(unfocused) Academic Rambles

(sub-title: stuff asst. professors should probably not blog about)

During a recent meeting, administrators at a university that shall not be named complained that Ph.D. students thought “too well of themselves.” They dared to imagine that 6-8 years of graduate education made them “too good” to “work at the Mall or Wal-Mart.” It was time for graduate students to “get real.”

It is difficult to know where to begin with this.

6-8 years of graduate school makes a qualitative difference. Claiming that further education has no discernible effect on knowledge gained, skills acquired, and, ultimately, earning potential is disingenuous at best. At worst, it devalues graduate education, and this at the hands of the very people who administer graduate programs.

There is a huge distinction between those graduate students who have pursued 6-8+ years of graduate education and high school graduates. The gap between undergraduates and advanced graduate students is part of what enables the latter to teach the former. To claim that distinctions do not or should not exist is bad for all of us. And to discount this qualitative difference due to some strange anti-elitism, and here I am being generous, deliberately misrecognizes achievement as snobbery.

Unfortunately, this attitude colludes with the tragic public misperceptions about academic labor: that it takes no specialized training, that specialized training is a waste of time, that specialized training is an escape from real labor, that academic labor takes place only in the classroom, that teaching happens only when one stands in front of a group of students at a university designated time, that teaching is a kind of information delivery that requires recitation, that evaluation is purely subjective, that grades can or should be bought, that academics have summers “off.” The list is long and I have barely started to exhaust it.

The remedy? Make academic labor like all other labor—punch clocks, monitor time, record every single bit of it, and make sure that labor is so strictly defined that much of what we do does NOT count.

This, of course, is the rub: the idea that academic labor is or should be a vocation coupled with the very real threats of unemployment and underemployment forces many of us to discount our labor as labor—in this period of underemployment and unemployment, it has been stunning to read the number of stories written by no doubt well-meaning academics in which they proclaim their love for and devotion to what we do. Now, these sentiments are noble and right and even valuable. But they should NEVER be used to justify underemployment, low pay, and professional instability.

Increasingly, they are.

Broadly defined, pedagogy is the mission of the university.
However, the scenes of that pedagogy, the moments of its instantiation, the occasions for its performance, and the setting of its staging differ widely.

Pedagogy takes place between and among faculty members as much as it does between faculty and students. It happens in specialized seminars and workshops, when designing syllabi and writing fellowship applications, when writing letters of recommendation (and thinking of these as scenes of pedagogy is very instructive) and when hanging up posters for events. It happens over emails and tea, in brief conversations in hallways and on train and bus rides. It happens when traveling to research sites, performing experiments, writing up results, and in formal and informal conversations about pedagogy. It is always happening. And we do not yet have the strategies through which to account for this ongoing labor. Or, put otherwise, the mechanisms through which labor is recognized as labor fail miserably when asked to account for academic labor.

This failure is most evident when non-academics describe how they envision academic life. At stake, of course, is that this misrecognition has rich, thriving public life that feeds into an all too common anti-intellectualism. It is not, I hasten to add, that I equate intellectual work with the academy (that definite article is important), but the academy is one of the vital sites where intellectual inquiry, no matter how idiosyncratic, may thrive.

Or it used to be.

I do think that the work academics do needs to have a more public life and this public life is not an easily caricatured dumbing down. Public universities, such as the one I attended and the one where I work, can and should be more public—and this is a value that entails losing, not making, money. It is good for democracy, good for educated publics, and good for educating publics not only about the kind of knowledge we produce, but about the kind of labor we do.

I can envision projects in which various publics could be invited to share in or at least collaborate on projects such as constructing syllabuses, creating evaluation criteria, evaluating work, helping in various kinds of student development (and, by this, I mean taking students seriously, not weird unpaid internships that consist of making coffee and copies). I am not yet sure how this would work, but there can be a publicness to what we do, even an illustrative publicness, that might help in a re-thinking of our labor as labor.

Let us not kid ourselves. Education is about social mobility.

My grandfather was a cook in Kenya’s colonial past. My father, his first son, became a doctor, a journey that entailed multiple movements, from Muranga to Nyeri to Makerere to London to Wales to Nairobi. His multiple movements have enabled my own, though our intellectual terrains and bodily dispositions have been different.

My histories make it impossible for me to undervalue or devalue education in any way. And I am upset that the ongoing crisis in higher education has, as one of its more pernicious consequences, an ongoing devaluation and undervaluation of the work we do, not least by those responsible for protecting and nurturing that labor.