New! NYU Press has kindly arranged for a pdf of chapter 4. It is suitable for student reading. Ask your undergraduates about their working lives. At most institutions, you will be shocked by what they endure.
Management theory has become so variegated in recent years that, for some, it now constitutes a perfectly viable replacement for old-fashioned intellectual life. There’s so much to choose from! So many deep thinkers, so many flashy popularizers, so many schools of thought, so many bold predictions, so many controversies! For all this vast and sparkling intellectual production, though, we hear surprisingly little about what it’s like to be managed.
—Thomas Frank, The God That Sucked
As a new assistant professor in late 1998, I was asked to give a talk on job-hunting to advanced graduate students in my department. Little is expected of these occasions besides a few cautionary remarks about “how tough it is out there,” and shopworn advice (wear conservative outfits, don’t send creative writing samples to a critical job, etc.). Even so, most junior faculty have been made uncomfortable by these performances, in part because we know that what job candidates in most fields face is years of disappointment. (Taking all disciplines together, the average age at which the terminal degree is awarded is 33; the average age at which the first full-time job is awarded is 39; for new scholars, more than a third of those “full-time” positions will be nontenurable [U.S. Dept. of Education].)
Nonetheless, like many unionists and graduate employee activists, I hoped such an occasion could be turned to good use. My talk covered some of the basic facts of the academic labor system. In particular, I observed that the pervasive substitution of student and other flex labor for faculty labor has a meaning that the profession has yet to fully absorb: for many graduate students the receipt of the Ph.D. is the end and not the beginning of a long teaching career. Contrary to the Fordist analysis predominating in academic professional associations, which imagine that the holder of the Ph.D. is the “product” of a graduate school, we now have to recognize that in many circumstances the degree holder is really the “waste product” of a labor system that primarily makes use of graduate schools to maintain a pool of cheap workers. The “product” of graduate education is the cheap and traditionally docile graduate student worker, not the holder of the Ph.D.—hence the passion for developing “alternate careers” for Ph.Ds, which dispose of the degree-holding by-product, while making room for new cheap graduate employee workers.
A few minutes into the talk, one of my colleagues interrupted. “But you know, don’t you, that all of our graduate students expect to get jobs?”
There was a chorus of assent from the graduate students. It turned out that persons awarded doctorates from the English department at the University of Louisville enjoyed what was effectively a 100% success rate in finding tenure-stream academic jobs, many of them at significant research institutions. Reacting to my obvious astonishment, one of the leading figures in the graduate program said, “I think the employment prospects are different for rhetoric and composition than for other fields in English.”
If anything, this was an understatement. Graduate students in the department commonly receive a dozen (or even two dozen) invitations to interview for rhet-comp jobs at MLA; several students here have turned down more interviews than many grad students in literature will ever receive. While I had been informed of the programmatic separation between the University of Kentucky, which awarded only the Ph.D. in literature, and U of L, which was permitted to award only the Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition, I had otherwise thought little about it.
Over the next several months, some of the critically-oriented graduate students drew me into an investigation of this difference. Was rhet-comp simply becoming popular? Could the popularity of the field be understood as a “market fluctuation,” in the same sense that perhaps next year Anglo-Saxon would be “in demand”? Or was there a systematic relationship between the relative ease with which rhet-comp Ph.D.s earn tenure-stream jobs and the way in which the same labor system uses graduate students in “other fields in English” as disposable workers?
A great deal of research remains to be done in this area. For me, along with Eileen Schell, Bruce Horner, Donna Strickland, and David Downing, the difference between rhet-comp and the “other fields” of English has much to do with its specific positioning in the disciplinary division of labor. Perhaps the key point is that persons holding the rhet-comp Ph.D. will frequently expect to serve the managed university as management. There is in fact enormous variety in the ways that rhet-comp scholars are employed, but as one of the field’s leading new lights observes, “most” rhet-comp Ph.D.s will be “required” during some portion of their career to manage a writing program, “oversee the labor of others,” and perform “other such managerial tasks” (Miller, “Let’s” 98-99). In this context, the “others” whose labor is “overseen” by the holder of the rhet-comp Ph.D. are commonly persons who have experience of graduate study in the “other fields” of English—current or former graduate students working as flexible labor, rather than as colleagues.
