Home / Books / Book Reviews / Book Review: How the University Works – Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation by Marc Bousquet, with a foreword by Cary Nelson

Book Review: How the University Works – Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation by Marc Bousquet, with a foreword by Cary Nelson

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Many of you have probably spent some time in higher education. Enrollment in U.S. higher education institutions has steadily increased over the past few decades, and is projected to reach new highs each year for the next decade or so. What you may not know, however, are the working conditions of educators in colleges and universities. In his new book, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, Marc Bousquet lays it all out, and the picture is not pretty.

The stereotype of the tweedy professor — older, male, and white — is one that continues to be the common perception of academics in American culture. The reality is that this stereotype is such a minority, it might be a candidate for the endangered species list. It is this stereotype that prevents the average American from seriously considering the plight of college and university educators. Bousquet blasts that stereotype out of the water with his accurate and thorough descriptions of the true working conditions in higher education.

I have been involved in higher education, both as a student and as an employee, for almost 15 years. In that time, I have heard grumblings from faculty about their wages and unrealistic expectations of university administrators, but it was not until I read this book that I realized their grievances are valid.

I am a university librarian, and I have worked at institutions where my position was exempt staff and where I was tenure-track faculty. In the case of the latter, I had assumed the unrealistic expectations were a result of being in a role that does not fit the traditional academic model, but I am beginning to realize all faculty were working under similarly unrealistic expectations, with as little support as I experienced.

Typical tenure-track faculty members will teach three or four classes a term, which will easily require at least 40 hours a week of preparation time and class time. In addition to that, they are expected to serve on committees, both internal and external, and to produce original scholarly research. "Yeah, but they don't have to work summers and term breaks, so they can do that extra work then," you say. Indeed, that is often true. However, they are also not paid for that time. In essence, they are expected to do this additional work for free.

Typical part-time or adjunct faculty who are not in the tenure system have it even worse. In most cases, their wages are so low that they end up working 60+ hours per week just to make a living – and they usually do not have the benefits of health care and retirement provided to full-time employees.

On the bottom of the higher education food chain, you will find graduate assistants. These poor sots are students working to attain post-graduate degrees; and in order to pay for those degrees, they teach undergraduate courses for stipends that barely cover their expenses. They generally have no health care benefits, no retirement savings, and their jobs are more tenuous than part-time faculty, since they can easily be replaced due to their status as students, which put them outside of normal employment regulations.

In his introduction, Cary Nelson explains how U.S. higher education got to this point, and why you should care. He uses real-world examples and writes in an easy to follow style. If you read nothing else, at least read this section of the book.

We need to keep pounding the drums on the issues raised by the academic labor movement, but I am not so sure this book is speaking to the right audience for it. Bousquet writes in a more academic style than Nelson, and those outside of academia may find it difficult to wade through the text. Even though his arguments are well researched and thoroughly articulated, I found myself skimming the chapters for his key points, following more closely when something caught my attention. Still, in an era of increased attention on the unionization of higher education instructors, this is a timely book and one that will easily complement the collection of literature on the topic of academic labor.

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About Anna Creech

  • University isn’t the same force it once was. Hardly anyone I know who graduated currently works in their chosen industry. Such is the aftermath of the recession.

  • I have also spent time in higher education. It is quite amazing how it now seems to be the next step for most school leavers and looks to steadily increase in he coming years.

    What teachers have to go through now is quite amazing. Bigger classes, more responsibility an most establishments are now competing harder against each other so as a business they have to be more efficient than ever.

    It never has been an easy job. It is certainly not the easy job it was once perceived to be!

  • I remember several movies from the 1940s and 1950s that portrayed university professors as poor and struggling individuals doing noble work. The modern stereotype of professors in the media doesn’t seem to include the poor part anymore.

  • That’s interesting that he devotes an entire chapter to that one subject, but then again, the English and Speech Communication departments at most universities seem to rely on part-time/assistantship help more than any other department. One of my professor’s wrote an excellent article about this issue in a culture studies book he edited, advocating change and pointing out the hypocrisy of most institutions in their treatment of the “lower classes” of academia.

    Unfortunately, there’s a lot of talk and article writing about how the system is flawed, but not much tangible action or change, leaving people like me stuck at the bottom with the most stress. But, they get GA’s to go along with it, because they promise to pay your tuition. Plus, you get invaluable experience, just not much pay and no benefits…

  • Kevin, there is an entire chapter devoted to the instruction of rhetoric and composition, so it’s definitely one you’ll want to read.

  • As someone who is about to enter this topsy turvy world (via a Graduate Assistantship teaching Freshman composition), this review caught my attention. I definitely want to check this book out, as it may give me the tools necessary to become an activist/supporter of a better work environment, seeing as I’m going into academia head on (and don’t want to turn back).

    Thanks for the review, Anna.