Higher Education is an Industry…and I’m a Factory Worker

“Higher education is an industry,” Marc Bousquet writes, “like others in the service economy, that is…reliant on youth labor” (148).

I hardly consider myself youth any longer, but in terms of my life situation as a returning student, I am relegated to this category.  A student who works.  This system places me in an unenviable position: working for my education.  I am “disposable” (49), though, and there don’t seem to be any options in place to enable me to convince the academy of my worth.

A paper I wrote was just accepted into the 35th International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and the trip expenses will be close to $1200, not including food.  There is currently only one grant — ONE — available from Kutztown for graduate students IN ALL MAJORS and, though it has two submission “due dates”, only ONE student is awarded the grant per academic year.  The most that particular student can receive is $1500.  This grant covers a ridiculously large swath of the student population: all majors, all types of need, all situations.  I could be (and am, since I applied for it!) up against close-to-graduating seniors with completed theses, or graduates who need funds to conduct research.  how can my experience and need be comparable?  And yet, that need exists.

How do you convince “the system” that you are worth more?  Colleges are always so focused on retention; wouldn’t my participation in a prestigious conference — accepted in my first semester of graduate studies, no less — be a feather in the cap of the program, the University?

But the system is self-perpetuating, and insidious: “there isn’t any clear way of distinguishing between students and workers” (150).  The system has evolved so that I am not seen as an asset, but a tool.  This is not only commonplace, but the structure of the system itself.

The solution (such as it is) that Bousquet proposes is regulating the system “to meet our needs” (208).  He’s speaking of the job market here, as it specifically relates to employment in academia.  The assumption that he argues we should all be working off of is a living wage for graduate employees who teach no more than one class a year (208).  Seems common sense, but in fact it would require a radical shift to make it come to pass.  He predicts a change soon; I am not nearly so optimistic.


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