In this circumstance, holders of rhet-comp doctorates are hardly alone. The “managerial” functions of the full-time faculty more generally are so pervasive that it has provided substantial legal obstacles to organizing the professoriate, especially on private campuses. And as Clyde Barrow, Harry Braverman, and Evan Watkins have been at pains to demonstrate, the conventional academic disciplines as a group, including English, have demonstrated a pronounced tendency over the past century to show compatibility with management theory and practice or even at times to serve as a branch of management science altogether. Nonetheless, the administrative character is indeed more pronounced in rhet-comp, so that professional compositionists as a group tend to be interpellated as lower management: that is, even those holders of rhet-comp doctorates who evade the “requirement” to serve directly as lower managers can be viewed as theorizing and/or providing legitimation (through the production of scholarship, inventing classroom praxis, etc.) in connection with what Marx called “the work of supervision.”
One consequence of the core self-understanding of the compositionist as a managerial intellectual has been a turn toward “pragmatic” philosophies in the rhet-comp discourse. These urge the rhet-comp intellectual to “admit” and embrace their “complicity” in a “corporate system,” and adopt the posture of a “canny bureaucrat” (Harris 51-52; Miller, “Arts”). Collapsing critical pedagogy and cultural studies into classroom manifestations, this standpoint tends to characterize critical pedagogy in crude terms (i.e., as the dosing of students with outmoded lefty truisms). Its primary tactic is to attempt to turn the critique of enlightenment theories of knowledge against its authors in critical theory, cultural studies, and radical pedagogy. For instance, Freirean pedagogues elaborating a critique of the banking theory of knowledge are (mis)represented by the pragmatist movement as attempting to deposit “out of date” anti-capitalisms in the helpless student brain. For these pragmatists, the “ideals” of critical pedagogy are part of the problem, out of touch with fundamental “realities” of the corporate university. They advocate a pedagogy overtly complicit with domination, urging teachers and students to “strategically deploy the thoughts and ideas of the corporate world” (Miller, “Let’s” 98). In this managerial discourse, the “economic” is generally represented as determining immediately (“we must recognize the ‘material constraints'” of our position, or “the economy,” “the market,” etc.), committing the sort of economic determinism usually ascribed to Marxist thought (Braverman 17-21).
Through this sort of locution, the “pragmatist” movement conceals its own hidden idealism—a less than critical adherence to what Thomas Frank dubs the “market god,” and the concomitant elevation of corporate management to a priestly class. By way of a rhetoric claiming an exclusive purchase on “reality,” pragmatist ideologues have had a fair amount of success at discouraging the effort to realize any other ideals than those of the market. (This is the imposition of what Jameson calls “the Reagan-Kemp and Thatcher utopias,” and what David Harvey calls a “political correctness of the market.”) Despite the fantasies of those Marx called “vulgar political economists,” markets don’t exist transhistorically; they have “reality” to the extent that they are installed and maintained by human agents devoted to achieving particular market ideals. “Pragmatist” idealizations of the market conceal the human agency in the creation and maintenance of markets. Brought about not by necessity, but by the planned and intentional defunding of public institutions together with a corresponding diversion of public funds to private ventures (“corporate welfare”), market ideals were energetically wrestled into reality by embodied agents with political and economic force, in the process rolling back alternative ideals that themselves had been realized in law and policy by collective social action throughout the twentieth century.
Changing the managed university (and the “politics of work” therein) requires understanding that the “market fundamentalism” current among university managers has no more purchase on what is and should be than any other system of foundational belief. A humanly-engineered historical emergence of the past three decades, the “managed university” names a global phenomenon: the forced privatization of public higher education; the erosion of faculty, student, and citizen participation in higher education policy, except through academic-capitalist and consumerist practices; and the steady conversion of socially-beneficial activities to the commodity form (Rhoades and Slaughter, Slaughter and Leslie, Martin). As Randy Martin makes clear, these circumstances are not brought about in the North American and European context because the state has “withdrawn” from higher education, but because it “invests itself” ever more aggressively “in promoting an alignment of human initiative with business interest” (7). Globally, the IMF and World Bank have actively promoted a similar “reform agenda” with respect to higher education and used their power to impose involuntary privatization on national higher education systems, especially in Africa, requiring tuition fees, and effectively “recolonizing” cultural and intellectual life throughout the global South, as direct policy intervention combined with neoliberal “constraints” caused universities to “substitute new staff, standardize pedagogical materials and marginalize local knowledges” (Levidow para. 24-36).
