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How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation

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As much as we think we know about the modern university, very little has been said about what it's like to work there. Instead of the high-wage, high-profit world of knowledge work, most campus employees—including the vast majority of faculty—really work in the low-wage, low-profit sphere of the service economy. Tenure-track positions are at an all-time low, with adjuncts As much as we think we know about the modern university, very little has been said about what it's like to work there. Instead of the high-wage, high-profit world of knowledge work, most campus employees—including the vast majority of faculty—really work in the low-wage, low-profit sphere of the service economy. Tenure-track positions are at an all-time low, with adjuncts and graduate students teaching the majority of courses. This super-exploited corps of disposable workers commonly earn fewer than $16,000 annually, without benefits, teaching as many as eight classes per year. Even undergraduates are being exploited as a low-cost, disposable workforce. Marc Bousquet, a major figure in the academic labor movement, exposes the seamy underbelly of higher education—a world where faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates work long hours for fast-food wages. Assessing the costs of higher education's corporatization on faculty and students at every level, How the University Works is urgent reading for anyone interested in the fate of the university.


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As much as we think we know about the modern university, very little has been said about what it's like to work there. Instead of the high-wage, high-profit world of knowledge work, most campus employees—including the vast majority of faculty—really work in the low-wage, low-profit sphere of the service economy. Tenure-track positions are at an all-time low, with adjuncts As much as we think we know about the modern university, very little has been said about what it's like to work there. Instead of the high-wage, high-profit world of knowledge work, most campus employees—including the vast majority of faculty—really work in the low-wage, low-profit sphere of the service economy. Tenure-track positions are at an all-time low, with adjuncts and graduate students teaching the majority of courses. This super-exploited corps of disposable workers commonly earn fewer than $16,000 annually, without benefits, teaching as many as eight classes per year. Even undergraduates are being exploited as a low-cost, disposable workforce. Marc Bousquet, a major figure in the academic labor movement, exposes the seamy underbelly of higher education—a world where faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates work long hours for fast-food wages. Assessing the costs of higher education's corporatization on faculty and students at every level, How the University Works is urgent reading for anyone interested in the fate of the university.

30 review for How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation

  1. 5 out of 5

    Roger Whitson

    I'd actually give this book about four and a half stars. If I ever have the opportunity to teach an introduction to research methods/graduate school class, I will definitely teach this book. This is required reading for anyone who is starting graduate school in my opinion. Marc Bousquet analyzes several of the ways the contemporary University uses its graduate and undergraduate population as cheap labor. Some highlights: Bousquet's analysis is remarkably provacative, overturning much of the theor I'd actually give this book about four and a half stars. If I ever have the opportunity to teach an introduction to research methods/graduate school class, I will definitely teach this book. This is required reading for anyone who is starting graduate school in my opinion. Marc Bousquet analyzes several of the ways the contemporary University uses its graduate and undergraduate population as cheap labor. Some highlights: Bousquet's analysis is remarkably provacative, overturning much of the theory of the "job market" that has been prevalent in the academy for the past ten years. For Bousquet, there is no job crisis--just a widening gap between an academic bourgeois in the form of administrators, presidents, and trustees and an academic proletariat (in the form of graduate students, untenured faculty and undergraduate students). Bousquet attributes the so-called job crisis to the willingness of administrators to exploit both graduate and undergraduate students for cheap labor. 1. There are plenty of jobs. The current corporatist mindset of the University wants to pay cheaply for academic labor. Low wages for the graduate student reflects a basic reality for Bousquet: administrator's desire for cheap labor makes them prefer people who do not have Ph.D's. 2. Undergraduates are, likewise, indentured servants in the University system. Bousquet paints a horrible picture of a University whose partnership program with the shipping company UPS offers tuition remission for students who will work as handlers for the shipping company. Many students are forced to work through the night and go to school during the day. Most can't take the hectic schedule and, upon being motivated to quit by UPS, drop out of school and start working for he company exclusively. Bousquet shows that fewer than twelve percent of the people in this program actually graduate. 3. He also has a trenchant critique of the rhet/comp industry. Bousquet characterizing the recent move away from theory and towards more pragmatic models of pedagogy as rhet/comps tendency to prepare graduate student to be members of the managerial class. 4. In his most interesting chapter, Bousquet argues that the "job market" is a myth to keep graduate student in poverty like conditions and tenured faculty involved in a fantasy that they can solve the problem for the University by producing less Ph.Ds. Bousquet paints a picture of an academic system deeply in crisis, with corporate systems of management and corporate ideologies threatening to shrink the influence of tenured professors. He argues that graduate students and faculty alike should demand a living wage (at least $18,000 a year).

