially, Bowen's 'method' was to impose neoliberal market ideology on data that attest, instead to the unfolding process of casualization. Most egregiously, for instance, when confronted with data that increasing numbers of doctoral degree holders had been taking nonacademic work since the 1970s, Bowen ignores the abundant testimony by graduate students that this dislocation from the academy was involuntary and imposes the ideology of 'free choice' on the phenomenon, generating the claim that this ever-upward 'trend' shows that even more people will 'choose' similarly, with the result that he projects a need to increase graduate school admissions (to compensate for the ever-increasing numbers of people who 'choose' nonacademic work (p. 82).

To repeat: Bowen's data indicated that PhDs had been leaving the academy since the 1970s because there weren't enough full-time jobs for PhD-holders. Rather than take this oversupply** into account, he based his projections on the notion that since a certain percentage of PhDs will leave the academy, we must therefore produce even more PhDs to make up for the shortage created by those who leave. This is quite stunningly wrongheaded, and here I am in complete agreement with Bousquet.

Bousquet's analysis of the Bowen report leads him to a broader critique of the "neoliberal ideology" that not only underlies the infamous 1989 report but that also accounts for its "warm and uncritical welcome" within the academy. Characterizing this "vulgar liberalism" as "a kind of accidental neoliberalism produced by wildly inaccurate applications to higher education working conditions of dimly remembered chestnuts from Econ 101," Bousquet argues that the language of the "market" obscures rather than uncovers the reality of casualization in today's academy. While the language of the market "originally served as an analogy," he writes, " the terms hardened under neoliberalism into a positive heuristic," encouraging faculty to think of tenure-track job advertisements as the "demand" and recent degree holders as the "supply" for "an annual job 'market' overseen by professional associations such as the MLA (p. 83)."

For Bousquet, there are three related problems with this market heuristic:

i) It completely ignores the fact that a good deal of teaching is done by those outside the tenure track (graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, PhD-holding adjuncts and the like). Which is to say, it doesn't accurately describe or refer to the actual terms and conditions of employment in the academy, but rather takes one form of employment (tenure-track to tenured) and proceeds as though this were the one and only relevant category, even as this type of full-time employment is being replaced by low-wage, part-time positions.

ii) It therefore encourages the belief that "this 'overproduction' can be controlled 'from the demand side' by encouraging early retirements and 'from the supply side' by shrinking graduate programs," when "in the reality of casualization" the full-time positions of professors who retire are eliminated (or replaced by part-time positions), and when "reducing graduate school admissions does not magically create tenure-track jobs."

I'm with Bousquet on the first point, but not on the second. That is, I completely agree that if you overlook the process of casualization, you will be led to the optimistic conclusion that as full-time professors retire, full-time positions automatically open up for aspiring entrants to the ranks of the tenured. Not necessarily, and in many instances, increasingly, not at all. But while reducing graduate school admissions obviously won't automatically create tenure-track jobs, it will reduce the production of adjuncts. I think such a reduction is vitally important.

iii. It encourages faculty complicity with the two-tier labor system: "The 'job market' fiction has kept most faculty -- even unionized faculty -- as well as many but not all graduate students from a simple yet vital understanding: to address a political, social, and workplace transformation, it is necessary to take political, social, and workplace action (p. 84)."

Though I'm sceptical of the idea that the problems of the labor system really can be solved/resolved through collective action, I certainly agree with Bousquet that faculty have failed to recognize the threat of deprofessionlization:

The idea that the problems of the degree holder are problems of ‘the market’ and not problems for the faculty to address has mystified the degradation, deskilling, and underpricing of faculty work – when it is obvious that of course their working conditions will inevitably converge on the superexploitation of the contingent laborers working in their midst (p. 85).

"When it is obvious of course"? But of course it is not at all obvious, which is precisely the problem -- what is it about Marxism that encourages such locutions? The implied superiority in perspective rather irks me... However, it is not necessary to share Bousquet's neomarxist perspective in order to appreciate his analysis.

