Tuesday, February 14, 2006

seating, Kafka, academics, and class...a treatise

Life never fails to suprise. Just when I think that there's no real order, rhyme, or reason, something happens that makes it clear there is an ultimate plan...unfortunately, that plan is hopelessly twisted and deranged.

When I got my full time position, I was happy for many reasons. One thing that I really was looking forward to was having my own office...a place where I can work (or, more accurately, avoid work) in privacy, that reflected my own sense of style...albeit in a more professional, sophisticated setting than normal.

I struggled to get the office the way I wanted. Me and one of the department secretaries hunted the hallway for furniture, and I found a nice blonde wood table. I got the walls painted, abandoning the typical institutional off-white for a color which a colleague says "looks like a McShamrock shake exploded"...but I think it works. After lots of hassle with physical facilities and carpentry I got proper shelving installled. The office is nicely decorated with 8x10 blowups of cool, artsy photos.

My chair, however, sucks. I've been using an office/waiting room chair, which can be comfortable for unfortunately only minutes on end. It is also way too short, completely unadjustable, and whenever I get caught in grading binges (you can tell when I'm in one by looking at the blog, because the posts get more depressive and rant-like), I begin to feel the telltale twinges of backaches and carpal tunnel.

So I started negotiations with the powers that be. After bugging our deptartment secretaries and my union rep, I went to my chair, who gave me money for a new chair...if that makes sense.

So I went to purchasing, and their cheapest chair started at over $400...which means they must be dealing with the same contractors as the defense department; unfortunately, it took about ten e-mails and a missed appointment to find this out. I went to OfficeMax, but they didn't have anything over $170...and why go cheap if someone else is footing the bill? Purchasing refered me to an office supply store...and this is where it moves from Kafka "the best you can hope for is infinite postponement"-esque to weird in a class-based "the working classes must rebel" kind of way.

The office furniture supply people were falling over themselves to take care of me. They've called four times since last Thursday. They've negotiated a fair price and have faxed a spec sheet. In their mind, I am fully a "player"...and I'm not sure if that's just because I have a company credit card or if it's because I have a business card, a title, and all that, but it's clear I'm a person of importance to them.

Maybe this is a sign that as an academic, I immediately have a certain class standing in the eyes of the outside world...possibly so...but the reality of my situation is that I really don't have that much status or importance within my world. College teachers are assumed to be a priviledged class by many, but this is usually by people who (a) assume that class=status and (b) that don't really know about the complexities of class within the academic world.

When I was teaching sociology as an adjunct, I used the internal class structure of university employees to demonstrate how class as a construct--class being related to the nature of work in this sense--operates in the world at large. Most students, it seemed, had very little idea that part-timers were basically the grunt-work laboring slobs of the academic world...more packmules than anything else. They normally thought that as teachers don't work an assembly line (which is often debatable) or physically make stuff, they must be middle class.

But within academic professionals, there is a very real class (work structure) system in operation, if we see "teaching=work." As you rise in title, you do less "teaching=work" and thus rise in class. Deans rarely if ever teach, therefore, they are much higher on the class ladder than the standard prof. Tenure track teach less and do more research (leisure work) than do Lecturers (who bust out classes and thus are assembly line workers), so tenure=middle class.

Of course, no one actually says this, and I've never really heard anyone consciously downgrade the academic underclass. Class consciousness in academics is usually unconscious on the part of those at the top end of the class scale. As someone who spent two years in adjunct hell, I certainly don't mean "packmule" as a derrogatory term, because it adequately describes how I felt while teaching five classes in four disciplines at three institutions, all in one semester.

Elsewhere, Jen asked if I was suggesting that Adjuncts have become an academic underclass...and this is spot-on. Really, outsiders to the academy wonder why us academics are always all about politics, and after really thinking about class within academic employment, I have to wonder why there aren't more politically active thinkers here...at least in terms of worker's rights.

When I got into academics, I did so because in part I wanted to avoid the petty political garbage that seemed to dominate every other job I've ever had. I understand that you will always have to deal with the powers that be, so politics are always there, but when I was at Little Caesars, I always hated people who would kiss up to the supervisor to get better shifts...which was all too common. I hated having to tell bosses what they wanted to hear in order to get ahead. Granted, for the most part, I had good superiors, but every so often, I ran into a manager who ran a pizza place because it gave him a setting in which to unleash his inner tyrant.

Academics was supposed to be a place where ideas, thinking, and merit overcame all that. But while I've had pretty good bosses and colleagues in academia and have experienced none of that kind of office politic, I realize a little more each day I work here that this place, rather than being a refuge from politics, often can act as a microcosm of politics.

I'm at the lower end of the scale, so I notice this a bit more. Those who are in positions of priviledge in the academy never really talk about these matters as real-life situations...at least, I never heard any such talk when I was getting my degree. My ideals are being disillusioned, which would be no big deal...happens to everyone...but this disillusionment always hits hardest when I've been grading for hours.

