The proletarianization of the academy

I am likely going to regret this, but I’ll post this because I think there are some people who actually do care about this issue here (other academics and people who care about the production of knowledge more generally - which I’d hope would be all of us…). Two pieces on the changes happening in academia, and the real world effects of these changes. The focus is the humanities/social sciences, but don’t think that this can’t also happen to the hard sciences as well. How we educate and train people for the future matters, who does it matters, and how they are compensated matters. A race to the bottom helps no one in this situation.


Bravo, an issue that certainly deserves more attention.

In our neoliberal era, academia too has been subject to the inhumane deprivations of creeping job crapification.

Sadly, getting many people outside of academia to care is a tough row to hoe, maybe especially in the U.S., so successfully has academia been demonized as one big nest of out of touch, Marxist-indoctrinating eggheads and revolutionaries.

Plus, academia’s workers are educators, a job field that people are “supposed” to go into because they care about helping others, not because they want to make a decent living financially. “Oh, most college teachers now have no insurance, and can’t actually make a living on their pay, let alone a decent one? Well, if they want money, they should be doing something else, right? Anyway, those who can do, and those who can’t teach, amirte?!”

Le sigh

All of that said, I hope your own post-PhD prospects aren’t too crushingly dispiriting. hugs


It’s already happening in STEM, but on top of that, we have a more insidious twist: How many engineering professors are tied to, say, SNC Lavelin, Telus, Suncor or some other industry behemoth? How many research grants are sponsored by their ilk? Look at the buildings on campus… you don’t have the Civil Engineering building any more, it’s the Ledcor Center for Engineering Excellence. And that’s just engineering. You all know it’s even worse for medical research…


You could have said the same about social sciences and the humanities during the Cold War, with defense companies, private think tanks, and the government supporting these fields and shaping them in particular ways. It’s an unacknowledged similiarity to how the Soviet state shaped their academy to enforce intellectual conformity to the party line (a constantly shifting ground, especially under Stalin). Part of the hollowing out of those fields stems in part from less funding in that direction and more being throw into STEM.

So yeah, that’s another set of related problems that aren’t even addressed in the articles I posted, how industries help shape these fields and contribute to their hollowing out by hiring people away from academia, which people end up doing because of the lack of real opportunities across the board.



There is also this article in this week’s Atlantic:

The adjunctification of academia is a complicated problem that has been going on for a couple of decades at least (longer if you include exploitation of postdoctoral labor). It is exacerbated by drops in public financial support of higher education, growth in the use of tuition dollars for non-student expenses (what fraction of an undergraduate history major’s tuition should go to pay the salary of the dean of a professional school or the infrastructure for some big-science project?), and pressure to keep tuition at a sane level. Couple that with an oversupply of PhDs and the continued good health of older tenured faculty (like me) who don’t resign or die already and you have the perfect setup for exploitation of labor.


From the second linked article

Tenured faculty represent only 17 percent of college instructors.

Wow that seems really high to me. Of course there can’t be an ever expanding pool of employees anywhere that cant be fired or re-assigned. Especially hyper specialists.

The author edges towards realizing this but quite make it. He speaks of large numbers of English doctoral graduates competing for very few jobs, yet seams to yearn for some kind of Mommy’s Magic Purse of expanding tenure jobs when the existing jobs are scarce and crappy.

Harsh me of course concludes that this is proof that having a PHD does not make a person smart at all. Who in their right mind would go into debt and labor for years knowing the system is now broken and desired brass ring is gone.

Publications serve careers before they serve culture.

Seemingly ever was it so. We see examples of complaints of this same thing in previous decades and even previous centuries. Not just confined to the humanities either. My grandfather who taught university math for 40 years had stories of this and my father who taught pharmacology also.

Harsh again but the reality is no one deserves or is entitled to the job they want and when theres an obvious oversupply of people competing for the same jobs, maybe thats a sign?

I’m a right idiot…

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I certainly dont think so and didnt try to throw any shade in that direction.

FWIW, my father had more than one colleague who were a young earth creationists. That and I’m sure you recall Sokal Squared. Not smart comes in many flavors.


You did, even if it’s not your intent. People become academics, not because it will make them rich, but because they care about education and the production of knowledge, and believe in helping others enrich their lives. It’s also hard work and deserves proper compensation. No one in our society should die because they can’t afford health insurance (as noted in the story linked to by @d_r). Having poorly paid, harried adjuncts teaching classes does nothing to improve education for the students, further more. Last, making advanced degrees something that only the elite can do (especially with regards to the humanities and social sciences, which help us to better understand ourselves and others), means that we get no insight into the world from people who aren’t rich white christian men (primarily).


I get that. I really do. Thats what two generations of my family did before me. I’m the black sheep who couldn’t even finish a humanities masters degree. In part I walked away from that seeing academic politics by tenured assholes got adjuncts who taught well but weren’t “with the program” fired. That was in the early 90s. The problem isnt new.

I don’t dispute that the system is broken. Academia is not the same now as it was in their generations. I’m sure someone has run the numbers on the trend of full time (much less tenured/unfirable) teaching positions in higher ed over the years to show just that.

@d_r also pointed out one reason why the few tenured jobs arent opening up is that people are living longer and those few golden ticket jobs just arent opening up. The author of the second piece shows some stark numbers of candidates and available jobs. That should be a warning as should the horrid pay scales.

BTW I should have thanked you for this post before. I’d heard of this problem but didnt realize the extent of it. These two articles were informative.

It should be a warning to DO something about it, instead of what seems to be happening, which is throwing up our hands and giving in to the corporatization of higher ed.


Certainly. Besides mass walkouts and defections from a broken system, what realistic solutions are there that you’ve heard of?

Putting power back into the hands of the departments for a start. Having professional organizations do more than focus on career diversity, instead more actively advocate for their professional colleagues. Pushing for an end to adjuncts positions at the university level. Pushing for cutting pay to for administration at the university level and returning much of that to the departmental level. Stop treating a university like a money-making machine, and instead treat it like a valued public institution that has intrinsic value over and above it’s ability to make some people money. Re-evaluate how we think of the humanities and social sciences, or really education in general, as more than just job training, more training for a more enriching life. Work with K-12 public education to help them better prepare their students for a university level education and helping them to craft programs that better serve their students. Working with community colleges and technical schools to be more inclusive of some sort of humanities program (even if it’s just a class or two).

There are lots of practical solutions to these problems.


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