I particularly like Bousquet's suggestion that the "'job market' heuristic" might be replaced by "the heuristic of a labor monopoly" -- more specifically, that we should begin to see the academic labor system in terms of "a failed monopoly of professional labor:"

Monopoly control of professional labor generally reflects a social bargain made by professional associations that exchange a service mission with the public for substantial controle over the conditions of their work, generally including deciding who gets to practice...[Postsecondary] educators generally fulfill the service mission that constitutes their half of the bargain, and society in turn continues to grant them monopoly control over degrees, but the labor monopoly fails because degree holding no longer represents control over who may practice.

I believe the idea of a failed, or at least a failing, monopoly helps bridge the gap between guild and market. I don't think the academic employment system has ever been run along lines that might be described as free market. Instead, I see the academic professions as guildlike organizations that have failed to behave like guilds in the face of corporate managerial practices. As I put it in "Reshaping the Job Market" (yes, this blog is all about me: one reason why I have comments enabled is so that I don't inhabit an entirely self-referential universe),

I think the academic history job system now combines the worst of both worlds: it uses the language of the market to describe what is effectively an increasingly ineffective and unsuccessful guild system, and then tells those who are shut out of the guild to compete openly in a non-existent external market.

Indeed, one of the curious things about academia is that many of its members continue to use the language of the guild (graduate school as an apprenticeship, academic work as a sacred vocation) even as they enthusiastically embrace the language of the market (the job market, the notion of the productive scholar). An idea that has come up again and again on this blog is that today's university is neither fish nor fowl -- neither an old-fashioned guild anymore, but not -- or not yet -- a fully corporate animal either (see, for example, "Monastery or Market," based on Timothy Burke's "Monastery or the market?")

What, then, are the purposes of graduate school and PhD production in this strangely hybrid (part guildlike/part corporate-like) space we call the university?...

*Thanks to Thomas Hart Benton for this citation.
**Note: Bousquet would probably not allow the term "oversupply," but I'm sticking to it (more on this in Part II).

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 15, 2003 12:45 PM

Mmm... good post! There's a lot to chew on here. Well, I'll dive in with a question on the "hybrid question"; would it be too simplistic to say that the guild/business divide correlates to a faculty/administration divide? I know that academics have adopted the terminology of "the market" in referring to their/our search for employment, but is the common understanding of that term held by academic job seekers in alignment with that term's meaning outside of academe?

Posted by: Rana at June 15, 2003 01:38 PM

I'm sympathetic to Bosquet's argument, but there is clearly a job market. It's not a very good market, obviously; but he has a job, and I see people get jobs all the time.

I realize that I'm certainly missing the point here, but I just don't see the evidence for his radically counterintuitive claim.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at June 15, 2003 03:42 PM

Um, just because some people get jobs doesn't mean there's a market handing them out. Or am I missing something here?

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 15, 2003 04:31 PM

If there are jobs advertised each year, as there are, and a candidate who applies receives one, as usually happens, then it seems to me to be a market. Not a very good one, yes, but it's still a market.

I like to think that I'm familiar with the vocabulary of the argument that Bosquet's making, but I confess I can't quite follow it.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at June 15, 2003 06:32 PM

Worker "organisation" does not equal "union." (Even among unions there are all sorts -- industrial unions, trade unions, company unions, etc.) "Organisation" simply means conscious and autonomous worker management of the conditions of their work. This can take many forms, e.g., guilds, One Big Union, a shop steward system, soviets, worker councils, the communist society described in News from Nowhere, etc. Quite often, worker organisation is so informal there's no name for it other than "the way we do things here."

CLR James put it this way:

"In one department of a certain plant in the U.S. there is a worker who is physically incapable of carrying out his duties. ...The workers in that department have organized their work so that for nearly ten years he has had practically nothing to do. ...That is the socialist society."

As for your run of the mill unions in N. America, the anarchists and people like James have always pointed out that AFL-CIO type unions are more often than not a form non-organisation, of co-optation, and bureaucratic control of workers.

I used to work in a Canadian university. Despite nominal "organisation" it was by far the worst job I ever had, including the non-union blue collar deals. Faculty were afraid of each other. People went home paranoid, afraid that someone was going to stab them in the back. There was no flow of ideas because people did not associate with each other. With everyone divided, the bureaucracy had a free hand, with predictably nightmarish results. There was a union, but there was no worker organisation.

Worker "organisation" in the Canadian university system is not an argument against worker organisation. It is an argument FOR it.

