Cary Nelson in ATC on the Fast Food University. Was Rem. Class Strug.

Carrol Cox cbcox at
Mon Jun 1 10:19:02 PDT 1998

Yoshie writes:

> Also, with less and less state funding, colleges + universities are
> retooling themselves to become the Edu Serv, Inc. where students will be
> treated as consumers of education services. Pretty soon 'student
> evaluation' might be renamed 'customer satisfaction survey,' which would
> ask questions such as: "Did your instructor treat you with courtesy?"; "Was
> the service prompt and efficient?"; "How do you rate the production value
> of classroom experience?"; and so on. College presidents will be called
> CEOs. Tenure? A thing of the soon-to-be past.

The current (May-June) issue of Against the Current contains an important article by Cary Nelson (Prof. of English at U. of Illinois at Champaign / Urbana) entitled "English, Vanguard of the Fast-Food Universty." I quote some passages.


This report [from the MLA on employment] was assembled and drafted by Sandra Gilbert with assistance from her fellow committee members. The astonished gaze of its collective author casts on recent history suggests the windswept visage of a profession no longer in control of its fate. Eyes bulging, the figure is nearly swept away by forces it cannot comprehend. In stark terror of their oncoming fury, it dares not turn to glimpse their destination.

The report gives us a reasonable -- if economically and contextually impoverished --account of the recent history of the academic job market in the humanities. Its opening sub-heading, as one reader pointed out to me, introduces a passage in the text that refers to "the best of times at large contrasted eerily with the worst of times in academia."

Of course the millions of undermployed or unemployed Americans, all those working at poverty or near-poverty wages, are not living in the best of times. Academics must recognize that we're not alone; as long as our disciplinary understanding of the national and global economy foregrounds us as exceptional victims, the chances for meaningful solidarity, meaningful alliances, and significant change remain slim. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

After more than a quarter of a century of denial, with this report the English profession has now condescended to admit there is a problem. It does so, I might point out, for the most part in uncredited arguments borrwoed from two partly, but not entirely, overlapping grups of scholars -- those who have written on the political and economic status of the profession and those who have addressed the job crisis.

One might have wished that some of the ground-breaking essays the American Association of University Professors has published in *Academe* and *Footnotes* over the years wer cited here. One might have wished the work several of us have done on the job crisis were acknowledged. I suppose that a score or so of us might make the *Chronicle of Higher Education* by filing a class-action plagiarism suit against the committee members and their sponsoring organization.

Meanwhile we are treated instead to the report's unlikely yoking of Association of Departments of English head DAvid Laurence and Harvard University Professor John Guillory as disciplinary seers. This comical -- and imaginary -- pairing links the MLA's most apoplectic staffer with the profession's most admired apologist for business as usual.

"Thanks to Laurence and Guillory," or "as Laurence and Gillory have shown us with their typical trenchant insightfulness" or "Laurence and Guillory again point the way" is the approximate effect of Gilbert's repeated citation of their fortuitous faux collaboration. These Bobsy Toads haven't so far as I know coauthored anything, so presumably it's their enlightening conversation Gilbert has in mind.

All this is hardly the most critical issue, but it seems worth going on the record about these elements of a document written in part in ignorance and bad faith.

On that score, let me add that the final report also includes a passage I have some warrant to take personally: "We believe finger-pointing, name-calling, political posturing and intellectual profiteering are inadequate as well as inappropriate responses."

When I debated Sandra Gilbert in November 1997 at the annual meeting of the Midwest Modern Language Association, she read from the report and made it clear she had me in mind. Indeed these are much the same accusations she made against me in the January 1996 issue of *Academe*. Committee member Sander Gilman confirmed that I was the object of that passage when I debated him aat a University Chicago conference the same month.

So all the committee members have apparently felt pleased to sign on to an attack that lacks sufficient courage or honor to address me by name. Again, all this is obviously less important than the vision of the profession the report puts forward. On the positive side, the MLA has now effectively removed its imprimatur from its official posture of denial.

(p. 9) . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

My own department offers teaching at two courses per semester and virtually every graduate student signs up for it; they need the money for living expenses. For years I have urged my department to reduce the teaching load but retain the full salary, but then I have the research Ph.D in mind. I want our students to have more time for their intellectual lives. [See end note.]

But the JOBS OF THE FUTURE so confidently touted by the MLA will not have an intellectual conponent, not *any* intellectual component, let alone rsearch time. So there's no reason to provide such graduate students with anything but job training, and little reason not to extract the maximum labor from them while they're at it.

Indeed extracting the maximum labor at the lowest cost has been the aim of graduate training in English for decades. When the MLA committee members imagine the future, they think of full-time jobs with higher teaching loads, more service courses, less time for research.

Well, folks, those were the good old days. That degraded future is itself already imperiled. Late capitalism has more exploitive working conditions than those in store for us. What's worse is that English, more than any other discipline, has helped pave the way for the alternative academic work place and the full proletarianization of the professoriate.

About this, the MLA's committee had not a clue. The future is one of part-time work dominated by corporate managers. Academic freedom will be non-existent. Salaries will hover at the poverty level except for those who work past distraction. And English departments have helped make this brave new world come true.

Confident for decades that literary studies opens Heaven's Gate, the discipline is about to learn it has been praying in a corporate lobby. English has in fact been an unwitting corporate partner in a project to defund, defang and deform higher education as we know it. How has this happened? How can I make these claims?

(pp. 10-11)

Cary Nelson, "What Hath English Wrought? The Corporate University's Fast Food Discipline," *Against the Current* (May-June 1998), pp. 9-14.


Nelson goes on to give a condensed but concrete history of the profession, leading up the conclusion that graduate school use of grad students has prepared the way for privatized public universities to dispense with the Ph.D. in their hiring practices. Incidentally (but *very* relevantly*) the shares on Wall Street that have shown the greatest return on investment over the past 10 years are shares in private Prison Corporations. If 'they' can privatize prisons, they can privatize and downsize (i.e., intensify the speed-up) at Illinois State University.

End Note: On "intellectual life vs. teaching": I remember a conversation in the Hopwood Room at the University of Michigan with Sheridan Baker about 30 years ago. (I believe at the time he headed the freshman composition section.) He made the same point Nelson does here about the squeeze between one's intellectual demands and the load put on teaching fellows. His advice (to the several grad students sitting there) was (I can't remember the exact words, but this is their gist): screw the teaching.

And actually, in practice the University of Michigan English department under Warner Rice implicitly sanctioned this advice. They went out of their way not to pay any more attention than was absolutely necessary to what teaching fellows were and weren't doing in the classroom.


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