happy readers

“The single most important recent advance
in our understanding of the structure of higher education.”

–Cary Nelson

“Bousquet is about to emerge as the Al Gore of higher education.”
–Thomas Hart Benton,
The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 30, 2007

“How the University Works does for academe what Upton Sinclair’s
The Jungle
did for breakfast sausage

–Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Education, January 9, 2008

“The best study of academic labor conditions in the U.S. since the 1970s.”
–Vincent B. Leitch,
general editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism

“A smokin’ hot new book.”

“An amazing blog.”

Marc Bousquet has written a great book
and produced amazing (and depressing) videos on the rise of contingent labor in academia. If you think that all academics are tenured faculty, making six figures and enjoying cushy jobs, think again. In any event: Read the blog. Read the book .Read the interview in Inside Higher Ed. Watch the Youtube Videos.


In 2003, I recall hearing numerous references to an essay in Social Text arguing that the Ph.D. in some fields – for example, English – was a waste product of the academic economy. Certain departments required a steady influx of cheap labor, i.e. graduate students, to teach lower-division classes. Their own coursework would supposedly prepare Ph.D. candidates to be admitted into a profession. But most of them would later, with degree in hand, never find regular employment to teach.

This was not a failure of the system that could be corrected by reducing the number of graduate students admitted, went the argument. Rather, the system was working just fine. Cheap labor was consumed, and the Ph.D.-holder was excreted, and the bottom line was met.

The shift from vague discussions of Bataille’s “general economy” to hard-edged considerations of questions about academic labor was certainly very striking.A few years earlier, people had theorized about abjection. Now they seemed to be living it.

The author of “The Waste Product of Graduate Education” was Marc Bousquet, now an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University, who has expanded the argument into a new book called How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, which does for academe what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle did for breakfast sausage.

It should have traction outside the ranks of MLA. Some of the grumbling heard during the American Historical Association meeting in Washington, DC over the weekend suggests that people in other fields may read it with a shock of recognition. I had dinner recently with a historian who said, more or less, “People refer to the crisis as one of the ‘job market,’ but that’s misleading. Academic employment isn’t a market in the literal sense.” As it happens, that is one of Bousquet’s arguments — although the historian saying it hadn’t heard of him or read his book.

How the University Works has spawned a blog of the same name that has very quickly emerged as a prime venue for muckraking, agitation, and YouTube interviews with known troublemakers. In other words, it’s really good to see, and I urge you to take a look.
–Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Education, January 9, 2008

Thomas Hart Benton, reviewing the annual MLA convention for the Chronicle of Higher Education, December 30, 2007: “…the book fair — combined with the buzz of the conference — can cause a book to emerge as more significant than others: It helps one to identify the new publications that should reach everyone in the profession by some combination of universal relevance and urgency.

If I had to pick one such book from this year’s MLA conference, it would be Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works (NYU Press). I already knew about the book from its extensive Web site, which includes a blog and videos, along with the usual endorsements. Bousquet is, perhaps, best known for the “excremental theory of graduate education,” a talk that he gave at MLA in the mid-90s, arguing that the academic labor system is based on attrition and exploitation. It was a bold speech, and it helped to launch a wave of graduate student activism at the MLA and elsewhere.

As he described in a well-attended panel at this year’s meeting, Bousquet has turned his attention to the new ways universities are finding to exploit undergraduates by partnering with corporations to extract labor from captive “students” who are increasingly working multiple jobs at low wages with no benefits in order to get “real jobs” that the availability of so much student labor renders unnecessary. In other words, undergraduates are now on the receiving end of the same unethical labor practices that have made the tenured faculty of most universities small enough to drown in the bathtub.

How the University Works is a serious wake-up call for the entire profession, and, based on what I overheard at the book fair, Bousquet is about to emerge as the Al Gore of higher education.

To my mind, Bousquet’s work has been the most cogent and convincing about academic labor. His is an overarching critique of the “job system”—”system” to debunk the assumption of the naturalness of the “market” and to stress its being the deliberate implementation of policies—and the strategic overproduction of Ph.D.s to keep labor cheap. He expanded his critique from graduate-student labor to the university overall, which has “informationalized” work to suit the “just-in-time” managers at a desktop. The new “Information University” not only absorbs graduate students and adjuncts but also undergraduates, who work record numbers of hours and finish at a much older average age, and it transforms permanent faculty into a managerial cadre, most evident in composition and other service-course programs
–Jeffrey Williams,”The Post-Welfare State University,” American Literary History .

