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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

What Class is Academia?

This is a question which, in some ways, connects to that long tangle of class and culture matters which I've promised to blog about sooner or later; in some ways it fits in with the discussion about academia, the costs of parenting and family life over at Laura McKenna's blog; but mostly it just stands on its own. It started out as a thought internal to the small (but growing!) world of Mormon blogs which I also inhabit. Amy at Nine Moons wrote about something she'd observed among many of the Mormon graduate students she has known: a tendency to band together (she calls the result "Little Utahs") and make use of every government subsidy they can--via low-cost housing, food stamp programs, WIC, and much more--in order to reduce costs and make it possible for them to go through graduate or professional school (most of those she immediately had in mind were aiming to become dentists) without piling up much (if any) debt while also beginning their families (which, for most Mormons, usually means having children early and making sure one spouse is at home full-time). As she notes, most of these people are not poor--they come from families well-off enough to have supported their children in their efforts to excel at school and get into good graduate programs, and more importantly, it's not as though most of them aren't looking forward to earning good money fairly soon anyway. So she asks whether this is an ethical practice, especially considering all the self-reliance rhetoric Mormons are regularly exposed to (believe me: it's a lot). Another blog where I post regularly picked up on Amy's post, and while the discussion it sparked was short, it didn't lack for venom.

The specifically Mormon angle to this doesn't interest me much. Jonathan Green is correct to point out in one of his comments that "graduate and professional education doesn’t fit perfectly with the typical ways members of the [Mormon church] pair off and start families, and that the family ideal of the [church] doesn’t fit perfectly with the typical expectations graduate schools have for their students"--but the issue is broader than that, I think. There is often a tension in graduate school between scholarship students, "subsidy" students (whether government or parents or both), and those that are piling up debt and working two jobs to make their education possible. In our case, we took out loans, and worked, and accepted some scholarship money, and that's about it. The result, as Melissa puts it occasionally, is that my education "is the Mercedes-Benz we'll never own." I've no criticisms to make of graduate students who make use of legitimate government subsidies while advancing towards their educational and professional goals; indeed, I wish Melissa and I had been more on the ball in that regard. But it is worth noting, however, that part of the reason for the confusion and anger these practices give rise to is that we have certain expectations for graduate students--expectations which are grounded in class concerns, even though said concerns now bear little relationship to reality. (I'm going to limit my comments to people pursuing Ph.D.s and careers in academia, since that's what I know and that's where the contradictions in this matter are greatest; doctors and lawyers and dentists who play at being poor for the sake of saving some money before they leap into the high five-figure or even six-figure salary range have a different, and harder, ethical row to hoe.)

What it really comes down to is this: academia isn't labor insofar as it has been popularly understood. It is, if anything, filled with leisure. I'm a working academic, and I work hard--I prepare lectures, I teach classes, I work with students, I grade papers, I fulfill committee assignments, I pitch in around the department, I write, I study, I present my research: I do a lot. But what I'm doing I'm usually doing from my desk, according to my own schedule, I'm doing it in a field that I have chosen because it interests me, and so on. It's not just that it isn't (usually) physical labor: it's not a producing labor, not something which can really be reduced to an exchanges of services, an output, as it were. That's why educators talk about their work as a "vocation." Any academic who manages to avoid adjunctdom--and especially any academic who snags a tenure-track job--hasn't landed a position, but rather has been admitted to a "guild". Not a particularly well-paying guild, true, but one with enough perks (work load, vacations, travel, etc.) to definitely set it apart. Or, at least, that's the presumption, one shared (whether we wish to acknowledge it or not) by both those who pursue graduate education (particularly in the humanities and social sciences, but folks in the hard sciences and other areas of academia often feel the same way) and those who watch all of us going through it. (My father, a no-nonsense businessman and entrepreneur, humorously describes academics as "parasites" on society; a popular and, I think, not entirely inappropriate label.) The fact is that spending hours and days and weeks and months of one life specializing in arcane methodologies and arguments and texts is not the same sort of work that most other members of our undergraduate class looked forward to doing; we set out to do something that pertained to a different, less fungible, less strictly marketable, set of rules.

Of course, as the discussion which followed the old Invisible Adjunct post linked to above makes perfectly clear, academia today doesn't act like a guild, doesn't provide the protections or rewards or the opportunities of a guild, or at least not for the overwhelming majority of those who go into it. Rather, for the bulk of Ph.D.s, it provides nothing but the chance to sweat it out trying to find a niche in a competitive, difficult, generally underfunded and constantly shifting job market, in which we (as I once put it in a rather bluesy post) "find ourselves...aspiring to a frankly appalling ideal of detachment (an elite, cloistered way of life) while lacking either the resources or the institutional support or the social justification for doing so." In short, the socio-economic "space" which the labors of an academic inhabits is no longer all that different from that which situates most other kinds labor. But we still think, and everyone else thinks, that it ought to be. After all, we've been highly educated; socialized to frame problems and discuss ideas in rarefied ways; schooled to form expectations and think in terms of certain relationships and opportunities that are, frankly, the province of a leisurely, vocational, guild-protected elite. We're upper and upper-middle class, in other words. But we can't afford that life, and don't live it, for the most part; the economic state of the bulk of universities in the U.S. today simply doesn't allow for it. The result are conversations like the recent one I had with an old friend of mine, in which I (like a good elite political thinker) was busy talking about the Democratic party and cultural politics and the working class, only be interrupted by my friend: "Look at your salary. You're working class." And he's right, of course.

