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<nettime> conjunctural analysis
t byfield on Sun, 16 Feb 2014 21:34:14 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> conjunctural analysis


Brian wrote: 

> To do a conjunctural analysis is to expose yourself, not only to
> error, but far in advance of that, to the immediate scorn of those
> whose greed and fear make them toe the dominant line (it most often
> reduces to cynical passivity). The academy, it's sad to say, is
> filled with generations of timid neurotics who wanted to have a
> grand theory but never dared let themselves feel the urgent passion
> of responding precisely to the demands of a conjuncture. The result
> is no theory at all - just the aimless hot air of untested
> theorizing, crafted to please one's betters but discarded by them
> for its minor inconveniences.

I don't have much use for conjunctural analysis, because the name, like
many theoretical things, doesn't really tell you what to do, or how, or
when -- just that there's a there there, and maybe that you're not
entirely alone there. That in itself is important, because conjunctural
analysis as you define it necessarily runs the risk of exile. But in
the moment, however we want to define it, one can hardly explain that
what one is 'really' doing is conjunctural analysis, or that the result
will be some theory.

I'm also a bit leery about the idea of daring oneself feel the urgent
passion of responding precisely to the demands of a conjuncture --
because passion is precisely what the conjunctural analyst will be
accused of by, for example, the ranks of timid neurotics. Institutions
only like passions in the modern, commodified sense of some *thing* that
you 'find' through study, work, or a hobby. They detest passions in the
classical sense of a quasi-spirit that possesses you, works through you,
and -- here's the risky bit -- may very well lead to you and other
would-be conjunctural analysts being banished to the wilderness of a new
career in a new town.

That all might sound like I'm disagreeing with, you, Brian, but I'm not.
At all. On the contrary: your description of the academy is one of the
best I've seen. And, wording aside, what you say is right on in a very
rare way.

The problem is this: the academy is still one of the only places where
we can *teach* conjunctural analysis, in substance and form, in the hope
that it might actually take root. That's not to say the academy is such
a great place -- it isn't. But it does have a few real advantages over
most other workplaces, notably in the way that it's resisted complete
capture by the naked exercise of 'executive' authority. It's hard to
hire and fire academics immediately, because the notional proposition
behind the academy is, of course, teaching -- which makes it a seasonal
industry, closer in some ways to farming than to manufacturing or
governing. A first step in a conjunctural analysis might be to note that
students and faculty are structural, maybe even 'natural,' allies. Step
two might be for faculty to act accordingly.

I'll talk a bit about the situation of the academy in the US -- first,
because it's the one I know best (a low bar, admittedly), but also
because it's a pathological case, and in that sense has become a 'model'
for other nations around the world.

That model has unfolded along many different lines, old and new: ancient
conventions of mendicant tutors and scholars (now called "adjuncts"),
the post-enlightenment development disciplinary scholarly societies,
industrial-era national-scale strategic research networks (they're not
'postwar' -- see for example, of all things, Mark Twain's _A Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur's Court_), and so on. But one of the most decisive
changes to the structure of the US academy came from a cumulative series
of federal-level legal changes over thirty years (1976-2005) that made
student loans nondischargeable through bankruptcy -- at first
governmental loans, then incrementally expanded to cover "private"
loans. (There are gradations in this public/private dichotomy, notably
the Perkins loans program, which has led to some universities -- Yale,
GWU, and U Penn that I know of -- to 'quietly' sue their own students or
alumni/ae for defaulting.)

In effect, these changes have amounted to the restoration of indentured
servitude -- an inescapable bond of debt associated with a nearly
obligatory educational passage. The other thing it did was to reduce
creditors' risk to near-zero. With no immediate downside, it's small
wonder that the cost of education has skyrocketed. And as the cost of
education rises, it's small wonder that the jaw-dropping growth in
educational financial would attract every kind of predatory we can
imagine, and many more we can't.

There are many other contributing factors to those increases. The
pop-media rogue's gallery includes trivia like "climbing walls," which
serve as a metonym for the alleged luxuries of student life. The people
who are willing to go on record at all about this kind of stuff tend to
argue, mainly through a foggy journalistic 'background,' that they have
no choice -- that schools have to 'compete' for students by offering
'modern' amenities. And that's true to a limited but real extent.
However, it's also true, and more relevant, that blaming students
(especially *prospective* students) for generations of misguided
policies is churlish and cowardly.

Those policies are, of course, imagined and implemented by
administrators (and their larval phase, the 'educator'), who bubble up
(or maybe settle down) through the ranks of, as you put it, the
generations of timid neurotics who traded in their dreams of grand
theories for secure positions within the academy. Those positions, far
from hinging the 'publish or perish' dilemma, are driven instead by
generic organizational dysfunctions like maximizing and depleting
resources, i.e., spending. Administrators spend vast sums on each other
and the byzantine processes their proliferating relations entail --
strategizing, drafting, planning, developing, mentoring, scaffolding,
coordinating, 'reaching out' (a/k/a emailing), clustering, piloting,
consulting, engaging, partnering, observing, implementing, measuring,
assessing, evaluating, accrediting, certifying, reconsidering,
optimizing, and of course 'succeeding.' (Note how easily a list like
that can omit details like admitting, studying, and graduating.) The
other favorite bogey of rising educational costs, the 'star' system in
which a handful of faculty members get astounding salaries (as well as
less hidden forms of 'compensation'), have much more to do with
administrative dysfunctions than with students.

