TC: Hi Paula, could you introduce yourself briefly and tell us about your writing and your academic background?
Paula Young Lee: Hi Kovie! I hold a doctorate from the University of Chicago, writing an interdisciplinary dissertation that focused on the foundations of the modern institutional sciences and their expression through architectural forms (1650-1850). I have also published widely on the architectural of animal captivity, i.e. slaughterhouses, zoos, and farms. So what I basically do is think about the ways in which the lived environment shapes and organizes everyday thought and collective values. As a fiction writer, I am currently exploring the intersection of science fact and social forms and coming up with…horror.
TC: That sounds absolutely brilliant and I think we might need to have you write something in-depth for us regarding that knowledge-base. However, I want to move on to the subject matters of this dialogue.
The reality, I think, is college is practically speaking, unaffordable for a lot of people. And then there is the student loan bubble that many people are caught in. From my perspective, I think that it’s pretty much unsustainable to carry on the way many universities are carrying on with students taking on huge amounts of debt to go to school. What are the effects of this on the university? And what are some potential resolutions? And without potential resolutions, what do you think the eventual outcome will be?
PYL: To answer this fully would require a few hundred pages. But in brief: many studies have commented on the “corporatization” of the university. What this means, in essence, is that the entire system shifts the end goal from education per se, to producing more consumers.
One of the ways that this can be seen is in the cost of the textbook. Which can be understood as a small part that represents the workings of the whole. For example, many core textbooks for required classes in math or economics will cost, say, $100.00. For working class kids who may be on scholarship, this is too expensive. They cannot afford to buy this book because each semester demands the purchase of dozens of books.
Why can’t these books be borrowed from the library? Because each year a new revised version gets issued, theoretically rendering the previous edition obsolete. But this is not true, it is a way to profit from the sale of books. So what is going on is the exploitation of students in the name of “education.” And students – and often faculty – are stuck.
The rhetoric of progressivism, of progress and “improvement” is co-opted to serve the goals of capitalism. So what do you do? You can’t pass the class unless you have the book to read, and if you have last year’s edition the pages won’t match the assignments, etc. So part of what is also going on is a backhanded way of preserving classed-based economic privilege while claiming that “every opportunity” is being extended to economically disadvantaged students.
I think this helps clarify the difference between obtaining knowledge which is written in those textbook pages, and passing a class, which has a lot to do with being able to buy that expensive book. That model can be extrapolated to the entire university experience. So what this boils down to is the rather unsavory truth: that yes, the university continues to perpetuate and reward a class that is privileged based on economic stratifications. College is indeed too expensive for most families today, and it’s become impossible to work your way through thanks to exorbitant raises in tuition.
TC: I think that takes care of any follow-up questions regarding that process in particular of how economic imbalances and inequalities in the university take effect. But one thing that certainly is associated with this imbalance, is the underpayment of adjuncts in the university.
So you have an institution in which only those who can really afford the pricey textbooks and the ever-increasing room and board, etc. – not to mention tuition – can be successful in the environment. But with all this money, it has almost become a public outcry, albeit one that falls on deaf ears, of adjunct professors and even associate professors being in economically devastating situations.
Is this a separate issue from the financial inequalities of merely attending school? Or are they related and ultimately having to do with the university’s financial replication of capitalism in its processes? And feel free to expand on what the myths and the facts are, about adjuncts and associate professors and financial compensation.
PYL: These issues, including that of the student protests and the hand-wringing over “p.c. culture,” are all linked. The rise of the “precariat” in all levels and segments of the working world is an apt way to understand why the institution of higher learning is under siege. But inside the university, the rise of the precariat is also an expression of a particular and stubborn strain of anti-intellectualism that has taken hold even more perniciously, as of late.
I think the stats are that 70 percent of the faculty across the board are now adjuncts. What that means is that the faculty don’t have prep time, don’t have support (like an office or anyone to help set up the classroom), and are often teaching on multiple campuses. When I was a student, I had no clue about the differences among different faculty ranks or their employment status; I took classes based on my schedule and my interests. I’m a nerd. I love to learn new things, and I am permanently curious about everything.
