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Thread: Academic Labor

  1. #1
    libertine librarian sandwitch's Avatar
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    Academic Labor

    There's been recent attention on the adjunct situation at US universities- academics are hired to teach courses without the stability and resources provided to tenure-track professors, and often for 1/3 the income. I'm sure I've complained on here about the under-valued labor of graduate student workers, and I know that several forum members have similar stories.

    This recent piece by Sarah Kendzior (she's written extensively on the topic), The Adjunct Crisis is Everyone's Problem, places academic work in terms of labor activism, which seems uncommon for US public discourse. Similar to other professions, the majority of workers are too busy trying to meet their needs and get by to commit toward activism. Even among academics who consider themselves activists, I would expect it is a small percentage who prioritize self-advocacy over issues directly related to their research topics.

    I have a lot of thoughts and feelings on the issue, but I want to try to step back on this topic. I am also very interested to hear non-US perspectives on academic labor.

  2. #2
    TJ TeresaJ's Avatar
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    A few thoughts:

    1. It's emblematic of our increasing class stratification, whereby you must have an increasing amount of disposable income in order to get a decent job in the first place.

    2. Also calls to mind apprenticeship. Exploited labor leads to a chance at a secure position.

    3. I'm extremely leery of the idea that society is obligated to furnish careers that retroactively pay for education. That said:

    4. A position that requires extensive education but does not remunerate accordingly is absurd. Absurd yet perhaps inevitable given our current class stratification (pt #1 ), similar to how a bachelor's degree is now about as useful as a GED used to be, only thousands of times more expensive.

    5. I really hate the tenure system. I also hate capitalism. I think that, ideally, society would have some completely different way to encourage research.

    If I were trying to get a job with a PhD, I'd probably be really pissed about all of this. Since it doesn't concern me personally it just seems like a small piece of the larger problem of higher education in general - hell, the whole economy.

  3. #3
    Mens bona regnum possidet ferrus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TeresaJ View Post
    4. A position that requires extensive education but does not remunerate accordingly is absurd. Absurd yet perhaps inevitable given our current class stratification (pt #1 ), similar to how a bachelor's degree is now about as useful as a GED used to be, only thousands of times more expensive.
    This is indeed how it worked in 19th century English - one of the most class stratified societies ever. Professional jobs - such as solicitors, and then later accountants and engineers often required years of indentured servitude where you often paid your employer to train you as a means to get into a middle class existence (and god help you if you weren't able to...). Something like that is returning.

    As for academics in the UK... well, getting funding for postgraduate degrees, even government loans is near impossible. The money is deliberately funneled to undergraduates to meet targets for a certain percentage of the school leaving population being among them. That's the biggest barrier. For PhD research you're looking a little above minimum wage. And even professors have little more than a comfortable middle class salary - you get paid about the same as a school teacher. It's hard to say if this is resented though - in someways academic work is regarded like many public sector jobs - not a way to riches but somehow stable and (at least in the past) attached to a good pension. And you get to do work focused on public service. Of course many of the best academics do go to the US where tenure exists and salary is much higher.

    Like the US (and indeed most of the world) there has been an overpopulation of PhD graduates, which makes getting an academic job hard, and indeed even a postdoc researcher job can be hard to find in some fields.
    Die Logik ist keine Lehre, sondern ein Spiegelbild der Welt. Die Logik ist transcendental. - Wittgenstein

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    Now we know... Asteroids Champion ACow's Avatar
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    Its an interesting problem. I'm not in the US. I'm one of these people that everyone seems to reflexively say: "you should go into academia", but I was so generally disgusted with the system after my bachelors that I've never seriously considered going back or giving academia more money of my own free volition.

    I've got three issues:

    1) A general distaste for the privileged and broken academic system:

    So, i basically view the academic system as broken, and would rather work towards its dismantling and replacement. Exploitation of younger people by supervisors and superiors is basically part of the culture, its metrics are broken, you have to pay in money/time/kudos to join rather than ability, and the interplay between business/debt/academia is pretty disgusting. I've seen few people of such little ability so haughty and disconnected as academics, yet they have this narrative of being intellectual leaders. In my experience they generally they have the mentality, and sometimes ability, of children once you have to engage with them. They're also incredibly privileged: tenure, not to mention they literally have their system embedded in legal states like immigration laws, etc.

    2) A general feeling of affirmation for intellectual and academic values:

    And yet i have a general intellectual spirit, and I want society to recognise and value genuine intellectual goals, abilities and achievements. But i don't see those values being displayed by the current academic system...

    3) Awareness of the general motions and inertia of society:

    Business, heirachy/social status and exploitation is becoming more enmeshed with academia. Costs of training and qualifications are being pushed down through debt and fee paying structures from the businesses needing those skills to the labor trying to obtain them. This is not, as TeresaJ has pointed out, much different from apprenticeships. We have a general mindset and zeitgeist that such exploitation and frontal loading of all costs onto labor is perfectly acceptable, and it looks like its getting worse.

  5. #5
    libertine librarian sandwitch's Avatar
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    This is about academics in the UK, but it's widely distributed by US grad students and reflective of their predicament-
    culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia

    I think there's a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in general, but I guess the difference with academia is the level of competition and bc everyone sees a whole lot of you. Emailing a professor at 1:30am and getting a reply within 10 minutes should not be normal.

  6. #6
    Pull the strings! Architect's Avatar
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    I worked as a grad student slave in physics. The professor just lectured in a big hall, we had the mobs of students to manage on a personal basis, administering (and developing) a curricula, quizzes, homework and such.

    On the other hand we were paid a princely sum for our efforts (I'm remember something like $14k, plus free tuition). Doesn't sound like much but this was 25 years ago. The physics TA's were paid the highest on campus, by rumor. I went there because of the package, and also the reputation (top five whatever).

    Around that time and since they started the practice with professors, as you noted. Paying people who could be full professors a lesser salary and fewer (or typically no) benefits.

    On the other hand it was a big debate at the time whether tenure was a creativity/work killer. Never resolved - of course - but my belief is that it's not a good thing. Two main problems with academia in my view. As a professor says "we're all equal, so therefore everybody fights to get an advantage". The corporate world (a university is a corporation, let's be clear) has a better solution. One, positions with clear avenue to change. Two, no guarantee of lifelong employment. Therefore it's an environment that (in ideal circumstances) encourages people to perform their best, without wasted effort on vying for position.

    I don't know what the solution is, I don't think that unis should adopt a straight up corporate solution. But what they have now isn't good either IMO.

  7. #7
    libertine librarian sandwitch's Avatar
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    maybe relevant

    Spoiler: research

  8. #8
    Utisz's Avatar
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    Well I've been through all that. I dunno what to say though. I tried writing some stuff but it sucked.

    It's complicated. In general, I just try to keep my head down and insofar as possible do right by the people I work with and with myself.

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