Monday, April 28, 2008

Teaching Unwaged Workers

I've written often about academic labor issues such as the plight of adjuncts, the politics of tenure, or the effects of the academic division of labor. However, there is one group of academic workers that I've rarely written about even though their wages lag far behind even the worst paid adjunct or dining hall employee and even though they outnumber faculty, staff, and administrators combined. These most exploited of academic workers are typically unwaged, and in most cases even pay exorbitant fees for the privilege of laboring. This mass of hyper-exploited workers are commonly known as "students."

Some may hesitate at categorizing students among academic workers, but their behavior gives them away. They act like workers. That is, they resist the imposition of work and resist their low wages. Professors know this since we tend to be the students' immediate supervisors. We are the ones who impose the work, and we are also the ones that experience their resistance firsthand. Every time a student pleads for an extension on a paper, comes late to class, or doesn't finish the assigned reading, they are engaging in an effort to slow down the academic assembly line. Every time a student argues that their paper deserved better than a C-, complains about tuition and student fees, or sells back a textbook before the end of the semester, they are resisting their status as the lowest of low-wage workers.

These observations are occasioned by two recent posts from Historiann and Ortho on "the incentivized university" and "education as a waste product." In a wonderful rant against short-sighted bookstore policies, Historiann writes:

Yes, that’s a great plan: sell your books before you study for the final exam or write your final papers. The incentive for students is to slight their grades and learning in favor of the chance for a few dollars per book. (Is it too much to ask that book buyback schemes start only during finals week?) ... Naively, Historiann had supposed that college students buy books because they’re sort of interested in the ideas inside them, not for their possible resale value. Does anyone else think it’s strange that students would want to try to scrub their bookshelves (and brains?) entirely of course content?
Faculty will sympathize. We tend to want our students to develop a love of learning that makes parting with books, even overpriced textbooks, a melancholy task -- not something students look forward to like an early tax refund. And yet, as Ortho responds:
Historiann’s students are not acting foolishly or illogically when they rush to sell their books back. They are buying into the University. They are saying yes, we agree: "Education is the waste product of this experience." Her students may not realize that saying yes is a subversive, transformative act that shall destroy the University. By buying into the system, her students shall destroy the system.
Although I agree that these student actions constitute a kind of resistance, I don't quite share Ortho's apparent optimism for this particular strategy. Students are behaving like poorly paid workers. They want payday to get here as soon as possible. This is understandable. But like our ongoing enthusiasm for the low prices at Wal-mart, this quest for the best buy in higher education is ultimately a self-defeating strategy. Just as Wal-mart provides us with bargain-basement consumer goods only at the expense of the workers who make those goods, so students' search for the best buy in higher education make themselves into inadvertent advocates for ever cheaper and shoddier education practices.

If you want better students who are focused on learning, and eager to read, write and study, then pay them. Right now, every cut in student aid and every increase in tuition, fees, parking, textbooks, housing, and food creates a cadre of students who can only afford to look at the bottom line and will approach higher education with the same eye towards cost savings they use in a trip to Wal-mart. The result will only be the predictable next cycle of budget cuts and increased class sizes, and students who must become harder workers and smarter shoppers still.


  1. Hi Lumpenprof--thanks for the link, and the thoughtful commentary. I totally agree with you that much of this bottom-lineism in students is a natural reaction to the bottom-lineism in state government and universities these days, and that making education more affordable will show a commitment to academic values that will ultimately trickle down and encourage the students to approach their educations with academic values.

    However, I will have to draw the line on book buyback. The prices the students get for their textbooks are so ridiculously low that they're only getting beer money for the night, not a meaningful start on next month's rent or car payment. They're permitting themselves to be exploited twice over: first in buying the books, and secondly in accepting such low prices for the return.

    To be truly revolutionary, students should start their own used book depository that would work something like a lending library: drop 3 books off, pick up 3 books for next term. Bring those 3 back, pick up 3 more, etc. A free exchange collective would be a much more subversive--and frugal--challenge to business-as-usual among textbooks companies, buyback companies, and universities...

    Also, I have some thoughts about the sumptuous lifestyle that many students think they're entitled to in college. Back in my day, 20 years ago, we all lived in dorms, most of us didn't have cars, and we ate in the dining hall. Going out for a pizza or out to a bar was an occasional treat, not a way of life, and our biggest weekly expense was scrounging up quarters to feed the washers and dryers. I strongly sympathize with students who truly find college unaffordable, but many, many of my students seem to spend their money not on tuition and books, but rather on apartments, cars, and restaurant and bar bills.

  2. Hi Historiann. Thanks for dropping by, and thanks for your comment. I'm glad you like bottom-line analogy. That's the part that interests me the most as well.

    As for the textbook buybacks... I'm certainly not arguing that it's a good or progressive thing for student's to sell their books before finals. But I am interested in being able to understand this behavior in some way other than the standard curmudgeon-rubric of "What's wrong with kids these days? Why, back in my day..." This also holds true with changes in student living conditions. Currently, dorms and dining halls tend to be the luxury options. On many campuses, living on campus is significantly more expensive than living off campus. I'm quiet certain that more than a few students sell back books for a meal. But even if it's for a beer, the point I'm interested in pursuing is that once education is placed alongside rent and beer as an item in a budget, it shouldn't surprise us that cheaper is often seen as better.

    On that note, I love book exchange proposal! I've seen these crop up on a couple of campuses I've taught at. However, they tend not to last long. I think it's because book co-ops become another place where students have to work for free and there is simply a limit to how much free-labor students are able to donate.

  3. Very interesting post and threads. I'm with Historiann, especially on point 4. Also one of my students who is poorer than I was in college
    went foodless for a while so as to buy graduation pictures. What?! said I.

    There are countries in Europe which *do* pay students to study. And public universities in Latin America are actually free.