Thinking About Students as Workers

John Marsh writes that professors may be bosses more than they realize or like to admit.

December 11, 2006

We owe Boss’s Day to a secretary from Illinois, Patricia Bays Haroski, who in 1958 sought to honor her beloved boss. Her beloved boss, however, also happened to be her beloved father. So, shrewdly -- why buy two gifts when one will do? -- Haroski chose her father’s birthday, October 16th, for the soon to be national holiday.

I know all this because for the first time in my life, someone considers me a boss. On October 16th, I came into my office -- in a humanities institute at a large public university -- and found a box of chocolates and a very sweet note from one of the secretaries who works there. I was horrified. Not at the gift or our secretary’s thoughtfulness, but at being on the receiving end of a Boss’s Day gift, for being -- I shudder even to say it -- a boss. The prospect of being a boss horrifies me for many reasons, not least of which is that I grew up in a working-class family where “boss” was an only slightly less obscene four-letter word than the other four-letter words people used to describe their bosses.

More than proletarian sympathies, though, kept me from feeling like a boss. I did not feel like a boss because I felt most like a teacher. I worked at the humanities institute part time -- it constituted only one third of my appointment at the university. For the remainder of the appointment, I did what I had always done, which is to teach literature and, now that I think of it, not be a boss. Indeed, I became a teacher, especially a higher education teacher, out of the perhaps naïve belief that doing so would mean I would never have to suffer under a boss -- nor, for that matter, boss others around.  I teach my students. I do not give them orders, nor write paychecks, and, like most bosses these days, I do not offer them health insurance -- but the difference is that no one really expects me to. To wit, not one of my students gave me any chocolate on October 16th, and I did not expect them to, because teachers are not bosses. End of story.

Or so I thought. But that box of Boss’s Day chocolates just would not leave me alone. It prompted all sorts of troubling questions -- primarily, what makes me a boss when I am an assistant director of a humanities institute but not a boss when I am a teacher? Though I had some preliminary answers to that question -- most teachers, the last time I checked, did not have secretaries -- none seemed entirely persuasive, especially when I began to imagine how students perceive what I do and what I am when I stand in front of a classroom, assign them an essay, and grade their work. I could better imagine that perspective after reading Rebekah Nathan’s now slightly infamous My Freshman Year, in which the pseudonymous Nathan, an anthropology professor, enrolls as a freshman at her large, public university. Reading that book, I was struck by how Nathan’s anthropological subjects -- students -- described their academic work, their professors, and themselves, which they did in disturbingly similar ways to what I know of how workers described their jobs, their bosses, and themselves.

Was this just a coincidence, or did students really have more in common with workers than I thought? Did that mean that faculty had more in common with bosses than we would like to think? If so, should we do anything about this?

We have heard much talk -- and most of us have recoiled from it -- of students as consumers, but might students be workers? To be sure, there are any number of reasons for not thinking so. Perhaps most damningly, students receive no wages for their work, and it is the rare worker who pays (in this case tuition) for the privilege of working. Students likely receive no wages because they produce no tangible good (like a car or a computer program) nor do they provide any tangible service (like fixing your leaky toilet or selling you fast food). These two facts would seem to make the argument a non-starter. My dictionary defines a “worker” as “one that works, especially one who works for wages.” It defines “work” as “to fashion or create a useful or desired product through labor or exertion.” By these definitions, it would be a stretch to call students workers or what they do, strictly speaking, “work.” For example, I do not pay students wages for the privilege of reading their essays, and having read thousands of them at even this early point in my career, I hesitate to describe them as especially useful or, even more so when I’m staring at a stack of them waiting to be graded, especially desired products.

Even the reliably Marxist Stanley Aronowitz, who famously titled his book on the university The Knowledge Factory, still distinguishes between workers and students at this “factory.” For Aronowitz, students are not workers so much as they are workers in embryo, students instead of workers. “The main function of college attendance,” Aronowitz argues, “is to delay entrance into the uncertain job market." Students are also not workers because they are, instead, what the real workers at the knowledge factory make. Universities produce “intellectual knowledge,” such as computer and communications technology, but they primarily produce “human capital” -- that is, professionally marketable students . For Aronowitz the distinction is clear. Students are not workers; they are the commodities the actual workers -- that is, faculty -- at the knowledge factory forge.

