• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Faculty Are Laborers, Not 'Knowledge Workers'

To survive, we have to appropriately value what people will pay for, our labor.

September 12, 2016

It is comforting for college faculty to think of themselves as “knowledge workers,” because knowledge work seems relatively protected from some of the ups and downs of the marketplace.

But in the age of the administrative university, I believe it’s a dangerous illusion.

There’s good reasons for the persistence of that illusion. Faculty activities fit the definition of “knowledge work,” we get to “think for a living.”

Our knowledge is specialized, precious and rare. In the case of some research, so rare, only a handful of people even know of its existence.

We understand the value of that knowledge as part of a larger academic and educational ecosystem. Knowledge needs no economic justification. Thinking for a living generates things that previously didn’t exist. Being immersed in research can help inform classroom instruction. In an ideal world, research and teaching are part of a virtuous circle, each feeding the other.

But of course, the world isn’t ideal. Where research is favored, it is often because of the perceived “prestige,” it brings to the institution, not necessarily because of that virtuous circle. In fact, highly prominent researchers can get a break for lousy teaching because of their prominence. We also cannot put a precise economic value on this prestige, but if you work at an elite institution or an institution that strives to be elite, administrations treat that research as something valuable.

This is true for now, and for some.

But it is dangerous to only look at the kind of work faculty do and declare ourselves knowledge workers because in our capitalist system, most faculty research, particularly in the humanities, has very little tangible economic value.

Knowledge workers like engineers or architects produce things (i.e., building plans) that others will pay for.

This is not true for most faculty.[1] Most academic research is part of a “gift economy” – where something is given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards – rather than a free market capitalist one. While academic publishers make money from faculty research – by selling it back to libraries; what a deal! – they rely on the institutions themselves to make the economics of the gift economy work by bestowing increased compensation and security upon tenurable[2] faculty.

But we should not kid ourselves. In a capitalist system, rather than a gift economy, that vast majority of that knowledge work has almost zero economic value.[3]

For a long time, faculty were insulated from these realities because as a culture we agreed to value knowledge for its own sake, and even subsidize the creation of that knowledge with public funds. People were willing to allow college faculty to exist inside that gift economy.

But the times have changed.

The adjunctification of faculty has proven it is not necessary to produce faculty knowledge work if you are going to teach credit-bearing courses. In fact, it’s shown that the economics of the gift economy are unsustainable.

Even the value of “prestige” is now open to discussion.

The Wisconsin state legislature, in redefining what tenure had previously meant, made a conscious decision to sacrifice institutional prestige for operating efficiency, trusting that what remains will be sufficient. Faculty with outsized influence and power are either cutting favorable deals, or leaving for other pastures. Those who remain are tasked with making what remains, “good enough.”[4]

How many of you have heard either rumblings or even explicit demands from administrations that everyone is going to need to “justify” their work, their course releases, their sabbaticals, their travel? What kind of “justification” do you think administrations have in mind?

What about state legislatures?

Put another way, given the inexorable trends, do we really think prestige is sufficient protection? How much of the “prestige” of our large state universities is wrapped up in academics versus, say…the football team. If push came to shove, which part of the university is likely to be protected?

What do alumni care about? Who do they give money to?

This is why I believe it’s important for all faculty, regardless of rank, to abandon the illusion of being knowledge workers, and instead recognize our status as laborers.

Ultimately, in a capitalist economy, all we have of value is our labor, and the labor that is done in exchange for pay is teaching.

This does not mean we should abandon research and knowledge work. I believe it to be vitally important. It’s so important to me, that one of the reasons I left full-time teaching is to have more time for my version of that knowledge work.[5]

But if we are going to save that part of academic culture, it must be born out of the centrality of teaching and learning. We cannot claim to be knowledge workers when only some of the workers get the perks of knowledge work. We cannot claim that knowledge work is necessary for the labor of teaching when so many who teach do not have the privilege of doing knowledge work.

Only by demonstrating the value of preserving this culture will we be able to maintain it, and there is only one group who can help us in this battle: students.

Any of us who work in public higher ed are almost certainly at a tuition-dependent institution. Without students, and without student money, there is no labor. I do not embrace the framework of students as “customer” when we discuss education, but the economics of contemporary higher ed has put them in this position relative to the administrative university, and it is a position of some power.

Yes, students go to college looking for a credential, but they also want to learn. They want to be exposed to interesting ideas and interesting people. When a course works, they know it. They also understand that good, dedicated, empowered faculty are central to that experience.

Students know that faculty are not fungible.

As faculty, we shouldn’t treat students as customers, but as partners whose interests are aligned, and we have to value the things they’ve come to the institution to do. This does not mean caving to students’ every whim, but using our expertise and knowledge to create a meaningful learning experience.

The administrative university – and you’ll know if you’re working inside one - doesn’t seem oriented to this mission, but it is the mission that is sustainable and supportable in our present economic and cultural realities.

Yesterday I asked “Whose University Is It Anyway?” The answer has to be: the students’.

As I write, students are marching in solidarity with faculty at LIU Brooklyn because they want their teachers to teach.



We should be wondering if our students would do the same for us.


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[1] There are, of course, exceptions, faculty who secure external funding above and beyond what the institution pays them, but they are the exception.

[2] Non-tenurable faculty, particularly those hoping to one day secure a tenurable position, often produce knowledge work for no economic benefit.

[3] That gift economy is showing signs of strain as well as many libraries find their budgets constrained, necessitating cutbacks on access to academic publishing. If a paper is published in a journal that no one has the money to access, can it said to have been published at all?

[4] “Good enough” could be seen as the overriding rationale for using contingent labor. It’s not ideal, but it’s good enough.

[5] Ironic, right? But if you’re contingent, and not eligible for the academia gift economy, teaching and knowledge work are in conflict. It’s a zero sum game.


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