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In-Between Days: Intellectual Work and Intelligent Life at the Crossroads

My reputation as a demanding instructor has given rise to a rather unique recommendation: he gives too much work, avoid his class like the plague, but if you want your head messed with, well, then take the class.
Scott Schaffer

Issue #52, November 2000

Teacher preparation should never be reduced to a form of training. Rather, teacher preparation should go beyond the technical preparation of teachers and be rooted in the ethical formation both of selves and of history. But it is important to be clear that I am speaking not about a restricted kind of ethics that shows obedience only to the law of profit. On the contrary, I am speaking of a universal human ethic, an ethic that is not afraid to condemn the kind of ideological discourse I have just cited. Not afraid to condemn the exploitation of labor and the manipulation that makes a rumor into truth and truth into a mere rumor.
— Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy and Civic Courage
It was difficult to maintain fidelity to the idea of the intellectual as someone who sought to be whole — well-grounded in a context where there was little emphasis on spiritual well-being, on care of the soul. Indeed, the objectification of the teacher within bourgeois educational structures seemed to denigrate notions of wholeness and uphold the idea of a mind/body split, one that promotes and supports compartmentalization.
— bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

Pacing in front of my 11:30 class on minority group relations, talking about multiculturalism in the Canadian context ("acceptance of difference" rather than "tolerance of difference," unless the different one is American,) and trying to get students to see how even something like the hyphenated "politically correct" ethnic identity makes possible certain kinds of relationships between members of ethnic groups, it hits me. They have no clue what I'm talking about.

I'm used to this kind of reaction. On campus, my reputation as a demanding instructor has given rise to a rather unique recommendation: he gives too much work, avoid his class like the plague, but if you want your head messed with, well, then take the class. Seeing confusion on my students' faces is not a new thing at all. But today is different. Today, I realize a number of things about my students, myself as an educator, the educational system, and the state of the world. Academics, intellectuals, professors (whatever one wants to call us) and the entire concept of higher education are "in-between" things.

I've been academically in-between as long as I can remember. As an undergraduate, I took political science as a major because I wanted to save the world from the Cold War specter of nuclear destruction. But then the Berlin Wall fell, my Russian courses ended, and my Soviet politics professor talked seriously about moving to the history department. My existential condition didn't change much after college. As an erstwhile political theory Ph.D. student at my first graduate school, I spent more time writing justification letters for taking courses such as Gender and History, Spectatorship and the Cinema, and Hermeneutics and Reader-Response Theory than I did working on most of my "major" papers.

And at the institution where I ultimately obtained my doctorate, I was more liminal, more borderline, than I ever thought possible. I was an American at a Canadian university renowned for its anti-Americanism. I was a single heterosexual male in a program where marriage was practically a requirement. I was (or so I thought) a postmodernist who realized that while it's alright for one's subjectivity to be fragmented, one still has to pay Citibank. And I was becoming a real-world-oriented sociologist (mostly through the luck of scoring a TAship in that department) in a program where "the real world" was either an interesting theoretical construct or a poor attempt at American cultural colonialism.

Then I left. Two or three times, it turned out. "Who is Scott Schaffer?" or "What do you mean Schaffer's defending this week?" were common refrains often heard uttered in my department's office. I'd disappeared from the collective conscience of my graduate program. This kind of in-betweenness kept me going for a while. I saw myself as a rogue scholar, a bad boy in a program filled with good kids, an earth-bound boy in a program filled with ethereal Foucault and Heidegger scholars. I was comfortable being out of sync with everything else going on around me.

Then I started teaching. And I quickly realized that in-betweenness isn't all it's cracked up to be. I found myself on a career trajectory increasingly found at many teaching-oriented universities. It's a trajectory The Chronicle of Higher Education only half-jokingly dubbed that of "the road scholar." It's a trajectory defined by the near constant struggle to pick up enough courses and temporary instructor positions to make ends meet. (At one point, a contributor to The Chronicle suggested that each new Ph.D. should be assigned a mobile home for the four years or so before their first tenure-track position, when they could transfer their portable digs to another recently minted, but under-employed Ph.D.. Ironically enough, my first graduate school had a mobile home park on campus.)

