I love the genre of the academic essay and monograph. Add that to the list of forms to which I also profess love: sonata, theme and variations, short fiction, sestina, recipe. There is unmistakable pleasure in seeing the components of academic writing come together. And don’t get me started on the prose. There are texts I habitually reread not because I forget their content but because the writing is that good.
For almost as long as I have been in the academy, I have been thinking about academic writing as a small act of resistance in the neoliberal university. These ideas about writing are largely informed by Asian American studies, a field that coalesced around questions about labor and capital in its early years.
As the United States expanded westward during the nineteenth century, it recruited immigrants that could cheaply develop this land. Various ethnic and racial groups—Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, Mexicans, Indians, Portuguese and others—worked alongside one another on plantations. However, they were treated differently in the corporate hierarchy to foment distrust and discourage revolt.
Despite these divide-and-conquer strategies, there are cases of worker resistance that exist in the historical record. Multiethnic unions on Hawaiian sugar plantations struck for better wages and working conditions. Japanese and Mexican beet farmers organized in Southern California. These and other acts of coalition building took place under conditions that contradicted the immediate interests of individuals.
As someone on a university payroll, I work with the tenets that come from this intellectual and political tradition: a knowledge that my labor demands fair compensation; an ethics with which I interact with fellow workers, be they other faculty or the custodial staff; and a healthy, but not adversarial, sense of skepticism toward my employer.
Strikes and rallies in labor history are satisfying to know about, but I’m also fascinated by small acts of resistance. These actions don’t really disrupt existing structures. Nevertheless, they give employees some agency in regulating the pace or conditions of their production: a field worker’s wetting of cotton before weighing in, a clerical worker’s Bartleby-like stalling, or an autoworker’s setting of fire on a speeded-up assembly line.
Since I began work at my present institution, I have seen various cost-saving measures. Class sizes have increased. The clerical staff has shrunk. Departments have responded to pressure to create more programs without receiving more faculty lines in return. Existing faculty have not received course development funds for these new preps. There are other examples of our energies being spread thinner, but none here are unique. These changes are part of a larger trend toward the corporatization of higher education in the United States.
We are familiar with how the industrial revolution changed our relationship with work. Once standardized forms of mass production replaced an older agrarian system, we stopped identifying with the products of our labor. The factory, where each worker performed only one task, was an exercise in alienation. In this new society, the source of self-fashioning shifted from labor to leisure and consumption. Work became partitioned from life—think of the present-day concept of “work-life balance”—rather than integrated into it.
In this sense, most academics are out of sync with contemporary times. I perceive them to be overly identified with what they do for a living while lacking in their personal life. Admittedly, whenever I record my actual hours spent working, I realize I’m partially guilty of this, too. However, the peer-reviewed article or monograph is a rare product today that conforms to an older model of production. Instead of disavowing it for its anachronicity, why don’t we use it to mitigate worker alienation?
I write within what Marxists call “concrete time.” The periods I devote to writing are shaped by the rhythms of the product itself. There is a time to till, a time to seed, a time to tend, and a time to harvest. I organize my days, weeks, months, and years accordingly.
In contrast, my other work obligations run under an industrial-era “abstract time.” I “clock in” and “clock out” for my classes, office hours, and meetings. Even course prep and grading are self-managed this way. I bracket off a finite period for them.
When I finish a writing project, I do so with the conviction that I saw it from start to finish. I own it. This document will never belong to my employer even though it is required of me by them. The peer-reviewed article or monograph seems to escape the materialist logic of the corporate university model even as it fits seamlessly within it. It is both highly valorized according to normative capitalist standards but never capable of being extracted as surplus value.
One can claim that a high level of faculty productivity benefits a university committed to maximizing its profits. Faculty members with high research profiles raise the cultural capital of a university. This then courts tuition-paying students and donors with deep pockets.
However, the causal links in this chain are so weak that they are almost nonexistent. We can all name generously endowed universities with faculties whose productivity is low as well as we can identify cases where the opposite is true. I also doubt that any institution attempts to solve its budget shortfalls by increasing faculty research. Who has ever received more sabbaticals under these circumstances?
It could also be said that an overabundance of scholarly output contributes to the problems that plague the neoliberal university. Once workers show they are able to produce a certain volume under present conditions, expectations will rise. The result will be to everyone’s detriment.
However, because the economic worth of the peer-reviewed article or monograph is so hard to quantify (unlike class size) and so tenuously capable of being appropriated by institutions, I don’t see that happening. My employer will squeeze a few more desks into already crowded classrooms or enroll more international students without providing adequate services for them before it will require another book for tenure.
As workers living in tension with present-day concepts of labor and pleasure, why don’t we rescript the logic of “publish or perish”? What if we took ownership over our writing to sustain ourselves psychically in a workplace designed to be soul killing? This small act of resistance would not replace other actions—like union organizing or protesting curricular cuts made in the name of austerity—but exist alongside them.
This embrace of scholarly productivity should not be co-opted by the “false consciousness” common not only in academia but in other sectors of capitalist society as well. As the illogic goes, if we work hard enough and accomplish enough we, too, can move up in the class hierarchy. If anything, the disproportionate number of Asian American faculty (and other faculty of color) denied tenure in the recent and not-so-recent past reveals the flaws of this reasoning. Many of these faculty had, in fact, met or exceeded their institution’s requirements. We need to confront this discrepancy with protest, not with a more dogged determination to succeed.
My writing is part of my contractual obligation to my employer. I get paid to do it. However, it will never be theirs. Write vigorously and love it vigorously. It is a small act of resistance.
–C. Wu: has a brand new key
Avidly is running pieces about the experience and labor of writing. We’d like to encourage people with different perspectives–academic, non-academic; professional, pleasurable– to send us essays on the questions writing raises for them. Just click on “Submissions” above. — Eds