Let’s Put the Nature of Work on Labor’s Agenda: Part Two


In Part One, I argued that capitalism produces very few jobs that utilize fully our human capacities to conceptualize and perform work.  Instead, most jobs are degraded and demand little of us.  I noted that of the ten jobs projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to show the greatest job growth between 2002 and 2012, only post-secondary teachers and registered nurses might be considered occupations requiring the exercise of truly human labor.  In this essay, I will look at the first of these jobs: post-secondary teaching.  I have been a college teacher for thirty-six years, so I write from experience.

Most people think that college teaching is about as good as work gets.  There is no doubt that, compared to most jobs, it is.  Teachers have considerable control over what they do, how they do it, and when they work.  When I began to teach, in 1969, most teachers could reasonably expect to secure tenure after a six-year probationary period, and this meant that a teacher could not be fired except for cause.  Every seven years, a teacher could also expect a sabbatical leave — a half-year at full pay or an entire year at half pay.  Every teacher was entitled to be reimbursed for expenses when traveling to professional conferences.  All of these things combined to give a teacher high status and automatic respect from students and the general public.

What used to be no longer is.  College teaching has undergone great changes in the past thirty years.  These changes are the consequence of the growing transformation of colleges into businesses.  Corporate managers, former politicians, and military officers are as likely to be chosen to run universities as are scholars.  University management sees colleges and universities as corporations, and they devote their efforts to raising money from other corporations.  The tie-ins between corporations and higher education have never been closer.  University laboratories are virtually turned over to businesses, doing research directly profitable to corporations.  Corporate leaders dominate the boards of trustees of most colleges and universities.  Professors use research results, often publicly-funded, to spin off lucrative businesses.

Those who run the schools seek to do so efficiently, the better to serve private enterprise and the better to fund the high salaries and perks of the administrators themselves.  Efficiency has taken two forms: higher tuition and cost-cutting.  For at least the past twenty years, college tuition has risen far in excess of the increase in the general price level.  At elite schools, tuition in excess of $20,000 per year is common, and once relatively cheap public universities are now too expensive for poor students.  Community colleges are still inexpensive, but they face severe funding and cost-cutting problems.

Cost-cutting has taken several, sometimes subtle, forms, but all with harmful results both for workers and for students.  In order to secure funding for the expensive graduate programs critical to a university’s reputation, many schools have set up two-tier faculty systems.  A few superstars are paid enormous salaries (several hundred thousand dollars per year), while the courses are taught by much lower paid second-tier faculty and graduate students. Since the stars seldom teach, there are often not enough courses to go around, and students cannot graduate in the traditional four years.

As course offerings are reduced, class sizes rise.  Huge auditorium classes “taught” by a seldom-seen professor attended by a cadre of graduate students are the norm for most introductory classes.  I taught such classes for years, although without assistance.

During my last twenty years of full-time teaching, my classes averaged more than forty students, excluding the auditorium classes.  Raising class sizes is another money-saving technique employed by the managers of academe. Compounding the problems caused by too many students is the encouragement of overtime by deans and department heads.  One way to compensate for the low pay typical of many teaching positions is for professors to teach more classes.  In any given term at my school, a sizeable fraction of the faculty taught more than the normal four-class course load.  At community colleges, a normal load might be five courses per term, and overloads of six or seven classes are not unknown. The universal use of computers in higher education also means that teachers are now expected to do much of the clerical work that goes along with any class.

When I started teaching in 1969, nearly all classes were taught by full-time, tenure-stream (with a decent expectation of winning tenure) teachers.  Today, in my college and in most others as well, a significant proportion of undergraduate classes are taught by graduate students, part-time faculty, or full-time but not tenure-stream teachers.  According to a 2001 report of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, in 1998, 43 percent of all faculty were part-time (up from 34 percent in 1977), and another 18 percent were full-time but not in the tenure stream.  Part-timers comprised 66 percent of all community college teachers, 41 percent of those working in four-year private colleges, and 27 percent of all public college faculty.  These percentages almost certainly understate the use of part-timers, as Joe Berry makes clear in his upcoming Monthly Review Press book, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower.

Nontenure-stream faculty, whether full- or part-time, typically labor under extremely stressful conditions: pay as low as $1,000 a class, last-minute cancellation of classes, no job security, no or cramped and inadequate offices, the need to work at several schools to make ends meet, no benefits, no clerical assistance, no travel money for conferences, no mail boxes, no access to copiers and fax machines, no telephones, and much else (see Joe Berry’s book for details).

The deteriorating conditions of tenure-stream faculty and their much worse off part-time and full-time nontenure-stream colleagues have degraded the content of higher education.  Teachers assign far less writing — essay questions on examinations and term papers — than they once did.  Multiple-choice and true/false tests are the order of the day.  Growing job insecurity has made teachers into popularity-seekers, intent on getting the high student evaluations necessary for contract renewals and promotions.  The result has been a remarkable grade inflations.  Students are now insulted by a “B” grade.

Further degrading the profession has been the insistence by college managers that students be considered, first and foremost, consumers of a product provided by the school.  The idea is not to teach students to think critically but to ensure that they have a “meaningful” experience and come away with a marketable degree.  As they are indoctrinated into this approach, students come to see their teachers as persons whose skills they have purchased, much the same as they see a DVD player as a purchased commodity.  They expect the DVD player to immediately satisfy them, and they expect teachers to do so as well.  So, no hard tests, no hard questioning in class, no demands that they think and write well.  Just fun-filled classes, easy tests, and high grades.  And woe to the professor who doesn’t go along.  Students have bought a degree that will give them a good life; they shouldn’t have to work for an education any more than they have to work to make a DVD player function properly. A teacher who believes otherwise will be rewarded with dismissal, or if that is not possible, a pay freeze and a career devoid of promotions.

My father was a factory laborer for forty-four years.  He used to brag to his race track buddies that his son only worked twelve hours a week.  I am sure he thought you could not get a better job than I had.  It sure was better than his.  Of course, he was right.  But capitalism has built into it powerful mechanisms that degrade all jobs.  Good jobs are temporary phenomena.

To be continued. . . .


Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. He was for many years professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is author of Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States (1994), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global System (2004), all published by Monthly Review Press.