Academia Deserves Its Crisis

I was recently invited to be part of a student panel to welcome all new Ph.D. students to the large research university I am currently attending and to share with them my words of “wisdom,” so they can learn more about the upcoming challenges of graduate student life. The student panel was the last on the hierarchy of speakers, so we had to wait for and listen to people with big titles—titles like “provost”, “associate” with this, “assistant” for that, “co-director” of this center, and “under-secretary” for such and such affairs. It was clear from these presentations that graduate students are being encouraged to think of themselves as at-will employees who are expected to do the job “well,” … [Read more...]

Duke Contingent Faculty Speak Out for Fair Wages in Open Letter

We have been asked by organizers from Duke University's union for contingent faculty to publish this open letter, which speaks to Provost Sally Kornbluth about their frustration with ongoing negotiations with the university administration. Many of us at Tropics of Meta have experience with the labor movement, including the efforts to gain union representation for graduate student employees and adjunct instructors at a number of universities.  We believe strongly that the crisis of both academic employment and quality higher education can only be solved by workers themselves having a strong voice.  Otherwise, college and university administrators will continue to take advantage of academic … [Read more...]

How the Labor Movement Shot Itself in the Foot: Rock Edition

“Ambition makes you look pretty ugly,” Thom Yorke sneered on Radiohead’s seminal 1997 album OK Computer. He did not mean aesthetic ambition, of course—the band had that in spades—but the crass materialism of a yuppie careerist, the proverbial “kicking, screaming Gucci little piggy.” The next year, rapper Amil made a very different declaration on a classic Jay-Z track: “Ambition makes me so horny… My hoochie remains in a Gucci name.”  Their two perspectives on material aspiration could not be more different—the art-rocker disdains the trappings of consumerism, while Amil is totally frank about the fact that she wanted her art to succeed commercially, to bring the comforts that upward mobility … [Read more...]

The Self-Serving Hustle of “Hillbilly Elegy”

As one of a smallish group of liberal Appalachian ex-pats, I have always considered myself an ambassador for my place of birth. I have tried to respond graciously to less than good-natured jokes about familial relations and general backwardness in the Appalachian region, and highlight the pride I still take in the work ethic and common decency of my family and community. Lately, every inquiry has been framed around J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: whether I have read it or whether conditions for “my people” are as dire as described in the book. Vance’s memoir might have eventually faded from relevance, as there is little glamour to be found in the cored and denuded hills of the region. Then … [Read more...]

All They Will Call You: A Look at the Lost History of Deportation and a Tragic 1948 Flight

All They Will Call You (The University of Arizona Press, 2017) is Tim Z. Hernandez’s attempt at telling the stories of those whose lives were lost in a plane crash in the Los Gatos Canyon, in California’s Central Valley, on January 28, 1948. And telling these stories is needed. Prior to this account the accident and its victims were popularized in the words of Woody Guthrie, who wrote the words to one of the most popular folk songs ever, “Plane Wreck Over Los Gatos (Deportee).” This response, as needed as it was—Guthrie wrote the poem that would become the song as a way of correcting what he saw as an erasure motivated by racism in newspaper accounts of the accident, most of which declined … [Read more...]

The Triumph of the TA: Graduate Students and the Future of Postindustrial Labor

On Tuesday afternoon, I got the most welcome news I’ve gotten in a long time. In a 3-1 vote, the National Labor Relations Board reversed a Bush-era decision that denied graduate student employees at private universities the right to unionize. This news might seem both trivial and esoteric.  After all, the wording of the last sentence implies an exceedingly narrow and likely small slice of the overall workforce—that’s the esoteric part. And the fact that it has to do with, to a significant extent, PhD students at the likes of Yale, NYU, and Columbia—well, we are not exactly talking about an eleven-year-old toiling in the dark Satanic mill of yore.  Such students might seem privileged and … [Read more...]

The Sham of “Knowledge Philanthropy”: WikiHow and the Rise of the New Precariat

WikiHow claims to be a community of “knowledge philanthropists.” It’s a for-profit enterprise founded by Jack Herrick in 2005 that is designed for a social end: teach people how to do almost anything. To this end, Herrick and the staff at wikiHow wanted to create the best content possible, so they hired and are hiring Ph.D.s and Ph.D. candidates on a contractual basis for around $15 an hour to edit their website, to develop content, and to root out utter nonsense planted by internet trolls. They hired me on for a period of time, but don’t be mistaken—I was no philanthropist. I was a laborer in the internet mines. WikiHow’s pitch to potential editors is well-crafted, persuasive, and … [Read more...]

Waiting for Righty: How Uber Plans to Change the World

Eighty years ago, Clifford Odets wrote a play about striking taxi drivers in New York City. With too many drivers on the road and bare-bottom wages, the cabbies debate whether to strike for better pay. Two years after Waiting for Lefty, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia introduced a law that limited the number of officially licensed taxis to 16,900. The point of the system? To curb the number of taxis, ensuring that the streets weren’t filled with overworked, possibly unqualified drivers desperate to find fares. The so-called “medallion” program, which made a fixed number of taxi licenses available, might have provided a safeguard for the wages of drivers, since it shielded them from the effect of … [Read more...]

Solidarity and Survival in Impoverished Greece: A View from the Ground

Doing research in Greece these past five months since the January elections, and especially during the week since the referendum was announced, has been a bit like living in a twilight zone in terms of the shamelessly imbalanced coverage of the negotiations by the international media; the proliferation of bad or just plain wrong information; and the violent production of stereotypes that continue, frequently, to frame Greece and Greeks as a stubborn, stupid, if brave people who do not want to take responsibility for their own failings; or as “lazy," committed only to having a good retirement and not working too much. Sure, there have been some more nuanced pieces in the international … [Read more...]

The Tragicomedy of Postindustrial Labor

Why do we play the shell game of the so-called "knowledge economy"? The reasons are many, and few of them are quite so intentional as a long con. Since the 1960s, scientists and other intellectuals have warmed to the idea of an information society because it flatters their own sense of personal importance. Intellectual property interests have found this rhetoric useful in their quest for state sanction against technologies of reproduction. Meanwhile, the incorporation of information technology into all forms of production and services has lent prestige to intellectual property and its power, creating new conveniences and advances of productivity (particularly in the 1990s) that cannot be … [Read more...]