Skip to content

Laboring Academia

On negotiating the bad faith of neoliberal universities

We do not treat [graduate students] as employees. They don’t have hours. They can and do their — they can do their research when they choose. Their financial package which they receive is in no way dependent on how many hours they work or whether their experiments fail or succeed. In fact, as the record will reflect, if we’re allowed to present testimony, as students learn, most of their experiments fail. And what employer would employ people’s who [sic] experiments constantly fail?” (emphases added)

Mr. Zachary Fasman, Legal Counsel for the University of Chicago before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Region 13, Chicago, IL, May 18, 2017.


There’s no such thing as a “life of the mind.” On a philosophical level, on a practical level, and pretty much everywhere in between, the concept is a myth, and a potentially dangerous one. To be clear, this is not necessarily a question of those complex, active faculties that constitute the living experience of the mind—faculties such as thinking, willing, and judgment, which commanded the attention of Hannah Arendt when she took it upon herself to interrogate the “life of the mind” in her own brilliant way. I’m talking about the “life of the mind” as a short hand for, and an idealization of, the academic life—a life principally devoted to thinking and to the production, interrogation, and endless expansion of knowledge. I’m talking about a phrase and a concept that, like a great hot air balloon, has risen to untenable heights the more it has been filled with collective hopes and prejudices about what it means to be an academic.

It’s probably inevitable that this characterization will come across as more than a little bit tone-deaf and self-serving. In a national climate charged with vicious anti-intellectualism, at a time when the political stakes are so high in so many realms apart from academia, it feels pretty obnoxious for academics like me to somehow take this as a signal that we should keep talking about ourselves (which, admittedly, we like to do, a lot). But, in this two-part look at the labor side of academia, I hope two things will become clear.

First, I firmly believe that, in our fraught times, when it’s easier than ever to succumb to feelings of helplessness and fatigue, because too much is going wrong in too many places, it’s crucial that we redouble our active commitment to improving our local political spheres, covering our bases at home and working our way outward from there to form essential links of solidarity and cooperation with struggles going on elsewhere. I won’t pretend that the serious problems with academia’s labor system are somehow more important than those in other sectors, but the fact remains: this is what I know, this is what I am. This is where I and many others in the academic work force are developing, by necessity, out of increasingly widespread experiences of precarity (economic, political, social, etc.), a greater class consciousness that has the potential to spawn a collective reshaping of higher education while also eroding some of the long-standing barriers between academic workers and workers elsewhere. I’m writing out of a deep conviction that academia has a humanistic potential that has not yet been realized but is still worth fighting for. More than anything, though, I’m writing out of love and commitment to both my students and my working comrades, and I’m writing out of molten, frothing rage over our collective exploitation.

Second, at moment when there is more tangible evidence that higher education as we know it is seriously vulnerable to threats from within and without (especially from the radical right, but not exclusively so), it’s incredibly easy to close ranks, to revert to conservatism, to hold more tightly onto what we still have and encourage others to be grateful and to not rock a boat that’s already in choppy waters. To do so, however, is to embrace defeat—to commit to the fallacious idea that the current state of higher education must only be protected from encroaching threats instead of acknowledging that said state is one of the greatest threats to academia itself. Moreover, the state of higher education bears directly on the very social forces outside of academia that are now threatening our home institutions. Colleges and universities, I believe, have both a profound opportunity and a duty to re-define and re-inscribe their indispensable value to society while recognizing the limits to how that value has been defined in the past. They should, moreover, meet this challenge by affirming that the link between academia and society is always open and fragile—each one, for better or for worse, has always been involved in the two-way historical process of shaping and being shaped by the other.

The Labor of Learning

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. In his gargantuan book The Cultural Front, Yale historian Michael Denning undertakes the daunting project of fleshing out what, in the book’s subtitle, he calls “the laboring of American culture in the twentieth century.” The term “laboring,” as he explains it, has plural, intersecting meanings. Denning is telling the history of the Popular Front in the United States as a broad political coalition in the 1930s that joined communists with socialists and liberal centrists in the fight against fascism. This wide-ranging alliance also enabled the Communist Party and its fellow-travelers to exercise considerable power in pushing the labor movement, governmental politics, and popular culture to the left.

