July 13, 2003

Weekly IA Award

This week's Invisible Adjunct Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence (No Cash, Just Glory) goes to Chris, for his characterization of academic deprofessionalization as a merging of Nietzschean nihilism with American Taylorism (comments to Demoralization: Are We Taking the Human Out of the Humanities?)

If this has led to what Foucault calls the 'tryanny of the professors,' it does so by way of an opportunistic, and flagrantly cynical melding of Nietzschean nihilism with American Taylorism. Taylor (I think his first name is Frederick, perhaps the historians can correct me) is the father of modern mangement theory, and one of his primary tenets is the enforcement of a disconnect between the person and knowledge of the employee and the task at hand. It is a very rigid approach and yet is almost taken for granted in our world of work and employment: 'you may be a poet, a spiritual seer, a brilliant scientist, but today your job is to pick up those boxes and put them on the truck, so get to work.' What is truly perverse, of course, is that this same philosophy of disconnection -- and dis-affection, and, in Ruddick's terms, de-moralization -- has become ingrained within the 'profession' of humanities professing. And I think that when 'we' (meaning adjuncts, one-years, and other non-tenured academic workers) attempt to tell of our plight to either tenured faculty, Chairs, or administrators, this 'Taylorist' distortion of Nietzschean thought is, in part, the void into which our cries disappear.

Nicely done, Chris. And let me assure you that here at invisibleadjunct.com we do hear you, for we like to think of this weblog as the void that fills the void.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 13, 2003 10:13 PM

One of the trends in management theory over the past two decades has been a complete refutation of Taylorism. In such approaches, such as total quality management, "the learning organization," the Oz principle, kaizen, etc., the focus has been on how to re-connect workers to their work, to give them ownership of what they do, and to include accountability accordingly. When workers feel they have a stake in what they do, as opposed to simply performing the same motions/activities less efficiently than a robot could, productivity and profitability often increase. Taylor is the prophet of the large, vertically integrated, mass producing corporation; the new methods are the hallmark of the flat, core competence, mass-customizing organization (think of IBM in the 1950s vs. Dell today).

It's not surprising that this approach hasn't yet caught up with academe, where the economic model sometimes reminds me of a Dickens novel. It's also disappointing to think that a customer service representative at Dell may be more empowered to think and act than the typical adjunct would.

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at July 14, 2003 09:52 AM

I think that Chris's analogy was brilliant. At one level, the postmodernists I know are these cutting edge liberationists. At another level, it's all "I'm Just Doing My Job" and "That's the Way They Do Things Around Here" and "People in the Field are not Interested in that Kind of Question" and "I Don't Know What it is that You're Doing, John, but it's not Philosophy".

Pomo, so-called, is for me just Paradigm Methodology Version 6.3. (I've noticed that of my friends headed to grad school, the ones most adept at ingratiation are the easisest with pomo).

Posted by: zizka at July 14, 2003 10:19 AM

Kevin, when looking at those efforts, remember that there's more seeming than doing. One can be a member of a Learning Organization, Kaizaning away with Total Quality, and still be met at the front door one morning, to be informed that one is a former member, and is not to come onto company property again.

It would be interesting to hear from some Dell customer service reps, to find out what life is really like there.

Posted by: Barry at July 14, 2003 12:27 PM

Barry, you missed my point. A company that refutes Taylor actually requires its employees to think and penalizes them for going through the motions. More than one company I've worked for has used this management approach. I was once fired from a job for not taking enough initiative--for waiting to be told what to do. I was able to find another job fairly quickly by applying the things I had aborbed from the previous job about taking initiative and working independently, and I have thrived in this position.

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at July 14, 2003 01:11 PM

I'm not sure adjuncts are not empowered to think and act in the classroom, though, which is where most of our work takes place. I've never had anyone try to change anything on my syllabus or reading list. Nor has anyone criticized or even noticed my grading. As an adjunct in the classroom, I feel more ignored by the department and the tenured factulty than micromanaged. I'm in history; it may be different in other disciplines.

Posted by: William Burns at July 14, 2003 03:05 PM

Barry and Kevin are both right. (Yeah, I'm a wuss.)

A place where initiative is encouraged is a damn good place to work.

Unfortunately, it's quite possible to find places beating the TQM drum who nonetheless *act* like old-style command-and-control enterprises. Worked at one, in fact. Note past tense.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 14, 2003 03:15 PM

A close friend manages a Starbucks. He is encouraged to innovate and gets credit for his ideas and successes, but he also gets blamed for anything that goes wrong for whatever reason. The company tends to want happy-face 110% enthusiasm, which can be eerie. On the whole though, his experience is positive. (The worst thing is the employees. Starbucks is very good to and quite indulgent of the low level employees, which actually makes it hard on the lower managers.

Posted by: zizka at July 14, 2003 03:29 PM

Good post and a deserved award. Anyone interested in learning more about Taylorism might want to read a book called "The One Best Way," which is a biography of the man and his ideas. Gives a good portrait of the U.S. in the early 20th century, and also talks about the influence of Taylor's ideas in other countries. Worthwhile reading for anyone interested in labor/business history or in the history of ideas.

