Good? Bad? Something else?

Been having a bit of back and forth with Carl on this post over at his, about academic labor and unionization and so on. Not quite sure how it relates but I get the sense there’s a tie to academic work being really stressful and all that, but it also being a good job as jobs go. I keep having the feeling I’m talking past a point he’s making, or maybe I’m just not getting something – very likely, I’m really tired. I’m taking a deep breath and backing off on that one for now, over there. Instead, this post.

I just read over this earlier post of Carl’s and there’s much I agree with. I should have read that sooner.

Carl speaks of a “consensus (…) that academic work is hard, poorly paid, and underappreciated.” He agrees with some of this – the work is hard sometimes, for instance – but says that this misses an important point or points. For one thing, most work is hard. Most work is a lot harder than academic work. All of that speaks to me.

It particularly speaks to me when Carl says that “praise or recognition (…) is really beside the point.”

I agree with this completely. There’s an element to some academic complaints which seem to me to be about wounded pride and anxiety about status. Like, “I should be more important than I am!” or something.

Carl is also right that “there are kinds of work that seem more privileged or desirable than others, where the ordinariness of work is (occasionally) enhanced by an inherent feeling of fulfillment and accomplishment and value.”

I don’t agree with Carl when he calls this “unalienated labor,” I don’t think that’s what Marx meant by alienation but I do think Carl is right on two important points. One, “this work is a pretty sweet deal” when compared with a lot of other work. He’s right that “it’s always a bad argument to try to claim sympathy for privileged work. It’s bad because it’s a quick way to get people who understand work to be an ordinary feature of human life, like university administrators, to stop taking you seriously.”

I will say, I work really hard and it’s stressful and puts a burden on my marriage and I make a low enough wage that I qualify for food stamps, and I definitely have many a day when I wish I hadn’t taken the career path I did that led me back to graduate school. Admission of that all of that is really important to me and I think my employer and the industry I work in are unjust for doing this to so many people. The thing is, this too is an ordinary injustice. I mean, I feel it more strongly because it effects me. But it’s not *more unjust* because it effects me. I don’t have a “people like me shouldn’t be treated this way” kind of argument, I have a “people shouldn’t be treated this way” kind of argument (and in trying to talk union with other people I know I don’t go that route either, I go more of a “tell me, what’s it like living like that?” kind of route, in the hope to get people agitated about their issues); changing this won’t be a matter of moral right but collective power. But I digress.

Second important point Carl makes – or that I got out of what he said, I think he may disagree with me on some of this – is that there are aspects to academic labor that are in themselves rewarding to the people involved in them. Or, put differently, a lot of academic claims to importance are really about demands for the right to do things that the people making those demands want to do. Research? That’s about people who like to read and write getting to read and write. Academic freedom? That’s about people who like to teach on certain subjects getting teach on those subjects. To put this yet another way, I think a lot of demands – or gripes that are not yet formulated into grievances – that academics have are along the lines of demands by other workers for longer paid vacations. It’s a legitimate demand but one that doesn’t help other people and isn’t a social good. I think there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors done by academic workers sometimes to talk as if all of our demands are good for society. That’s just not true. A lot of our demands are things that would be good for us. I still think that more power for the people who do the bulk of teaching might be better for society than otherwise (assuming two things, that the people doing teaching care about the people they teach and that teaching is good for society – the first is I think empirically demonstrable, the second I think is actually pretty questionable); I’ve made a parallel elsewhere to this re: how nurses can advocate better for patients if the nurses have more power in hospitals (this too I think is empirically demonstrable). This does not mean, however that every effect of that power or every goal toward which that power would be exercised would be good for society. Again, like vacation time.

Final thing, I think clarity and honest on this is tremendously important. One of my gripes regarding edu-factory was a slippage I felt was there, from academic workers to “the university,” as if the university was only composed of academics. That is pernicious, as is academic workers’ occasional tendency to complain about their own condition in such a way that acts like academics have more right to good things and fails to notice that many others’ have it much, much worse. (For instance, if I rubbed a lamp in the library and a genie appeared and said “I’m not very powerful so you can only make limited types of wishes and they have to apply to the university where you work” I’d probably wish first for higher pay for graduate students in the humanities and social sciences without cuts anywhere else [selfish, I know], then higher pay for the many non-academic workers particularly those on the lower end [my university can be a pretty vicious union buster and is worse yet when it comes to non-unionized employees other than faculty], followed by dramatic tuition cuts.)

Only tangentially related – along similar lines I’ve never liked academic claims to political importance, or invocations thereof along the lines of public intellectuals or invocations of Gramsci to make claims that academics’ failures are this big thing that’s hampering the movement or whatever. I mean, I love to read Marx, I love to teach Marx. I don’t think those things are political. They *can* be. A reading group with comrades dedicated to social change? Political (maybe). A college course on Marx? Not so much. Put another way, I think academic critical and radical theory and so on is more an effect of social struggle than an actor or facilitator thereof. I think this parallels other forms of cultural production. I don’t know that legal theory makes for better lawyers. I don’t know that cultural studies theorizing of popular music improves pop music. Likewise I don’t know that academic theorizing of radical social movements improves those movements. Maybe. But it’s contextual. (I have different views on stuff that’s internal to movements, like theoretical work produced by the Sojourner Truth Organization. I recognized that I’m making too neat a distinction between academic and movement knowledge production; I think that’s better than failing to make a distinction at all.)

EDIT: Another thought I had on this while walking my dog (and why is it that the only time I have semi-interesting thoughts seems to be when I’m doing something else?) is that I think there’s a tension that academic workers negotiate in talking about their jobs. That is, we often work for institutions that make larger sorts of claims than some other workplaces. Our work isn’t just a job, it’s supposed to be good for the world or at least for the people we work with in some way (work on?) – students, perhaps the people who read academic writing – and in a way that’s not reducible to the tastes of those people. Leaving aside whether or not this is true (I’m really conflicted about that), I think a lot of people have an impulse to appeal to the statements of values made by our academic employers, to say something like “you claim to believe these high minded values and yet you do these other things that aren’t in keeping with those values.” I think that’s understandable and can even be useful, but it can also easily turn into a claim about academics having a greater right to good things, in a way that fails to notice that a great many people other than academics are important for making universities do the things they do (for instance, where I work the university has been aggressive in busting the unions of the non-academic workers [the academic workers aren’t organized], and keeping wages down across the board including paying student workers – many of whom are contributing a lot to their own support and tuition costs – around minimum wage for jobs that are necessary functions – oftentimes jobs that used to be unionized jobs that paid somewhat closer to a livable wage).