November 26, 2007

"Battling the Neoliberalization of University Life: A List of Strategies."

A couple of weeks ago, Angela Jancius, the moderator of the Society for Urban, National and Transnational/Global Anthropology (SUNTA) listserv, posted a query for "a top ten list of ways to battle against the neoliberalization of university life." Members of the URBANTH-L list replied, and four days later, this was Angie's compilation of the answers. (I haven't edited anything, but fixed formatting for readability).

And while some tactics are either of the hippy-dippy or Smash-the-State varieties (hope that didn't sound too pejorative) and wouldn't work at so-called research institutions (or so-called teaching institutions, for that matter), a good chunk of these are implementable, even on an individual basis. (I'm always shocked at the prices of textbooks in the sciences, for instance; I'm usually hesitant if my assigned books are over 30 bucks in total!)

If you ask me, it's the size of classes that has the most direct impact on classroom quality. It's bad for the professor, of course, who has to slog through grading all those papers and will therefore be tempted to cut corners (shorter papers, insubstantial multiple-choice exams). But it's just as bad for the students: less time with professors, briefer comments on papers, radically decreased opportunities for participation, and a semester signposted by exams and binge-and-purge learning. (It was only a few years ago that, in an attempt to increase class size, the administration where I used to teach kept pushing more chairs inside the classrooms until the safety marshals hollered "Fire hazard!") And don't get me started on how criminally underpaid adjuncts and temporary lecturers are...

My former employer, an urban school by reputation, has essentially abandoned its decades-long "commitment" to the working class from its immediate surroundings, and instead has concentrated on recruiting aggressively from the O.C. to fill up their dormitories. (I have nothing against SoCal in particular, but it does raise the question of where the SF high schoolers are ending up. A year ago an overwhelming majority of the first-year students in my anthropology class were already dorm-dwellers. This is a fairly profound student demographic shift in my opinion, suggesting, perhaps erroneously, that they were relatively moneyed and that they had few ties to the local community. But that latter part can change.)

(If you want to cut and paste this and repost on your respective lists, or blogs, or whatever, please remove all the above drivel first.)

Enough chitchat; here we go:

My sincere thanks to all who responded to my query. The tips that you sent were wonderful, and really quite inspiring. Below is an initial compilation, divided under the six subheadings of: "On Unions and Organizing," "On Faculty Rank," "On Bureaucracy and Governance," "On Teaching," "On Student Tuition, Fees and Support," and "General Advice." A shorter top ten list will be published in the January 2008 edition of Anthropology News. I can already imagine that it will be difficult to edit down the expanded list of strategies that are included below. The below list has no copyright or individual authorship and you should feel free to distribute it widely, to post it to wiki sites and blogs, to invite your friends and students to expand upon it, and of course to encourage your departments and colleagues to implement its contents.

Angela Jancius

Battling the Neoliberalization of University Life: A List of Strategies

On Unions and Organizing:

* The No. 1 way is faculty unionization. Unionize tenure-track faculty, adjunct faculty and graduate students who teach. Your efforts will not be effective if adjunct and graduate teaching staff are not organized.

* Resist the destruction of solidarities (e.g. see David Harvey, The History of Neoliberalism).

* Support unity. As an adjunct instructor and a graduate student, I can tell you that management is WELL AWARE of the contempt that most full-time faculty has toward us part-timers. During contract negotiations, I've also heard GA's and adjuncts undercut the contracts of the full-timers. Management disciplines full-timers with the knowledge that they can be replaced instantly by the army of the underemployed.

* Invite part-time and adjunct faculty, as well as support staff and research staff, to departmental meetings. Make the minutes available to the entire community.

* Join professional organizations that will lobby in opposition to the lobbyists for privatization: NEA higher education organizations, AAUP, AFT. Pay your dues or be prepared to be sold out.

* Participate in faculty governance and advocate strongly for resolutions and policies that promote an academic community built on shared values and scholarship instead of a corporatized institution built on entrepreneurship and external overhead.

* Form parallel autonomous institutions that meet people's needs in a collective, non-hierarchical fashion. At my old school, SUNY-Binghamton, the campus was served by an excellent bus system that was owned and run by a collective of the drivers, funded by student fees.

On Faculty Rank:

* Reject the implementation of "benchmarks" or any other form of "standards" for merit raises or promotions that are predicated on quantified output. Rather, draw upon such ideas as those of Ernest Boyer (Scholarship Reconsidered) []

* Reject merit raises all together and rather spread the total raises due the entire faculty of a department evenly to all faculty.

* When 65% of the professoriate is part-time, why have tenured positions at all?

