Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Lumpenlogocrat Manifesto

Several months ago I read Marc Bousquet's sensational How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York University Press, 2008). I've been meaning to write a blog posting about this book, since in many ways it offers a manifesto for lumpenlogocrats. I keep thinking that I will find the inspiration to write a longer analysis. But it just isn't happening. So I figure I might as well just point our readers toward the book itself--and the author's website.

Himself a tenured English professor at Santa Clara University, Bousquet gained wide attention in the 1990s for his "excremental" theory of graduate education. Roughly, this interpretation holds that, especially in the humanities, Ph.D. recipients are a waste product of a system of higher education that has relied increasingly on contingent labor--including graduate student labor--over the past few decades. Needless to say, Bousquet's work is both provocative and timely, and in many ways should be an essential foundation for lumpenlogocrat consciousness.

The issue of contingent academic labor remains quite relevant during this economic crisis. Colleges and universities are often trying to increase their reliance on adjuncts and other contingent faculty even more, now that endowment spending, alumni giving, and financial aid lines in the budget are under severe pressure. Of course, Bousquet would point out that this is just one more justification among many for this shift, which has been occurring through good times and bad. It's just like the Republicans and tax policy: when times are good, cut taxes; when times are bad, cut taxes. For universities: when times are good, use more contingent labor; when times are bad, use more contingent labor.

Bousquet's indictment of higher education is strongly worded and uncompromising. And it also rings true. There is no single issue that strikes more at the heart of what is wrong with higher education today than the massive shift towards contingent labor. The shift has not been felt equally across all institutions--a small number of elite liberal arts colleges, for example, still have the majority of courses taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty, at least for those students privileged enough to be able to attend such schools--but its effects in Academia have been far more profound and consequential than any of the squabbles that regularly surface in the mass media about what is wrong with higher education.

Bousquet does not believe in the "job market." Or, more precisely, he believes that the "job market" is an idealized fiction that covers up the reality of a shift towards cheap, expendable contingent labor. It is a measure of the rhetorical effectiveness of such terms as "job market" that even those of us who understand Bousquet's critique have a hard time avoiding them.

This is the one book that all lumpenlogocrats (and those who stand in solidarity with them) should read.

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