Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 1998 Issue »

    Book Review - Will Teach for Food edited by Cary Nelson

    Robert P. Engvall
    As professors, we naturally require that our students familiarize themselves with certain readings to initiate them into whatever realm of thought we deem appropriate. Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis, edited by Cary Nelson, should be required reading not only for those interested in education and labor relations generally, but for college professors of all disciplines. While it may be too much to ask that a book with such a title be read by boards of trustees and college presidents, it might illuminate for them the shared sense of desperation of many faculty members; a desperation born out of professors' dissatisfaction with the increasingly corporate nature of academia, their diminished input into academic matters, and the mounting attacks on tenure, academic freedom, and the professoriate in general.

    In undertaking a review of Will Teach for Food, I was struck by the title and content of another recent work, The Triumph of Meanness by Nicolaus Mills. In that work, Mills quotes the second inaugural address of Franklin Roosevelt: "The test of progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little" (p. 3). Will Teach for Food assesses the academic climate in which provisions for those "on the bottom" or "on the margins," such as untenured and part-time faculty and graduate students, are sparse at best, and where the attitudes of those above them in the pecking order might simply be described as "mean."

    Will Teach for Food
    is about the climate of "meanness" in labor relations in this country, and its effect on academia and academics. In order for our colleges and universities to remain centers of learning and influence for future generations, a study and analysis of the mean-spirited nature of labor relations on campus is necessary. Students are naturally affected, rightly or wrongly, by how they perceive the status and prestige of their professors, and they cannot help but be influenced in their choice of careers by what they see of the "workplace" that is part of their daily existence.

    Will Teach for Food consists of essays by respected and influential scholars, including Stanley Aronowitz, Cary Nelson, Michael Bérubé, and Linda Pratt. While the essays focus on different topics, the overriding message is one of unity: professors and graduate students should consider each others' needs. Whether or not professors and/or graduate students should unionize, their unity is growing ever more important in an increasingly corporate and hostile workplace environment that considers little beyond the immediate bottom line.

    All of us are aware, either through personal experience or the shared knowledge of our peers, that the "labor market" for academics is, and has been, changing. This book makes a two-pronged effort to assess labor conditions on U.S. campuses. It does so through essays by graduate students and professors familiar with the failed 1995 graduate student strike at Yale University, as well as other essays by students and professors concerning the more general state of labor within colleges across the country.

    Much of what is written in this book addresses concerns that many professors and staff within academia have had for some time, but have been reluctant to proclaim out loud. For example, one ongoing concern for the future of academics and academia is the marginalization of faculty within the larger college environment, as well as within society as a whole, which many faculty members experience for the first time during graduate school.

    For faculty looking to organize, or for faculty wanting information on both the recent history and the potential future of collective action, this book is a must read. For students, particularly graduate students pursuing lives within academia, this might be among the most important, albeit depressing, works they could lay their hands on. The realities that are presented in the book inform graduate students about what they will face as they embark upon academic careers. This illumination might help to decrease the number of young faculty members becoming disillusioned by their circumstances, and prevent some of the best young minds from dropping out and seeking less tenuous futures outside of academia. What is said, what needs to be said, and what becomes collective knowledge--in this book and consequently within academic discourse--can hopefully help faculty members to hold on to, or even to improve, their status within the academy and wider society.

    Nelson begins the work with a chapter entitled "Between Crisis and Opportunity: The Future of the Academic Workplace." In it, he laments the continuing practice of worker "exploitation" at which members of management in academic institutions, like their counterparts in corporate America, are becoming more and more adept. Using the experience at Yale University as a backdrop, Nelson quite ably sets forth the agenda for the book, which is first to apprise academic labor of the status of its ongoing workplace struggles, and second to call into action those of us who might lend our collective power to lessen the exploitation of those most vulnerable. The book posits that there is a labor crisis within academia and encourages us to recognize and respond to its urgency, rather than merely waiting out the storm and taking refuge in our own individual shelters, such as tenure. Nelson seeks an end to the complicity of students and faculty with the sometimes barbaric practices of administrators who are more concerned with short-term economic results than long-term educational endeavors. He asks how we might, as faculty, better show our students the value of action, rather than merely words, to express the values we hold dear. If we, as faculty members, do not follow our words with action, then all of our talk to our students about "making the world a better place" for themselves and for others is cheapened.

