Professional-Managerial Class (PMC): Becoming/Dis-Becoming Writing Teachers

classwarfare1At the 2013 Conference of College Composition and Communication (4Cs) in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to be part of a workshop designed by Shannon Carter, Deborah Mutnick, and Steve Parks.  It was a fruitful workshop that centered real dialogue … while also producing more than just dialogue.  On one of the panels during the workshop, Kurt Spellmeyer asked us to contextualize and trouble our academic identities and positions as the Professional-Managerial Class (PMC).  Part of his discussion focused on Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich’s 1977 essays in Radical America called “The Professional Managerial Class” and then later,  “The New Left: A Case Study in Professional-Managerial Class Radicalism.”  Their current extension/revision of that work is called “Death of a Yuppie Dream: The Rise and Fall of the Professional-Managerial Class.”    Marc Bousquet, at a later point in the workshop, pushed us to see that no radical activity or revolution will come from the professoriate; otherwise, we would have seen that already.  He urged us, instead, to see ourselves as and act as a working class, which would mean a class consciousness where we work, radically so, in our own class interest.

“Death of a Yuppie Dream” frames analysis of current modes of capitalist production, mass consumption, and neoliberalism.   Here we are talking about our current social circumstance where once autonomous professionals, the Professional Managerial Class, the PMC (doctors, engineers, lawyers, professors, etc), who have been defined by specialized knowledge and standards, now experience corporate domination and exploitation rather than the private autonomous spaces that once defined their work.  While the PMC often acted as a kind of buffer between vulgar consumption, profits, and exploitation, the PMC has also been its own worst enemy— basically, a buncha sell-outs.  Today, the PMC has been downgraded (i.e., more adjunct hiring than tenure track professors), absorbed into corporations (i.e., HMOs, large corporate law firms vs. private practice), and has faced serious decline (i.e., the dearth of journalism jobs). Meanwhile, a new kind of complex, multi-tiered management system exists to control labor, high-tech machinery, and consumer culture where the new PMC, especially the high-paid managers (i.e., upper level administration/managers), look more like CEOs than the autonomous professionals of the past.  The Ehrenreichs convincingly show that the PMC became “the rationalizers of society” who conflicted with capitalists but who also positioned themselves away from and, often, in opposition to the working class that they fully exploited.  The Ehrenreichs also want to point out to the PMC that we are as dispensable to capitalism as the factory workers ousted from assembly lines for “third world” labor exploitation.   In other words: what the hell are we holding on to this system for?  The Ehrenreichs helped me to see and understand the kind of cultural logic that I see operating in college writing programs in this particular moment much better.

I am still often shocked at how readily faculty, those on the tenure-track who have made it into the PMC, will themselves advocate for the most corporate structures to mechanize writing and writing programs:

  1. one, standard syllabus that everyone can implement across a hierarchy of adjuncts, graduate students, junior faculty, and senior faculty;
  2. a set of standards/tests/assessments to ensure that students master exactly the kind of PMC logic that the Ehrenreichs criticize— discipline, appropriate academic curiosities, and “bureacratic modes of communication”;
  3. common assignments to be measured across one numerical system so that #2 can be automated more smoothly.

These mechanisms are not about education; they are the cultural logic of  mass production and consumption. The idea that conversation and dialogue with colleagues can produce consensus and community may as well be a foreign language and concept in this iteration of the PMC’s co-signing of automated/techno-regulated systems.  When it comes to under-represented college students of color in these systems, well there’s just no way for there to be a happy ending here.  Faculty of color really have no business being on board with these cultural logics when, at best, their focus on cultures and diversity will only be commodified, the new 21st century Booker T.’s, a fact that shouldn’t surprise given that bodies of color are always for sell across historically varied modes of capitalist production.

In true, sell-out fashion, the PMC becomes exactly the kind of “rationalizers” of capitalism that the Ehrenreichs critique with this mantra, ad infinitum: we are only being realistic. If the teaching of writing can be so “realistically” and simply automated, measurable, standardized, and replicated across multiple spaces, then why do we need full-time teachers… or teachers at all?  The ironic thing is that if the PMC does not turn against its own exploitation and begin to irrationalize capitalism and corporate, mass-automation, we only make ourselves more obsolete.  It seems true then that the lack of a class consciousness means you only undermine your own fool self.

