Students Are Already Workers

I just discovered Marc Bousquet’s excellent blog based around his eye-raising book, How the University Works (from NYU Press). Two sample chapters are available on his site — I read the Intoduction (.pdf) — a sobering examination of the consequences of the corporatization of academia — and discovered that my pangs of anxiety about this issue were justified and that things are a lot worse than I suspected.

But reading the sample chapter on students and labor, “Students are Already Workers,” (.pdf file) really got me thinking about my students, as I plan for the classes in the year ahead:

The reality of the undergraduate workforce is very different from the representation of teen partiers on a perpetual spring break, as popularized by television (Girls Gone Wild), UPS propaganda (“they’re staying up until dawn anyway”), and Time: “Meet the ‘twixters,’ [twenty-somethings] who live off their parents, bounce from job to job and hop from mate to mate. They’re not lazy—they just won’t grow up” (Grossman; for more, see Bartlett).

There are more than 15 million students currently enrolled in higher ed (with an average age of around twenty-six). Tens of millions of persons have recently left higher education, nearly as many without degrees as with them. Like graduate employees, undergraduates now work longer hours in school, spend more years in school, and can take several years to find stable employment after obtaining their degrees. Undergraduates and recent school leavers, whether degree holders or not, now commonly live with their parents well beyond the age of legal adulthood, often into their late twenties. Like graduate employees, undergraduates increasingly find that their period of “study” is, in fact, a period of employment as cheap labor. The production of cheap workers is facilitated by an ever-expanding notion of “youth.” A University of Chicago survey conducted in 2003 found that the majority of Americans now think that adulthood begins around twenty-six, an age not coincidentally identical with the average age of the undergraduate student population (Tom Smith).

The idea that college instructors are teaching students to be “pre-professionals” before they enter the workforce is becoming an anachronism. Students are working more and more…whether in work study or in jobs to support their degree. More and more they come to my office door, asking for extensions or accommodations that can work around their employer’s schedules. More and more, I see students in campus offices, doing much of the grunt work. I go out to a local restaurant or a downtown bar, I see my students…but they’re not eating or partying; they’re taking my orders or pouring my drinks.

So what? one might wonder. What’s the harm? Students work, just like everyone else. I have conflicting feelings. For one thing, college can and maybe should be a temporary sanctuary away from the work world. But as someone who also worked in a “real world” job throughout college (and who signed up for the GI Bill and spent a few years in military service just to afford to attend college to begin with), I’ve always felt that these struggles are beneficial, ultimately, because they can teach a person the ethics required to survive in the workforce, like disciplined time management and the art of delayed gratification (e.g. work now, pay later). We “pay to work” when we go to college, in the interest of not only learning skills and information, but also earning the social capital it takes to raise one’s status.

But clearly economic benefits should not be the sole outcome of a college degree. Everyone recognizes — students most of all — that there’s a bit of exploitation that goes on in the minimum wage labor class, but its treated like a natural form of paying one’s dues to raise oneself up economically — and this is the “script” that parents and culture-at-large often hand students. I hadn’t really considered how this script might be a symptom of a larger form of class exploitation, or a symptom of a rising “age of adulthood” that for the most part (as Bousquet argues) serves the interest of corporate employers. As teachers, when we see student workers through the lens of our own similar past work experiences, and treat it as “paying one’s dues,” then, as Bousquet suggests, we might also be guilty of “reinforc[ing] commitments to inequality” systemically, even as we assume that we might be liberating students via their education.

But even beyond the political economy of all this, the increase in student commitment to working for survival (let alone experience) results in a reprioritization of the role of learning in a life-well-lived. Too often, the classroom is an atomized part of a “workweek” schedule that is understood to be, simply, more work just like everything else that is not overtly part of leisure culture. It’s up to teachers to transform that workspace, but it can be difficult.
The problem isn’t just that students are overburdened with work and oppressed by the class system — they also tend to deprioritize learning in order to just survive through the grind of the day. When students arrive in the classroom wearing their work or athletic uniforms, it always signals to me that their outside lives are competing for their time and attention. They are overscheduled. The agenda for the day becomes marching orders, and the mind can only process so much. And some students are not shy at all about reminding everyone in the room that that this class meeting is just a brief pit-stop on the race from point A to point B. It is my job to make that pit-stop a meaningful place that doesn’t just fuel them up with knowledge and send them back on the track; instead, the pit-stop needs to be a temporary but FULL stop — a place where both the track and the rules of the race are better understood — if not revised altogether. Sometimes school can be a place where maps are discovered that leads one into the more exciting and rewarding territories off-road altogether.

Metaphorical ideals aside, I hope to overtly raise issues of economic class in my courses in the year ahead, if only to heighten student awareness about their cultural identity and to learn how I can better accomodate student needs while remaining committed to a liberal arts mission and not some other economic interest. In creative writing courses, I have assigned the theme of work broadly and have always been amazed with what students have to say about it when given free reign to explore their relationship to the workforce. Perhaps I’ll even assign this chapter from Bousquet’s book for a discussion or research. For me, one of the main goals as a teacher is consciousness-raising. Bousquet frames the questions at issue in this debate in a way that might lead to some productive discussions:

For me, the basis of solidarity and hope will always be the collective experience of workplace exploitation and the widespread desire to be productive for society rather than for capital. So when we ask, “Why has higher education gotten more expensive?” we need to bypass the technocratic and “necessitarian” account of events, in which all answers at least implicitly bring the concept of necessity beyond human agency to bear (“costs ‘had to’ rise because…”). Instead, we need to identify the agencies of inequality and ask, “To whom is the arrangement of student debt and student labor most useful?”

The answer to that final question, unsuprisingly, is never “to the student.”

Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.