Every semester, and generally without advance notice, we part-timers have to scramble, beg for, and steal courses that have thrown to us by the tenured faculty. We never knew how many courses — and therefore how much money — we will get, a situation that sometimes remains murky right up to the first day of the semester. What began for me with a sense of joy and accomplishment, quickly soured, spoiled by the constant worry, the in-fighting between the faculty (part-time and tenured alike), and the creeping fear that I would never have any job security ever again.

Now, my discomfort with being in-between has been compounded by my new place in "the structure." On the face of it, I've been lucky. I've momentarily ceased being a road-scholar. I've got a full-time position, although it's only on a contract basis, which means, that at the end of each year, I could find myself out on my ear and on the road once again. But who's complaining? This isn't such a bad position to be in, or so I thought at the beginning of the school year. I looked forward to gaining the experience, the socialization, and the cultural capital that comes with appointment to a full-time position. And, I thought, I can still keep one eye on the job market, looking for a position more to my liking.

But recently three things have happened to dampen my initial enthusiasm.

The first thing is strictly within my institution. Our department is facing decreased enrollments and a decline in the number of students who choose our major. The solution, according to the administration, is to start offering more courses that are "palatable" to students' tastes. There are two versions of this solution. The first is to start offering new courses that are interesting to students and, because many of them are employed in fields related to our discipline, relevant to their jobs. I'd love to propose seventeen new courses that would reinvigorate the students and the faculty, get everyone engaged in the educational process again, and help turn us into one of the most cutting-edge departments in the university. But I can't. I'm junior faculty — no, even worse, I'm contract faculty. While colleagues respect me and my ideas, I simply can't make those kinds of waves, especially when (the spirits willing) I won't be around to see them through. Stuck, I am.

The second solution — I hate to mention this — is to reduce the workload in my courses to keep butts in the seats. As I said before, I'm renowned for assigning allegedly tyrannical amounts of work (100 pages of reading per week, three papers per semester, no exams). My "flight rate" ranges from 30% to 50% in any given course, and I've set the departmental record for the fastest first day departure (40 seconds, by my estimation, from handing out the syllabus to the first student hitting the bricks). Such incidents do not bode well for my retention hearing. So I'm left with two choices.

One, I can risk losing some students while I uphold my vision of the educational experience as a challenge to every thought both student and professor have had on a particular subject, a challenge so fundamental that it causes a change in one's being, a renewed awareness of personal responsibility for the mess the world's in, and the development of some ideas of what we can do about it. Or I can change the way I teach, go for the proverbial Scantron Massacre three times a semester, and essentially sell out for the fan base. Stuck again, I am.

Problem number two derives from the "selling out" quandary and involves my students. I go into every new semester hoping that this will be the class, that this group of students will be the one that disproves everything faculty say about students when the doors to the lounge are closed. And every semester, I'm somewhat disappointed: the mass exodus on the first day, the feeble excuses for not doing work, and the blank stares when I talk about Canadian multiculturalism. Don't get me wrong — I love my students, and I understand that each of them has four full-time jobs, seventeen kids, nine classes that each assign 1000 pages of reading per week, and a 400 mile drive each way to campus. Their educational reality has changed, and so has their attitudes. So the question of maintaining enrollments (and thereby funding) becomes one of meeting the students where they're at, that is, fulfilling their expectations that this is a five-year drive-through experience, and a Big Mac, fries, and BA will be waiting for them when they reach the pick-up window. Stuck yet again.

Problem number three: I'm at a teaching university. I'm one of those individuals who insists that research and teaching are two sides of the coin — that it's only by teaching that the import of one's research becomes clear, and that it's only through research that one maintains a vitality in the classroom with fresh knowledge. Teaching four courses each semester stands in the way of realizing this view. Trying to get a job at a research-oriented university is made that much harder trying to realize it nonetheless. There are, in essence, two different definitions of the university sociology professor. Either one is "productive" by publishing in two or three American Sociological Association journals every year and by going to more conferences than the travel budget will allow. Or one teaches. Ne'er the twain shall meet. Right now, I teach. I want to be "productive." I want to go to a school that encourages research. I fear I want too much. Again, stuck.