I read my dictionary and my Aronowitz with some joy since they both confirm my desire not to think of myself as a boss and even flatter my desire to think of myself as the real worker around here. For a moment, I even think about wearing denim or buying one of those cool Carhart jackets I see the workers wearing as I ride my bike past a new building going up on campus. Still, I did not rush out to the Army-Navy store just yet because there are at least an equal number of reasons for thinking of students as workers and, thus, professors as bosses -- reasons that seem lost on Aronowitz and others. Students receive no wages for their work, true, but neither do stay-at-home parents, and as feminists reminded us in the 1970s, just because work goes unpaid does not mean it is not work. Stay-at-home parents may not produce anything salable, but they reproduce the workers and the living conditions necessary for the production of salable things.

Students, however, are not stay-at-home parents, and if they do not reproduce the conditions of capital accumulation, as the Marxists would have it, then what, exactly, do they produce? They produce, I would argue, themselves. If so, then Aronowitz is only half-right when he argues that universities produce “human capital” and professionally marketable workers. They do, but students themselves join their instructors and administrators in the production of that marketable commodity. I may assign the essay and grade it, but someone -- a student -- has to write it.  I may devise a syllabus and teach the course, but someone -- again a student -- has to take it in order to graduate, get a job, and contribute to our economy. Despite our occasional use of such metaphors, then, we do not take the raw material “student” and forge it into the new and valuable “worker.” Students bend their back to that process as well, which would make them more like our co-workers.

Many students work rather long and hard at this process too. In order to graduate in four years, they must take five courses per semester, and at my university those courses usually meet for a combined two and a half hours per week, which makes for 12.5 weekly hours in the classroom. Most of the academic advisers whom Nathan encounters at her university also recommend two hours of out-of-class preparation for each hour of class work, which for a 12.5 hour week makes for an additional 25 hours. Now, most students probably do not devote two out-of-class hours for each in-class hour, but let’s take the academic advisers at their word that that is what they should be doing. If so, students come in for a 37.5 hour work week, slightly less than the standard 40-hour one. But students also have other responsibilities. Many belong to quasi-professional clubs and many do volunteer work, some out of a sense of community spirit but many because they feel they must furbish their resumes. Other students play sports, and many -- too many -- work part-time jobs.  According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, as Nathan reports, “two-thirds of all students were working, including 54 percent of first year students and 88 percent of seniors.” Although we cannot be sure of their motives, many of these students may work because over the last decade, as state and federal money for public universities has declined, tuition has proportionately increased. And rather than burden themselves with more loans, or, in addition to burdening themselves with more loans, many students take part time jobs. Regardless, between classes, preparing for classes, clubs, sports, and jobs -- students put in well over 40 hours a week. Not sweatshop hours, perhaps, but certainly not bankers’ hours either.

In order to survive such hours and succeed at college, Nathan quickly learns from “more advanced” students at her university strategies for controlling her time. These strategies generally take three forms: shaping schedules, handling professors, and limiting workloads. With minor variations, these are the same strategies generations of workers learned to use in order to survive at their jobs as well, and it is these similarities that start to make professors look disturbingly like bosses. Indeed, Nathan comments that “several of the undergraduates whom I as a fellow student admired most cast professor-student relations as a rough facsimile of the boss-worker relationship."

For example, both students and workers try to limit the days of their week, the former by not scheduling classes on Friday, the latter, after centuries of struggle, by inventing the weekend. In addition to limiting the days of their work week, though, students also limit the amount of work they do, sometimes, as workers since at least the beginning of the industrial revolution have done, by just not showing up. As Nathan notes, “cutting or ‘ditching’ classes is a strategy adopted by a number of students to free up more time in their lives." Similarly, as Aronowitz documented in False Promises, a classic of 1970s labor history, General Motors and other major car manufacturers acknowledged that “absenteeism, particularly on Mondays and Fridays, constitutes its most distressing discipline problem." Nor is this “absenteeism” exclusively a modern practice. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin complained about workers who honored St. Monday, which, as Douglas Reid describes it, was the “widespread tradition among workers from the 17th to the 20th centuries of taking time off on a fairly regular basis to drink, play sport, go to the theatre, go courting, attend meetings, and, indeed, to get married, in a period when the working week was expected to be six full days with only Sunday free.” Few students use their St. Friday to get married, but I would guess that a majority of them use it for the same reasons that workers did -- to drink, to play sports, to go to movies, to “court,” or to attend meetings.

