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

Kenneth Mostern kmostern at
Tue Jun 2 06:30:53 PDT 1998


At the level of description of how labor in English departments is demeaned, Nelson tells the truth.

Here are my problems with the Nelson piece: first, he makes no attempt to ascertain what the hiring, workload, or salary practices are in History, or Philosophy, or Classics, let alone theoretical Physics. Since I have recently known people in grad school in all the above both at Berkeley (my Ph.D.: 1995) and here at Tennessee, I have anecdotal, by no means considerable, evidence that nothing special is going on in English. (And given that multidisciplinary grad student unions exist in ten or so places, such information is in fact available to Nelson if he wants to find it. I should add, the union at Berkeley was not my special area of political activity, but it was for many of my friends, and my anecdotes are largely from them.) Second, he doesn't give any argument that would suggest why English departments have the agency to accomplish destruction as no other departments can (which is to say, he makes it appear that English departments rather than administrations have been the main forces behind the current structure). I am not claiming that English Department administrations are blameless, but the picture of English Department administrations as having special moral impurity seems wrong factually and silly politically.

Now, Nelson gives a couple of statistics that show English using more part-timers than other departments. This is easily explained on bases other than our special immorality. First, composition is a course servicing every undergraduate in the US. There is simply no comparable service course in any other discipline, no other situations where a particular department organization services 100% of an introductory requirement for students in every sector of a university. Second, English courses are, on the whole, small (although this is decreasingly true). When statistics show that a higher percentage of History courses are taught by full-time faculty, this fact is produced by the existence of 500 person lecture courses in which essentially all the work is done by TAs, but the "teaching" is supposedly done by the faculty member.

Please understand that I am not then defending the structure of English departments as good. The basic charge - that teaching labor is being proletarianized in a way that has never been true before, and that English departments are part of this, is entirely true. Here at UT, and to the shock of people who have never heard a junior faculty member open his mouth before, I loudly advocate 1-1 teaching loads for grad students at the pay they currently receive for 2-2, and the elimination of the position of Instructor: I actually don't have major problems with faculty teaching loads being flexible and dependent on active research, especially since its not like every piece of research produced by someone at Tennessee is an unambiguous social good. But all 4-4 teachers, whatever the reason they were hired, should be paid as faculty and tenurable as faculty. (The main thing opening my mouth has accomplished, of course, is the sense that there's no way I'll ever have an administrative position. Which may be just as well . . .)

Finally, as most English departments are not run by radicals (whatever our image at the NY Times), few department administrators understand or care about the scope and significance of the problem. My goal is not their defense.

On the other hand, I worry that Nelson's position is Matthew Arnold redux: we, as humanists, are the conscience of the nation and the world, and our bad example is the one that leads to the downfall of the world. And that's just stupid. It is not a useful account of how power is wielded in or out of the university. It doesn't help English department composition teachers now.

Kenneth Mostern Department of English University of Tennessee

"Talent is perhaps nothing other than successfully sublimated rage."

Theodor Adorno

-----Original Message----- From: Yoshie Furuhashi [SMTP:furuhashi.1 at] Sent: Monday, June 01, 1998 11:56 PM To: lbo-talk at Subject: RE: Cary Nelson in ATC on the Fast Food University. Was Rem.Class Strug.

Kenneth Mostern wrote:

<<<<Does anyone know what Nelson's evidence that English departments have led the university in the proletarianization of the workforce is?>>

I checked out the Against the Current website and found the full text of the Nelson article at <<>. Nelson's argument concerning why English departments can be said to be more exploitative than other disciplines:

<paraindent><param>right,right,left,left</param>English, I would argue, is the discipline most responsible for laying the groundwork for the corporate university. I refer to our employment practices. For English departments above all have demonstrated that neither full-time faculty nor Ph.D.s are essential to lower-level undergraduate education.

What's more, we've shown that people teaching lower-division courses need not be paid a living wage. We can no longer claim that such courses have to be taught by people with years of specialized training.

Like many departments, mine puts people in front of a composition class the semester after they earn their B.A.

So the educational requirement to teach rhetoric is apparently a B.A., a summer vacation, and a week's training. A couple of years of graduate study, having completed M.A. course work, and they are then assigned "Introduction to Fiction" or other beginning courses. Any research university that wanted to would be educationally justified in hiring such folks full-time at $2,500 per course or less.