* Refuse to sell ourselves as "stars" to highest bidding institutions. This reproduces the neoliberal self-made "man," reinforcing gender and class hierarchies within the academy.

* Don't refer to enthusiastic younger members of faculty as "junior" scholars. It annoys them intensely and makes them feel small.

* Allow complete transparency, re: salaries paid to all faculty in all departments.

* Identify and monitor the behavior all 'frumps' (formerly radical upwardly mobile professors).

* Use the growing 'sustainability consensus' discourse to push for a democratization of academia - as sustainability centrally implies participation.

On Bureaucracy and Governance:

* Expose and oppose corporate control of academia.

* Resist the process of turning universities into institutions of management rather than places of "higher learning" by refusing to accept administrative positions that are newly created and not really necessary for "learning."

* The university can be run by the faculty, but the faculty must organize in constant vigilance. Professors could collectively attend administration meetings and repeat the demand, week after week, to stop the metastasized growth of bureaucratic bosses. Use the saved funds to create more professor positions, course offerings, and library books, and to establish student scholarships grants. The heart of the university is here, not in creating ever more layers of office managers to govern this and that for a bottom line value that is set by the new MBA bosses.

* Rip up parking lots. Implode student housing. Stop all construction projects not related to safety. Make students get gym memberships elsewhere.

* Demand accountability for the university practices in hiring faculty, labor, etc. in the construction of new campuses abroad (i.e. NYU's global expansion to Abu Dhabi).

* Resist the temptation to outsource to private companies, especially big non-local multinationals, tasks which the university could do by itself.

On Curriculum:

* Resist the neoliberal transformation of the curriculum (there is an excellent article--chapter 6--by Aihwa Ong in Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.)

* Restore a system whereby intellectual inquiry is valued for its own sake, and not just seen as a means toward increasing capitalist productivity. If the government's current proposal to fund all research on the basis of "relevance" were carried out, it would be the end of virtually all Humanities research as we know it.

* Resist the homogenization of university studies that is taking place all over Europe. Anthropology, in order to survive, is being asked to demonstrate demand from the job market. And its courses are oriented towards market demands.

* Avoid strict degree completion deadlines. Returning students bring valuable professional experience, but they also need the time to balance professional, work and personal responsibilities.

* Make research findings and publications freely and publicly accessible on the web.

On Teaching:

* Teach students about neoliberalization (its history, its impacts on individuals, etc.). They are the ones who can stop it.

* As teachers, we have a unique opportunity to relate the material we teach to the everyday lives of our students. Hold seminars on campus on the impact of neoliberalism on campus life and learning. Use critical pedagogy - encourage critical thinking

* Create a course that studies the University as an anthropological project.

* Link with activists, community groups, etc., beyond the academy. Carry out critical (including participatory) research. Develop more experience based learning courses, including internships and community service learning programs.

* Make the world your classroom. Teach in parks, bars, restaurants, homes, online.

* Offer courses on weekends, evenings, and on-line, so that working students and students with child and eldercare responsibilities can take courses/make progress on degrees.

* Encourage team-teaching.

* Conduct and assess instructor evaluations in a manner that reflects that students are scholars, not consumers.

* Avoid grade inflation. In a context of grade inflation, instructors that seek to honestly assess performance find themselves at a disadvantage, especially if they are adjunct staff.

* Develop undergraduate programs that pay particular attention to non-anthropology majors, since they are the ones that fill your large classes. Increase the pressure for small classes for introductory courses.

* Make classes last as long as they need to be. Stop with the micronization and fetishization of time. Some days I have a lot to say, some days not so much. Some days students need to practice and drill, and other times one profound sentence might do it.

* Quit giving standardized tests and grades. Pass/Fail. Get rid of students who don't want to be there. Tell them to come back when they know what they are there for. If we stop treating students like cash cows, maybe they will actually appreciate learning.

* Assign primary texts instead of textbooks.

* Make your students do the work - have them explain concepts to each other. Have them create materials they think are useful. Grade them for effort rather than results - they are there to learn.

* Spend less time preparing, and more time getting to know your students and their individual needs.

On Student Tuition, Fees and Support:

* Don't use standardized testing as a measure to determine student admissions or funding.

* Make applying for college more affordable. Applying to graduate programs is increasingly expensive. Transcripts (often in duplicate) are required from each school. The cost of transcripts is inflated (averaging $5-$10 per order, for regular mail). Applications fees are $50-$95 per school. GRE fees increase by roughly $10 per year (and this test should be banned, anyway, since it only tests your ability to learn test-taking strategies, not true knowledge or ability to succeed in a program).

