Magolda and Delman, “Campus Custodians in the Corporate University”

Peter Magolda and Liliana Delman mount a strong ethnographic critique of the hypocritical treatment of service workers in midwestern U.S. universities, in a recent paper entitled “Campus Custodians in the Corporate University: Castes, Crossing Borders, and Critical Consciousness.” The first section of the paper presents three rich ethnographic cases; the second half is a meditation on why universities treat service workers so badly, and on what might be done to transcend the “caste system” in higher education.

Delman and Magolda start by examining an afternoon in the life of an outdoor custodian, Mone, highlighting the class discipline that’s imposed on him by the hostile stares of the more affluent — “the look,” as Mone terms this quotidian form of microaggression (247). At the same time, though, Mone’s workplace is a space of lively sociability, marked by constant greetings and waves from passers-by. Custodial work is thus a classic space of subaltern affective labor. Enthusiasm towards higher status persons is certainly welcomed from this workforce, but if class-based putdowns occur, they are seemingly supposed to be tolerated silently, without pushback from the worker. It is as if the custodial staff are expected to become an affective repository for ongoing class violence.

Except that this does not occur in every case. In their excellent second and third case studies, Magolda and Delman examine two women custodians who step outside their usual roles to interact with their campus communities. The first woman, Vida, wrote a letter to the student newspaper defending housekeepers against allegations of stealing students’ belongings from their rooms. The second, Liz, persuaded an artist to paint a on-campus mural of Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman, “the first woman slave to be freed in North America” (251). The artist ended up painting a portrait of Liz and Freeman together, saying that both their stories deserved to be told. And Harrison University responded positively to this initiative, holding a reception “attended by university dignitaries as well as Liz’s family and friends” (252).

This positive moment of recognition for a custodian did not, however, lead to any fundamental change in the political economy that exploits and marginalizes campus service workers. Decorous role transgressions, like Liz’s and Vida’s, may be tolerated by university administrations, but they do not fundamentally shift the norms. Caste distinctions, as Magolda and Delman observe, remain a reality on college campuses. And upper management’s priorities — budgets, work discipline, and subservience to “customers” and bosses — create an atmosphere of “fear and feelings of fatalism” among the custodians themselves (253). If custodians persist in stepping out of line, for instance by impertinently suggesting procedural improvements or by seeking to advance their own education through professional development programs, they may get reprimanded or threatened with dismissal.

Magolda and Delman rightly observe that all this contradicts universities’ “espoused values such as teaching, learning, social justice, equity, inclusion, and valuing differences” (260). In a moment of optimism, the authors endorse a reparative program of transgressing boundaries and cultivating “a mestiza consciousness,” in hopes of crossing caste lines. But at other times, they seem pessimistic, noting that “aspects of the corporate university highlighted in this manuscript are not likely to be dismantled and replaced anytime soon” (260). Their understandable ambivalence seems to stem directly from their ethnographic data, which shows important moments of subaltern resistance but also the implacable persistence of exploitative labor structures.

It would be interesting to know how much of this story is the same in the book version of this project, which Magolda also published this year. In the meantime, a few closing methodological notes and queries come to mind. First, one wonders if there is more to say about gender in this context, since it does not seem coincidental that the male custodian, Mone, likes working outside, and disdains “being stuck inside cleaning dorms.” His female colleagues, meanwhile, seem to see more potential sociability in their spaces of indoors social interaction. Second, the analytic rubric of “castes” on campus seems to overlap deeply with the more familiar rubric of “social class,” and it would be interesting to hear the authors discuss why they prefer caste analysis to class analysis. And finally, the inclusion of direct quotes from informants’ public writing makes it surprisingly easy to de-anonymize both the informants and the institutions under study here. A quick Google search reveals that “Compton University” is actually Washington University in Saint Louis, whereas “Harrison University” is actually Miami University in Ohio. Fortunately it seems unlikely that any particular harm could come to these specific ethnographic interlocutors, since there is nothing remotely embarrassing about their public self-presentations here. But there may be a cautionary tale here for other researchers.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

2 thoughts on “Magolda and Delman, “Campus Custodians in the Corporate University””

  1. This piece brings to mind a University of Iowa dissertation I read recently dealing with custodians and their interaction with students. Jeremy John Reed, 2015 Mutually beneficial interactions: campus custodian-college student relationships, 2015. While the study structure and empirical base of this dissertation leaves it at a very preliminary level, it emphasizes some of the positive social/mentoring interactions between custodians and students. The whole subject of the educationally relevant but invisible staff at universities deserves ethnographic attention.

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