In my own department two thirds of the undergraduate teaching is already done by graduate student employees without Ph.D.s. We can hardly justify hiring full-time faculty with Ph.D.s by arguing no one else is capable of teaching the courses, since we have already proven otherwise.

Indeed, after an ethical decision to reduce the size of our graduate program, we were forced to turn to graduate students in other fields to teach our composition courses. We now hire more than a score of law students to teach introductory rhetoric, so they are not even enrolled in the department's degree programs.

There is now some statistical support for these claims. Data from the 1993 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, based on fall 1992 hiring figures, is now available as a CD-ROM. More up-to-date figures will not be available for another couple of years, but they will hardly be heartening.

Ernst Benjamin of the national office of the American Association of University Professors has assembled the raw 1992 data into charts and passed them on to me. They show that English departments nationwide had the largest percentage (8.2%) of the part-time faculty work force.

Four other fields with much smaller work forces overall (Law, Communications, Computer Sciences, and Psychology) used a higher

percentage of part-time faculty--English used 52.9%, whereas Law used 65.3% and Communications and Computer sciences each used about 55%--but most of those other disciplines were employing moonlighting professionals who were supplementing full-time jobs for prestige or pleasure.

Thus colleges of Law regularly hire community lawyers part-time; notably, 99% of part-time law faculty in four-year colleges and 79.8% of them in two-year institutions have the appropriate professional degree. Communication programs often hire local journalists part-time. A number of other disciplines, like business and nursing, do the same with full-time practitioners in their fields.

Taken together, English and Foreign languages--the MLA's constituency--accounted for 11% of the part-time faculty in 1992. And they amount to a block of people working at slave wages--people who depend on their instructional income for their living expenses--that dwarfs other small fields like philosophy, which accounts for but 1.3% of part-time hires.

Finally, a number of these fields, like law, use their part-time faculty to train students in professional schools, not for basic undergraduate instruction. It is above all English that has proven that full-time Ph.D.s are superfluous for at least the courses it offers for the first two years of the undergraduate degree.

If we then considered what graduate students having completed all doctoral course work might teach--and what salaries we could hire them at--the picture becomes still more troubling.

For English department employment practices have demonstrated that most--or even all--of the undergraduate degree could be handled by severely exploited labor. Indeed, some of the relevant courses could be taught at a profit. In a way, many already are.

The gap between the tuition paid by the students in an introductory course and the salary paid to a part-time faculty member to teach it (from $1,000 to $3,000 per course) can be considerable. Moreover, do you really need a library, a gymnasium, a chapel, an auditorium, a student union, a chemistry lab, or an elaborate physical plant to teach such a course?

As these forces come together in a moment of recognition, the corporate takeover of the profitable portion of the undergraduate curriculum becomes a possibility. English has led the way in turning college teaching into a low-level service job; we are corporate America's fast food discipline.

<center>Subminimum Wage Faculty


It is worth calculating just what the hourly rate is for Ph.D.s paid $1,000-1,500 per course, common salary levels at community colleges and proprietary schools. East-West University in Chicago, a four-year institution, paid $1,000 per course to part-time faculty in 1997.(2)

Assuming thirty to forty-five classroom hours, depending on the length of the term, assuming a rock-bottom minimum of two hours preparation time for each hour of classroom teaching, two hours a week of office hours, and a minimum of 75-100 hours of paper and exam grading per term, the hourly pay rate comes to under $4 per hour.

This calculation makes two assumptions--that preparation involves reviewing familiar materials, not reading and researching new topics, and that paper grading includes no extensive comments by the instructor. Getting involved in either of these traditional forms of teaching, let alone extensive tutoring during office hours, can cut the rate of compensation to $3 per hour or less.

Meanwhile, ask yourself how many $1,000-1,500 courses a person has to teach to assemble a reasonable livelihood? How much attention can students receive from someone teaching a dozen or more such courses a year? Are subminimum wages for Ph.D.s to become the norm?

Two things are clear enough. First, paying faculty subminimum wages constitutes a genuine violation of professional ethics. It must be characterized that way by everyone involved in higher education.

Second, this kind of brutally exploitive salary structure represents the single greatest threat to quality higher education, and the greatest temptation for corporations contemplating hostile takeovers of our enterprise.



-------------- next part -------------- A non-text attachment was scrubbed... Name: not available Type: application/ms-tnef Size: 9533 bytes Desc: not available URL: <../attachments/19980602/953159b6/attachment.bin>

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list