In Response to David Graeber

On 6 May 2018, David Graeber’s “Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article–a longer one–opens with a plain statement of intent (to write about bullshit academic labor) and a clarifying definition (bullshit labor is work known by the worker to be pointless). Graeber works to establish his ethos for conducting his discussion before suggesting that perhaps half the work being done could be eliminated as bullshit, noting that the increase in bullshit labor is detrimental across fields of endeavor–especially academe. He explicates the degree of bullshit-spread throughout academic institutions, noting that marked increases in administrative staff have prompted the increasing proportion of bullshit labor being done by academics. A case study focused on “Chloe, the nonexecutive dean” is used to exemplify the problem, and Graeber takes pains to note the prevalence of the problem not only in Europe, but also in the US, as well as commenting that the interaction of fields promoted by academic establishments conduces to the peculiar proliferation of bullshit work in academe. He adds that workable solutions are likely to come from neither academic management nor academic labor, but from outside academe–although he expresses hope that such may happen, citing earlier intellectual movements and reformations as examples and shifting into the claim that a universal basic income is one of the more effective potential responses to the spread of bullshit throughout academia.

As someone who has spent a fair amount of time reading up on and contributing to the study of bullshit–such as this piece and some panels I’ve chaired–the piece immediately attracted my attention. One of the things I have striven to do across several years is find joy and humor in the work I do, and getting to read about bullshit and to write about it–as well as to write the word itself, many, many times–helps me to do so. As with other words, the simple juxtaposition of a scholar writing with and about such language reads as humorous–and not only for outside readers, whom a Chronicle piece might well not reach, but for academics, as well; as I said, I have worked with such material before, presenting it at conferences, and even “stuffy” academics have been audibly titillated by the work. And having a working definition of bullshit labor–the performance by workers aware of its uselessness of useless work–offers a good rubric to apply elsewhere. So that much was good to see; additions to taurascatology as a field, even if at a middle-brow level, are decidedly welcome.

Similarly welcome was the core discussion of the piece; rather than being merely a chance to write the word bullshit or a variation of it 27 times in an article, Graeber’s piece offers a frank treatment of the often-unseen-by-those-outside-academe parts of academic labor that annoy and distract. As an academic expatriate–it’s the most accurate term I have to hand for my own status relative to academia–I’ve been in a position to see both the bullshit labor of the academy (whence my end-of-session reports, originally) and the bullshit labor of the outside world (a previous job abounded in it, and there are elements of it, to be sure, in my current work). What Graeber reports largely aligns with my experiences and the reports I have from others, and what does not can, in most cases, be put down to the differences among individual institutions and departments.

That does not mean, however, that all in Graeber’s piece is well with me. I’ll be taking up one major thread of it in another webspace (and please read the Tales after Tolkien Society blog!), but there are several issues that need to be addressed. One of them is that the piece makes several assumptions, overt and otherwise. An early example is the parenthetical assumption that “the provision is made such that those whose jobs were eliminated [by the excision of bullshit labor] continue to be supported,” which seems far less than likely in the increasingly profit-driven social environment in which Graeber writes, I read, and many others languish amid spreading manure. Similarly, the notion that “the easiest way to de-bullshitize academic life would be to do something about the current precarity of intellectual life” seems at odds with the experiences and attitudes I have seen reported; the tendency, so far as I have noticed, has been towards the large-scale elimination of academic life–and demolition is far easier than reconstruction.

Too, the sudden shift in the last two paragraphs to the idea of universal basic income is jarring. While the idea itself is attractive to me, since I have had times when an assured minimum income would have been a blessing (my job searches were not short, folks, although they were diligently pursued and far-reaching), the presentation of it as 1) a useful remedy to academic precarity and 2) briefly and at the end of an article on bullshit labor seems forced and tacked-on. Honestly, it reads as the kind of disjunctive organization for which students are often (rightly) criticized, and it weakens the rhetorical force of Graeber’s argument–as well as the idea, itself, which already labors under a broad onus. In the end, then, Graeber’s argument offers some disappointment; its central tenets, explicating what the bullshit labor is and the conditions of its emergence and spread, are good, but there is enough that falters in the presentation of those tenets that they are all too likely to be lost in the fray.

No bullshit; I could use your support.


Class Report: ENGL 216, 14 May 2018

After treating questions from last meeting and before, discussion turned to concerns of process writing, research and documentation, and ethics. Source types (primary, secondary, and tertiary/critical) and assessment of sources received particular attention, with recourse made to documents emailed to students previously.