This political coalition proved short lived—and indeed, toxic for the left once the Cold War began in earnest. But Denning shows that the Popular Front’s “laboring” effects were long-lasting and diffuse: “labor” itself became much more thoroughly infused in popular rhetoric (“labor party,” “labor movement,” etc.); working-class Americans gained a much greater presence in the arts and culture industries while also, in many instances, becoming the primary audience for those industries. There was also, as Denning writes, a “new visibility of the labor of cultural production,” which brought to public attention the relation between popular culture and the labor of culture workers (artists, musicians, writers, etc.). “Finally,” Denning writes, “the laboring of American culture connotes a birthing of a new American culture, a second American Renaissance. But it was also a laboring in that this birth was painstaking and difficult… the cultural front was a laboring, an incomplete and unfinished struggle to rework American culture, with hesitations, pauses, defeats, and failures.”

I’m gratefully cribbing Denning’s analysis here to call for a laboring of academia. In bits and pieces, such a collective project has already started to take shape over the past decade or so as part of the emergent field that Jeff Williams has christened Critical University Studies. Within this field, numerous works have come to focus explicitly on the changing labor arrangement of higher education, largely covering the dramatic shift toward the casualization of labor in the teaching workforce (i.e. the increased reliance on “contingent labor”), the erosion of faculty decision-making power, and the explosion of university administration apparatuses. Many of these studies, moreover, have explored the impact that these changing labor arrangements are having on the livelihoods of higher ed workers as well as on the quality of education offered to students. But amid this heartening burst of self-reflective inquiry into the academic labor market, scholars have paid far less attention to other sectors of the higher ed workforce, including staff workers and facilities personnel. This is one essential pillar of the laboring project, which must continue to bring to the surface the changing material conditions of our institutions of higher learning and of the working lives of the people who keep them afloat.

The myth of the “life of the mind” works to obscure the labor of academia itself.

Indeed, the laboring project, in my view, must develop into something much broader and all-encompassing. A laboring of academia must aim to make it fundamentally impossible to separate academic knowledge from the work of “knowledge production”—to make it unthinkable to distinguish academia’s place and function in society from the everyday shape and functioning of academic institutions themselves. In fact, such relations are already and always inseparable, but our current system has made it possible to think about one side of this symbiotic state of things without the other, to graft onto institutions of knowledge and learning and social development a consumerist model that understands academia solely in terms of its (monetizable) “products.” A labored knowledge, on the other hand, would break apart and reimagine the entire system that both limits and obscures the means of academic work while narrowly defining the ends in terms of a vulgarly imposed market value system.

At every stage in the long historical evolution of the modern neoliberal university, and in each of its local manifestations, the structure, ethos, and societal function of institutions of higher learning have always played a significant role in shaping the very lives of academics while also determining key characteristics—like the style, aims, conventions, limits, and accessibility—of academic knowledge itself. It’s easier to see this when we look outside of our own time and place—at the Soviet Flagship University model, for instance, for which every aspect of the academic enterprise was expected to align with the philosophy and social-engineering prerogatives of state socialism, or the early medieval European universities, whose patrons were envoys of the papacy and were thus expected not only to preserve the ordained shape of humanistic knowledge, but also to strictly comport themselves in a manner that was in keeping with their social position.

It really would be the height of myopic conceit to think that such close, mutually constituting relations between academic institutions, academic life, academic knowledge, and academia’s place within a given societal arrangement don’t have the same kind of power to shape everything we do today within the modern neoliberal university system. It’s easy, that is, to believe that the academic knowledge we produce, teach, and circulate today is taking the only possible shapes and serving the only possible functions it ever would. And it’s similarly seductive—and just as deeply misleading—to believe that our academic fields would look the same even if our universities and publishing industries were structured differently. A laboring of academia must take as its ultimate goal the closest possible rendering of the beautiful, at times brutal, ecosystems of human knowledge, while also candidly affirming that any produced knowledge always bears the imprint of the conditions of its production.