All this adds up to a nasty sense of being mired in a completely unpalatable situation. Do I shirk my teaching responsibilities and ethical obligations solely to get myself out and into a research school? Or do I give up the research projects I want to pursue right now in order to keep what is in essence a good-paying job? Do I hold to a strict ethical code about education and ignore the awkwardness of lecturing to ten students? Or do I sell my academic soul and hit the textbooks instead of primary texts, the computerized testbank instead of research papers, and sit idly by while the university administration turns our evaluations into a popularity contest?

I'm not alone in this. I know it sounds a lot like whining, but there's a point: namely, that "education," "thought," and "intellectual activity" all have become lofty ideals only relevant to the musty castle turrets that made those heavy academic robes necessary. According to the conventional wisdom, what's needed now is a corporate sensibility to the entire endeavor. In other words, I need to think of my lone skill set — to challenge others' ideas, to figure out how it is other people understand the world, and to help them see the world in an entirely different way for better or worse — as lending itself more to The Gap than to bridging the gap between individuals and the world around them.

The Lunatics and the Asylum:
The Commodification of Education

None of what's said above is meant to sully the good names of my graduate programs, advisors, colleagues, or students. Anyone involved in the educational system these days deserves respect, as the academy has turned into a battle zone between two different forces in our society: the ideational force of education as a liberatory praxis, and the actual force of corporate necessity.

not buffy Put bluntly, the university as an institution is being turned into a corporate training mill, motivated by parallels to the profit motive and to post-Fordist industrial restructuring that happened in the private sector during the past decade. From the proverbial "ninth floor" on down, the message sent to everyone within the ivory tower is this: Make yourself and your course materials relevant, immediately applicable to "the real world," immediately and thoughtlessly consumable, or be downsized. Faculty who don't get big enrollments don't get retained; those whose offerings can't be tested on Scantron forms are "too abstract"; and those who require more reading are taking students away from their corporate lives, something neither they nor their employers want. Being an educator in the critical sense described by Freire is an economic loss activity, whereas giving the students "what they want" — their degree with a minimum amount of labor — ensures the expansion of the department, the hiring of new faculty, and the amassing of new resources for the department. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

This transition from education to popularity contest, inverting what used to be the power relations in the university — giving students the ability to toss out faculty they see as "too tough" — can't be blamed on any one group of individuals. In the twelve years between my admission to undergraduate study and the completion of my Ph.D., numerous structural factors have impacted higher education and have made this manifestation of corporatism seem, at least in hindsight, inevitable. The economic recession of the late 1980s and early 90s increased tuition at public universities dramatically. At the same time, the recession drastically reduced state funding, put hundreds of thousands of people out of work, and made it necessary for more and more people to beg for financial aid — only to find that only loans were available.

Fast forward to the late 90s, when "fiscal austerity" became the watchword for governments, corporations, universities, and students alike. Universities, facing increasing enrollments due to the lack of post-high school job possibilities, hire new faculty, though with the same small quibbled-over pool of money that was available during the recession. The answer: hire part-time faculty, who don't get benefits, may not have terminal degrees in their field (and therefore earn less), and can be laid off if enrollment trends change. Part-time faculty are subjected to the same kinds of apparently student-imposed strictures on their workload, teaching style, and course content as tenured faculty, with one exception: part-timers are expendable. This puts them in the "sell-out" quandary I described above, in between John Horseman in The Paper Chase and John Cleese hawking Schweppes tonic water.

This rebounds on students, who too have bought into the fiscal austerity mind set. Knowing full well that they can't readily afford a university education, many of them take what are considered to be "overload" course schedules — fifteen, eighteen, twenty-one course hours per semester — and work, sometimes full time, to support their education. (The realization kicks in later: Taking an overload every semester means having to drop courses, which means a longer time to graduation.)

