I’ve been reading some of the academic capitalism literature lately, since I’m writing about French images of capitalism in higher education. It turns out that, a few years ago, George Marcus offered an intriguing auto-ethnographic anecdote about the way that academic capitalism becomes standard even in seemingly very “critical” corners of the American humanities.
Last year, Morten Levin and Davydd Greenwood published a book whose title sufficiently indicates its broad scope and ambition: Creating a New Public University and Reviving Democracy. The subtitle, Action Research in Higher Education, indicates the authors’ preferred method for realizing their goals. The book is written in plain language and speaks at a general level to participants in American and European higher education. Berghahn Books is releasing it in paperback in 2018. It is neither an ethnographic case study, nor a global history, nor an abstract critique of higher education. Rather, it is a manifesto for what public universities might look like if they were thoroughly democratized; it is a practical guide to participatory research as a means of organizational change; and it is a general theory of why participatory democracy is inseparable from any education worth having.
Susan D. Blum has recently published an unusually personal contribution to social research on university culture, in her wide-reaching book I Love Learning, I Hate School: An Anthropology of College (2016). Blum is an anthropology professor at Notre Dame, and the book expresses a desire to make existential sense of her own confusing experience as a college teacher. As such, it struck a particular chord with me as I was trying to make sense of my own students last year at Whittier College, when I was doing my postdoc. Blum’s book speaks mainly to fellow college and university teachers; at one point, Blum addresses her readers as “dear fellow faculty” (20). As a book for teachers by a teacher, it has the counterintuitive mission of getting us to empathize with bad students, and of making sense of bad classroom atmospheres, which it considers inevitable rather than merely unfortunate. In this sense, it is a more critical and expansive alternative to the discourse of “teaching tips” and “rubrics for best practices” that circulate in a mock-cheerful — but always to my ear vaguely threatening and technocratic — fashion in numerous “Centers for Teaching and Learning.”
A few years ago there was a special issue of LATISS about a noteworthy initiative at the University of Illinois, the Ethnography of the University Initiative (EUI), which aims to support courses based on student research about their own university. Its virtue is precisely that it is not a traditional ethnographic research project, but a collective project that supports student ethnographic research. The special issue (from 2013) is a little older than most of what I write about here, but I wanted to post some quick excerpts from the issues, in guise of an introduction to the project, and an appreciation of the admirable reflexive research that it fostered. I might also note here that this project has also yielded an important ethnographic monograph, the late Nancy Abelmann’s The Intimate University: Korean American Students and the Problems of Segregation (which I previously reviewed in LATISS).
In their 2016 “Neoliberalisation and the ‘Death of the Public University,’” Cris Shore and Susan Wright give a handy summary of how one might think about the sometimes overused term “neoliberalism”:
Neoliberalism is a problematic concept. Excessive use of the term as a portmanteau for explaining everything that is wrong with contemporary capitalist societies has rendered it an empty signifier devoid of analytical value. As a noun, it suggests something universal and ascribes uniformity and coherence to an assemblage of processes and practices that are far from uniform, consistent or coherent. Like Peck and Tickell (2002: 463), therefore, we prefer to use the term “neoliberalisation” as it highlights the multi-faceted and continually changing set of process associated with neoliberal reform agendas, which assume different forms in different countries. That said, these reforms usually bear close “family resemblances”, to paraphrase Wittgenstein. These include an emphasis on creating an institutional framework that promotes competition, entrepreneurship, commercialisation, profit making and “private good” research and the prevalence of a metanarrative about the importance of markets for promoting the virtues of freedom, choice and prosperity.
As I’ve noted in several of our recent posts, we have started using the online bibliography Zotero to keep track of our growing library of critical research on higher education. So this is just a small announcement: you can view our growing library on the Academography Zotero page.
Zotero has some useful tagging functions, so we’ve tried to classify everything we write about in terms of topic, geographical region, etc. I’ve also started adding new work that I’d like to write about, and tagging it “queue,” to help me keep track of everything that’s out there. So if you are ever curious to see what new research work is coming out, you can consult our queue on Zotero — there is always more new work than we can possibly discuss here in detail.
Annie Vinokur is an emerita professor of political economy who recently ran a project, FOREDUC, on “The Future of Education Systems” at the University of Paris-X. I’ve previously reviewed a 2010 journal issue that came out of the FOREDUC project, which was edited by Vinokur and Carole Sigman. I want to write a few words here about a new paper that Vinokur recently published in French, “The quality-based governance of universities,” which is a useful complement to much of the recent Anglophone literature on neoliberal policy in higher education. As a critical political economist, Vinokur’s specialty is thinking about the relationship between flows of capital and social institutions.
The geographer Alison Mountz published a remarkable paper last year, “Women on the edge: Workplace stress at universities in North America” in The Canadian Geographer (or on ResearchGate) . Based on 21 interviews and first-hand observations as a career academic, Mountz documents a series of difficult — at times impossible — working conditions and their bad consequences for the women in question. These difficult working conditions included gendered and racialized inequities, such as devalued research topics and disproportionate burdens of emotional labor. They also included more generalized bad consequences of contemporary academic work environments, such as generalized overwork, an “always on” situation exacerbated by technology, and a lack of boundaries between work and home life.
The personal consequences of these work-related stressors are multiple and, taken cumulatively, heartbreaking. They are above all psychological and affective, covering stress, burnout, anxiety, despair, isolation, fear and loss. They also extend into the human body, including weight fluctuations, problems with diet and sleep, and physical or mental illness. Mountz speaks of:
a constant aching and tiredness, coupled with insomnia—waking up alert in the middle of the night or extremely early, unable to sleep again; a yearning for sleep coupled with its elusive nature, a familiar frustration… (p. 213)
One thing I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while is the slow institutionalization of a subfield of “Critical University Studies” (call it CUS). For those who may not have come across it, CUS is a sort of compromise category that brings together a diverse set of interdisciplinary research and criticism on higher education. Jeffrey Williams began publicizing the field qua field in a 2012 piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where he noted, as I recall, that the name was modeled on “Critical Legal Studies.” CUS, by contrast, still lacks its own Wikipedia article (I leave that as an exercise to the reader), but I’ll just note for now that CUS brings together some very different political views about higher education, ranging from social democrats like Davydd Greenwood to revolutionaries like the Undercommoning project.
Over at the Society for Applied Anthropology, a Topical Interest Group (“TIG”) on Higher Education has recently come into being. I attended their first set of sessions at the SFAA conference in 2015 and found them to be a large and quite diverse group of people, many working outside of the academic social sciences. The TIG recently sent out a newsletter that announces some of the interesting work they are doing in 2017, which I thought was worth reposting here.