If a random academic came out of nowhere and asked me to identify the most significant claims and/or arguments in Marc Bousquet's How the University Works, I would suggest the following:
a) The need to conceptualize academic workers as workers, and not as disembodied minds engaging in some activity that has nothing to do with other forms of labor. This is perhaps even more necessary for undergraduates who are working their way through college, argues Bousquet, because "[b]eing a student isn't just a way of getting a future job--it's a way of getting a job right now" (150). The work-study student who mans the phone in the front office, in other words, is a worker at this very moment, and not just a future worker.
b) Under the current regime, doctoral programs produce "flexible labor" in the form of graduate students, who work as both teaching assistants (at their home institutions) and contingent faculty (elsewhere). In practice, this labor, not the doctorate, is the actual point of such programs. Moreover, the doctoral degree confers no advantage on even would-be contingent faculty, who are now outnumbered by those with MAs and ABDs (205). The Ph.D., says Bousquet, is effectively "waste," something to be discarded after its usefulness as flexible labor is finished (27).
c) Any approach that emphasizes a supposed excess of Ph.D.s fatally misdiagnoses the problem, which is not a surplus of Ph.D.s but a scarcity of tenure-track positions: "The concrete aura of the claim that degree holders are 'overproduced' conceals the necessary understanding that, in fact, there is a huge shortage of degree holders. If degree holders were doing the teaching, there would be far too few of them" (41). Universities, in other words, have chosen flexible labor over tenure-track positions and non-Ph.D.s over Ph.D.s, despite optimistic rhetoric to the contrary (205).
d) There is no "job market" as such, and references to same simply occlude the actual workings of academic hiring.
And, most importantly,
e) Any change to the current system can only come from contingent faculty and students themselves, and not from "above," as "having administrate power is to be subject to administrative imperatives--that is, to be individually powerless before a version of 'necessity' originating from some other source" (174). In other words, even sympathetic "managers" find themselves hamstrung by priorities set elsewhere. Bousquet adduces the graduate student unionization movement as an example of (mostly) successful collective action, despite legal difficulties, and points to inroads made by contingent faculty unions and advocacy groups.
Of these points, I found c) to be the most provocative challenge to my own thinking, although Bousquet's own proposals to fund graduate student work, which I discuss briefly below, will reduce the size of doctoral programs significantly. E) strikes me as correct, although Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt reminds me that unions at public universities are not "negotiating with the people who have the money," as California unions rediscover on a regular basis. A) will probably work better for students than for many faculty, thanks to the "love" factor (of which more shortly)--which is not to say that I disagree. I'll leave the empirical correctness of D) to the economists out there, but B), unfortunately, certainly seems to describe how many doctoral programs behave. B) is even true when the doctoral program gives students few or no teaching opportunities on the campus itself, since those students then wind up adjuncting at other colleges in the area.
Now, on my part, two queries/meditations and one growl of annoyance (the latter of which is not directed at Bousquet):
1a. A growl of annoyance. Cary Nelson's foreword includes this helpful suggestion for fixing the financial state of affairs: "Set a $200,000 limit to faculty salaries and a $300,000 limit to upper administrative salaries. Limit coaches to $300,000 as well. At my institution, even the president's assistants earn $300,000; I'd cut their salaries by 50 percent" (xviii). All of the cash saved can then be used for more meritorious goals, like hiring tenure-track faculty. There's only one problem, which is that only residents of the most upper echelons of the academic universe will ever see anything resembling a salary of $200K. Most of us humble academics will never see salaries of $100K. Even most administrators will never see salaries much above $100K. Nelson's "brave" suggestion will accomplish nothing, except perhaps at the ritziest of campuses; it sounds like a call to sacrifice for the greater good, but who on earth is going to be martyred here?
1. Affect. Bousquet notes more than once that contingent faculty are supposedly doing their jobs out of "love" ("I love books and teaching; it's so wonderful that they actually pay me anything to do what I do!"). If pressed, most academics would, at some point, cite "love" for their subject or discipline as a reason for choosing their careers. Contrariwise, ex-graduate students (and sometimes not so ex) have been known to argue that professional study undermined their "love" of, say, literature. Although Bousquet does not say so explicitly, his argument very much tends to the conclusion that the rhetoric of love interferes with the ability of contingent faculty, graduate students, and indeed t-t faculty to recognize themselves as labor. This is much the same problem faced by elementary and secondary school teachers, who are supposed to regard the affective profits of their work as more important than their earning power. More to the point, the pressure to choose love over other forms of compensation is both internal and external, as anyone whose students announce that they are going to teach because "I love children!" quickly realizes. The rhetoric of love links faculty to other occupations defined as outside the so-called "real world," such as the arts. One thinks of the bemusement that greeted the New York City Ballet dancers' strike of the early 1970s (dancers want to be paid reasonably well? really?), or of how fans ruthlessly sentimentalize that most contingent of creative work for television, soap opera acting (e.g., reading an aging actor's decision to stay for decades as a sign of "love for the show" or "loyalty to the fans," as opposed to a grim assessment of his actual career prospects).
2. MAs. Part of Bousquet's project is to revalue the devalued doctorate by making flexible labor less appealing than t-t labor. Graduate students should have "reasonable wages" and limited teaching schedules, while contingent faculty should be "more expensive" than the t-t variety (208). Once the t-t faculty seem more cost-effective, to be blunt, administrations will hire them. Contingent faculty with MAs only, however, play an odd role in Bousquet's discourse: on the one hand, they embody casualization at work; on the other hand, they are arguably the most exploited class in contemporary academia; on the third hand, their working conditions turn them into problematic figures in the classroom. As Bousquet puts it near the beginning of the introduction, while one of an undergraduate's four classes may be taught by a t-t Ph.D.,
In your other three classes, however, you are likely to be taught by someone who has started a degree but not finished it; may never publish in the field she is teaching; got into the pool of persons being considered for the job because she was willing to work for wages around the official poverty line (often under the delusion that she could "work her way into" a tenurable position; and does not plan to be working at your institution three years from now. (2)
He quickly goes on to explain that the problem lies not with contingent faculty, but with the "degraded circumstances" (4) under which they work. But it seems to me, at any rate, that contingent faculty sans doctorates occupy an oddly marginal place in Bousquet's own thinking. Even his final suggestions for revitalizing t-t hires and revaluing the Ph.D. rest on the silent elimination of non-doctoral faculty from four-year colleges and universities. While Bousquet brushes off the anti-unionist claim that "organized term faculty 'are organizing themselves out of a job,'" his optimistic assessment that "[e]ven if it were true on some abstract or collective level that graduate employees and the former graduate employees working on a term basis were indeed organizing themselves out of a job, it is only to organize themselves collectively into better ones" (208) still neglects to account for what will happen to MA and ABD faculty if colleges are successfully persuaded to restore tenure-track percentages to earlier levels. Who is going to have a better job?