Posted by: David Foster at July 14, 2003 10:50 PM

Chris: I think bringing up Taylorism is imprecise and detracts from your general point. Taylor was a pioneering management consultant who worked on small-scale efficiency improvements in industrial manufacturing. How is that analogous to academic jobs? Only in the broadest way. Taylor is barely relevant to most white-collar business jobs today, anyway.

The disconnect you talk about seems like a profoundly different thing. I actually have a lot to say about the issue but this isn't the place. Just two condensed remarks:

The disconnect is actually a very healthy, life-enhancing way to approach a sometimes-disappointing, sometimes-painful work environment.

One of the best ways to avoid emotional pain in the workplace is a hierarchy. Next time you're talking with someone who considers hierarchy as fundamentally bad, keep in mind how it has been a feature of all human societies and is likely to have many positive functional properties.

Posted by: JT at July 15, 2003 11:00 AM

Don't deceive yourself. Always remember that business, big or small, has no real interest in your rights or your creativity. All they want is your time, which you are selling to them for a small amount of $$, while those at the top profit at huge margins. We can call it "organizational management" "cheese moving" or whatever you want to label it, but never forget who owns your labor...they do...at least until you are no longer useful for their profit margin. Never rest on any assurances...do your job, but watch your back.
Whenever I hear corporations talking about a new, friendlier way of management, I think to myself "grab on to your wallet!" It's bad enough that we sell our labor, now we have to have the right "attitude" while we're doing it, a' la' those annoying Steven Covey "success" posters. Bleh!

Posted by: Cat at July 15, 2003 11:04 AM

JT: that may be, and I never meant to suggest I am some sort of expert in management theory or Taylorism for that matter. What I'm trying to get at, and understand for myself, is the managerial ideology that animates and transforms academics from being critically engaged individuals whose critical sensibilites are cast very widely, to micro-critics disconnected from the social, historical and ideological conditions of their own work.

If Taylorism is the wrong reference, then pehaps it should be the Stokholm Syndrome? Or, alternatively, the one I used in another post: the string quartet playing Mozart at Auschwitz. The problem with the latter analogy is that those musicians were all-too-aware of the incongruity of their situation; academis, on the other hand, are often smiling contentedly as they lose themselves in the music.

Posted by: Chris at July 15, 2003 11:55 AM


No, you should never rest on assurances. In business, loyalty is dead. But as to who owns my labor, I do. I work as if I am in business for myself. I stay at my current employer because they fit my needs; they retain my employment because I meet their needs. At any moment, either could change.

The reason that I like an environment where I am able to take initiative is that it improves my skills--technical, decision-making, business--and allows me to grow professionally. That is beneficial to me because I will be able to take those skills with me if for some reason I am let go, or if I leave for another job.

I see nothing wrong with a management approach that allows me to do my best work. If my employer benefits through increased profits because of my productivity, fine. I benefit also--not only in skill development but in renumeration; I am generally satisfied with the rate I receive for my services, unlike in academe.

In business, that's called a "win-win." It sounds like a cliche, particularly in academe where there really is no such thing. But in business, the best transactions are those where both parties are satisfied. It happens more often than you think.

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at July 15, 2003 01:35 PM

If anyone thinks that they own their labor, they need to ask if and how long they could survive without a paycheck. Then tell me about "choices" and ownership. Never forget that there is a 500 fold difference between the CEO and the worker in terms of salary. And never forget that there is no moral justification for such a discrepency, including "affective" management theories, er, I mean, propaganda. Arthur Anderson was big on creating these kind of "climates." So big, that they, out of the kindness of their hearts, left a message on the answering machines of thousands of employees letting them know of their layoffs. The next day these same ex-employees were shown on television, carrying out their packed boxes. I guess they'll just have to adapt to their "cheese being moved."
Personally, I don't care if big business and I happen to get along or not. I don't care if it "lets" me be creative. It will not get my loyalty, because it has made it very clear (just study the history of the labor movement if you want to see its true colors) that it owes workers nothing. I still don't trust it because it owns the production of capital; I don't.

Posted by: Cat at July 15, 2003 02:48 PM

I didn't want to give the impression that I was attacking. I'm enjoying this conversation because it is about something I consider very important...the value of human labor. Academia tends to remove itself from this issue, even though all but a few own their own labor (i.e. can survive without a paycheck). Just didn't want to seem bossy or bitchy!

Posted by: Cat at July 15, 2003 02:51 PM

Owning your own labor doesn't mean that you can survive without a paycheck. Nor does it mean that you own the "means to production." Owning your own labor means that you determine the conditions under which you work in a market economy. If you are not doing well at one company, find another job. Likewise, if you get laid off, find another job. If you cannot find another job in your field, find another field. (This is just as true for adjunct faculty as for office workers.)