Moreover, in the vein of understanding thinking itself as an ecosystem, it is a damaging modern fiction to conceive of the nature of academic work as a monastic species of devotion to the “life of the mind.” In its contemporary iteration, such a conception not only perpetuates the (over)privileging of mental labor over other forms of labor; it also works to obscure the labor of academia itself. The mythos of the life of the mind only permits a limited, long-outmoded view of the professional scholar as a deep, Cartesian thinker in an armchair, and of professional scholarship as “finished products” (articles, monographs, degrees, patents, medicines, “findings,” etc.). What is obscured from view is the complex, laboring ecosystem that not only “produces” academic work, but is academic work. This is an ecosystem wherein new knowledge, studies, arguments, technological advancements, impactful teaching and relationships, etc. are inseparable from working minds and bodies, from endless bureaucratic headaches, from experiences of fatigue, hunger, anxiety, depression, etc. that are alleviated or exacerbated by one’s working environment, from unequal arrangements of power in regard to genderraceageclassphysical abilities, etc. This is an ecosystem in which the quasi-feudal division of labor effectively subsidizes the thinking of a privileged minority with the exploitation of adjuncts whose all-too-typical workload includes teaching four classes a semester at multiple campuses without any health benefits. This is an ecosystem in which the spaces of thinking are kept clean with the labor of custodians who plod through empty buildings at night—while newer, glitzier buildings are furbished through complex flows of shady capital investmentprivate donationscorporate sponsorshipsmilitary funding, etc. This is all to say nothing, of course, of a predatory  student loan system that has ensnared an entire generation. At higher, but still deeply precarious levels of professional recognition, academe cultivates intellectual prestige and professional advancement by relying on an accelerated publishing system that, at the same time, works to restrict much academic knowledge behind institutional paywalls—and so on. A laboring of academia would affirm that we could only begin to speak of the “life of the mind” in the sense of a collective, working ecosystem that gives life to the mind.

What a Waste

In Part II of this discussion, I will explore in more concrete terms what a laboring of academia could potentially look like. As a bridge between that exploration and the conceptual foundation laid out above, it’s worth looking at the representative case of the graduate student in the current ecosystem of neoliberalized higher education.

Fifteen years ago, in the Spring 2002 issue of the journal Social Text, Marc Bousquet published what, to date, is still probably the most biting and accurate critique of the academic labor system and its truly dire treatment of graduate students. (Following Bousquet’s example, I’ll be making a conscious effort from here on out to refer to graduate students as “graduate employees” or “graduate workers,” and I’d encourage others to do the same, because that’s what we are). This article, “The Waste Product of Graduate Education,” would lay the groundwork for Bousquet’s even more impressive and influential 2008 book, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. For a couple of different reasons, Bousquet’s article has been on my mind lately.

I recently wrapped up a two-year stint serving as Graduate Student Representative on the advisory board for the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA). In that capacity, along with being a graduate employee myself and working with graduate employees across the country, I have often found myself confronting the teeth and scales of the same nefarious system Bousquet describes with such clarity. My academic career aspirations and beliefs about the purpose of graduate “training” have clashed violently with the frustration and misery of so many other graduate employees who, like me, are caught up in a brutally dishonest system.

The real, primary function of graduate employees in today’s higher ed system is to provide cheap labor under the guise of professional “training.”

As Bousquet pointed out in his Social Text essay, this system assures us we are preparing for the next step up in the professional ladder when its managerial beneficiaries know full well that (1) our main purpose as graduate employees is to provide cheap teaching and research labor for the duration of our programs (which helps to suppress wages among the rest of the teaching workforce); and (2) when we’re finished, the vast majority of us will never get the jobs we’re training for, because they simply don’t exist—and we will, instead, either be booted out the door or hoisted into the adjunct meat grinder. This is what Bousquet means when he calls graduate employees the “waste product” of academia: the real, primary function of graduate employees in today’s higher ed system is to provide cheap labor under the guise of professional “training,” after which time the system needs to get rid of us. By the time we’re ready to move on to the next phase of our careers, most of us, as far as the system is concerned, have already outlived our usefulness.