Campus workers — from custodians and dining hall workers to clericals and non-tenure-track faculty — are doing more labor for less pay in more precarious circumstances.

Marc Bousquet has beautifully analyzed the place of graduate employee labor in this context. In “The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible,” Bousquet argues that the grad school system isn’t primarily about producing PhDs for an imagined market in tenure track jobs.

Rather, it is aimed at extracting teaching labor from not-yet-degreed graduate student employees, who will too often later become part of the casualized adjunct pool.

These challenging circumstances also point to opportunities. Each site of exploitation and misery in the lives of grad students is also a site for struggle.”
–Chris Dixon and Alexis Shotwell,
“Leveraging the Academy,”
Monthly Review MRzine,
January 12, 2007



Inside Higher Ed has a lengthy article on a smokin’ hot new book by Santa Clara University English Professor Marc Bousquet called How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York University Press, 2008).

Ever since he was a graduate student in the 1990s, Bousquet has worked to bring attention to the degradation of American higher education caused by the declining numbers of regular (tenured or tenure-track) faculty and its increasing reliance on ill-paid, easily exploitable graduate student and adjunct instructors. Quite cleverly, Bousquet has a blog now by the same name, and it looks like a rich source of information and commentary about faculty working conditions across the spectrum. The Inside Higher Ed article does a good job explaining the book, but you might throw the working man some coin and pick up a copy yourself, or at least order one for your university’s library.

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation, and click on over for a visit. Tell him Historiann sent you.

How the University Works
is an amazing blog by Marc Bousquet, an English professor at Santa Clara University in the south bay, about the gradual erosion of higher education. He pays particular attention to the horrible working conditions of adjuncts around North America (includes Canada), but also addresses changes in tenure and especially how university administrators work. Most of this is stuff I knew already (as I scrape by on my 25K below median income with massive student loan debt and one bankruptcy to my name), but it’s great to get details, numbers, studies, etc., behind my intuition. He also spends a lot of time on how undergraduates, especially from working class and poor backgrounds, experience their studies. If you care about Higher Education, check this out. –toddshammer.com

Reviews of previous work:

Technology, Democracy, and Academic Labor: “This is probably the best assessment of the impact of new technology (and new management techniques) on academic work that I have seen. In the end, the conclusion that is inescapable is that it is not technology that is threatening education, but rather a sustained attack on the role and importance of academics, from their gradual replacement in the classroom by marginalized ‘information workers’ to the subtle erosion of tenure to the doctrine of quality and accountability. This really is outstanding work; do take the time to read this one cover to cover.
–Stephen Downes, OL Daily


Tenured Bosses gives hope that serious, even traditionally valued, scholarly conversation can clarify the questions of academic labor and inspire and support university-specific activism. From adjunctnation.com to the MTV Shop (yes, that MTV), Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers is getting press. Bousquet, Scott and Parascondola’s collection is not an easy, leisurely, or comfortable read. But that’s the point: the book is provocative.


For the sake of teachers, writing, students, and higher education, get the collection and get reading, get provoked and get questioning, get allies and get active.”
–Stephanie Roach, CCCC Forum


Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers “not only investigates the troublling labor structure of writing programs but pushes toward equitable solutions. This collection provides a thorough consideration of academic labor that will provide vital to all workers in the field of rhetoric and composition.”
–Michael Pennell, Enculturation


“These essays also highlight the need for all academics to consider the historical, ideological, and material conditions that have contributed to their own professional and disciplinary identities. Also, Tenured Bosses provides stark warnings about how those in tenure-line positions need to be aware of how their own critical theories and methodologies may be used to stimulate collective action or twisted to further enable exploitative practices. Finally, these essays provide hope by deconstructing the supposed inevitability of current conditions and by envisioning the changes that can be wrought by collective action”.–Daniel Schierenbeck, Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor


Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers contributes to a more complete understanding of the problems facing composition faculty particularly and, by extension, all faculty in a managed university. As the authors remind us, faculty is labor, not management, a truth our profession must recognize in order to ensure economic justice.”—Deborah B. Normand, Chair of the CCCC Committee on Contingent, Adjunct, and Part-Time Faculty