* Use course packets, blackboard pdfs and next-to-last edition textbooks in introductory courses to decrease student book costs.

* Fund all students who are admitted into your program equally. Since Thatcher (and Reagan), efforts to turn higher education into a vocational finishing school for industry have been much more systematic and blatant. Under this model, if you're funded you get money to live off, to pay fees, and to attend conferences etc. If you're not funded, you get nothing and you have to pay fees. So one person has masses of help, while another is hindered and must struggle. This is one of the central ideological maxims of capitalism.

* Do not permit university programs to let graduate student instructors teach without compensation, merely for the experience of it or for credit.

* Do not burden Ph.D. candidates and recent Ph.D.s with the heaviest teaching loads. The abusive practice of using younger scholars as workhorses keeps a new generation from reaching its potential, in scholarship and as practioners.

* Pay health care benefits and tuition fees for graduate students, if possible.

General Advice:

* Be a happy person. Stop with the bitterness.

Posted by the wily filipino at November 26, 2007 11:42 AM

Yep. That's academia for you. I might as well teach for the University of Phoenix!

Posted by: brown on November 26, 2007 02:55 PM

I guess I hadn't realized that your previous school/employer demographics of students had become more So Cal middle class. I wonder why the demographics have shifted there, and how it's related to what's happening with UC admissions (are the UC's whitening more so?)

Anyway. Yeah, it seems like teaching isn't about teaching anymore. Bummer, just when I think I am getting good at it, more reasons to stay away come to light.

Posted by: barb on November 26, 2007 04:30 PM

Darren: they'll probably pay you more at the University of Phoenix.

Barb: I did think of writing something about "whitening," but I didn't have the numbers to prove it. In any case, I was completely wrong: I just looked at the numbers, and the ethnic breakdown of incoming first-year students at my old university between Fall 1996 and Fall 2007 are almost exactly the same, give or take a couple of percentage points. The most significant changes were an increase in the Latino population (now at 17%), and a slight decrease in the African American population (6.7%, which is pretty darn small if you ask me). Otherwise, the university is still about a third Asian American, with Filipinos at almost 11%.

Next question: how many of these people are transfering to different universities, or graduating at all? Not clear...

Posted by: the wily filipino on November 26, 2007 09:37 PM

education is a commodity, no different from health care and everything else that comes with modern living, hence its current state.

wait a bit and university education will become more affordable, once textbooks are mass published in china and university instructors are recruited from overseas, much like today's public school teachers. the ever decreasing price of bandwidth will make the university of phoenix model the norm.

Posted by: onejap on November 27, 2007 07:26 AM

One difficulty is that because so many students attend college and university these days, there has been a weakening of certain areas of scholarship which are not market-focused or business-driven. When 1% of a society goes to college, college can be about poetry; when 40% goes, then college is probably going to end up being about what those 40% do for a living, not art. You can democratize access to an elite culture, but you can't make elite culture democratic.

Posted by: Quiet Truths on November 29, 2007 09:20 AM

I came over here from Alas, a Blog. *waves* Hello!

Having read and re-read this piece, and then having gone and looked up "neoliberalism" to make sure that I'm understanding it, I'm left with a single question:

"* Rip up parking lots. Implode student housing. Stop all construction projects not related to safety. Make students get gym memberships elsewhere."

How does this fit in with your other suggestions? Especially the parking lots and student housing; I think I understand better about unnecessary construction (UCSD's full of it) and gym memberships. I'm just confused as to how eliminating parking lots and student housing will help.

Posted by: Sara no H. on November 29, 2007 05:42 PM

I think it's just a disgruntled stab at how universities bleed their student's dry of any cash possible. For example, I go to MSU where I pay an out of state tuition and housing after I get a measly stipend. End result, a crappy PhD, and tons of money going back to the university.

Posted by: brown on November 29, 2007 07:34 PM

Jane (aka onejap): yet another fresh breath of air from you. =) I'll write a longer response.

Quiet Truths: I understand what you mean by "elite culture" (and I'd politely disagree with poetry being "elite", or that poetry hasn't been democratized to some degree, though not in the usual forms). But I agree completely with the prioritization of the market-focused majors, and there's no surprise there. (I'm not sure, though, whether the humanities and the more traditional social sciences are suffering for enrollments; I think there will always be a place for English and History.)

Sara no H.: I really had nothing to do with the list; I just posted it. =) And no, I don't see why student housing or parking lots should be eliminated either -- though further expansion of the two I disagree with.

Posted by: the wily filipino on December 4, 2007 09:28 AM
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