Bousquet’s argument has proven painfully relevant in the past year, as I’ve followed the collective bargaining efforts of my own graduate union as well as the struggles of graduate workers across the country whose employing universities, instead of upholding graduate workers’ collective bargaining rights, have spent hundreds of hours and millions of dollars contesting these rights in front of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The all-too plain hopes of our university bosses is that our rights as workers will be systematically stripped away by a labor-hostile state. The expectation for these universities is that Trump’s new appointments to the NLRB will usher in a new era of union-busting for graduate workers, and for organized labor in general. As a result, they are contesting the 2016 ruling in the very transparent hope that, eventually, the NLRB will do their dirty work for them and turn back the clock on graduate worker protections.

Take, for instance, the University of Chicago’s recent legal battle with its own graduate employee union during a series of NLRB hearings (transcripts of the hearings are available here). More than anything, these hearings demonstrate a bewildering display of bad faith on the part of the University, whose legal counsel made many attempts to devalue the worker status of its graduate employees right to their faces. All of this, the University claimed, was in the interest of “protecting” graduate employees and safeguarding a campus “community.” Because nothing strengthens a community like denying the rights of its workers.

Here’s the thing: the arguments made by the University of Chicago’s legal counsel, as patronizing and infuriating as they may be, follow a logic that is depressingly consistent with the modus operandi of the higher education industry. It’s easy to take such a disingenuous defense for what it appears to be at face value: lying. In the transcripts, Mr. Zachary Fasman, the University’s legal representative, seems to be bending over backward to avoid acknowledging what graduate employees do as work. His arguments are drenched in the cynicism of the well paid, and it seems pretty clear that he knows damn well that he’s playing a shyster’s game. He is, in every respect, the twenty-first-century equivalent of a union-busting Pinkerton—only less violent, better paid, and better dressed.

Still, consider for a second that Fasman’s retainers at this high-prestige university (which is also my undergrad alma mater) had dispatched him to the NLRB to parrot what they firmly believe to be the absolute truth. Never mind the unbearable blindness to the painstaking necessity of repetitive scientific experimentation, when Fasman made the laughable claim (and it did get a big laugh in the hearing) that graduate lab teaching assistants couldn’t possibly be considered workers because “most of their experiments fail,” he was arguing within the logic of a fully corporatized higher ed ecosystem that only sees the monetizable product side of academic knowledge.

We Work

The logic of this corporate enclosure also opens onto some of the most crucial questions for the laboring of academia more generally and the longstanding struggle for graduate employee rights in particular, which I’ll take up in more depth in Part II: What is—or, rather, what counts as—work in academia? By what measure is “work” defined in this context? What does that tell us about the specific arrangement of the academic system as well as the place of academia in our society more generally? What potential openings does this situation provide for academic workers to forge bonds of identity with other workers?

In 2004, the NLRB ruled that graduate employees at private universities did not have the right to unionize because, as the ruling stated, graduate employees “are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” In 2016, though, in a landmark move, the Board overruled its 2004 position and asserted in its report (which can be viewed in full here) that “The Board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated. Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act does not reach” (emphases added). So, in layperson’s terms, the 2004 ruling deemed that graduate workers are not employees because their relationship to the universities that pay them is primarily educational in nature. The 2016 ruling, on the other hand, deemed that it doesn’t matter that graduate employees are also students, because “an employment relationship with their university under the common law test” still exists; one relationship does not negate the other.

The common law test, which is also used by other agencies, such as the IRS, to determine whether an employer-employee relationship exists, revolves around the right of an employer to control the work process (i.e., telling an employee what job to do and how, when, and where to do it). According to this test, universities pretty obviously maintain an employer relationship with graduate workers, whose paid teaching appointments, research assistantships, etc. all come with specified conditions and requirements. However, it seems clear that in the latest push to overturn the NLRB’s present policy, institutions like the University of Chicago are now trying a new tack: their reworked argument is that what graduate employees do isn’t work at all.

The question of what counts as work in a capitalist economy has always been a fraught one; the category stands on much shakier grounds than it typically appears to us good subjects moving—and working—our way through life. Even in specialized fields like Labor Studies, the category can be taken for granted to such an extent that the forces holding the working definition of work in place can recede from view. This isn’t necessarily a knock on Labor Studies as such—it’s a very necessary field and probably the best place to go if you want to start analyzing the social, economic, and cultural dynamics of work (along with, you know, Marx).

