Saturday, February 12, 2011

Academia and the deterioration of jobs

A recent article in the New York Review of Books, The Grim Threat to British Universities makes interesting reading since it discusses a UK problem from a US perspective. It highlights the key difference between the British and American systems, namely the vulnerability of the British one to central control and manipulation, and seeks to draw lessons that could be learned within the American one. It blames certain US business schools for generating the managerialist ideas that have subsequently beset British universities. It goes on, via a critique of research assessment, to study the growth (in the USA) in use of short-term, untenured faculty to provide teaching.

Some thoughts on the article:

It makes a mistake that is common to most polemics against the decline in academic working conditions, namely that the author has not tried to place himself in the position of his adversary, and consider how it looks to the opposition. Consider the following quote:
The growth of the contingent academic workforce brings the labor economics of the call center and the Wal-Mart store to higher education. With these contingent academics, few of whom have firm contracts, managers now have at their disposal a flexible, low-cost workforce that can be hired and fired at will, that can be made to work longer or shorter hours as the market dictates, and that is in a poor position to demand higher pay.

The problem with this observation is that the situation it describes looks pretty good to anyone whose job is not university teaching. Taken out of context, it could pass for high praise for the trend that it criticizes. I can't see call-centre workers, or most other people, losing much sleep abut the problem being highlighted. Furthermore, many jobs and professions have suffered from debasement over the past few decades. I have heard from a flight attendant about how the growth of low-cost airlines has led to poorer working conditions, poorer safety training, and more disagreeable passengers. And, a general background story of the past few decades, both in the USA and Europe, is the decline of the steady, well-paid, blue-collar job.

In the presence of a working public who have their on-the-job performance being measured and assessed in various onerous ways, it is pretty hard to rail against research assessment. And that does not mean we should not criticize excessive performance monitoring and managerialism, but let's not do it in the name of “scholarship”, and expect to be taken seriously. The following cri-de-coeur quoted from the article is not helpful:
The bureaucratization of scholarship in the humanities is simply spirit-crushing. I may prepare an article on extremism, my research area, for publication in a learned journal, and my RAE line manager focuses immediately on the influence of the journal, the number of citations of my text, the amount of pages written, or the journal’s publisher. Interference by these academic managers is pervasive and creeping. Whether my article is any good, or advances scholarship in the field, are quickly becoming secondary issues. All this may add to academic “productivity,” but is it worth selling our collective soul for?

If a flight attendant used the word “flightmanship” the way we use “scholarship”, they would be laughed out of the room. And by the way, I don't know what “good” is being used to mean in the phrase “whether my article is any good”. None of which is to say that we should give up trying to defend our working conditions, only that we should do so using the levels of intellectual rigour that we urge on our own students.

Added 1.3.11: This article is very relevant: it gives a bigger picture to the problem, explaining the general threat to “middle class” jobs in Western countries.

Added 15.3.11: just spotted this review of The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs, and Incomes a book that studies this problem. Rahul Savani pointed me to this new-ish article by Paul Krugman that also considers it. Both of these seem to be about people going to university, expecting it to be their ticket to a middle-class lifestyle, and getting disappointed by the outcome. This new post at the Fortnow/Gasarch blog has relevant links, including the Krugman article, but focuses on the impact of CS/AI on future jobs.

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