Power, Dominance & Acquiescence

I often wish that I could be faster and more critical in how I respond to oppressive circumstances in my everyday life.  I admit that there are times when I am simply dumbstruck when I should be expecting foolishness and should, therefore, be able to respond much more quickly.  Instead, I just sit there stupidly wondering: what is goin on up in here?  I can forgive myself for being slow on the uptake, but I am beginning to question how many times I am not counter-acting/counter-thinking at all.

For some reason, today, my mind goes back to a professional conference that I attended at least three years ago now.  The panel discussion that I attended was designed to be a conversation about various issues related to the labor and organization of prominent college writing programs. It should go without saying, given the trends of this particular conference/ field, that the panel was all-white and predominantly male.  Like I said, I am used to those trends so this alone was not what bothered me.  One of the panelists, a well-regarded white male scholar/administrator (at least by some), who I will here call New Henrickson, rightly problematized the ways in which the teaching of writing in his program was gendered as female labor, a trend that scholars have shown to be dominant when looking at contingent/part-time labor in colleges today, especially when it comes to the teaching of college writing.  Then the scholar went on, in what he thought was a clever quip, to say that he felt like the main character from the HBO series, Big Love, Bill Henrickson (hence, the inspiration for my re-naming here).  The audience chuckled… but my jaw almost dropped to the bottom of my chair.  Did he really just say that? Does he NOT know that he is talking out loud and that, hence, people can HEAR him?  I never said anything to anyone, just sat there, with the violence of this discourse hanging over me.

I have never actually watched Big Love— I just know it was about a Fundamentalist Mormon polygamist and Republican senator in Utah and his many wives. Supposedly, there is good social commentary about male dominance and patriarchy in the series but I never sat through it long enough to find out.  The one and only conversation that I have ever had about New Henrickson’s comment at this conference was with another male scholar in the audience. This scholar was perturbed by the comment but mostly because his program was not given an award for its innovation the way that New Henrickson’s program had been.   It wasn’t a conversation that I could really relate to: such an award is not something I would ever covet if it is offered to white men who metaphor-ize themselves as polygamist heads-of-households in relation to the underpaid/under-valued women who do the bulk of the work in the U.S. of teaching college writing.  I am reminded here of Marc Bousquet’s work:

As for gender, the rendering of faculty positions to the extreme of economic irrationality (six courses a year for $15,000, eg)  assigns them disproportionately to women, especially persons–whether male or female–married to professionals and managers. The other, primary wage earner supports the economically irrational partner, a person teaching for what used to be called pin money. This structural feminizing of the job was traditionally associated with converting the positions formerly held by men (such as secretarial positions, once a high-status job) to those held increasingly by women… a “pyramid scheme” especially for women faculty.

Broadly speaking across many disciplines and institution types women still tend to disproportionately hold low-paying, low-status, insecure teaching-only or teaching-intensive jobs while men continue to disproportionately hold high-paying, high-status, secure research-intensive and top administrative positions.

When I look at Bousquet’s work, I begin to think New Henrickson’s quip— with all its attending meanings related to race, capitalism, and gender— may have been a soberly, accurate portrayal of the academy and the field.

So how did I handle this moment?  I stayed quiet and then always steered clear of New Henrickson, his mentees, and all of his homies.  All well and good, maybe, except that this is beginning to feel like selling out.  At what point does silence become the co-signing of hegemony? And at what point do women trade in this silence in order to acquire a kind of professional comfort and ease in their disciplines, even if it means they do so at the expense of their own bodies and minds?  New Henrickson is not of my generation but his misogyny is not done, especially in this world where it is rewarded (the award his program received is an accolade that surely fared him well in the institutional hierarchy in which he can now insert himself at his college campus.)  And while women of color may be reluctant to publicly critique male scholars of color for fear of the violent, black-on-black intra-fratricidal display it will offer to white audiences, women of color are not publicly criticizing New Henrickson either and it’s not always clear where the private critiques of his male comrades of color are.   Racial respect/nonviolence in white spaces is not the sole issue here.

I am not saying that I should have jumped up and slapped this fool in the mouth– either with my hands or with my words. Like I said, I am not quick enough for that anyway.   But it does seem that if I want to claim radical anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, anti-consumerist work, I need to reach a more definitive point where I say something, counter-theorize these very real and very everyday moments of epistemic violence, and/or set up intellectual-political shop elsewhere to really do the work that is needed.  That’s the best plan that I have for the present and future as of right now.  I am working on it!