This sounds heartless, but it is market capitalism. People lose jobs because of changes in the market. Likewise, companies go out of business all the time because of changes in the market. The market has no morality, good or bad. Surviving in the market is a matter of being in tune with its shifts and changes--of continually delivering a product or service that is needed by the market. Injecting morality into the equation can cloud the cold judgment that is necessary to move where the market goes.

In the 1990's, there was talk of the U.S. turning into a "free agent" economy. People would stop viewing themselves as employees and start viewing themselves as free agents, in business for themselves. They would hop from job to job for ever-increasing salaries. Though the phenomenon was overstated, it was very true for some fields. (Not academe, obviously.) It was definitely a seller's market from the employee's perspective.

That isn't true today, but I still find that the idea of "free agency" to be very useful in managing my career. It helps me to focus on what is essential: keeping my skills sharp, always being open to learning new things, so that I can deliver a service that is required by the market. This doesn't lead to job security, but it can lead to career security.

I understand that it's difficult to have this kind of market focus in academe, in part because the enormous time required to obtain a doctorate means that cannot easily align one's specialization with what's "hot" in the market; today's hot subfield may be passe in seven years when the Ph.D. is finally in hand. Also, the national scale of the market makes moving more difficult. Finally, the willingness of a critical mass of workers to sell their services for pennies on the dollar ensures that the market is perpetually tilted in favor of the buyer: the academy.

In business, the service of adjunct teaching would be called a "commodity"--a high-volume, low-margin item sold without differentiation in a saturated market. To earn significant profits, a company would move away from a commodity product to one that can command higher prices. In my case, this meant leaving academe for the business field of marketing. I still advocate a mass exodus of adjuncts from the profession as the best solution for the problem. Starved of the commodity service of adjunct teaching, what would university administrators do? Would they be forced to pay higher prices (e.g. living wages, perhaps even tenure track appointments)? That's what I would like to see. This is how adjuncts can exercise power over their own marketplace.

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at July 15, 2003 03:19 PM

I still like the Taylorism metaphor. Increasingly "productivity" is being quantified for teachers. And the "it's just a job" detachment seems to be increasing (among the tenured, too).

Posted by: zizka at July 15, 2003 04:30 PM

Cat...you say "Always remember that business, big or small, has no real interest in your rights or your creativity." Do you believe that other forms of organizations (universities, public schools, local governments, departments of motor vehicles) have any greater interest in your rights or your creativity? If so, why?

Posted by: David Foster at July 15, 2003 04:33 PM

One more point about Taylorism. If you want to see an extreme form of Taylorism at work today, look at your local public school. Look, in particular, at the strange literary form known as the "lesson plan." These documents often spell out, in excruciating detail, what materials are to be used, what the teacher should say, what responses are to be expected from the student, what emotional reactions are to be generated in the student, etc etc. (It's easy to find these things on the web if you're interested.)

To me, these "lesson plans" have an eerie similarity to the Bill of Materials and the Operation Sheet as the latter documents are used in manufacturing. Entirely appropriate when working with metal; entirely inappropriate when working with children.

Posted by: David Foster at July 15, 2003 04:38 PM

Students are almost, but not quite, referred to as the "product" for the labor market. That the role of schooling is to provide trained workers for employers is repeatedly recited as obvious truth.

Posted by: zizka at July 16, 2003 01:08 AM

zizka...every society in the history of the world has taught children to perform economically-useful tasks, whether hunting or farming or whatever (except certain aristocratic societies in which those of an appropriate class were trained for other socially-useful tasks, such as governing or warfare). I don' think there's anything wrong with *one* objective of the schools being to "produce" people who can do economically useful work (the other objectives being to help people become good citizens and well-developed human beings, as corny as these goals might sound). None of these objectives require people to be treated in the degrading manner which is now common in our public schools. None of these objectives is being effectively accomplished in the majority of today's public schools.

Posted by: David Foster at July 16, 2003 08:51 AM

I was objecting to the industrial metaphor, which effectively treats entering students as raw material and future employers as the buyers. This point of view is taken for granted as common sense to many free-marketers -- I frequently see it in letter-to-the-editor or op-eds.

It's a whole different argument, but my family's experience with public schools in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Oregon has been far, far better than what you read about in the papers. The failure of American public schools has been highly exaggerated, often by people with a sinister agenda.

Posted by: zizka at July 16, 2003 04:25 PM

I consider the university to be "big business" just like the corporate world. I don't ever delude myself that just because I work in academia that I am somehow protected from the same forces that throw the rest of the world suddenly out of a job. I didn't want my posts to give the impression that the coroporate world is "evil" and the academic one isn't. To me, it's all one big corporation and we are ALL workers. The only difference between myself and someone who makes minimum wage is the pay rate. We both sell our labor to someone at a bargain price. Zizka: I agree with your point on the industrial metaphor. It's high time that we challenge the "naturalization" of free market ideology!

Posted by: Cat at July 17, 2003 09:04 AM