The point should be obvious: there's not much reason any longer to imagine that the costs which aspiring academics bear (whether they do so through family or government or frugality or some combination thereof) need to be treated as a price to paid to enter an exclusive club, or some kind of noble burden that elites are especially capable of taking on. Of course, perhaps it would be nice to think that: the popular assumption behind welfare is that government programs exist to help the poor start climbing up the class ladder (beginning with the lowest rung!), which makes the participation of (possible!) elites like ourselves in those programs seem rather dubious. But given that the academic class system doesn't work much any more, and given that most aspiring academics today recognize that, for better or worse (mostly the latter, I'm afraid), the future of higher education in America will very likely--except for those at the very top of the profession--turn exactly on the question of our outputs, our own inputs seem to have lost a certain mystique. Instead, they're just costly. So scrounge, beg, borrow, plead poverty: it's all accurate, and it's all true. The same thing goes for family dynamics: the special rules which one might have assumed governed, or ought to have governed, our attempts to combine family life and being an academic simply aren't there (and maybe never were, given that the expectations of academia were formed long before women--and men as caregivers!--entered the equation), with the result that the time-consuming and expensive quality of academic life (with its many years of training) is exposed as the real burden for mothers and fathers which it is.

None of this is to insist that I and all my colleagues are victims of an injustice. We love our jobs, which we are lucky to have. And the guildlike nature of the academia hasn't entirely disappeared, so losing that Mercedes-Benz, even besides all the ways in which we find (or hope to find) fulfillment through teaching, was still basically worth it. But it's not going to get any easier for academics to find a socio-economic place for themselves--much less figure out the best allegiances and practices for their families and communities--anytime soon. The traditional academic ship is, I fear, probably going to sink under the weight of the class crisis it (and America) are going through at the present time; those of us who have signed up and are sticking with our ship regardless are going to end up scrambling whichever way we can to keep our guildish expectations and hopes for our families above the water, dignity be damned.


Anonymous said...

A few years ago, I was talking with Marshall Berman about what a bad spot Steve and I were in. At that time, we were on WIC, struggling with the dissertations, and living in a crappy apartment in the city. We had no hope of finding jobs in the city. We had just sailed two Mercedes Benzs off a cliff.

He sighed and said, "Laura, your dad and I got in at the good time in the '60s. Before that, academia was poorly paid and had few opportunities. The 60s was the one time in history when a guy from a working class backround, like your dad and myself, could become middle class by being an academic. That window has closed."

yes, maybe it's ironic that an old Marxist would understand how good it is to be middle class, but Marshall got it.  

Posted by Laura

Anonymous said...

Russell, you responded to my post! I'm touched.
You called me venomous! I'm also touched, I think. I was aiming for 'fervent' rather than 'venomous,' but I won't quibble.

I think we end up agreeing on the practical application (we're poor! sign up for WIC!), and on many of the points along the way, but I disagree on some others. Responding adquately will take too long for this evening, and maybe for this semester as well, so here are a few random thoughts for now.

I don't feel like a parasite. Since I'm a full-time adjunct with a semester to semester contract and no benefits, I feel like the exploitation works the other way in my employment relationship.

I never noticed the animosity you mentioned in grad school. Maybe I was just naive. It was difficult enough getting by on a combination of fellowship and assistantship money that I figured whatever anyone else could reel in to pay for grad school was probably justified.

You already know what happened to the medieval guilds, right? They kept raising the requirements for junior members to become independent craftsmen in order to minimize competition with the sernior members.

That's it for now; it's past my bedtime. 

Posted by Jonathan Green

Anonymous said...

Laura, what a great anecdote. Yes, it is good to be middle-class, and academia was (and still is, for many (but fewer all the time)) a great way to achieve that lifestyle, not the least reason for which being all the other upper-class perks (psychological, social, and otherwise) which came along with it. Were academics "poorly paid" with "few opportunities" before the boom in the 1960s? Maybe, relatively speaking--but then, as Berman's point implies, before the 1960s somebody who wasn't already a member of some sort of elite--whether in terms of family or finances or both--probably would never have tried to give academia a whirl. The guild sensibility was still in place then.

Jonathan, I'm glad you found the post. If we could find the time to argue about it some, I suspect we'd actually agree on even more than you suggest. Like being a "parasite." Of course the exploitation primarily runs the other way in today's academy; that's part of my point. I'm just referring to how the lived reality rarely matches up with the detachted, intellectual, internally-policied (faculty evaluations, publications, etc.), unsullied-by-raw-market-forces ideal which most of us (or me, at least) had inculcated into us, and by which most non-academics continue to judge the profession (and those trying to get into it). 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox