Philosopreneurs: Thoughts on labor at the Exciting New Grad School

Is the Exciting New Grad School an inherently anti-labor institution?

First, as Adam has already pointed out, perhaps one reason for the apparent excitement for the Global Center for Advanced Studies is the hunger for an alternative to the increasingly neoliberalized world of U.S. higher education. It is, of course, incontrovertible that higher education is under attack from a number of directions, and that, particularly from the perspective of students, skyrocketing tuition costs are one of the most troubling trends. After one reads past the alarmingly fantastic rhetoric on the GCAS website and facebook page, it appears that one of their primary marketing strategies is to present the school as a low-cost, easy alternative to traditional schools.

The burden of student debt, however, should be put into the context of larger trends, not only in higher education, but in primary education and the economy as a whole. There are serious problems with building social movements that are too narrowly focused on debt–a troubling trend coming out of the Occupy movement. Further, the idea that seeking funding from private institutions and launching kickstarter campaigns are the solution to rising student debt is to is, to be blunt, ludicrous. Those are not avenues of resistance to neoliberalism; they simply are neoliberal tactics par excellence. It has been demonstrated over and over that federal and state education policy are mostly to blame here. Higher education could be completely free if states raised taxes and the federal government redirected tax subsidies. Achieving those goals, however, would require political projects, not Silicon Valley-style gimmicks. The inner solidarity between the GCAS project and ideology that is espoused by the institutions that they claim to offer an alternative to is expressed in their use of master signifiers such as “revolutionary,” “creativity,” and “[labor of] love.”

In addition to these problems, I think it is vital that we examine the GCAS initiative from the standpoint of what it means for academic labor. Part of what has contributed to the neoliberalization of education in general, and especially higher education, is that there has been little to no resistance by organized labor to the policies of administrators and legislators. The 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Union strike has shown that long-term union organizing is the *only* method whereby these destructive policies of education “reformers” can be resisted. The recent actions in the university systems of CaliforniaMaine, and Wisconsin are glimpses of a future where administrators don’t sit by and allow tenure to slowly die out: they want to swiftly and completely destroy the one non-precarious form of academic labor. I don’t think that readers of this blog need to be reminded of why tenure is so important and how precarious it is to be in academia without it. Is anyone shocked that tenure has come under such fierce attack precisely at the time when it has finally begun to be extended to women, POC, and LGBT faculty? Are we shocked that those groups are also the first targets when tenured faculty are laid off?

The question becomes: what does academic labor look like in a GCAS world? As far as I know, there has been no discussion of how something like GCAS could build solidarity amongst its laborers. A pro-worker institution could, no doubt, take many forms. Something like a co-op springs to mind as one such option. I don’t think this would would ameliorate the multitude of problems, but it would at least be a minimal gesture. I don’t claim to have a utopian vision of a better system, but I am sure of one thing: privatization is not the solution.

A number of other questions come to mind: what disciplinary regime is incumbent upon scholars in a world of youtube instruction? Must we always be carefully building and protecting our public image? Who gets to decide the faculty of GCAS? Is it one or two white guys who answer not to any public body, but only to their investors/donors? What sorts of habits does this regime inculcate in aspiring academics? Become a celebrity so that you can get a one-class contract? Is there an implicit belief in Ayn Randian individual merit where somehow the most “worthy” academic up-and-comers will rise to the top and get recognized? Do we really want to be turning academics into philosopreneurs? Do we want to market education to students based on the celebrity status of the “faculty”?

Traditional universities have trained, established, and currently (in most cases) provide employment for the professors who are listed on the “faculty” of the GCAS. This means that, at best, GCAS is parasitical on the current academic labor system. At worst, it may be actively contributing to its destruction.

Adolph Reed puts it succinctly: Neoliberalism is capitalism that seeks to destroy worker solidarity and resistance. If we want higher education to be a site of resistance, we should be taking cues from workers movements that seek to build broad community solidarity, rather than modeling a “revolutionary” school on Silicon Valley MOOC-ification. Don’t forget: Silicon Valley hates workers. Does the GCAS?

8 Responses to “Philosopreneurs: Thoughts on labor at the Exciting New Grad School”

  1. michaeloneillburns Says:

    Very good post. There has been no (at least public) discussion about the forms of academic labor, and the payment for that labor, that their entire model is built upon. At worst, it seems like this could simply be a sort of ponzi scheme where two dudes in charge get ‘favors’ from their various academic friends to provide ‘online courses’ that are accredited through a random European university for students who are more-or-less being exploited in paying money for this. At a more basic point, they still haven’t really shown what the advantage of their model is over one simply logging onto youtube, or going to the backdoor broadcasting website, and listening to the hundreds of hours of lectures by the same theorist they are touting as their ‘faculty’. And while they may talk about the ‘interaction’ their model offers, you cannot really tell me that the students paying money are getting significant ‘supervision’ and pedagogical effort/attention from Badiou/Zizek/Negri/etc.

    And anecdote that may be relevant…recently some of the big Kierkegaard professors in Copenhagen (mainly Jon Stewart) started a giant MOOC on Kierkegaard that they advertised heavily. They solicited (unpaid) labor from various graduate students who were to be ‘Teaching Assistants’ for the various message boards on this course. While at a Kierkegaard conference at BYU in the fall, some various (quite notable) scholars were discussing how great this was for the field and for Kierkegaard studies in general. Luckily, another senior scholar chimed in and asked if the people running this course are aware that they are setting up and encouraging a model that will leave younger academics with even worse job prospects while at the same time devaluing academic labor in general. Sadly, the conservative Kierkegaard scholars didn’t see why this was an issue. It would be interesting to see how the ‘radical’ and ‘world changing’ individuals behind GCAS would defend themselves against the same claims.

    Finally, they were collectively catfished by a fake Lady Gaga.

  2. Stephen Keating Says:

    Thanks Mike — you hit on exactly what I’m trying to highlight: this type of model only further individuates academics, creating competition where there should be community building.

  3. Stephen Keating Says:

    Also — props to Adam for coining philosopreneurs.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    (My prediction is that if any defenders along, they’ll deny the GCAS will have any large-scale effect and so this critique won’t apply.)

  5. migrantintellectual Says:

    //Finally, they were collectively catfished by a fake Lady Gaga.//

    This refers directly to my work with Lady Gaga: a course, a hang out on Google, and a 20,000 word interview that began during the Artpop launch. I doubt this blog and many of the responders could survive the level of scrutiny engaged by my commercial production teams, my own attorney/agent, and my own experience vetting frauds for about four years now.

    -Robert Craig Baum, author/co-instructor for THOUGHTRAVE

  6. michaeloneillburns Says:

    Well, I’ll talk your word for it then. But, then the question is, why act like someone who says things such as:

    “Are you ready to move light years into the co-present pasts and futures of our minds? Are you prepared to question whether you exist or not? IF NOT… RUN AWAY. Are you ready to glimpse into the mind of the divine and the truly Evil…and realize they are one and the same? […] Clear all moorings and ahead on quarter impulse.”

    has anything to offer serious intellectual debate and social critique? That is cringe worth non-sense that any undergraduate who has read 4 paragraphs of Hume would clearly call out as BS. If that really is her, it just makes it more embarrassing. I hope the THOUGHTRAVE is rad though.

  7. Handel Andersen Says:

    On a different note, I’m a bit confused by your previous blog on this topic – how is it that Chicago Theological Seminary and Shimer College are institutions that this you “believe in, very deeply” such that “both need and deserve support and defense from the academic community at large”, as you put it? Are they both part of an embattled ($30-40k tuition per year), underprivileged, non-neoliberal institutional strata of which most are somehow unaware? Is the United Church of Christ, a puritan/evangelical institution suffering under the oppression of a liberal atheist elite, seeking to make them pay taxes like everyone else? Is that what this all about? I’m really curious about this part. Why is that these are institutions you “believe in, very deeply”? If it’s just the basic liberalism, can’t you find that pretty much anywhere, like for instance, the Democratic Party? Sorry to raise your hackles, if I do, just trying to understand your ground, which seems rather Puritan/UCC….

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    First, a clarification: Stephen and I are different people. I wrote that previous post, and he wrote this one.

    Shimer does not use adjunct faculty except for genuine supplemental offerings — there is a retired DePaul professor who has routinely offered courses in Eastern studies, and recently an alumnus who is a noted expert in the Israel-Palestine conflict offered a course. Basically all courses are taught by full-time faculty members, and class sizes are extremely small so that students get a lot of personal attention. Tuition discounting is substantial (despite the fact that the school is very tuition-dependent) and the average debt load for Shimer graduates is lower than the Chicago-area average. We are the most diverse Great Books school in terms of racial-ethnic diversity and (I’m confident) socio-economic class as well. So I am comfortable saying that Shimer is indeed part of an “embattled, underprivileged, non-neoliberal institutional strata.”

    If you don’t see the uniqueness of CTS on the intellectual level, despite apparently being familiar with it, then I doubt a blog comment will make you see it. But again, we have full-time faculty teaching essentially all core courses, with adjuncts mostly limited to genuine supplemental offerings that the main faculty can’t do. The TA program is a meaningful apprenticeship rather than a ploy to exploit cheap labor. They have substantial online offerings, but it works well because the students are by definition adult learners who have already graduated college and so have study skills (as opposed to the insane tendency to do freshman intro classes online) and they’re offering a truly unique curriculum that you can find in only a few places in the country.

    Both institutions are bucking the trend of neoliberal education. Both deserve support much more than the fly-by-night project of GCAS, whose founders have obviously given zero thought to pedagogy or to the systemic implications of their approach.


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