In the pragmatist-managerial version of “materialism,” collective human agencies are conspicuously absent: “markets” are real agents and persons generally are not, except in their acquiescence to market dicta. Miller, for example, writes: “the truth is that the question of who’s qualified to teach first-year writing was settled long ago by the market” (“Let’s” 99). In a world of systems “governed” by the “arbitrary,” the “only possible” human agency becomes something like flexible self-specialization, the continuous re-tooling of self in response to market “demands,” a subjectivity that Richard Sennett observes is just as unsatisfying a “corrosion of character” for those who “win” the market game as those who “lose.” In this view, persons can only be agents by adopting the arts of corporate domination and by fitting themselves to the demands of the market, “working within a system governed by shifting and arbitrary requirements” (Miller, “Arts” 26). Representing corporate domination as a fact of life, this brand of pragmatism ultimately conceals an historically specific ideological orientation (neoliberalism) behind an aggressive (re)description of “reality,” in which “left-wing” bogeymen are sometimes raised as the threats to human agency. (The real threat to human agency is the corporate-bureaucratic limits to human possibility established by the pragmatists themselves.)
What most troubles me about managerial pragmatism is the way it seeks to curb the ambitions of our speech and rhetoric. In the managerial account, contemporary realities dictate that all non-market idealisms will be “dismissed as the plaintive bleating of sheep,” but corporate-friendly speech “can be heard as reasoned arguments” (Miller, “Arts” 27). More important than such adjectives and analogies, however, are the substructure of assumptions about what rhetoric is for. The implicit scene of speech here is of “pleasing the prince,” featuring an all-powerful auditor with values beyond challenge, and a speaker only able to share power by association with the dominating logic of the scene—a speaker whose very humanity depends upon complicity. As a cultural-studies scholar, I understand the lived realities of subjectivity under domination and the need for acts of “complicity.” But, this scene of complicity need not be mistaken as the central topos constitutive of human agency, nor should intellectuals committed to transformation mistake the prince—however powerful—as the object of our rhetoric.
Most astonishing about the claims that the logic and rhetoric of solidarity or justice “cannot be heard” is that these claims are so patently false. What of rhetors such as Emma Goldman, W. E. B. DuBois, Eugene Debs, and Nelson Mandela? What of the gains of democratic revolutions after 1750? Or of abolition, decolonization, feminism, communism, and trades-unionism? And now, are the still- (and newly- ) organized voices of labor really “dismissed as the plaintive bleating of sheep” by management at Ford or the California state universities? Hardly. The millions of dollars and dozens of managerial careers openly devoted to contain and divide labor in both locations suggests the magnitude of the power they are attempting to defuse. (The graduate employee union at the University of Michigan calculated that the annual salaries of the university’s full-time bargaining team—$630,000—amounted to only slightly less than the cost of the contract improvements that the union was seeking—$700,000 per year.) Likewise: are the non-profit values of social entitlement, dignity and equality advocated by the organized voices of AARP, NAACP, and NOW similarly “dismissed” by Washington bureaucrats? Not really.
So what should we make of a discourse that pretends that the organized voice of persons seeking social justice is impractical and sheep-like, and that agency is primarily possible in only adopting a bureaucratic persona? It is a management discourse of the sort that Thomas Frank suggests threatens to supplant intellectual life altogether. In holding our gaze on the managerialism of the composition discourse, we ultimately need to ask who benefits? Despite its rhetoric of “student need” and “customer service,” is the university of job-readiness really good for students? If it’s really designed to serve “student needs,” then why do so many students drop out or fail to graduate? If it’s more efficient to reduce education to vocation, then why does it cost more and more to go to college? Who receives the “economic benefits” of lowered salaries, reduced services, and lowered expectations?