But this comes back to why one attends university in the first place. Are you there because your parents made you? Are you hoping to get a minimum degree required for a certain kind of job? Are you there because you have no other idea what to do with your life? In other words, college has newly become less about learning and more about being culturally coded as a certain kind of individual, namely, bourgeois or aspirationally bourgeois, which is why parents will take out massive loans so their children can attend classes they can’t remember.
Meanwhile, for the persistent idealists among us, the college experience is supposed to be about imparting skills in critical thinking. Which has nothing to do with parroting information or rote memorization or terrific skills at googling. Critical thinking is the goal of all education, really. Dismantle that as the goal and poof! you’ve got a docile citizenry. So what we – collectively speaking, the US as a whole – have to look at is the value, or lack thereof, placed on being an educated person for its own sake- as opposed to being an educated person who therefore earns this much money because of a professional degree.
I sometimes think of the book True Grit, where the particular dialect is a function of the historically accurate use of large words; the frontier Americans depicted were all trying very hard to improve themselves through book learning which included, but was not limited to, the Bible. There doesn’t seem to be much of that intense desire to improve oneself as a cultural good, though certainly there are isolated instances.
Another way to look at it is in the depressing decline in literacy levels over the past 20 years and the fact that most adults never crack open a book to read for pleasure after they graduate from high school. Hmm. This response was kind of long-winded!
The short version is this: if you take away the capacity of faculty to focus on their students by constantly threatening to pull out the rug from under their feet, i.e. fire them or just not re-hire them (which is the usual case for contingency faculty), then the faculty have no ability to challenge their students who are now “customers” or “clients” and therefore participating in a transactional model where it is understood that you are paying for your education. Which is to say, your degree. And education has little or nothing to do with it. And your teacher might as well be that fast-food worker behind the counter, because the conditions of work are more or less the same.
TC: I definitely have been discouraged in my own cultural observation of what is going on in the higher education institutions with regard to the increasing customer-service relationship between students and teachers. But of course there is a place for adjuncts and there is a place for full-time professors. What do you think that place should be?
And I think what people want to know – including people who are in academic circles, is where exactly is the money going? Because if the cost of education is higher, while the cost of hiring staff is lower, then there is a discrepancy going on here, and one that isn’t benefiting students or professors. So who exactly is benefiting from this model in higher education?
PYL: The institution benefits, insofar as it is rewarding itself. The funding resources are going to pay for football teams, new buildings, and overall administrative costs, all of which are more outward directed, towards selling an image, rather than towards the unsexy task of teaching students.
Many studies have pointed to the rise of an administrative class inside the university, a class that exist to supervise and direct the flow of power inside the institution, while rewarding itself. I tell everyone to read Mary Douglas’s book, How Institutions Think, a classic analysis of institutional forms that has yet to be surpassed. Another one to read, slightly more accessible because it’s a novel, is Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi or the Glass Bead Game. The basic point is that all institutions are conservative, which is why I think it’s so funny when I hear so much yelling about “snooty Ivy League liberals”.
Individuals may hold liberal ideals but the institution is quite the opposite. The older and the more prestigious, the more conservative it is in actual operational principles. That’s how they survive over time. There are actors, and then there are agents. The true power alway resides in who gets to shape the frame. Because you don’t even see it and yet it defines everything taking place inside.
As for the place of adjuncts versus full-time professors. It used to be the case that adjuncts would teach a speciality class for which there was sporadic demand, such as pre-modern English lit or, say, a language class in Korean. Depending on the program, these adjuncts might teach regularly but only one seminar a year, and it was understood that this was supplemental to a regular full time job either as a professor elsewhere or not in academia at all.
But when you are trained to be a researcher in pre-modern English literature and dream of training others to love Boethius, then it is what you want to do with your life. Wherefore you start to adjunct in hopes of securing a full time position as a regular member of the faculty. But if those positions are not there or anywhere, because tenure lines are being cut, then that turns into the nightmare of being a worker-for-hire with a giant student loan and no professional future. Which is what too many Ph.Ds are now staring at.
TC: Taking the conversation away from the interactions between actors and agents in the higher education system, let’s talk about what is going on at Yale, Mizzou, and other universities across the nation. It’s interesting that you discussed earlier the conservatism of higher education. I don’t think a lot of people realize this – and it’s something that if you’re a person of color in a university setting especially as faculty or staff, people often think that it’s a liberal space that affords people of color more opportunities and less discrimination.