Students were reminded of upcoming assignments:

  • Discussions (four posts per graded thread), due online before 0059 on 21 May 2018
  • Week 2 Homework (p. 238, #9), due online as a Word document before 0059 on 21 May 2018
  • Course Project: Annotated References, due online as a Word document before 0059 on 21 May 2018

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Room 111 of the San Antonio campus. The class roster listed eight students enrolled, a decline of two from last session; four attended, assessed informally. Student participation was good. No students attended the most recent office hour.

A Reflection on #Kzoo2018 from an #Academicexpatriate

Over the weekend just past, I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the International Congress on Medieval Studies, hosted by Western Michigan University. It was far from the first time I had attended, and it was a good thing for me, even if I was only there for part of the proceedings (rather than the whole event, as had been my previous practice). Reconnecting with friends and colleagues, conducting necessary business, immersing myself in emergent scholarship, and making some small contribution to that myself invigorated me, and I return to my “normal” life full again of energy and verve, ready to do the things I need to do (about which I have made some comments in recent posts).

There is an issue that sticks with me, though. In an iteration of a common practice at academic conferences, attendees at the Congress were issued name badges with their preferred names and institutional affiliations upon them. Mine appears below:

Photo originally posted to my Twitter feed, @GBElliottPhD.
I cannot take credit for the title; I saw it at an earlier Congress,
though I forget whose badge it was that bore the blazon.

It attracted no small amount of comment, all of which that reached me (so far) was approving. Those whose badges reported them as Independent Scholars seemed particularly happy to see the note, though I made no formal sampling and took no direct count; I simply enjoyed the smiles and thumbs up, and I told the story more than once of the circumstances that led me to make such a claim. And in my private moments at the Congress, waking time spent otherwise than seeking sleep or readiness for the day in the nearly penitential cells of dorm rooms (some of the many legends of trips to the Zoo), I thought upon what the title can mean.

For if I am an academic expatriate, it is because I still feel myself a citizen of that strange and strangely benighted country that is academe, one sent outside it not through any formal exile and not on some mission for its benefit, but through such circumstances as demand it for life and livelihood even as those circumstances permit and perhaps encourage a returning to that country some, at least, of my labor and its results. I have been grappling with the idea, of course, as no few of the pieces I have put in this place on the web have shown, and I continue to do so, as should be obvious. For I did attempt to immigrate into the country that academe is, despite its lack of flag and its incohesive, incoherent territory, and I had thought I had passed my naturalization exams, only to find that there was no work for me; it is not my native land, and I am not rejected by that natural home, so it is not as if I have no place to go, but I still am called to that place in which I so long sought citizenship but in which I cannot now claim even permanent residency. I am, after all, contingent faculty, given a temporary work permit at intervals and always anxious that another will not be forthcoming.

So I work outside my wonted country, looking in and returning to it when I may–such as at the International Congress on Medieval Studies–and renewing my connections, my personal affiliations with the many good people whom I am privileged to know (and they know who they are, I hope). I continue to send some small part of my labor to it, doing what I can do after my family is seen to to support that disaggregated nation to which I have hoped to belong and from outside the borders of which I still feel myself its part. There are at least some, I know, who value what they receive from me, and for them, even if I can only get back now and again, I mean to retain my tenuous ties to the incoherent country–although I think I will continue to claim the label of academic expatriate, as well. It is apt enough, and I think there are others whose own efforts fall better under such a heading than others that might be envisioned; they, no less than any other academics, deserve support.

Care to contribute to that support?

In Response to Eric Weiskott

On 5 July 2017, Eric Weiskott’s “Millennial Bashing in Medieval Times” appeared in The Conversation online. In the article, Weiskott situates himself and his students as the Millennials often focused upon by derogatory opinion pieces and contests the commonplace descriptions of Millennials as shiftless and feckless amid noting their major cultural touchstones before arriving at the crux of his piece: complaints about youth are nothing new. He then references a series of examples of medieval English authors’ complaints about the youths of their own times, moving from Chaucer through an anonymous poet to Langland and Malory. The article concludes with the comment that complaints about youth are symptomatic of continual underlying social change–and that they are not likely to end anytime soon.

I’ve been fortunate enough to read Weiskott’s work on occasion, as well as to hear him speak, and I know him for an excellent scholar. (I also confess to being jealous of him, since he got a position for which I had also applied–but that is another matter entirely.) And his scholarly predilection emerges in the article, wherein he makes several mentions of meter; Weiskott identifies as a metricist (among a few others), so it makes sense that comments about meter would attract his attention. Similarly, his focus on later Middle English literature is evident from the dates of his references; most are in the latter 14th century, with Malory the outlier at the “end” of Middle English. (Indeed, one of the things I could wish to see addressed in the piece, had space allowed, is older responses; what do the Anglo-Saxon scops, for example, make of the youths of their time?) Both were comforts, of course; seeing scholarly focus deployed for a broad audience is a hopeful thing, and my own formal studies tend to focus on Malory, so seeing other Malorian work is emboldening (even if I see it relatively late).