  2. 5 out of 5

    Karen Kohoutek

    Not even sure how to review this! Some of the material about laws and unions got pretty technical, and glazed my eyes over. It's also a pretty grim read, overall, especially considering it was published 13 years ago, and the situation doesn't seem to have improved. The author does a deep dive into the overtaking of higher ed administration by corporate management techniques: the ideologies that have driven this, the responses by faculty, and the impacts on university employees and students. Much Not even sure how to review this! Some of the material about laws and unions got pretty technical, and glazed my eyes over. It's also a pretty grim read, overall, especially considering it was published 13 years ago, and the situation doesn't seem to have improved. The author does a deep dive into the overtaking of higher ed administration by corporate management techniques: the ideologies that have driven this, the responses by faculty, and the impacts on university employees and students. Much of his specific focus is on faculty, and while I'd like to have seen that expanded, that is what his focus is, so that's fair. While these are subjects I've done a decent amount of reading and thinking about, there were new insights here based on research. The background about adjuncts, and how people can teach for ten years prior to their Ph.D.s and then lose their jobs, wasn't new. But I did not know the extent to which management training and literature promoted certain ideas at the administrative level, and I had not been particularly conscious of the aging of the secure professorial class. As the tenured group (who worked prior to the trends that consolidated by the 1990s) retires, they are largely not being replaced by new full-time professors. That leaves no continuity, no group that will then become the leaders in their discipline. I checked the English department at my alma mater, and there was a flush of hiring new professors in the late '90s and early 2000s, but the only new hires (still working there) since 2005 have been adjuncts and fixed-term instructors. That's a whole lost generation. Anyway, there's lots to think about!

  3. 5 out of 5

    Michael Burnam-Fink

    A few days ago, I read "Academically Adrift" which argues that undergraduates aren't learning. "How the University Works" doubles down by presenting a Marxist critique of higher ed, and the hyper-exploitation of graduate students and non-tenured faculty by a 'management culture' of late stage capitalism. I think Bousquet is half right; grad school pays peanuts for long hours, becoming a professor is basically a lottery, and even then it's the least financially rewarding career available with that A few days ago, I read "Academically Adrift" which argues that undergraduates aren't learning. "How the University Works" doubles down by presenting a Marxist critique of higher ed, and the hyper-exploitation of graduate students and non-tenured faculty by a 'management culture' of late stage capitalism. I think Bousquet is half right; grad school pays peanuts for long hours, becoming a professor is basically a lottery, and even then it's the least financially rewarding career available with that level of education (this very morning I read a bunch of articles on adjunct faculty on food stamps). I will agree that the university as it stands today is exploitative, that it pushes the day-to-day realities of teaching off onto the most junior members of the profession, and that a PhD prepares you for nothing. The insights into Toyota-style management and the continual "stressing" of the production process are particularly valuable. No wonder nobody is learning! Where I diverge is in the solution. Bousquet thinks that we need a union, some solidarity, and then we can get some respect and equal pay from evil administrators. But like the rest of Marxist scholarship, Socialism gets less attention than the flaws of Capitalism. As best as I can tell, for Bousquet, The University is a place which exists first to keep grad students in ramen and cheap whiskey, next a place that does undergrad education (but not for capitalists), and finally a place that does research (but only to expose and correct injustice). I'm not sure that Bousquet's university truly deserves to survive. Can we just admit that True Socialism and Revolutionary Solidarity is a Utopian pipedream, and that the Revolution is about "meet the new boss, same as the old boss".