But my point isn't to point a finger at some imaginary, malign
'bureaucracy.' For the most part, they're a decent bunch and most of
them really do care. And it's a fact -- an important one -- that
education has changed in dramatic and often decisively positive ways in
the last decades. We can't hold up progressive ideals (about equity, new
subjectivities, social and cultural complexities, the environment, and
so on) without seriously addressing the deep changes these ideals demand
in the fabric of education. Instead, my intent is to think through the
main conjunctures that are transforming what it means to be a member of
a faculty.

Most of the language we have (again, through pop media) isn't up to that
task. For example, we hear lots about tenured-vs-nontenured faculty or
vs tenured-vs-adjunct faculty. But those dichotomies don't quite capture
the changing contingencies of faculty employment, which more and more
involve positions that are neither fish nor fowl -- things like
short-term full-time contracts, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not.
That's just one example; there are more, but if I started running them
down this would start to sound like a think-piece in the _Chronicle of
Higher Ed_ (an excellent publication, but not the one I'm writing for).
What most of the burning 'issues' we hear about -- even very sympathetic
or confessional descriptions of the plight of the adjunct -- have in
common is that they implicitly adopt an *administrative* perspective.

What we don't hear much about is, as I suggested earlier, any structural
alliance between faculty and students. A simple measure of that is how
rare it is to hear any faculty member at all -- or, heaven forfend, a
collective *faculty* -- declare that the cost of education is absolutely
unacceptable. And do so with the same kind of zeal they'll put into,
say, chasing down verey possible implication of some theoretical
positions *within* their field or domain. Doing so would be risky for
obvious reasons: it's hardly the best career move for a junior faculty
member. And for a less obvious reasons as well: if their ability to
constitute themselves as a collective depends on an institution, then
making that declaration would be either empty posturing or suicidal.
(That accounts in part, I think, for the silence of senior faculty
members, who could afford a little heresy.) But failing to take a stand
is both emptier and, I think, equally suicidal -- just more timid. The
more serious cost is that faculty are squandering their credibility.

In the US, faculties will have to face this sooner or later -- sooner
than later, I think. They rely on an institution whose 'business model'
depends on  cumulative annual increases of 3-4% for the principal alone
-- I'm not even speaking of the interest that subsequently accumulates.
Universities left and right are building "sustainability" into their
operations in the form of new procedures and infrastructure, but somehow
this overwhelming economic unsustainability produces fewer concrete
outcomes beyond the slowing the rate of increase. That's real in the
sense that institutions clearly *can and do* charge more every year; but
it's also imaginary in the sense that reductions are based on things
that never existed outside of a spreadsheet. There are exceptions to
these across-the-board increases, and there will be more; but for now
they're limited to individual institutions or 'marginal' (a terrible
distinction) institutions like community-college systems.

The US academy has papered this trend over by accepting growing numbers
of 'international' students, i.e., non-citizen students who don't have
access to the same credit facilities and therefore pay more. The growing
presence of these students is a good thing in many ways, and it's driven
in very immediate ways the kinds of progressive ideals I mentioned
above. At the same time, there's little or no candid discussion about
the undercurrent: what began, decades ago, as a long-term meritocratic
project of attracting bright minds from around the world has devolved
into a short-term financial strategy. And, with that, we see corollary
failures like the failure to maintain effective international alumni/ae
networks.

To acknowledge these changes doesn't say anything about the 'quality' or
'potential' of the students. On the contrary, it points toward a larger
conjuncture where the US academy is failing. I think one of the main
reasons this is happening is, again, the subtle and not-so-subtle shift
in focus away from the natural alliance between faculty and students
(and therefore faculty and alumni/ae) toward an institution dominated by
an administrative and operational worldview. That kind of effect -- and
there are many more -- could be remedied by reorganizing institutions
around the fundamental relations between faculty and students; but that
would mean a devolution of authority not just to faculty as we now
understand them but, rather, to new ways of understanding what the word
faculty means. It's not like they can't travel or organize; but
'administering' in the absence of clear models is -- or is seen as --
all but impossible.

Even a decade ago, 'online' education was widely seen as the stepchild
of digital diploma mills; that's changed. And despite all the sound and
fury (followed by a curious silence) about "MOOCs" and the like, the
techniques involved, if not the package, *do* point toward new ways that
the academy can build new cultural roles. Informal community-oriented
educational projects have been doing it (as have much older formations
like reading groups or even public broadcasting). These roles don't need
to take the form of a 'course,' which (again) is mainly an administrative 
convenience. The list goes on. But most of the items on that list point 
away from education understood as an administrative project, and toward 
something more immanent and irreducibly educational.

As I said, the faculty (and faculties) of the US academy *will* have to
face these issues squarely. But the logic of these institutions is so
deeply distorted by the 'individual' tradeoff of grand theories for
job security that they'll do so only when they're forced to. And the
catastrophic rise in the cost of education guarantees that will happen
sooner or later -- sooner *than* later, I think. It won't be monolithic.
Instead, the kinds of solidarity that can and should be founded on
alliance between faculty and students will be fragmented, squabbling,
and desperate. As one department, school, college, or university after
another falls under the budgetary axe, others will benefit from the
growing supply and weakening demand.

Savvy administrators at wealthy institutions know that explicitly, and
are biding their time and 'building their brand.' Meanwhile, faculties
sense it but see themselves as powerless, as creatures of the
institution rather than creators of discourses, practices, contexts, and
networks -- at a crucial conjuncture but unable to analyze it in the
ways you described so well.

Cheers,
T


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