Academic Labor Politics in the Air

It must be the season or something. Today, our TA union staged a demonstration outside the front gates in support of their ongoing contract negotiations. McGill teaching assistants are quite underpaid compared to their counterparts at other Canadian universities and “R1” universities in the U.S. It’s a Quebec thing, since they’re better paid than TAs at other schools in the province, but still, I was pretty shocked when I arrived at how little we pay our teaching assistants.

This week, when they’re not mulling over the Andrea Smith story, academic bloggers been all abuzz over an Inside Higher Education story about how, for the first time ever in 2006, less than 50% of the professional, full-time jobs in universities were held by professors. Now, I would not want to make light of the casualization of academic labor, nor the growing ranks of permanent part-time positions in the professoriate, nor the treatment of part-time faculty by universities or for that matter the full time faculty. But that said, the statistics in the Inside Higher Ed article don’t tell you anything. What kinds of these administrators are these? Are we talking about the ever growing ranks of vice-presidents, the academic advisor in my department, or the student support services professionals whom I never meet? I see no reason to begrudge the growth of the last two categories, especially given the increasing complexity of student life at universities. Endlessly proliferating higher administrators are another matter, but that’s for another post. My point is that “administration” is not a monolith or a thing. In any given university — and I get the sense that there is a great deal of variance across universities — administration is more like a field in Bourdieu’s sense. There are an agreed upon sets of rules of the game (and rules for transforming the rules), some endemic species of capital, and a really diverse range of actors whose positions combine with their dispositions in many and multifarious ways. The problem comes, of course, when higher education administration becomes an end in itself, and people in universities forget that the mission is to do research, serve students, and in some ways (but emphatically not others) to serve some broader “public.”

I’ve also been reading work on academic politics: Fuyuki Kursawa’s “The State of Intellectual Play: A Generational Manifesto for Neoliberal Times” in the latest Topia which I found disappointing in interesting ways that I’m trying to formulate more coherently; and Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works, which I’m slowly moving through on the metro and while waiting for stuff. Bousquet is an interesting figure since as far as I know, he’s the first scholar in the humanities to really make his career on writing about academic labor politics (correct me if I’m wrong; lots of senior scholars have turned to the topic, but that’s different). He also writes on lots of other stuff too but my sense is that his work on academic labor is best known. My reaction to both texts is no doubt colored by the fact that I’m now a department chair and therefore have a bit of a bigger window into the world of opportunity and constraint in higher education administration. I would offer the same critique that I offer of the Inside Higher Ed article to both, though there’s a lot more “there there” to both texts, especially Bousquet’s (and which I’ll say more about when I finish it — in the meantime, he’s the new kid on the blogroll).

If that’s not enough, last week my administrative assistant found the Art History Department’s annual report for 1980 (the materials from the Graduate Programme in Communication are either in the archives or they no longer exist). If I read the report correctly, professors of Art History at McGill did not publish a single text in 1979. But what is striking (and this is anecdotal evidence to support one of Bousquet’s arguments about the professionalization of academic administration) is how utterly unpolished the writing in the report is. I don’t mean that it’s not well written or eloquent, but that it doesn’t betray any evidence of the administrative slickness one routinely now expects from faculty who serve as chairs or program directors. There is relatively little in the way of data gathering or evidence presentation in the report, apart from some undergraduate enrollment numbers. I have no idea if it’s just one department chair in one year or whether it was typical for McGill at the time, but it does seem like a part of a bigger trend. I remember having a similar reaction to seeing the review of the University of Pittsburgh Communication Department from 1994 (vs. its 2003-4 counterpart): many fewer faculty were research active and overall the place seemed less professionalized. I’m too young to have really lived through these changes (except at the tail end) but it’s certainly quite striking set against the expectations I confront as a faculty member and department chair today.