I am also gratified that a point I make often with my classes echoes one made by a more powerful scholar than I. Although I’ve not often been in a position to teach medieval English literature as a primary focus (and will likely never be so again), I work to integrate my medievalist tendencies into my teaching (as I discuss at some length in a chapter I have in the upcoming Ballad of the Lone Medievalist–if I may be forgiven for self-promotion). One of the ways in which I do so is to point out the continuity of language change–something Weiskott reports doing in his classes. And one of the ways I point out that continuity is by noting that the writers of the past complain about the youths of their time as certainly as do the writers of today–as Weiskott points out. So I am in good company, which is always a pleasure.

One of the reasons I feel compelled to point out the changes in language and the complaints of the past about the language of the slightly-more-recent past is that many of my students have internalized the idea that their “nonstandard” usage marks them as unintelligent and unworthy. (I’ve noted it at least obliquely before.) Since those I teach now are non-traditional, having been away from formal schooling for some time and, in many cases, underserved academically when they were in schooling before, they tend to be more convinced than traditional undergraduates that there is something wrong with them because they speak and write in particular ways that are not “what was taught in school.” I face more of a challenge to get them to the idea that the “standards” in place now are wholly arbitrary and reflect the soft power deployed by moneyed interests to keep those without as much money (and the access to resources represented by that money) in their place–and convincing people that they are stupid does much to keep them from looking to change things. The words of the past help me to do so, more than just acting as a salve for the wounds the words of many of my elders inflict. I expect that Weiskott’s students–or those who need it, since he works at Boston College, a situation far removed from my own and those of my students–benefit in such a way, as well.

Here’s some more, different self-promotion, if you didn’t like the other.

Class Report: ENGL 216, 7 May 2018

After treating questions from last meeting, discussion turned to concerns of theses in technical writing before addressing document design concerns. The focus was on paratext, including declension of headings, typeface, and page layout.

Students were reminded of upcoming assignments:

  • Discussions (four posts per graded thread), due online before 0059 on 14 May 2018
  • Week 2 Homework (p. 178, #7), due online as a Word document before 0059 on 14 May 2018
  • Course Project: Topic Selection, due online as a Word document before 0059 on 14 May 2018

Students are urged to be at work doing background reading to inform the course project.

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Room 111 of the San Antonio campus. The class roster listed ten students enrolled, unchanged from last session; five attended, assessed informally. Student participation was good. The previous office hour was cancelled against instructor’s family needs.

On Resuming Reading

I have recently started trying to catch up on reading my academic journals–something I had let lapse late in my attempts to secure full-time work in academe and which I had not been diligent about doing since I lived in New York and had an hour-long commute that had someone else doing the driving. Now, though, while I am largely out of academe, I retain some affiliation with it, particularly as applies to my discipline of medieval studies, so I retain membership in a few organizations, and I take some of the journals they publish. In truth, I have missed grappling with developed ideas; the teaching work that I yet do does not afford me much chance to confer with my colleagues in the field, and I have felt myself stultifying as a result. It is not a pleasant thing, to be sure, and being as far behind in my reading as I am (there’re volumes from 2015 I’ve yet to read!) does not help matters. But I have the opportunity to address that much, at least, and I am please to be taking the chance.

That I would do so is something of an oddity, I know. I really should be working to extricate myself more fully from academe, to let the teaching I do be just a job–and not even so much more than that as a hobby. Erin Bartram, whose influential blog piece remains on my mind (as I’ve noted here and here), is not wrong to note that continuing to participate in the system that has rejected me–as academia largely has–is to contribute to the conditions that force others out and prompt such ideas as the zero-time faculty fracas at a university in southern Illinois. Maintaining society memberships and journal subscriptions, writing and presenting and trying for publication, all feed into a system that has both shat me out and shat on me.

The thing is, though, that it has not been my discipline that has treated me thus; a number of institutions have, to be sure, but I have to think that they are separate from and only loosely connected to the discipline of medieval studies as a body. The discipline itself has been largely hospitable to me–and to many outside traditional academe. I recall Richard Utz’s plenary address at Kalamazoo some years back (I forget which year), one in which he extolled the amateur medievalist and reminded those in attendance to value the non-traditional scholars among us–of whom there were and are many, and their lack of institutional constraint allows them to pursue projects from which we all benefit and which we ought to support. Many of us do; I know the Tales after Tolkien Society does, and it values the independent scholar no less than the affiliated one. And that is to the good.

