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I’ve been reading it over the winter break, as I struggle to finish my dissertation and prepare for the spring semester, when I will teach at the New School under a newly ratified contract for part-time faculty. In the wake of contentious and highly publicized strikes at both the New School and the University of California, I’ve been asking myself questions that pop up in Kuang’s supposedly fictional world: Can academe be saved? Is it possible to change the system from within? Is it ethical to work for institutions that actively reproduce social inequalities?
In Babel, Robin has nothing when he enters Oxford as an undergraduate student — no family, no home, no source of income. The institute provides him with free tuition, room and board, and a regular stipend. Without that, as his guardian often reminds him, Robin would either be impoverished or dead. And yet, his professors insist that scholarship is not “work” in the traditional sense, but rather a higher contribution to mankind. Students are not “educated” at Babel so much as they are exalted — the recipients of a special role in society that they should feel lucky to fill.
I am familiar with this line of thinking. I have been told as much more times than I can count.
It is a common refrain for those who pursue doctorates — especially at prestigious institutions. We had several excellent candidates this year, a professor might say to a first-year doctoral candidate, you are lucky to have been admitted. Or, in casual conversation with a stranger at a party: I can’t believe you’re getting paid to read and write — you’re so lucky! Or, most pernicious of all: After everything we’ve done for you, I think it’s only fair to ask for something in return …
As graduate students and part-time faculty have started unionizing, striking, and grappling with the economic value of their labor, an abyss has opened at the core of higher education, one that is not so easily fixed by contract negotiations and wage increases. It is not an abyss of resources, but of values. We, the graduate students and part-time faculty who have subsidized the bloated salaries of administrators and star faculty for years, have started peeking behind the curtain. Is this profession really so exalted? We have begun to ask ourselves. Is it true that we are uniquely positioned to save humankind?
Students today are in the harried hands of underpaid and overworked educators who are unable to offer the attention and support students deserve.
That will surely sound hyperbolic to some. After all, we have all encountered students whose lives were changed for the better because of a college education. Many of us were, ourselves, those students. But that narrative is not universal. Some college students experience sexual assault or sexual harassment. Some are offered insufficient or even harmful mental-health treatment by student health centers. Some experience racism on campus. Many become saddled with crippling student-loan debt that changes the course of their adult lives.
Some in the higher-ed commentariat cling to the notion that the current crisis would be solved if students could just rediscover “a simple willingness to learn,” to quote Jonathan Malesic’s recent guest essay in The New York Times. Enough with those pesky concerns about money, health care, and housing — this line of thinking would have you believe — whatever happened to loving learning for learning’s sake?
Meanwhile, graduate students and part-time faculty have been left to pick up the pieces of compounding crises, which can affect both them and their students in severe and sometimes life-threatening ways. Without sufficient pedagogical training, crisis-prevention training, or academic support from their departments, these educators cannot solve — let alone manage — the serious dilemmas their students face. And the rewards for attempting to put out these raging fires are insufficient salaries and insufficient benefits, as the New School’s decision to cut off health-care benefits to striking workers made all too clear.
Students today are in the harried hands of underpaid and overworked educators who are unable to offer the attention and support students deserve. To add insult to injury, tenured faculty members with more resources do little to help. And I don’t blame them — though some tenured professors do live in the lap of luxury, most are overburdened with impossible courseloads, intense pressure to publish, and service requirements that eat up their working (and waking) hours. As my friend Claire Potter wrote when describing her career as a tenured professor, “for much of my life, I have worked close to a 60- or 70-hour week, when in fact, I cannot be required by law to work more than a 40-hour week.”
It gives me no pleasure to say that the system I have dedicated my entire life to is broken — that it needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.
We are in the midst of a crisis in academe, to be sure, but it’s not an economic crisis. It’s a crisis of faith. The question is not just whether our institutions pay faculty fairly, but whether any wage is worth the subservience and sacrifice that modern higher ed requires. Too often, colleges perceive themselves as voluntary, meritocratic institutions dedicated to a “higher” moral purpose. Or, as one of the characters in Babel puts it: “The professors like to pretend that the tower is a refuge for pure knowledge, that it sits above the mundane concerns of business and commerce, but it does not.”
We cannot solve higher ed’s crisis of faith by continuing to conceptualize colleges as bastions of pure learning. Recognizing faculty and graduate-student labor as labor is a good first step, but it is not nearly enough to solve the broader problems.
Were recent strikes at the University of California and the New School worth it? Absolutely. In the short term, part-time faculty members and graduate students will have a slightly better quality of life.
Have these strikes solved the central paradox of academe: a capitalist institution that claims it is above capitalism while exploiting students, faculty, and staff for financial gain? No, they have not.
It gives me no pleasure to say that the system I have dedicated my entire life to is broken — that it needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Some will surely disagree with me, proposing modest reforms aimed at improving the working conditions of faculty. There will be well-meaning panels at annual conferences on “the state of the profession,” and initiatives to shift official language and policies to better include contingent faculty and graduate students. But in my opinion, we are past the point where such steps can offer true relief. We need a revolution, not a revision.
And the ugly truth is, revolutions are messy, and they exact a price, as the main characters in Babel eventually discover. “You drink the champagne,” one seasoned revolutionary tells Robin at the start of his academic career, “you take your allowance. You live in your furnished room on Magpie Lane, you parade down the streets in your robes and tailored clothes, all paid for by the school, and yet you say all this money comes from blood. This does not bother you?”
I was one of those who believed I could transform the academy from within. Now I realize that, in its current state, I cannot. No single person can.