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When you teach for love, how do you pay your teaching assistants?

I completed my app. with style and perfection
Now I wonder how long before you make your selection
I hope you don’t mind that I’m being persistent
But, I really want to be your teaching assistant

–“JD,” March 13, 2008, applying for a “HotForWords” position

I left off last week with a note on Youtube phenom HotForWords as an exemplar of what’s produced at the shabby intersection of driving the humanities into the cellar of “teaching for love” and the “market-driven” and “metric-accessible” administrator notions of educational quality.

There were a bunch of interesting reactions. At The Valve (“A Literary Organ”), the responses trended toward the hormonally clever: “By and large I prefer the natural linguistics teachers to the silicone kind,” notes John Emerson.

At Brainstorm, the ever-trenchant Richard Tabor Greene tested the videos on his students (I’m sure violating the guidelines of his institutional review board for human-subjects research in the process):

Now, evaluating this audio track—she chose to explicate word histories and does a simple competent job, if not an extraordinary job. Indeed, if you close your eyes and ignore her bulging breasts, the impression of stupidity from her goes completely away. I tested this on students the other day, giving them the audio and giving a control group the video versions, and asking ratings of 50 randomly combined dimensions. A cropped video version without her breasts upped her non-stupidity score, nearly doubling it.

I should be clear that I didn’t suggest that Marina was “stupid,” nor do I hold that opinion. I think she’s obviously extremely intelligent and ambitious, and I think she has a genuine passion for philology.

In fact, I think Marina herself had the most intelligent response to the post, understanding clearly my intention, which was to feature Michelle Masse’s observation about the reason highly-paid hypocrites administrators are always pimping engaging in organizational myth-making by promoting the racist and sexist quality-improvement notion of “teaching for love” to other people, especially to those sectors of the campus where women work: “What Michelle says makes sense.. that if one does their work for the love of it.. they are easily exploited with low wages and extreme hours! So true!”

Among the respondents, Marina herself best understood that what is questionable (and stupid and wrong, and racist, and sexist, and unjust, and a freaking social crime) is the system that defines the passion for philology as something that should be “done for love,” ie, like other “women’s work,” on a highly discounted basis out of noneconomic rewards by persons who don’t need or want a wage.

With the profoundly socially unjust result that persons who can’t afford to discount their wage can’t do that kind of work. (Wealth gap!)

It also means that pursuing non-market passions can mean implicating the pursuer in markets of specious relevance: ie, doing “history” can mean entering the entertainment market and doing crap about guns and war for the Hitler channel, and following the market for anthropologists means working for the clowns who sponsored a “creation science” museum in Kentucky, or being a philologist means pandering to college boys on Youtube. As Marina defines her own teaching strategy: she is, as she sees it, “’exploiting’ the YouTube crowd by enticing them into clicking on a cute picture of a girl only to be (pleasantly) surprised by finding themselves unexpectedly learning a little etymology for the day!”

Marina also grasps that under academic capitalism doing good (like women’s studies programs or the teaching of writing) implicates the do-gooder in exploitative schemes of academic employment, such as the perma-temping of academic labor. In order for Marina to serve her 50,000 Youtube “students” and to continue racking up the great metrics she’s had so far, she clearly needs teaching assistance.

Marina’s application for teaching assistants is both a marketing ploy and in fact a challenging questionnaire–some of them more difficult than the questions usually posed to most students applying to many disciplines of graduate study.

There are 17 questions on the application, requiring the applicant to provide an etymology of their own surname, to distinguish between phobia and philia, and to demonstrate command of–or willingness to research–terms like sesquipedalian and palindrome. (To view the questionnaire yourself, you have to click “yes,” you’re a subscriber, but you don’t actually have to be oone.)

The principle of encouraging others to work for the pleasure of hanging out with Marina and/or the love of linguistics is essentially identical to the principle employed by universities in getting teaching assistants and contingent faculty to work for wages and benefits worse than those offered by Wal-mart.

What this suggests is that Marina may or may not be qualified to do advanced linguistics, but she certainly has all the knowledge necessary to be a university president or a trustee.



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