In seeking to “transform institutions,” then, the discourse of rhetoric and composition might share the skepticism of adjuncts like David Brodsky at the claims of management discourse to deliver democratic outcomes through corporate processes and “change” for the many by liberating the self-interest of a few. At its best, the managerial discourse has an earnest commitment to bettering the circumstances of embodied composition labor. Nonetheless it has yet to acknowledge the limits presented by its failure to confront, in Frank’s words, “what it’s like to be managed.” In rhet-comp, traditional faculty working conditions are enjoyed primarily by managers, not by teachers. In this discipline, administrators can consistently expect “academic freedom,” a professional wage, pleasant working conditions, job security, and participation in campus governance. By contrast: writing teachers are commonly paid less than seventeen thousand dollars a year for a 4-4 load, frequently denied such basic classroom autonomies as choosing their texts, assignments, and pedagogies, often fired without cause, rarely enjoy health insurance, and are “generously” relieved of service obligations by managers who acknowledge that their workers are “paid too poorly to spend time on campus participating in governance.” While rhet-comp’s official discourse acknowledges that these professorial freedoms and protections are desirable for writing teachers, the “professionalization” of the field has gained them only for management.
If rhet-comp is the canary in the mine for the academy more generally, what it tells us is that the professorial jobs of the future are for an increasingly managerial faculty. From the perspective of the vast majority of university teachers ineligible for tenure, it is obvious that the security and benefits of the “fortunate” managerial minority are predicated on the insecurity and exploitation of the teaching majority. But anyone who has read the discourse of writing program administrators is unlikely to be persuaded that this “fortunate” group of people has found in their managerial positions the kind of satisfactions they hoped from academic work. Indeed, one of the more widespread structures of feeling among WPAs is the desire to be released from their managerial service into the general population of tenure-stream faculty.
While the discontent of the managed and the managers takes different forms, both forms of unhappiness can be measured by their distance from the same benchmark: traditional faculty work. The managed and the managers don’t dream of trading places with each other: both dream of becoming the “real faculty,” that is, having the chance to govern, participating more fully in the intellectual community, developing as an instructor, and enjoying better pay, benefits, protections, and security. The conversation of managerial compositionists is characterized by dreams of reforming the managerial relation so that the managed can become “more like” traditional faculty. But this hasn’t translated into a consensus among professional and managerial compositionists that writing instructors should actually be faculty—ultimately preserving the managerial relation as the outer limit of this reformist sentiment.
We need to theorize a better future as the consequence of very different agencies: for instance, the collective agency of those who are managed. Nevertheless, just as it is sometimes possible for deans and presidents to shed their administrative subjectivity and return to the labor of the professoriate, perhaps the professional and managerial compositionist can likewise shed the desire for control and embrace the reality of collective agency, even become a part of the academic labor movement. Maybe what the professional compositionist really wants is to lay down the “requirement” to serve as writing program administrator and become a colleague among colleagues. For instance, Joseph Harris, one of the more visible managerial pragmatists in the field, given to frankly describing writing program administrators as “bosses,” also chooses to identify himself as a “worker” in a “collective educational project” and (unlike most contributors to the managerialist discourse) makes a point of endorsing collective bargaining and underlines the “structural and economic” nature of the problems we face. If we remove the taint of the pragmatist, we find in Harris’s “boss” a worker struggling to make himself available to the social project of solidarity. And on the basis of that consciousness, it is possible to imagine rhet-comp exchanging the discipline of management for a labor theory of agency and a rhetoric of solidarity aimed at constituting, nurturing, and empowering collective action by persons in groups, rather than attending to the “necessities” generated by the bureaucrat within.
This piece originally appeared in minnesota review and was adapted from the introduction and author’s contribution to the collection Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers: Writing in the Managed University (SIUP, 2004). It is deeply indebted to the spirit of commitment and critical inquiry of the graduate employees at the University of Louisville, especially Chris Carter, Laura Snyder, and Tony Scott, together with Leo Parascondola, Heather Julien, and the collective of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor.
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