Posted by: che at June 15, 2003 11:15 PM

One factor that has politely been held out of the spotlight is that “holding a PhD” and “holding a tenure-track/tenured appointment” don’t correlate to “amply qualified as a scholar” and “scholarsip and pedagogical skills merit a protected academic position,” We know that some very strong, good teachers never complete doctoral programs or get a fulll-time, tenure-track academic job (for reasons we’ve been cataloging here). We also know that some attain PhDs and tenure without in any way being “better” scholar-teachers than the first group.

To be brutally simplistic, one might grid the pool of academic jobseekers on a “worthiness” axis and an “attestation” axis, and find an inadequate correlation between the two.

Some programs deal with weaker students by flushing them out of the program; others deal with them by granting them degrees by the skin of their teeth, after long delays. Some programs punish original thinking; others reward it. (This probably helps explain why the publication stakes in academic work have risen so high; since academia can’t or won’t solve its own merit-assessment problem, it shifts responsibility to publising organs.)

Since the capacities that distinguish gifted pedagogues and scholars often emerge slowly, through the interactions and incrementally-more-challenging responsibilities of graduate education, there’s no reliable way to figure who the most wonderful candidates will turn out to be, especially when the system is run not by the most insightful scholar-practitioners, but often enough by over-promoted degree-holders who have been shunted into administration as a defective remedy for the bad hiring/tenuring decision they represent in the first place.

All of which is to say that there’ll always be more who aspire to academic jobs than who will attain them; that under present circumstances, the dispropotion is aggravated by eccentric systems for accreditation and promotion; and that we need a way to deal with graduate education that doesn’t underwrite binary distinctions whose effects (obloquy and frustration, tenure and prestige) far outweigh the basis for the distinction itself.

Posted by: AKMA at June 16, 2003 08:35 AM

*points upward*

Hey, IA? I think you just got next week's WIAAfOOitFoE(NCJG).

AKMA, from what you've been saying lately it sounds as though you've found the short end of the stick you describe. I'm sorry. You of all people deserve better.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 16, 2003 09:21 AM

Not a complaint — Ireserve that for my blog and email! — but an observation from having worked in graduate admissions, teaching, and supervising. I dealt with some people who would better have not been admitted, and of those some got degrees, and some got bitter ejections. I worked with some admirable thinkers, some of whom got degrees, and some of whom just didn’ end up completing a doctoral program.

Would the non-degreed thinkers have been better teachers and scholars than the degreed squeakers-through? And there should be a way of recognizing that some folks have lots of intriguing and provocative thoughts on a topic, without necessarily recognizing them as those on whom others should rely for instruction. (And one might wish that not everyone who holds a PhD were deemed a reliable authority, even in the field of that degree; but this again points to the contingency that presently afflicts the whole shebang, which ends up stinging everyone from invisible adjuncts and exiles to responsible, brilliant scholars (Naomi, say) whose work will suffer from its association with degree-holding lunkheads, whose professional life will likely be affected by over-promoted squeakers (if not hers, God bless her, then at least the lives of her friends).

Posted by: AKMA at June 16, 2003 09:45 AM

To be brutally simplistic, one might grid the pool of academic jobseekers on a ?worthiness? axis and an ?attestation? axis, and find an inadequate correlation between the two.

D-mn, that's PERFECT.

Here's another vote cast in favor of AKMA's insight!

Posted by: Rana at June 16, 2003 11:02 AM

In addition to adding plaudits for AKMA's posts, I have a grumpy empirical question.

Does Bousquet have any actual data to support his model of how TAs function as cheap labor? Because I see so many necessary qualifications to it that I'm not sure I'm even willing to contemplate the theoretical apparatus yet. E.g.: just an hour of noodling around financial aid webpages for various programs already reveals that several do not use TAs in the way B. describes (Brown, Carnegie-Mellon, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Loyola U. Chicago, NYU, Princeton, UC Berkeley, U of Rochester, U Virginia, Yale). I know of some institutions with too many graduate students, meaning that they fund them with make-work RAships, not cheap teaching (UCLA has had this problem for a while). And most graduate students, wherever they go, cycle through a variety of funding sources to finance their educations--teaching, RAships, non-academic work or workstudy, merit fellowships, loans, external grants, dissertation-year funding. While I certainly believe that departments multiply the number of graduate students in order to get more money from the administration--which is in itself exploitation--I'm not convinced that graduate students provide an efficient or even particularly convenient source of "cheap labor," especially in very small or very large programs. (Nor, despite being numerically challenged, am I convinced that Bousquet's calculations about "overproduction" and "underproduction" are accurate.) For that matter, what are the sources of his statistics? What's the correlation between TAing and dropping out? Or am I just being needlessly querulous?