At my university, most incoming students graduate 6.7 years after they enter college. This leaves them in the unfortunate position of having too much academic work to do and not enough time in which to do any of it well. To boot, their exposure to the corporate world — and, for lack of a better way of putting it, many of my students are "corpies," working for finance and mortgage companies, law firms, telecom corporations — reinforces the idea that a university education is good only to make a bigger salary. In addition to taking more courses than they can bear, they come in with the attitude that is anathema to a university education: get me out of here.

Students who work 40 hours a week and commute 30 miles or more from their parents' house (where they live to cut down on expenses) don't want to work, to challenge themselves or others. Can you blame them? Even students who carry a full-time load are no longer "full-time students," despite what they put on their tax forms. They approach the university like clients, paying for a service, and they see nothing wrong with doing whatever is necessary to get their degrees, even finding the time required to do a search for "structure/agency" essays on Whether one chooses to follow Merton's analysis of "blocked goals" or a Marxist line about alienated labor, it comes down to the same thing: Students are as in between in the academy as everyone else.

So here's the end result, the situation I found myself in at the start of this essay: There's a bright, vibrant young teacher at the front of a seminar room, waxing philosophical about minority group relations. He wants to engage in the kind of liberatory pedagogy Freire and bell hooks clamor for, but he knows that just like any restaurant, if the butts aren't in the seats, his job is over. He's stuck between showing his students a liberatory path or commodifying education in the form of easily consumable knowledge. The thirty or so students seated around our young instructor find what they're hearing interesting, a bit intriguing, but over their heads, and, in a quick cost-benefit analysis, figure out that it's not really worth doing the work for it because, after all, they'll pass the course with a minimum of effort. So as much as they may want to engage their instructor in intelligent discourse, they're left with only one conclusion — to take out of today's lecture only what they can repeat for credit and move on. After all, if it doesn't help get them a job, it must not be worth knowing. The professor professes; the students study. Welcome to academia at the crossroads. Welcome to Education Incorporated.

So what's caused this shift in the approach to higher education? There are more players here than simply fiduciary malaise. The culprits are, as ever, cultural and ultimately structural: the anti-intellectualism of North American society, and the sad, apparently necessary, and ultimately detrimental rise in relationships between the university and corporations.

Tom Wolfe's recent article in Harper's lamenting the absence of any celebration of what he calls "America's Century," displays this anti-intellectualism. In the midst of interrogating America's apparent withdrawal from the world, (or at least its move away from a kind of international co-dependency,) Wolfe claims that the reason we aren't building great monuments or writing opus magna to the US in the time of its greatest triumphs is, put bluntly, my fault. Intellectuals, that scourge of American society, who want nothing more than to avoid the masses and who turn everyday experience into an unrecognizable mess of jargon and incomprehensibility — these are the people at fault for what's become of America's sense of self. Judith Butler and Stanley Fish — Public Enemies #1 and 2 — suffer the most from Wolfe's lambasting, for they spend their time ferreting out the "phobes" — homophobes, ethnophobes, sexists, racists, classists, and so on — all the while struggling to maintain their position of hegemony over and against the fine people of the country.

not woody allen America has always been an anti-intellectual country. It's a rare thing to see an academic on television. American society simply doesn't think that intellectuals have anything to offer the public. Sure, they want their children to grow up, attend a good university with lots of Nobel Prize winners, and graduate; they want their kids to have good jobs. But the American public doesn't want to see what we see, hear what we have to say, or engage in the same kind of mental work we do, since it's not really "work".

At the same time, there's been a gradual disengagement of intellectuals from social life over the last thirty years. The demise of the student revolts in the late 1960s left many people in the academy disillusioned, not only with the idea that Marxism or any other radical doctrine could be an efficacious model for political change, but also with the notion that intellectuals could have any place of relative importance in American society. France had philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and now has sociologist Pierre Bourdieu; Germany had, until Hitler's rise, the Frankfurt School, and after WWII, Jurgen Habermas. Who were we to have? Who would be able to mobilize that many people's imaginations about the possibility for radical social change? No one, so why bother?