In the past, I've mentioned that "I got into this field because it was supposed to be a place where I could feel unbound by the real world and its requirements...." What I wanted was to somehow be in a situation where politics and games didn't exist. Unfortunately, I am in a situation that instead reminds me daily that I am that much more of a victim to these politics and games than ever, where my very position may limit my mobility and maximize the amount of class-based games I have to play.

I know that I have working class roots. I want to maintain those working class roots. I don't want to become an oblivious professor who doesn't realize that he's holding a position of priviledge. However, I want to do this while attaining that position of power, of privilege, where I can do that leisure work of research (which isn't really leisure at all) which makes me feel that I'm trying to balance to irreconcilable extremes.

Either I'm very weird, or the world is very weird, and I've been very oblivious to this weirdness...maybe Kafka is still the model by which I need to live. Maybe I've been monumentally naive, but I kind of doubt I was the only one still laboring under the impression that I was in an intellectual meritocracy. I wonder if I would've still gone into academics if I would've known I might get locked into a class position due to circumstances beyond my control.

I probably would've persisted in my academic dreams, though, as all other jobs suck. I'm not going back to killing rats with a nail on a broomhandle.


Matthew said...

The opinion of the vast majority of people I've worked with in academia (grad students, lecturers, adjuncts, profs, chairs, deans, presidents, etc.) is that the political, petty, backstabbing, etc., stuff that exists in all workplaces is WORSE in academia than the vast majority of other workplaces. I'm currently writing some articles and perhaps a book about this...

It has been especially interesting talking to business professors who have had long careers making huge money in the corporate world. Most of them are shocked by the environment of academia, the conduct of their colleagues, and the overall vibe.

I've seen this shit over and over. The stuff I've learned in my past year as a member of "the bad guys" (as an academic administrator) is absurd. So many things to share...

Jennifer said...

Hmm, Mike have you considered *this* should be your post-PhD research? :)

As I've mentioned somewhere, people *are* talking about this in feminist academic circles - it certainly has been discussed on women's studies pedagogy lists.

you might look into one of my favourite authors - bell hooks - she is always good at pointing out how class works in the academy (she also grew up in a working class-poor community - and talks openly about learning the "academic codes" related to class). I haven't read her book _Class Matters_ but it's on my soon-to-be-read list.

you might also look into Michelle Fine (I think) who has written about the inaccessibility of certain theory texts (namely Butler) and how this represents an exclusion of class under-privileged readers... I think it's Fine who talks about this....

themikedubose said...

I should say for the record that I've been incredibly lucky and never have been in a department where any class consciousness or office politics has entered my personal experience. My current department treats me like a valued member of the faculty...even though I have to teach more than the profs.

I should also note that most of my posts on this topic are written at the end of 12 hour grading sessions, when I'm the only faculty still in the building.

I would love to spend some serious time thinking about this and writing about this academically. However, is it really the thing I should be doing as a non-tenure faculty? That is, will examining the class structure of academia just mark me to potential employers as a malcontent? Will studying my means of oppression (to get all Marxian) further hinder my class mobility?

Finally, I'm wondering if I'm already 'typed as a Reagan guy (shiver) when I really want to be seen as a media/textual analysis guy. How can I do this and keep my desired media orientation?

C'mon, y'all, plan out my career for me!

Finally: Why can't bell hooks capitalize like the rest of us? My spellcheck hates her.

Jennifer said...

I suppose one answer to your quandary is that it depends on where you want to end up - ex. a higher ed./education dept, sociology or even cultural studies dept. (which seems to have great interest in academy related research, esp. in contemporary neo-conservative USA) might look more favourably on the classism in university than say an English dept. does. However, lots of depts are doing really cool stuff that you wouldn't imagine.... and more interestingly, scholars with seemingly incommensurate degrees end up there! I.e. a women's studies person in kineseology??

besides - sociology depts are still often "run" by Marxists who'd love class analysis of academia....

as per the Reagan vs media studies guy - I suppose being able to vary your teaching & publish on a range of topics will demonstrate your capabilities. It's not a bad thing to be the Reagan guy - so long as you show you can do other things...
hey, I'm the "pregnancy" girl :) but I've moderated workshops on feminist pedagogy and my CSA presentation will borrow a lot from transnational feminism & critical whiteness studies....

what can I say, I'm a Renaissance scholar... :) ha ha ha ha ha

Amy said...

You are thinking too hard about this. I would like to think hard enough to comment intelligently, but with two little kids in the next room, all I can say is: Yes, there are politics in the academy! You didn't know that? If you want to get a sense of the academic version of politics, watch "Scrubs" - it's about as close of a portrayal as I've ever seen, even though it's about med school.

So did you ever get your chair?

themikedubose said...

The chair is being ordered...about 3 weeks until I sit in peace.

Of course, I'm thinking too hard...I'm an academic.