Paul L. Caron

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Bullshitization Of Academic Life

ChronicleChronicle of Higher Education, Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone:

I would like to write about the bullshitization of academic life: that is, the degree to which those involved in teaching and academic management spend more and more of their time involved in tasks which they secretly — or not so secretly — believe to be entirely pointless.

For a number of years now, I have been conducting research on forms of employment seen as utterly pointless by those who perform them. The proportion of these jobs is startlingly high. Surveys in Britain and Holland reveal that 37 to 40 percent of all workers there are convinced that their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world. ... According to a 2016 survey, American office workers reported that they spent four out of eight hours doing their actual jobs; the rest of the time was spent in email, useless meetings, and pointless administrative tasks. ...

And then there’s higher education.

In most universities nowadays — and this seems to be true almost everywhere — academic staff find themselves spending less and less time studying, teaching, and writing about things, and more and more time measuring, assessing, discussing, and quantifying the way in which they study, teach, and write about things (or the way in which they propose to do so in the future). ... 

All of this will hardly be news to most Chronicle readers. What strikes me as insufficiently discussed is that this has happened at a time when the number of administrative-support staff in most universities has skyrocketed. Consider here some figures culled from Benjamin Ginsberg’s book The Fall of the Faculty (Oxford, 2011). In American universities from 1985 to 2005, the number of both students and faculty members went up by about half, the number of full-fledged administrative positions by 85 percent — and the number of administrative staff by 240 percent.

In theory, these are support-staff. They exist to make other peoples’ jobs easier. In the classic conception of the university, at least, they are there to save scholars the trouble of having to think about how to organize room assignments or authorize travel payments, allowing them to instead think great thoughts or grade papers. No doubt most support-staff still do perform such work. But if that were their primary role, then logically, when they double or triple in number, lecturers and researchers should have to do much less admin as a result. Instead they appear to be doing far more.

This is a conundrum. Let me suggest a solution. Support staff no longer mainly exist to support the faculty. In fact, not only are many of these newly created jobs in academic administration classic bullshit jobs, but it is the proliferation of these pointless jobs that is responsible for the bullshitization of real work — real work, here, defined not only as teaching and scholarship but also as actually useful administrative work in support of either. What’s more, it seems to me this is a direct effect of the death of the university, at least in its original medieval conception as a guild of self-organized scholars. Gayatri Spivak, a literary critic and university professor at Columbia, has observed that, in her student days, when people spoke of "the university," it was assumed they were referring to the faculty. Nowadays it’s assumed they are referring to the administration. And this administration is increasingly modeling itself on corporate management. ...

[T]he phenomenon of bullshit jobs is one of the most compelling arguments in favor of a policy of universal basic income. One common objection to simply providing everyone with the means to live and then allowing us to make up our own minds about how we see fit to contribute to society is that the streets will immediately fill up with bad poets, annoying street musicians, and vendors of pamphlets full of crank theories. No doubt there would be a little of this, but if 40 percent of all workers are already engaged in activities they consider entirely pointless, how could it be worse than the situation we already have? At least this way they’d be happier.

A likely result of universal guaranteed income would be the rapid defection of a large number of academics from their university positions to intellectual circles where they would once again be able to argue about ideas and research things they actually find interesting. They might establish free schools where they could teach anyone who wished to learn. Universities would not become extinct. They would retain many strategic advantages. But they would be forced to de-bullshitize very rapidly.

Legal Education | Permalink


Everyone hates intellectuals until they see the alternative.

Posted by: Mike Livingston | May 17, 2018 4:19:40 AM

You can thank the assessment people for demanding that every task in a classroom become as meaningless as their assessment work.

I can imagine a time where you would hire people you trusted to do the job right, and then trusted them to do their job right. That time has apparently passed.

Posted by: Anon | May 17, 2018 7:36:10 AM

Everyone hates intellectuals until they see the alternative.

In 1928, 4-year colleges and universities enrolled about 8% of each cohort and higher education wasn't a combatant in the country's political warfare. That's the alternative. We lived with that.

Posted by: Art Deco | May 17, 2018 10:47:20 AM

I had an old world colleague for awhile. When he first realized that students prepared course evaluations after the end of the semester, he shook his head and said, "Imagine, students evaluating professors!" I can only imagine what he thought after reading them. Their banality likely shook his confidence (to the extent he had any) in US academia.

Posted by: Anon | May 17, 2018 11:06:24 AM

Oh, come on. Parkinson's Law was published in 1955. That's all you need to know. (Well, knowing about student loan practices and expanding federal regulations doesn't hurt, but both fall under the Law.)

Posted by: Jorge McKie | May 17, 2018 5:28:56 PM

In my years with the government, I discovered that administrative staff were constantly seeking projects where (1) they could claim credit for the final result and (2) other people -- that is, the productive ones -- would do all the work. Reports, more reports, which they would assemble for the top dog, recording of hours spent, etc..

Posted by: Dave Hardy | May 17, 2018 5:35:49 PM

That's because they are no longer hiring people they trust. They hire people to fill identity group quotas.

Posted by: RonF | May 17, 2018 5:48:52 PM

Depends on whom you include as "intellectuals," MIke. Do you mean all educated people, or professional ideologues?

Posted by: Gypsy Boots | May 17, 2018 6:01:40 PM

The problem is, the accreditors and faculty are not going to let administrators or trustees have a say in the substance of an academic class. So what other way are you going to get real-world self-improvement of those tenured faculty on the wrong side of the bell curve besides data, assessment, and suggestions for improvement?

Posted by: andynoonny | May 18, 2018 5:00:52 AM

> [T]he phenomenon of bullshit jobs is one of the most compelling arguments in favor of a policy of universal basic income... but if 40 percent of all workers are already engaged in activities they consider entirely pointless, how could it be worse than the situation we already have?

Answer: Antifa. People with too much time on their hands tend to screw with those who do not. People in useless jobs are still in the habit of working, and that's a societal habit that can completely disappear if allowed to wither too long. See also: Greece.

Posted by: Ryan Waxx | May 18, 2018 3:36:45 PM

"Everyone hates intellectuals until they see the alternative."

I see the alternative everywhere but few intellectuals.

Posted by: Micha Elyi | May 18, 2018 7:50:06 PM

All the critics of law school should take note: the vast expansion of admistrators, Deanlets, and in house law firms (aka clinics) has driven up costs at the expense of knowledge generation and distribution (the historic purpose of a university).

Posted by: Anon | May 26, 2018 1:05:41 PM