  4. 4 out of 5

    Meg

    You can check out the ongoing work Bousquet is doing in relation to this book at his blog: http://howtheuniversityworks.com/word... The intro gives the basic argument of the book, and you can read it for free at: http://www.nyupress.org/webchapters/9... The summary: the academic 'job market' is a myth; most PhD students are not preparing for an academic teaching job, but currently holding the only one they'll ever have. The university, following the corporate model of the rest of America's service i You can check out the ongoing work Bousquet is doing in relation to this book at his blog: http://howtheuniversityworks.com/word... The intro gives the basic argument of the book, and you can read it for free at: http://www.nyupress.org/webchapters/9... The summary: the academic 'job market' is a myth; most PhD students are not preparing for an academic teaching job, but currently holding the only one they'll ever have. The university, following the corporate model of the rest of America's service industry, is involved in a massive casualization of its labor force, in which tenure-track positions are the rarity, and part-time, low wage jobs for current graduate students and recent PhD's is the norm. You can also read about the exploitative working conditions of high school and undergrad students in various school-corporate 'partnerships,' in this excerpt: http://marcbousquet.net/Bousquet_4.pdf

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

    I have much of the same consternation with this text as I do with all scholarly texts: it takes what a great essay can do and turns it into a redundant full-length book. I'm not criticizing Bousquet as much as the entire genre. I think a thesis and a few points of defense would have done. Rather, we get a whole lot. Still and in all, his arguments are sounds and necessary. If we ignore the pedantry of academic writing, and we should (and we all do it; admit it, scholars), we're left with a valuabl I have much of the same consternation with this text as I do with all scholarly texts: it takes what a great essay can do and turns it into a redundant full-length book. I'm not criticizing Bousquet as much as the entire genre. I think a thesis and a few points of defense would have done. Rather, we get a whole lot. Still and in all, his arguments are sounds and necessary. If we ignore the pedantry of academic writing, and we should (and we all do it; admit it, scholars), we're left with a valuable criticism of the American University as a market capitalism of disenfranchisement. Sheesh, if enough people shout this from rooftops, won't we eventually revolt as Holy Marx instructed?

  6. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    Bousquet does a great job of showing how the controversial "over-production of PhD's" is a symptom of a higher ed system that emphasizes hiring the cheapest teaching labor available (adjuncts and grad students). An effect of this -- poignant to this grad student -- is that many doctoral degree holders over-qualify themselves for teaching jobs upon completion of their programs; rather than a teaching-apprenticeship, Bousquet writes that all too often the GTA is an exploitation of students in the Bousquet does a great job of showing how the controversial "over-production of PhD's" is a symptom of a higher ed system that emphasizes hiring the cheapest teaching labor available (adjuncts and grad students). An effect of this -- poignant to this grad student -- is that many doctoral degree holders over-qualify themselves for teaching jobs upon completion of their programs; rather than a teaching-apprenticeship, Bousquet writes that all too often the GTA is an exploitation of students in the transmission of information to undergrads. Very interesting read with contextualization in labor movements within higher ed, and an optimistic conclusion that I had not expected after the extended biting critique.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    Bousquet takes a look at the state of university faculty. His conclusions indicate that the university has gone to contingent and part-time teachers of many courses in an effort to safe money (taking a page from the play book of many corporations). The analysis is well-documented and thought out. It is hard to argue with the numbers that he presents, but of course there are exceptions at some universities. There is a bit of repetition in Bousquet's arguments but they do not unduly detract from t Bousquet takes a look at the state of university faculty. His conclusions indicate that the university has gone to contingent and part-time teachers of many courses in an effort to safe money (taking a page from the play book of many corporations). The analysis is well-documented and thought out. It is hard to argue with the numbers that he presents, but of course there are exceptions at some universities. There is a bit of repetition in Bousquet's arguments but they do not unduly detract from the topic.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    If you take away the Marxist language, what this book amounts to is "MANAGEMENT BAD MANAGEMENT BAD MANAGEMENT BAD." That may be true but it isn't much of an argument. Furthermore, I should note that his solution to the problem of casualization of faculty labor is to pay adjunct faculty about $7,000 a class. When the magical money fairy drops canvas bags with dollar signs on universities year after year, I am sure that is the way they'll spend it. Check out this essay from Jay Schalin. If you take away the Marxist language, what this book amounts to is "MANAGEMENT BAD MANAGEMENT BAD MANAGEMENT BAD." That may be true but it isn't much of an argument. Furthermore, I should note that his solution to the problem of casualization of faculty labor is to pay adjunct faculty about $7,000 a class. When the magical money fairy drops canvas bags with dollar signs on universities year after year, I am sure that is the way they'll spend it. Check out this essay from Jay Schalin.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Cerny