    Cary Nelson's work is incredibly timely, especially given the recent "victory" of the UPS workers in their quest to stem the tide of a management that, among other ways of marginalizing its work forces, seeks to replace full-time employees with part-time laborers. Kathy Newman's chapter "Poor, Hungry, and Desperate? or Privileged, Histrionic, and Demanding? In Search of the True Meaning of `Ph.D.'" includes divergent perspectives on the role played by graduate students. Newman describes the attitude of administrators from the perspective of a graduate student interacting with them. Her tales of woe are parallel to those experienced by workers in many "industries" in recent years. In other words, the value placed upon the worker by management is only temporal, and the image of a "family workplace" is largely replaced by the reality of an individualistic conglomeration of independent contractors each in it for him/herself, and where each is only as valuable as his/her direct work product. Any sense of loyalty from employer to employee is as distant a memory as are administrators who still teach.

    Stephen Watt laments the tendency of some faculty members, administrators, and editorial writers to cite irrelevant anecdotes concerning the struggles of workers in nonacademic settings, in an attempt to lessen the impact that low wages and difficult working conditions have on graduate students. Watt cites the example of an Omaha World-Herald editorial that chastises a Yale graduate student from India for not "appreciating" what Yale gives her: "After all, this editorialist notes, a salary of nearly $10,000 per year is `probably' some `25 times the average annual income in India'" (p. 231). I presume, as I am sure Watt does, that this writer must be truly ecstatic about his income when he compares it to Third World editorialists. It is such arguments--if you can call them that--that Will Teach for Food quite successfully, in my view, excoriates. Why we should compare academics' salaries to workers' salaries in Third World countries when we compare administrators' salaries to those of business executives, actors, and professional athletes is beyond my comprehension. This book might go a long way toward lessening any influence such patronizing arguments might enjoy. The fundamental problem that all labor must work with is that there is always someone out there willing to do the same work for even less. This fact is not a particularly compelling argument for exploiting workers, despite its popularity among administrators.

    Will Teach for Food offers scholars much food for thought, as well as fodder for dialogue between administrators and faculty members. It is a highly valuable introduction to, and summary of, a possible future of academics in the United States. Furthermore, in order for scholars to get beyond the "crisis" of increased corporatization in academia, it is important for them to understand that many of those who have power and make policies on campus, the trustees and administrators, do not share their conception of the academic world and are married to a more corporate model. Only with increased understanding might both sides move away from viewing the relationship between faculty and administration as adversarial--from "crisis" toward "opportunity." This book advances our understanding of the realities of the academic workplace and takes a positive step toward creating new opportunities for meaningful dialogue among its members.
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    Fall 1998 Issue

    Abstracts

    Reporting Ethnography to Informants
    Reba N. Page, Yvette J. Samson, Michele D. Crockett
    On the Theoretical Trappings of the Thesis of Anti-Theory; or, Why the Idea of Theory May Not, After All, Be All That Bad
    A Response to Gary Thomas
    Kanavillil Rajagopalan
    From the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to Hopwood
    The Educational Plight and Struggle of Mexican Americans in the Southwest
    Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr., Richard R. Valencia
    Voices Inside Schools - Teacher as Rain Dancer
    Simon Hole
    Book Review - Will Teach for Food edited by Cary Nelson
    Robert P. Engvall

    Book Notes

    The Role of State Departments of Education in Complex School Reform
    By Susan Follett Lusi

    Improving America's Schools
    Edited by Eric A. Hanushek and Dale W. Jorgenson

    Orly's Draw-a-Story

    Locked in the Cabinet
    By Robert B. Reich

    Journeys of Women in Science and Engineering
    By Susan A. Ambrose, Kristin L. Dunkle, Barbara B. Lazarus, Indira Nair, and Deborah A. Harkus

    The Curriculum Studies Reader
    Edited by David J. Flinders and Stephen J. Thornton

    First Person, First Peoples
    By Andrew Garrod and Colleen Larimore

    Historical Dictionary of Women's Education in the United States
    Edited by Linda Eisenmann

    I Don't Want to Talk About It
    By Terrence Real

    Randomized Experiments for Planning and Evaluation
    By Robert R. Boruch

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.