I often tell people that it is a matter of asking the question “In comparison to what?” Because the university setting itself is prejudiced and filled with the same institutional problems as elsewhere. Now all the same, I have written about the incidents that took place in the university with regard to how all people interact in public, intellectual, and safe spaces – and the contradictions that occur when you are a person of color in such a space.
Fundamentally, I still deem that the necessity of dialogue and diversity of thought in the university setting is of importance – for not only freedom and rights, but for the betterment of the learning process in which I tend to be on the side of bell hooks, who believes that the classroom is a contested space. Nonetheless, what is your topic on this “liberalization” of academia, of how people of color operate within those settings, and how our interests as students and faculty should be approached while still maintaining the institution as a place of plurality of perspective and ideas?
PYL: The university is a utopian space, at least in theory. Therefore it represents the no-place, the ivory tower of the fable, the apolitical sphere where ideas can mingle freely. The student protests are shattering this image, or so it would seem, except the institution has been slowly collapsing for a long time under its own weight.
To a certain extent what is happening at Mizzou and Yale are opposite sides of the spectrum. (A public university is a different beast than a private one, and the social protocols are quite distinct.) What seems to have happened is that reality did not meet expectations. When you compete to gain admission to the Ivy League (Yale), you are perforce one of the best and the brightest and you have to fight to get access to those resources, that study time, that pressure to party instead of study. And when you choose that school, you believe you are entering into a group self-selected to be like minded. Smart. Energetic. Creative. Idealistic.
What happens when the myth of meritocracy shatters? Disillusionment. Disappointment. But most of all you start to understand that utopia never existed except in your own dreams. Because knowledge, and the search for knowledge, is always embodied. Bodies are entities inside social space. And it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are (Ta-Nahesi Coates probably articulates this better than anyone writing today): you are always inflected by, marked by, and codified by the terms of your body, by markers called “race,” “gender,” “age,” “nationality,” and so on.
So what I tend to see here, in the long view, is that finally universities are giving up Cartesian models that see mind over here and body over there and those bodies are machines made to serve, and a struggle to move it into the 21st century where we can think phenomenologically about the ways that knowledge is shaped.
People of color tend to see the working of the institutional frame and understand it as a Procrustean bed precisely because we are outside it. Marginalized voices offer up perspectives that are intrinsically critical of authority because, well, they’re marginal. Michael Camille wrote a wonderful book called Image on the Edge about medieval marginalia, those little subversive drawings making fun of hegemonic authority by dancing and tooting on the edge of holy manuscripts. The funny part of his study is that the state of marginalization was replicated in the scholarship: for years, nobody paid any attention to those farting gargoyles or lascivious monkeys and dismissed it as being irrelevant to textual exegesis, and now they’re all anyone cares about. The point is that margins and centers are spatial as well as political, and nobody ever cedes power without a fight.
TC: Finally, a short question Paula: what is your vision for higher education in the long run? What do you think can practically be achieved, and what would you like to see stay, go, and be transformed as far as finances concerning students, compensation concerning adjuncts and professors, and the process of engagement and dialogue in the university?
PWL: Adjuncts should unionize, the student protestors are already doing a great job of acting with other student protesters on other campuses, we need tuition reform, there has to be a greater cultural respect for learning, recognizing that there is nothing to fear from different ways of thinking, and very little about the student protests is actually about PC culture or liberalism run amok.
It is far more about social and economic inequality that is placing enormous stress on social integrity in this country and ultimately the world. Students should stand together with faculty, and together lobby to get full-time faculty back into their classrooms as well as back into administrative roles. In my idealistic, fluffy way, I want students to be energized by the sheer excitement of the realm of ideas, because there is so much out there, and it can be an amazing thing to learn.
Basic excitement for researching questions is what took me around the world, and it can take anyone where they want to go. And in the students today, the capacity for excitement is still there, it’s just getting crushed under the weight of competitiveness born out of fear, and the demoralizing impact of ordinary cruelties. Also, I think it is important to remember that these student protesters are students. Franky, I am in awe.