Book Review by Sapphire Ng
How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation
by Marc Bousquet
Copyright January 2008
Paperback, 281 Pages
Dexterously written and strikingly thought provoking, this book examines deep-seated problems plaguing America’s academic labor system. Sprinkled with skepticism and cynicism, the author bluntly lay bare the paradoxes and ironies, abuses and superexploitations existing within the higher education economy and workplace.
The academic writing, analyses and discussions make the book a worthy resource for education scholars and researchers, and a satisfactory read for graduate and undergraduate students. Though a potentially challenging read for the general reader, the book remains enlightening and even transformative for those who soldier on. Those unaligned with the author’s highly partisan stances could still potentially benefit from perusing the book; the unconventional and refreshing perspectives offered could expand one’s horizons.
Certain rather ironic and thought provoking assessments harboring specks of truth are most memorable. The successful attainment of the Ph.D. for many graduate employees for example, was said to mark “the end, and not the beginning, of a long teaching career.” With the onslaught of the practice of casualization, degree holding was also said to “increasingly represent a disqualification from practice.”
The author constructs an overwhelmingly somber depiction of the extent of student exploitation in the academic job market. Apart from coupling the identity of “youth” and “student” with contingent labor and availability for “superexploitation,” the author notably positioned students as maximally vulnerable at the hands of profit-minded institutions. The case study of the UPS earn and learn program is one such example—from the use of connotative phrases with negative innuendo such as “bait and switch” to refer to the actions of the firm, and blunt indication of the desirability of student workforces owing to their “cheapness,” “dependency,” “compliance,” and “ease of managerial control,” to highlighting the massive economical benefits enjoyed by UPS and its blatant disregard of, and even active conservation of, the abysmal working conditions for the students.
The author’s critical tone did not abate when it came to highlighting the various injustices the university teaching staff is subjected to, both “economic and social violence,” and the imprudent actions and motivations of the corporatized higher education provider. The author accused the university, otherwise referred to as the “accumulation machine,” for favoring the “cheapest” teachers, employing “misleading” accounting to masquerade the true causes of rising tuition, for pursuing misguided priorities and distorted goals, engaging in superfluous competition in the provision of peripheral services, and spending “lavishly” on union-quashing legal services.
The author’s negative emotionality occasionally seeps through to the pages, further augmenting the unpleasant and gloomy overtone of the text. Though poignant, the rather visual metaphor comparing Ph.D. degree holders to “waste product” and “toxic blockage” might be tolerable. The author seemed to overreach however when he brusquely labelled as “excrement theory” the “Marie Antoinette or ‘let them eat cake’ theory of graduate education” supposedly promoted by graduate school administrators.
Considering similarly the prevailingly unsavory and depressing contents of the book, even moderate citations of angst-ridden, indignantly angry and expletive-sprinkled comments by student-employees who worked at UPS suffice to turn the reader off. Additionally, the inclusion of further pieces of quotations irrelevant to the intellectual discussion, and occasionally logically unsound, makes the reading experience that more tiresome and distracts the reader from the pertinent issues. One such quotation went, “America needs no more cheese, ham, huge-ass boxes of summer sausage, holiday popcorn tins, or kringles….I think I’ve moved enough of these that every man, woman and child should already have one by default. No wonder obesity is an epidemic.”
Some repetition found within the book adds to the tedium of the reading experience. The repetition of earlier concepts and ideas, and even phrases and citations especially in chapter 6 could bore certain readers. On another note, it appears that the title of the book could have been better crafted to more accurately reflect the rather narrow scope of the text, the academically-oriented writing, and even the book’s rather bleak outlook. Be warned as well that for the reader in the midst of contemplating a career in academia, this book might rather effectively and essentially dissuade one from academe.
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.