    Marc Bousquet's book is a deeply engaging look at the current state of affairs in the business called academia. Not content to simply diagnose university labor problems under late capitalism, Bousquet offers several strategies on how to combat the exploitation of casual/flex workers. While the book is profoundly depressing, it is a text that all graduate students, term laborers, and even tenure stream faculty should pick up and study. Final recommendation: A nice glass of bourbon on the rocks, r Marc Bousquet's book is a deeply engaging look at the current state of affairs in the business called academia. Not content to simply diagnose university labor problems under late capitalism, Bousquet offers several strategies on how to combat the exploitation of casual/flex workers. While the book is profoundly depressing, it is a text that all graduate students, term laborers, and even tenure stream faculty should pick up and study. Final recommendation: A nice glass of bourbon on the rocks, rather than a sharpened straight razor, would be a good companion for the read.

  10. 5 out of 5

    David Drysdale

    In another world, this might have been "The Jungle" for higher ed. It's a sometimes disheartening, sometimes terrifying, and always depressing assessment of the university system in the United States (and, increasingly, Canada). Unfortunately, Bousquet is either going to be preaching to the choir or falling on deaf ears. The first and last chapters, at least, should be mandatory reading for anybody considering graduate education. In another world, this might have been "The Jungle" for higher ed. It's a sometimes disheartening, sometimes terrifying, and always depressing assessment of the university system in the United States (and, increasingly, Canada). Unfortunately, Bousquet is either going to be preaching to the choir or falling on deaf ears. The first and last chapters, at least, should be mandatory reading for anybody considering graduate education.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tim Sallinger

    Contains a lot of vital information about the dastardly institution of higher education, and plenty of catharsis for anyone who feels like they've been fucked over by it. Unfortunately, it's written by an English professor, making it a totally unnecessarily dry read, replete with phrases in Latin, inter-departmental squabbling, and all that garbage that academics forget holds no interest for normal people. Contains a lot of vital information about the dastardly institution of higher education, and plenty of catharsis for anyone who feels like they've been fucked over by it. Unfortunately, it's written by an English professor, making it a totally unnecessarily dry read, replete with phrases in Latin, inter-departmental squabbling, and all that garbage that academics forget holds no interest for normal people.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Mark Hiser

    I ended up skimming the book, probably because it was such a sad picture of academia. Yet, because I am an adjunct, I also saw very little I did not already know. Thankfully , I enjoy my job and have a pension.

  13. 5 out of 5

    John

    A depressing analysis of the "casualization" of academic labor. The primary focus is on the humanities, and I don't think that its critiques all apply in my field of mathematics, but I think everyone involved in graduate program administration should reflect on its thesis. A depressing analysis of the "casualization" of academic labor. The primary focus is on the humanities, and I don't think that its critiques all apply in my field of mathematics, but I think everyone involved in graduate program administration should reflect on its thesis.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Julia Glassman

    Anyone interested in teaching at the university level has to read this book. It describes why there's such a massive job shortage (hint: the answer isn't "that's just the way it is"), and what we need to do about it (hint: the answer isn't "hope it gets better"). Anyone interested in teaching at the university level has to read this book. It describes why there's such a massive job shortage (hint: the answer isn't "that's just the way it is"), and what we need to do about it (hint: the answer isn't "hope it gets better").

  15. 5 out of 5

    Vicky

    Will have to look up that university administrator video game.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Diane Dreher

    Riveting expose of the sad state of the academy when it adopts a "business" model that treats faculty and students like replaceable parts. Riveting expose of the sad state of the academy when it adopts a "business" model that treats faculty and students like replaceable parts.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Anthony Galluzzo

    The scales have fallen from my eyes--and in the place of some superannuated tweed-wearing professor, I now see a food service worker...with a grade book.

  18. 4 out of 5

    David

    Critique of administrator's usurpation of higher ed. Must read for understanding the contemporary university. Critique of administrator's usurpation of higher ed. Must read for understanding the contemporary university.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    A timely book that will easily complement the collection of literature on the topic of academic labor. http://blogcritics.org/archives/2008/... A timely book that will easily complement the collection of literature on the topic of academic labor. http://blogcritics.org/archives/2008/...

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jashell

  21. 5 out of 5

    Tyler Stanley

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ed

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kiera Zitelman

  24. 5 out of 5

    Adam Kerker

  25. 4 out of 5

    Eddie Lee

  26. 5 out of 5

    Vi

  27. 5 out of 5

    Nicholas Stark

  28. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

  29. 4 out of 5

    Desi

  30. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Miller

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