Friday, January 11, 2013

Undoing the University

My colleague and pal, Dom Tyranny, turned me on to The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Which is fabulous. Reading between the lines, it seems that an enterprising group of Columbia PhD students (and recent PhDs) have decided that the horrendous status quo of the academic job market is not in their best economic interests, and have decided on an alternative model, in which students pay a significantly reduced fee to the faculty, who keeps most of it.

The Institute "provides liberal arts educational opportunities to local communities. At the same time, it provides material and intellectual support and space for young scholars to teach, write, research, publish and, put simply, work." The Institute's website addresses directly the economic exploitation inherent in the adjunct faculty system:

"You might not believe it, but academic institutions are not always compensating their employees at what you would call – in any other industry – “fair rates.” Only a tiny percentage ever become tenured professors, and the vast majority end up either simply quitting or becoming adjunct professors. What’s an adjunct professor, you ask? Why, adjunct professors are the people who teach approximately 75% of all university and college classes nation-wide. They’re just like regular professors, but instead of getting paid a living wage, they get paid less than a fry cook at McDonald’s. How much less? Well for an average 3-credit course, an adjunct will get paid somewhere around $3000-$4000. With no benefits. To catch up with that fry cook, an adjunct professor would have to teach anywhere from 4-6 classes a year, still with no benefits. Two to three times more than the number of classes an average professor teaches.... [snip] Let’s say you and 39 of your closest friends got together and took one of these courses just for your personal education and betterment. Let’s be conservative and say you and your buddies paid $4000 for your course. Just that one class has produced $160,000 in revenue for the university. And, remember, we’re talking a non-certificate bearing, post-baccalaureate style class here. So we can’t just say its all going to the value of the degree or some other such nonsense – not that that’s such a riveting argument in the first place. In any case, depending on the benevolence of the university, somewhere around 2% of that  $160,000 in revenue is going to go to the worker who most directly contributed to making it."

The Institute's response harks back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, before universities were around. Monasteries had schools to educate boys for the cloister; cathedrals did, as well. Cathedral schools, often located in urban centers, drew scholars (like Anselm of Laon) and students (like John of Salisbury) interested in liberal arts subjects, like grammar and dialectic (logic). The schools in Paris, especially at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the abbeys of St. Victor and Ste. Genevieve, were educational centers. They attracted more scholars, like Peter Abelard, who took on students of their own. Scholars taught in rented rooms in taverns, to students who paid them directly and by the piece (the lecture). There was no set curriculum, nor did courses lead to a credential; scholars and students associated at will, or at whim. The scholar's life in early twelfth-century Paris was no more lavish than in early twenty first-century New York, but it was not constrained by economically exploitative institutions, called universities. I hope the faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research find their medieval experiment to be a success. 
Geometry teaches her students. I be she got paid, directly, per student.

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