Four Points on Postgraduate Labour

Someone sent me an email regarding the paper I have simmering on the backburner regarding postgraduate labour. Here are four points. There are other points regarding the nature of postgrad labour (ie waged vs other forms) that are not covered here.

  1. Career as project: Career is now something that has to be planned and projected rather than something that you end up with at the end of it. ‘Career’ in this context means an academic career or gainful employment derived from academic pursuits. This has ramifications for those who are trying to do critically engaged work as the future may be ‘colonised’ by the current situation. The best example of this so far has been the suggestion voiced at the Pre-Fix event that Cultural Studies postgraduates cultivate an ‘affable persona’ when mixing with senior academics.
  2. Anxiety: There is a life affecting anxiety produced in the current situation and this was mentioned by almost every person that I have discussed this issue with either online or in person. Here I am including worries about job security and the feeling that one’s life is on hold during the period immediately after completing a PhD or other postgraduate work. Other people who have looked at casual employment also discuss issues of job security.
  3. Not valued: Many casual workers felt under-valued or not valued at all. The particular example I am thinking of is a young man who lectured at TAFE for 3 years on consecutive 6 months contracts and then just decided he had had enough. There is a loss here for the _institution_ of 3 years of high-level teaching experience. There was a meaningless ritualised dimension to the process, inclduing submitting a CV, references, doing an interview, giving a demonstration lecture, etc., which he had to go through to re-apply for the same job 6 times. There is a massive waste of time being expended during this process.
  4. Alternates to Noblesse Oblige?: Many postgraduates and ECRs have to rely on the goodwill of senior academics, hence point 2 above. Here what is at stake is access to the means of security, that is, institutional affliation and support mediated by one’s supervisors or senior academic friends. Is it possible to imagine something else other than these micro-groupings?

EDIT: Michelle Wauchope sent me this link. It is to a University of Queensland document on sessional staff. Go to page 9. There is a list of suggestions based on the premise that “employees feel more motivated and satisfied when they feel included, when their efforts are recognized and when they reach their work-related objectives.” Uhuh… I feel more satisified when I can pay my fucking rent, when I can afford to eat nice food that isn’t starch-based, when my car is not in a continual state of disrepair so I can actually get to work, when I don’t have to worry about which bills I will put off this month, when the horizon of my future isn’t an endless desert of possibility and so on.

Turn back to page two. The number one reason why sessional teachers are employed is because of “continued uncertainty as to the level of funding to institutions.” What? Who is saying that universities will not be funded? Oh, no, it is an ‘uncertainty’ about the ‘level of funding.’ That means that the level of funding as it stands is not in question, but in terms of the future it is less clear what level the funding will be at. I thought institutions such as universities did not just have an administrative function to distribute knowledge where capital demands it, but also to act as something of a low-level insurance buffer to those very whims of capital.

I can see there is one certainty out of all of this. That is, in about 5-10 years time when the previous generation of academics and scholars start to retire or get pinched by overseas universities, who is there going to be left with the institutional experience to fill the gaps?

The second reason is in two parts. Firstly, to alter course offerings to cater to student demand. I am not sure about you, but I demanded nothing when I was a student. Second part is to alter research in response to the priorities of research funding bodies. So if the students don’t know better about what they should be learning from experts, then the experts in a given field are going to be told by funding bodies whether or not the field is a priority for research. So the expertise shifts to students and funding bodies away from the experts. By ‘expert’ I mean someone with a PhD.

This is nonsense.

Who comes up with these ideas?

One problem I see with this is that they are talking about demands and flows of funding, but what they forget is that the knowledge produced or exchanged is actually embodied in the researcher or expert. Separating the flows of knowledge from the flows of bodies in and out of institutions can only end in catastrophe. Universities do not employ ‘standing reserves’ of knowledge, they employ people!

EDIT: For Nate. Here is a link to a good article by Marc Bousquet on academic/graduate labour in North America (via Mel).