This isn't an ad hominem attack on those who suffered tear gas and billy clubs. Just look at the transitions in prescriptions for social change during the last generation: from Marxism to postmodernism; from decolonization to post-colonial critique; from the civil rights movement and Black nationalism to identity politics and weak multiculturalism. The retreat from engagement — from the idea that we can make a difference in the world — has also meant a retreat from thinking outside of and acting against the status quo. We've re-entered the inert world, towards the Weberian politics/science divide, wherein social scientists can't do anything political; we can only diagnose the problems and let the politicians do something about it. (Tell that to Anthony Giddens, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's golfing buddy and policy wonk.)

We've come to a point at which the general public sees us as mostly useless, and we'd probably say the same thing about ourselves. The 2000 edition of The Socialist Register, entitled "Necessary and Unnecessary Utopias," shows this much. Its calls for the development of prescriptive social and political theory are not so much "calls," but begging, pleading admonitions for us to begin to think — and to get the next generation, whose minds are in our hands, to think as well — of something outside the cubicle. Sure, we occasionally get the flicker of "light bulbs" when we say something in a classroom; but if we think we're useless, and the larger society and culture think we're useless, what effect does this have on our students and the rest of the world?

Add to this less than encouraging situation the increasing corporatization of the university. Beyond the treatment of classroom materials and pedagogical approaches as things to be quickly produced, easily disseminated, and easily consumed, the university is becoming more and more corporate-run. In a move not unlike CIA funding of scientific research during the Cold War, large corporations have taken it upon themselves to endow chairs or establish research institutes in order to support research and teaching that will, ultimately, benefit them. Two examples, humorous though they may be, suffice: Coca-Cola supposedly endowed Jean-François Lyotard's chair of 'Critical Theory' at Emory University (so much for the death of metanarratives, for there is "Always Coke"); and the company that manufactures Cliff's Notes recently endowed a chair in the English department at University of Nebraska. At my alma mater, York University in Toronto, one of the rumors going around during the 1997 faculty strike was that the university wanted corporations to "sponsor" courses, so that a course called Postmodernism and Its Discontents could very well be brought to you by your friends at McDonald's.

This is no accident. The 1990s recession made it necessary for universities to find funding outside of the normal channels, and corporations were all too willing to help out. After all, the exchange was apparently even: the university could expand its research prestige and cultural capital by establishing a McDonnell Douglas aerospace engineering research facility, and MD wins by getting immediate access to cutting-edge research and helping to train its future employees, even before they filled out a job application. The motive forces of these two forms of social organization — enlightenment and the creation of new knowledge by the one, advertising and the creation of new products by the other — don't readily mix. And as we know, when culture and capital collide, capital wins. So the corporate culture infects the university culture, resulting in the rethinking of the educational mission on the part of the university (consumable courses, new positions based on sales/enrollment figures, itinerant labor, and the mass delivery of product) and the screwing of faculty and students in the process.

The complaint we get from the very same industry types that wanted control over the institution, if not the curriculum, is that we're not educating our students. They're not "self-starters"; they can't "think outside the box"; they lack the kinds of critical skills necessary to help Corporate America maintain its dominance, innovation, and planned obsolescence strategies. The post-Fordist approach to producing an automobile hasn't worked in its translation into the academy. We're turning out thoughtless drones — the very same cogs in the machine that Leftists say capitalism needs to reproduce and expand itself. And now, capital is not happy. Our kids can't think outside the cubicle.

Jobs versus Duties:
Reworking intellectual work

Higher education is at a crossroads. It stands between the tradition of expanding and developing knowledge and helping future generations to become better thinkers and members of society and the structural requirement of preparing our way-too-eager future corporate cogs. The critique above isn't meant to suggest that universities should not be preparing our students for their futures, their careers, or their membership in society — far from it. The question is this: Must we sell out our ideals, our standards, and our vision of the intelligent and thoughtful life simply because our students and administrators want us to?