Like workers, students also limit the amount of work they do, not just by not showing up, but by doing only enough work to get by. “A common way to regulate workload,” Nathan observes of students, “is simply to restrict the amount of time and effort one spends on a course by doing no more than is necessary." The practice reminds me, again, of assembly line workers.  As Gary Bryner, a young union leader at the Lordstown, Ohio, General Motors Assembly Plant, once explained to Studs Terkel for his book Working: “Occasionally, one of the guys will let a car go by.  At that point, he’s made a decision: ‘Aw, fuck it. It’s only a car.'" In other words, when placed in a situation where they must choose between doing their work and doing something else, workers, like students, choose both. They do enough to get by but no more than is necessary; enough to preserve their leisure, their sense of humanity, and their “job” -- that is, they do enough not to get fired or flunked.

My point is that students engage in the same low-level battle for control over their time and labor as workers did and continue to do. And just as workers battled bosses and their petty rules, pointless assignments, and quarterly evaluations, students battle their professors and, you guessed it, their petty rules, pointless assignments, and quarterly (or semesterly) evaluations.

I will admit that it is sometimes hard, even counterintuitive, to think of students as workers. Indeed, the campus of my large, Midwestern public university sometimes reminds me of an enormous cruise ship -- I call it The S.S. College Experience -- sailing through rolling waves of corn and soybeans, its guests working out at the gym, sun bathing on the quad-deck, swimming in the pools, passing their time reading a novel, making the dining hall by six, and relaxing afterwards at the bar with a cup of warm beer. All of which is to say that there is in fact a touch of the absurd about associating students with the workers of the world, with the exploited wretches of the earth.

But if there is a touch of the absurd about it, there is not, alas, quite enough to make the argument itself absurd, or to make me stop worrying about whether my students think of me as their boss. So what is to be done, as that great scourge of bosses, Lenin, asked? If there is indeed some cause to think of students as workers, and I am convinced there is, and if, as I am also convinced, students are working longer and harder than ever to earn a college degree, then what should we do as a result?

To start, state governments might strive to make their state universities truly public once again -- thereby reducing tuition and the need for students to find work or take out loans. At least in my state, though, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. So failing a complete reformation in the commitment of the state to higher education, is there anything universities could do in the meantime? We could start, I would suggest, by reducing the number of hours required for graduation and, thus, the number of courses students must take each term. At my university, students must complete 120 hours of coursework in order to earn a degree in their major, more if they have not yet passably learned a foreign language. If students wish to graduate in four years, they must take, as I have said, five courses per semester. If we reduced the number of hours needed to graduate from 120 to 96, students would only need to take four courses per semester in order to graduate, thereby shortening the academic workweek. If students took fewer courses, they might concentrate more on the ones they did take, rather than having to pick and choose among the assignments and classes they will focus on and the ones they will neglect. With fewer hours required for graduation, too, students would have a better chance of graduating in four years, thus paying less money in tuition and, perhaps, feeling less pressure to have to work part time or, at the least, those part-time jobs would then eat up less of their available time.

One of the disadvantages to such a proposal -- that it would reduce the number of courses the university offered and, thus, lead to instructors losing their jobs -- could just as easily be an argument in favor of reducing graduation requirements.  Instead of firing instructors, universities could reduce class sizes. More damningly, some might argue that reducing graduation requirements will leave students ill prepared for the jobs they assume after college, and that may well be the case with professional and pre-professional majors like veterinary science and medicine, but those students also go on to graduate school and receive still more training. For students who major in English and other liberal arts and sciences programs, though, it is hard to imagine that they will be seriously impaired by less training. Students already claim not to remember anything they learn in classes from one semester to the other, so reducing the number of hours may actually increase what they learn and, just as importantly, remember. Moreover, most students will learn the specific components of their job on the job, not necessarily or even very often in their classes. That is perhaps why, as Stanley Aronowitz notes in The Knowledge Factory, when asked, “most employers say they want school-leavers to have a degree, to be able to read and write, follow oral and written instructions, and be fairly articulate."  Employers say relatively little about new employees knowing how to do a specific job, which they assume they will have to teach them anyway. In other words, students can develop all the attributes employers want -- reading, writing, following instructions, being articulate -- by taking four classes per semester as readily as they could by taking five. Maybe even more readily.

Regardless of what employers want, though, taking four classes per semester would make universities more humane places to work, both for students and for teachers, who (ideally, anyway) would benefit from reduced class sizes and, perhaps, not quite so overworked students. Such a proposal would also save this labor sympathizer from his worst nightmare: walking into my classroom one October 16th and finding boxes of chocolate on my desk. 


John Marsh is assistant director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and coordinator of the Odyssey Project, a year-long, college-level course in the humanities offered at no cost to people living below or slightly above the federal poverty level. He is the editor of You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-1941 (forthcoming), and is at work on a book that reconstructs the role of the poor and working class in the formation of modern American poetry.


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