Monday, May 26, 2003

Marketing the Ivory Tower

I meant to post something about Michelle Tepper's wonderful essay "Doctor Outside", but never quite got around to it. Good thing there's Timothy ('Easily Distracted') Burke. Tepper's essay is interesting in its own right, if you're even vaguely interested in postgraduate life and angst; Burke's reply, though, touches on something far more general: namely, the corporatization of the university. Interestingly, just this week, in the midst of a very peaceful stroll through Brussels I got into a little dust-up argument on this issue with a friend of mine visiting from Glasgow. M. (if you're a regular reader of Silentio, you may remember him as the author of a very hung-over, angst-ridden email that I put on display here) is of the traditional mind that the university should eschew the marketplace as much as possible, despite his odd concession that this is probably impossible. My mostly uninformed position ended up being a pretty scary parallel of what I read on Burke's blog last night. A couple of quotes:

Most academics shudder at the specter of the marketplace, and blame 'corporatization' for all the ills that afflict universities and colleges. I think it is not nearly so clear-cut. It's possible that universities and colleges aren't corporatized enough, and in any event, most of the academics who decry the intrusions of the market into academic life are totally unwilling to embrace an alternative return to the university as a sacred, artisanal institution whose legitimacy derives from its relationship to the democratic public sphere and ideals of citizenship.

I don't think this is a false binary. It really is a basic choice, to some extent, at least as a foundational principle about what is worth doing and why the academy exists. Though the partial commercialization and corporatization of the academy certainly has been accelerated by exterior pressures, I think many faculty collude in the process, often precisely those who protest most strenuously complain about it.

[. . .]

The only grounds on which one can legitimately resist the marketization of higher education, in the context of a larger public argument, is that some set of progressive and sacred values resides within it, that as an institution is cannot be and must not be understood in terms of a productivist logic.

There is something to be said for productivism, but only IF the entire operation of scholarship is laid bare to it. Imagine academic departments where continuous employment was guaranteed only by two things: bringing paying customers in the door and producing and disseminating knowledge that mattered, where 'mattered' was judged by the size or importance of the larger non-academic audiences consuming that knowledge. I don't think that is entirely a horrible vision. It would have the virtue of (cruelly) clarifying regimes of labor value: you'd have to be either an effective pedagogue or an effective communicator in your scholarship. In that system, the hundreds of other students I have had who would gladly pay for an extension of the broad liberal arts experience they had as undergraduates might find a graduate pedagogy to satisfy that aspiration.

[. . .]

We would sell what the market demanded, not what we austerly deemed the market required. Such a university would have to abandon requirements entirely, because the are a way of skewing the intellectual marketplace within a curriculum. You couldn't determine whether the market for pedagogy was operating properly if there were required courses, because ineffective pedagogues who were good bureaucratic infighters could simply claim more than their fair share of the requirements and so claim a captive pool of 'customers'. You’d have to abandon peer review or strenuously reduce it to no more than fact-checking. And so on.

[ . . .]

As I said, I think that's something of a virtue, at least potentially. To admit that the ordering of faculty life is legitimately subjugated to some kind of market is also to admit that the bugbear of 'corporatization' is with us not because of evil administrators or the sinister forces of late capitalism predatorily inserting themselves into our lives. We do it to ourselves, every day. The grad students at Penn who take up arms against corporatization by unionizing today are clamoring to join a profession where they will, of necessity, practice corporatization tomorrow. Not because they will fall from grace, but because the normative practices of contemporary scholarship accept and even embrace half-formed market logics of value, often quite particularly and intensely within the academic left. Any perspective which strongly instrumentalizes knowledge production opens that door, because it abandons an artisanal and sanctified understanding of academia.

If you want to defend scholarship as monasticism, you had better be willing to accept in generality an otherworldly and non-instrumental understanding of academic virtue, to believe in knowledge for knowledge's sake.. You cannot conceive of higher education as such only when it is convenient to do so: the philosophical obligations of such a view must of necessity run far deeper.

If you're sometimes open to a market understanding of what is good about some knowledge or pedagogy, then you have to be at least notionally open to much of what comes with 'corporatization'. For example, grad students trying to unionize ought to be embracing corporatization, because the devaluing of pedagogy that permits an Ivy League institution to fob off its paying undergraduate customers on poorly paid and ill-trained graduate student instructors is made possible not by an exposure to the marketplace but by relative insulation from it. More customer rights demanded by undergraduate students in a market-driven rhetoric might lead universities to take the steps they responsibly ought to take: dramatically reducing the number of Ph.D candidates in the humanities and the social sciences, hiring contract faculty at reasonable salaries to teach courses, reforming sham curricula that pretend that putting 600 undergraduates in front of a video monitor of a lecturer is education worth paying $20,000 a year for, and so on.

I realize I quoted Burke far beyond what most would consider fair-use, but I really couldn't help myself. The fact he points out well is that the university is already a marketplace, in some form anyway; more importantly, the university's typically myopic perspective about its place in regard to the marketplace is not only logically incoherent, it betrays entropic tendencies that make the liberal arts academy less and less viable and, well, 'important' commodity. M. tried to point out that this argument doesn't hold much water when it comes to more traditional religious studies (which I clearly do not represent too well at all!), because the only true employment stability one is likely to find here (in America anyway) is in seminaries. For now, though, I remain unconvinced -- as my concern is not merely the availability of employment but the 'value' of what a university / seminary proffers.

I'm not yet cynical enough to think that the university only offers credentials, versus education or skills, mostly because I think this dichotomy is as grossly unfair as it is reductionistic (that's for a different post; in the meantime, if you're interested, just read the Invisible Adjunct regularly). Nevertheless, it's really difficult not to get too cynical about this kind of thing when you're one year away from finishing a PhD, $50K in debt, and are only now realizing that the abysmal state of the academic job market isn't only because of the ebb and flows of a poor economy. More symptomatic in both good and bad economic times is the academy's general inability / unwillingness to adapt its politico-instituational modus operandi to the market-mentality that already exists therein!

All in all, I imagine Tepper's and Burke's essays represent a very different world than many of you (wish to) inhabit and work, so I'm really not sure how many of you care. But hey, consider this, if nothing else, a quiet respite and reassurance that the grass ain't necessarily any greener in my neck of the woods. Anyway, more on this once I get back to Glasgow and deal with some faculty-fraught frustration.