The answer here is a resounding no. But the reasons differ from those offered up by presidential candidates, theorists of the "postindustrial society," or anyone else. They would have us think that we need more rigor in our schools and universities because education is an end in itself (despite the fact that no one else in society thinks so). After the massive industrialization process and the assurance of some degree of security for everyone, or so the post-industrialist mantra goes, we will all have more time to concern ourselves with affairs of the mind, spirit and soul. Education rather than class warfare will become a pressing concern for us since industrialization gives us so much more "free time" (even though this isn't the case at all). We will become a philosophical society. But the way it's panned out, we are philosophical when Hulk Hogan decides to retire, or when Jennifer Aniston decides to style her hair differently. For those who make a living talking about education, education is the good to be attained — and that's not it at all.

University education is not serving as a good in and of itself, though it often seems that way. We generally work in relative isolation, with only the occasional laudatory remarks or scathing critique by our peers in the latest issue of our disciplinary journal or by our students on end-of-term evaluations to remind us that our work has an impact. But keeping in mind the purpose of the university — to create new knowledge and to educate future members of society — reminds us of our real importance in the world. Education is a means to a better world. Our job is to think critically and to induce that same kind of thought in those who follow us in history. Leaving aside the institutional questions raised by Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent about our possible legitimation of the very system we critique, I know one thing: When we think critically about the possibilities for improving the human condition, we give our students the opportunity to learn about their respective places in the greater scheme of things. This is the resource that teachers ideally give to students to start questioning the legitimacy of the status quo.

But when education is seen as a commodity, then we fall into the standard pattern of capitalist production best outlined by Marx. We create a product (consuming other products in the process), distributing it through some socially agreed-on process, whereby it is consumed in the production of another set of products. And our patterns of consumption these days demand instant feedback. We want our Paxil because we want the quick fix to our alienation. We want our MTV, if only to catch the latest trends in fashion, and to avoid imagining our own version. Education doesn't fit this bill at all. It is a long, slow, often painful, process, requiring us to radically reshape our thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. Its benefits often don't appear until years down the road, when our students are no longer in contact with us, and generally not even in the academic world at all. In some sense, we get what every other worker gets — a paycheck, and the occasional positive reinforcement of having done "a good job."

Teachers are alienated, stuck between liberation and outright exploitation, between working with the future of the world and being just another cognitive cog in the educational-industrial wheel. We are alienated, in part because we see intellectual work as a job. Yes, we sell our labor to someone else in exchange for a wage. It's no wonder that my friends and colleagues "burn out" and begin teaching the same syllabus over and over again. But we also need to see educational labor as a duty, to see ourselves as more than factory workers of the mind, as people oriented to the possibility of positive social change. For anyone who's tried to teach four courses a semester, pursue research projects, and carry on some semblance of a regular life, engaging in the kind of front-line political action such as protests at the presidential conventions is a far-off dream, something to save up the sabbatical time for. But teaching, if it's done right — that is, critically engaging students and the inertial, corporatized set of ideas they come into our classrooms with, and compelling them to account for their beliefs and actions — are our version of that kind of change.

Think of the possibilities, of all the students we reach. If the one thing they take away from our courses is an expectation of accountability, a call to take stock of themselves, then we've done what we must do in order to be successful at our work. We've trained them for the future, and we've satisfied the ethical demand to improve the world. The situation of higher education today has provided us with two options, both lacking any kind of security. Institutionally, economically, and culturally, we are in the "in-between days," so we do our best to walk the lines. But as Merleau-Ponty once said, 'there is really no "in between" in any political situation.' Even by not choosing sides, we take a political position. If we are to see any kind of change in the world, we need to take a side. Teachers can work against the corporatization of the university, of our students' minds, and of society at large.

Scott Schaffer teaches sociology at CSU Fullerton. He recently received his doctorate in Social and Political Thought from York University in Toronto. In his spare time, he works as the editor of the critically acclaimed online 'zine, Journal of Mundane Behavior.

Copyright © 2000 by Scott Schaffer. All rights reserved.