Bousquet, Marc. “The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible.” Social Text 70 (2002): 81-104. Print.

In this gritty analysis of the situation of PhD students, Bousquet explains that the idea of a “job market” for new grads operates rhetorically, not descriptively. He asserts that we must discard the Fordist assumption that the situation of those with doctoral degrees can be explained through a traditional production analogy, because PhDs are not, in fact, the primary products of the graduate employee labor system; post docs, adjuncts, and part time lecturers are.

The labor monopoly fails in this case because holding a degree no longer represents control over who may practice – in fact, getting a PhD is the logical end of one’s teaching career.

The system has no trouble bringing persons in through its primary gateways: admission to a graduate program at a research university. Its only problem is disposing of them after it has extracted six to ten years of their labor, to make room for new cheap teachers.

Irony: ghe best and most experiened teachers can be found in junior and community colleges, as the richer colleges expel those with the most experiecne in favor for “fresh meat,” young graduate students from whom the university plans to extract years of cheap labor.

The joke’s on us: PhDs are the waste product of a graduate education. Most graduate students are already laboring in the only academic job they will ever hold.

In order to better understand what’s going on, Bousquet says, we need to deploy an excrement theory of graduate education. The reason grad students feel as though they are being “treated like shit” is because they actually are the shit – the excrement, the waste – of the institution. They serve as cheap labor, and when their time is up, they are flushed away before they cause a toxic blockage to the system. The remedy, says Bousquet, is for graduate students to recognize the power to be had be being a toxic blockage. If they refuse to be flushed away, the system must respond internally.

The way to do this, for Bousquet, is through organization of unionized labor. By getting the message across to administrators and legislators that graduate students are not merely student apprentices, they labor – this idea is what Bousquet calls “we-work.”

Implicit in the understanding that “we-work,” and that this consciousness must be materialized in law, social policy, and workplace practice, are four important realizations:

  1. We are not overproducing PhDs, we are underproducing jobs
  2. Cheap teaching is not a victimless crime
  3. Casualization is an issue of racial, gendered, and class justice
  4. late capitalism does not just happen to the university, the university makes late capitalism happen

The conditions of the professoriate and the state of undergraduate education are intimately tied in to the abhorrent situation of hyper-exploitation of graduate student labor. Bousquet calls on grads to organize and on professors to speak out against cheap teachers. He shames professional organizations (particularly the MLA) for not recognizing and supporting the imperative of improving labor conditions for graduate students but for instead adhering to the administrative status quo. He points out that cheap graduate teachers are cheapening the entire academic system in myriad ways, from top to bottom, and offers specific ways in which it could be salvaged.

Fun fact: in 2002, 44% of higher education faculty were unionized, but the benefits of organization did not apply (or very rarely applied) to graduate students.


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