Posted by: Miriam at June 16, 2003 11:52 AM

No, Miriam, I don't think you are, actually. I think TAs *can* be used as cheap labor -- my ex-department (Spanish and Portuguese, UWisconsin-Madison) being a case in point, but you're quite right that that isn't the whole story.

Lovitts 2002 (yes, I *will* keep plugging this book until you all go read it!) observes a negative correlation between TAships (*specifically*, mind you -- when compared to other sources of support) and graduate attrition. She attributes this to the additional socialization and support gained via the communal TA office.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 16, 2003 12:03 PM

Bousquet does have data, and the data points to casualization: a good deal of teaching is now done by those outside the tenure track (grad students, postdocs, adjuncts with PhDs). In some state systems, over half of all humanities teaching is now done by part-timers.
But I definitely agree that cheap teaching labor isn't the whole story. I'm going to address this in Part II of my Bousquet entry, which I won't have to time to finish before leaving on vacation tomorrow. Look for it early next week!

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 16, 2003 01:15 PM

IA: I wasn't arguing with the casualization bit so much as the TA bit--the non-subscription argument seemed to be collapsing multiple issues into each other. "Departments eating their young" applies only to those departments with Ph.D. programs (and, as I said, that has to be qualified substantially), while "casualization" applies to institutions that don't "reproduce" as well. We don't use our MAs in the classroom in any capacity, for example--as I said before, we primarily service high school teachers working on permanent certification--but we do use adjuncts to teach writing and some advanced courses. (And that's in a department where everybody does introductory courses and at least one helping of comp per year.)

Posted by: Miriam at June 16, 2003 02:19 PM

I'd add that the TA-as-labor question is not limited to department-level funding and admittance. As I posted somewhere earlier, the department where I got my degree is under considerable pressure from the institution as a whole to admit more grad students than they would like (so far they've been successful at keeping the numbers down, but it's been a struggle).

The thing is, the in-department need for TAs and graders is fairly small, and the funds are there to provide other kinds of support. But the university-wide need for TAs -- especially for the 5 campus's writing programs -- is enormous. I myself worked the great majority of my time out of department as a writing instructor because the department wanted to reserve the TAships in my field for newer grads who needed the teaching experience.

This is a case where the faculty aretrying to do the right thing, but are running up against the larger -- and in this case competing -- interests of the institution that hired them.

Posted by: Rana at June 16, 2003 02:21 PM

Good point, Rana. My ex-department hired from outside; it had to, with something like 50 sections of first-year Spanish to cover in a fall semester.

(There was a catch-22 there, of course, in that outside appointments weren't guaranteed anything -- and in fact usually got nothing -- spring semester, when the number of sections offered goes down.)

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 16, 2003 02:31 PM

"Hey, IA? I think you just got next week's WIAAfOOitFoE(NCJG)."

Good idea!

By the way, the current prize committee consists of one member, appointed for life, and with an absolute veto power. Perhaps I should restructure along more democratic lines?...

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 16, 2003 03:01 PM

just to point out a minor point. just because people get jobs does not mean its a market. Braudel points out that anti-markets occur also, but in anti-markets, there are no markets, just understandings and agreements, often unstated, that business will be done in a certain way, with certain people, and not others. In short, anti-markets are closed systems, a form of systemic plural monopoly. In all likelihood we are probably looking at a tightly woven, historically developed anti-market for most academic jobs, though there may be some real academic job markets in 'hot' fields, where open competition necessarilly occurs because of a lack of qualified applicants.