Still, when it comes to pinning down what constitutes work, certain factors are assumed regarding sanctioned activities and forms of employment. These factors effectively grant (or withhold) the status of “worker” to those who are either paid or able to sustain their livelihoods through the (mental and/or physical) tasks they perform. Probably the most radical challenge to the taken-for-granted character of such factors and their work-defining capacity was made by feminist thinkers and activists in the twentieth century who utilized categories like “house work” and the labor of care (maternal, emotional, etc.) as a starting point for ripping open the historical structures of (patriarchal) power that have molded our shared conceptions of what counts as “work” and what doesn’t.

These feminist critiques also exposed the necessary supplements of monetarily valued, “productive” labor that, in the capitalist labor ecosystem, can’t survive alone. (Without “house work,” for example, there can be no “real work.”) The situation of graduate employees offers a similar point of leverage. One consideration that ineluctably shapes the effort to calibrate the true nature of work and its just reward is that defining “work” in such a system also centers on the question of the creation of value. At one point, many activities (from tinkering on DIY computers in one’s garage to uploading videos to YouTube) have rightfully been understood as something other than “work.” However, crossing that threshold into remunerated production can occur extremely rapidly—as the proliferation of YouTube celebrities readily attests. Even if the physical and/or mental activity does not change, such activity suddenly becomes work, “a job,” as soon as it becomes monetized.

If, as universities claim, graduate teaching and research just aren’t worthy of the designation of “work,” then it’s high time graduate employees called their bluff.

In this vein, universities have already given themselves away. In more ways than one, universities have made clear that they are more than willing to recognize and absorb the surplus value of graduate employee labor as long as it suits their corporate-style prerogatives, but not if it means recognizing the rights of graduate workers themselves. But it is this question of value that provides an opening for the mobilization of graduate workers. “The university of excellence, after all,” Chris Lehmann wrote in 1997, “is a university of streamlined labor costs, and the customary attrition of professors through retirement or death is now being greeted in campuses across the land as an opportunity simply to abolish full professorships and transfer their teaching duties to graduate instructors and adjunct professors, who are often given per-semester stipends in the low four figures for work that is often more than full-time.” Universities have gone on the record at NLRB hearings stating that this increased reliance on graduate employee labor falls under the purview of the “professional training” they are offering as part of their graduate education programs. But universities depend on the value graduate labor generates for them more than they want anyone to know.

If, as universities claim, graduate teaching and research don’t count as work because they are educational in nature, or that the activities performed just aren’t worthy of the designation of “work,” then it’s high time graduate employees called their bluff. Comparing the accelerated rate at which universities are taking on and churning out new masters and doctoral “students” with the abysmal rate at which they are placing graduates in the kind of jobs they’re being trained for, one would come to the obvious conclusion that universities must really suck at this stated mission. Or one would have to come to the less obvious, more painful conclusion, as Marc Bousquet does:

Most graduate schools admit students to fill specific labor needs. One of the core functions of graduate programs is to enhance flexibility, always presenting just enough labor, just in time . . . The academic labor system creates holders of the Ph.D., but it doesn’t have much use for them . . . The system produces degree holders largely in the sense that a car’s engine produces heat—a tiny fraction of which is recycled into the car’s interior by the cabin heater, but the vast majority of which figures as waste energy that the system urgently requires to be radiated away.

The academic labor system doesn’t have much need for people who have already earned their graduate degrees, but it has become addicted to, and crucially sustains itself on the labor people earning their degrees provide for cheap. The quickest way to get universities and outside observers to acknowledge what graduate employees do as work, to see how much the productive ecosystem of academic knowledge and of capital accumulation today depends on this labor arrangement, is to collectively show how fucked the system would be if the “non-work” of graduate employees was withheld.

A laboring of academia is, thus, also a politics of labor. Highlighting the relations between academic knowledge and the ways that the current academic system designates and absorbs value allows us to move into the sphere of political strategezing. And once we develop some reliable strategies for leveraging power and reworking higher education, the long-hymned promise of academic inquiry may at long last begin to realize some of its real-world potential.