Also, on a wholly personal level, many of those I call colleagues, I also call friends. And if it has not been the case that institutional realities have helped them to hire me, it has been the case that I have enjoyed their company and their collaboration across many years. Their work, I do not mind supporting–and from experience, I know they have not minded supporting mine. (There has been little enough of it, but still…) Thus, while I am sympathetic to Bartram’s argument, and much of what she writes resonates with me (clearly, else I’d not come back to it again and again), I find I cannot turn away from academe so completely as she looks to do. I cannot leave that part of myself fully behind.

How much of that reluctance comes from lingering camaraderie and how much from pathology and dysfunction are unclear to me–and I am not at all certain I want to figure it out. (I worry about the implications for my stability, and it needs no dissuasion as matters currently stand.) What is clear is that

  1. Because I do remain engaged in academe, if only peripherally, and
  2. Because I perceive myself as benefiting from doing so,

I will be continuing to read from my years of scholarly journals. I have the time to do it, now, and I feel the need. And even if I do not foresee a return to full-time academe, I see no reason I should not work to improve my understanding of the world, and so improve myself.

Contributions are always welcome!

In Response to Julian Wyllie

On 24 April 2018, the online Chronicle of Higher Education published Julian Wyllie’s “Why This Philosopher Wants Her Students to Ask Someone Out, in Person.” In the piece, Wyllie lays out some context for the article’s subject, Boston College’s Professor Kerry Cronin, including the note that her work has generated a documentary, before reporting an edited interview with her. The interview articulates some of the ideas and issues surrounding Cronin’s now-extra-credit assignment for students to ask a person out on a date–with specific parameters given for the date–and to reflect upon it. In all, the article gives an interesting image of Cronin and her assignment as it relates to currently-prevailing social narratives about the early college experience, although there are some problems to be found.

Some of the problems are noted explicitly in the article. Wyllie reports Cronin as acknowledging the fraught nature of entangling students’ work with their romantic lives–although Cronin is correct to note that teaching students means teaching the whole student, and that means their interpersonal relationships become relevant to what occurs in the classroom. (Necessarily, those who view college as job training will disagree; personal and professional lives are “supposed” to be separate insofar as a person has or is allowed to have a life other than the professional.) And there is a decidedly ableist comment in response to one of the questions posed–the one about cheating on the assignment–that gives pause. A person who is mobility-impaired might well find it expedient to use technology to set up a date, and others whose differences are less visible might have other reasons to deploy technologies other than mouth-to-ear speech. (This is in addition to the set of people who legitimately perceive no need for romance in their own lives, at least not during the time they are enrolled in the class.) While the case might be made that the avowed extra-credit nature of the assignment might permit the imposition of additional restrictions on it (but likely not well), it does not excuse the ill-considered speech–particularly from a philosopher, who ought more than most to be attuned to the perils of such speech.

Such being said, there is something of interest in the assignment. Because it is necessarily a repudiation of the idea that college is about job-training, it is worth some attention. (I am generally against the idea that higher education is supposed to be about higher earnings first or only, as should long have been obvious.) Too, the idea voiced by Cronin in the piece that students who do not want to participate in the dating part of the assignment can still contribute usefully to the discussion prompted by reflecting on the experiences of asking a person out and going on a date with that person is a fine one; there is much to be learned from looking into why a student would reject part or all of an assignment–about the student, about the romantic environment in place, and about the assignment itself, among others.

Additionally, there are useful comments in the interview aside from discussion of the assignment. Cronin’s definition of hookup culture–a social system centered around “a physical or sexual interaction with no perceived emotional context and no perceived intention for a follow-up” that seeks to avoid communication about the relational implications of the interaction–seems to be one, as a point of departure if nothing else. And her notion that “People hide behind screens to guard from vulnerability” seems also to have some use to it as a way to understand why “kids these days” do so much through social media (in addition to the simple fact of time-demands precluding physical travel to the places needed to conduct affairs in person); why would a person–of any age–not take measures to guard against hurt that is likely to come? (And before I hear people complain about Millennials and younger needing protection, I wonder how many of those who make such complaints would go to play, say, baseball or softball without wearing protective equipment, or who would think to weld steel without a mask and gloves. I think few, indeed.) So , although neither is without its problems, there is something in the article well worth reading, something in Cronin’s assignment worth considering.

Contributions remain decidedly welcome.