Posted by: jeremy hunsinger at June 16, 2003 04:00 PM

One question which hasn't come up and which seems to be the key to the whole question is: how is hiring done for tenure-track? I have a fair idea of how someone gets a Phd, and how it's decided whether tenure-track people get tenure (publication vs. "fit", seemingly). I also have a fair idea that most schools do not promote adjuncts to tenure, and that every year as an adjunct makes it less likely for someone to ever get a tenure-track job. (Am I right?)

So the applications for tenure-track positions in the first 2-3 years after PhD seem to be make-oe-break. How are these decisions made?

Posted by: zizka at June 16, 2003 11:58 PM


An important question, without a single answer. At least in my own discipline (in the social sciences), I can state that most searches begin with some idea of the 'need' to be filled by the search. Do we want a statistican? An expert on Arab politics? A candidate of great stature to improve the reputation of the department? How important is teaching (this varies by institution)? That sort of thing. But search committess (which concistent of maybe 4-6 people, in general) can include individuals with different agendas and objectivies. Thus, even at an institution with a particular set of needs, orientation towards methods, etc. all sorts of coalitional dynamics are possible, and searches can even come down to political power within a department or connections between departmental members and administrators. In general, there is a lot of variation... but there are some important things to consider:

1. the academic market is highly segmented. While it is true that a minority of elite institutions hold an enormous advantage in placement over the majority of 2nd, 3rd, ... nth tier schools, that advantage only applies above a certain tier of school. Below that, schools may not interview PhDs from elite institutions because they presume that (a) they won't stay, (b) will not be able to teach at a level consonant with their students needs, and (c) because the faculty may be populated by those who understandably resent graduates of elite institutions. Keep in mind that job searches can be relatively costly, involving travel and lodging costs, and very time consuming;

2) Which means that, at least in my field, sometimes as many as a few hundred applicants must be reduced to a "short list" of perhaps 10-12 and then reduced to an interiew list of perhaps 4-5 candidates. This means that there is inevitably a tremendous amount of arbitrariness in decisions (what makes a candidate 5 as opposed to 7? this is quite possibly the difference between having a chance to try to get the job and no chance at all).

3) It also means that elimination of candidates plays a major role in the process of pre-selection for interview candidates. Thus, the cost of information is lowered by simply selecting out people from various institutions that don't fit the expectations of the department (see #1). It also accentuates tendencies to reduce uncertainty by relying on recommendations from people in the field with prestige or who have network ties to memebrs of the committee;

4) These factors also can create, in some years, a mob mentality surrounding a "hot" candidate. Reputation, being backed by the "right" people, or simply early success on "the market" can snowball into a large number of interviews and greater success.

5) Sometimes, though, money may be earmarked for a specific position in which there are few qualfiied applicants, because the specialty doesn't really exist or the pool of people who 'fit' is quite small.

I coul write a lot more and not provide an adequate answer to your question. I will say, however, that the academic "job market" does actually look like a lot of professional job markets: the structure of personal and professional contacts has a lot to do with getting a position, which is how, despite all the clamor over the magic of the free market, segments of the non-academic job market also work.

Posted by: dan at June 20, 2003 02:07 AM

Let me add that departments approach candidates in the same way people approach possible sexual partners: what matters is not the absolute level of 'attractiveness' of the prospect, but whether that level of 'attractiveness' meets their expectations of what they should be capable of landing :-).

Posted by: dan at June 20, 2003 02:10 AM

Dan's point #1 is absolutely correct. One might add that the problem with many top-tier candidates extends well beyond "fit" and into, strangely enough, the realm of "qualifications": there are several elite schools (all of them private) which are notoriously bad at preparing their graduate students to teach anything. Despite our angst about exploited TAs, no department chair in his/her right mind will take someone whose teaching "experience" consists of two once-a-week discussion sections and throw them into a 3-3 or 4-4 load.

Posted by: Miriam at June 20, 2003 05:10 PM

I had to copy this point:

Elaine's World is thickly populated. Few scholars of the baby boom understand the conditions under which they work. An entire generation has been looking the other way while the college classroom has been turned over to a teaching corps of graduate students and flexible labor--really, much too often, just about anyone with a few hours of postgraduate education and a primary source of income enabling them to take on first-year teaching as a kind of ill-paid philanthropy.

Posted by: visitor at December 3, 2003 08:28 AM