The Informatics of Higher Education (4 of 5)

The Informatics of Higher Education (4 of 5)

Marc Bousquet

In The Politics of Information, v.4, Bousquet, Wills, and Co bring their critique home to Higher Education.

Section 4: The Informatics of Higher Education

Three years later, he left the Astronomy Department without a degree, and with nothing to show for his labors except six hundred dollars in his bank account and a staggeringly comprehensive knowledge of UNIX. Later, he was to calculate that, at the going rates for programmers, the department had extracted about a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of work from him, in return for an outlay of less than twenty thousand.
-Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon

Most people understand the consequences for health of “managed care” - the calculus of profit ensures that the labor-time involved in actually treating illness will be continually reduced to a minimum established not by the measure of lives saved, but by the measure of financial risk: at what point do the fiscal liabilities for malpractice exceed the dollar savings of using fewer, cheaper, less experienced and less elaborately-trained personnel, older equipment, smaller precautions against infection and complication, shorter hospital stays, denying access to the best procedures in favor of cheap procedures, etc.? Under the informatic logic of capital accumulation, bodies are handled by health professionals not for their own sake, but for the sake of precipitating a steady drip of profit from the stream of health activity.

The logic of the HMO increasingly rules higher education. Most observers agree that as little as a quarter of all higher ed teaching is done by the professoriate. Just as Neal Stephenson’s Randy learns: most of the teaching is done by graduate students still paid as little as seven thousand dollars a year (and rarely more than fifteen), by adjuncts (former grad students) working at similar rates of pay, and nontenurable instructors with huge workloads and no research agenda. Similarly, research is increasingly performed by a corps of assistants, technicians, and grad students under the supervision of a tenured member of the faculty (who takes the credit, and a better paycheck, but whose own life may well be diminished by the compulsion to serve as a manager, rather than a teacher and scholar).

My own contribution to this section discusses the “information university” as a place where grad students, teachers, faculty - even undergraduates - are increasingly compelled to deliver their labor in the “mode of information.” Delivering our bodies as if they were cheap, quickly-transferred, standardized icons on the desktop of university management makes the work of education management feel transparent and effortless (point and click: a section has opened; click again: excess anthropology staff instantly trimmed from the payroll). But all of this managerial effortlessness requires embodied workers to expend enormous additional efforts - driving sixty miles between adjunct gigs, scrambling for health care and child care, keeping “up to date” in our leisure time, et cetera. By institutionalizing flex workers, outsourcing, and other forms of cheap labor (even using convict workers), higher ed increasingly resembles health care as a field that accumulates in the service economy mode - from putting to work a large mass of low-wage personnel, especially students (for whom the designation “student” increasingly implies a multi-year term of service as a low-wage worker). The fact that the university accumulates in the form of endowments, permanent budget lines, new libraries, dormitories, and sports facilities (rather than stock value & dividends) seems to make little difference to the logic of its operation. Indeed, as Sassen observes of the informal sectors of the service economy, higher ed may derive specific benefits from the “semi-formality” and under-regulation of academic work practices, especially insofar as the labor of “students” is concerned.

With massive reductions in government financing of research, and the changes in intellectual property law, universities are increasingly aimed toward corporate interests, seeking corporate grant funding for directed research in the service of a particular company’s profit agenda, or angling for direct commercial revenue themselves. The ideal form of this transformed higher ed is what Wall Street has long been calling the “EMO,” or for-profit education organization. Ken Saltman ‘s withering examination of former junk-bond king Michael Milken’s predatory forays into for-profit education illustrates the forthrightness of motive: Milken’s “Knowledge Universe” mission statement reads, “Education must address corporate needs,” and construes the “individual needs” and “personal fulfillment” of citizens in purely labor-market terms, of responsiveness to “rapid corporate evolution and frequent restructuring.” In K-12 as well as higher ed, Saltman scrutinizes how one convicted felon is ruthlessly “transforming public education into an investment opportunity for the wealthy by privatizing public schools, making kids into a captive audience for marketers, and redefining education as a corporate resource rather than a public good vital to the promotion of a democratic society.”

Tim Luke provides a detailed analysis of the differing aims of the ways to which various constituencies of the academic community are deploying information technology. On the one hand, there is a large community of artisanal users with a craft orientation to the technology, dedicating their labor to smaller-scale “custom-made sites” for individual deployment. But increasingly university management has rolled out standardized deployments of software and hardware “for large-scale teaching, class administration and content management.” The latter group can be used to increase the size of classes and reduce the number of research faculty teaching on just one campus, or they can be used for Web delivery of teaching. Tracing the displacement of traditional bildungsphilosophie by the standardized and vocationalized pedagogies increasingly supported by IT, and the companion logic that conceives of education as the “transmission of information” or “content provision,” Luke discusses some of the ways that IT can be re-deployed under an alternative logic (and produce an alternate future) by enhancing contact-style teaching through craft-labor practices.

Relating the critique of technological-emancipation narratives to the larger question of philosophies of history and temporality more generally, Stephanie Tripp addresses Spectres of Marx, the text featuring some of Derrida’s most detailed encounters with both historical materialism and information technology. She seeks the “spectral moment” wherein academic workers might connect their multiple experiences of abstraction (the “virtuality” of their professional work, the abstraction of surplus value from their labor time, the “out of joint” structure of feeling characterizing the sense that academic workers can observe but not affect history, etc) to the world of matter and contribute to the reality of historical transformation. Following Derrida’s commentary on the Communist Manifesto, she finds the possibility of historical-material agency in a “messianic” posture toward the present, a commitment to a different horizon of possibility, a renunciation of the metaphysics of pragmatic possibility (and realistic expectations), the will to remain revolutionary in a life-world in which the possibility of revolution appears to have been foreclosed.