Karen Gregory, The CUNY Graduate Center
A syllabus goes viral and student labor becomes a little too public.
Last semester, just a week into the semester, something unexpected happened. The syllabus for my Introduction to Labor class went what we might call “academic viral,” by which I mean it began to circulate quickly and broadly among a subset of Internet users, namely faculty and graduate students. Within a day, the syllabus, which was posted on a publicly viewable WordPress course site, had over 2,500 views. A short paragraph on the syllabus that asked my students to “not call me professor” caught the attention of labor journalist Josh Eidelson via a friend’s Tweet, and before I knew what had happened, another site, The Billfold, had picked up the story. Almost immediately afterward Inside Higher Education (IHE) ran a piece. Despite the vitriol that displayed itself in the comments section of that IHE story, it was true. This lowly graduate student had asked her students “not to call her professor.” While I had consciously included the text — which was drafted by the City University of New York (CUNY) Adjunct Project and had been circulating among CUNY adjuncts for years — into my syllabus, it did not dawn on me that others would find the text “out of context.” After all, this was a labor class constructed to help students ask and answer the question: “Why do we currently work in the ways that we do?”
Given that the class was built around this simple question, I had planned a first-week module entitled “Academic Labor.” In a previous semester, I had ended with this module, and the reaction from students was nothing less than despair. “What do you mean education isn’t directly tied to mobility?” students demanded, and as result I felt that an overall good class had ended on a dark note. I was hoping to avoid that dénouement the following semester by designing a class based on what Donald Finkel (2000) refers to as “mutual inquiry” in which both students and I could ask questions about our lives and then attempt to answer them as best we could. On the first day of classes, I asked students to complete a rather simple (one page, informal) homework assignment:
Please tell me about your current work arrangements, as well as brief summary of how your parents and your grandparents have worked. How do you think this history has affected your own sense of what work is, the relationship of education to work, and your hopes for the future?
I expected that students would return to class the following week with this assignment completed and having read “The Students Are Already Workers” (a chapter in Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works) and the first chapter of Stanley Aronowitz’s Last Good Job in America, in which Aronowitz traces the nature of his own academic work, as well as the forces pressuring that model of independent, academic scholarship. Given the assignment I was asking students to complete, as well as the larger context of labor studies, it seemed disingenuous not to complete the assignment myself and to explain to students how I had come to be an “adjunct lecturer” at Queens College—that I was a graduate student in the sociology department at the CUNY Graduate Center who was teaching this course in addition to holding a fellowship and finishing my PhD: an examination of emergent forms of affective, digital labor in the spiritual marketplace. It was my hope that, through our initial conversations in that second week of classes, we would set a tone for the rest of the semester and, together, begin to chart a social map that might allow us to navigate our ways into and through the messy, often deeply emotional and personal terrain that is the relationships between work, labor, and education. My thinking here was that by speaking honestly about how I had become an adjunct in a public university — and by briefly refusing to perform the seamless legitimacy of “the professor” — both students and I might meet on more productive and even analytic terms that could make space for conversations about how personal aspirations come to be tied to labor, what we make of intergenerational mobility, and how the larger political economy of the United States and is still tangled in a history of labor politics.
Now that the semester has finished and I have a chance to reflect back on the class, I can say that we did indeed have these conversations (often in fits and starts and perhaps never conclusively), but in many ways my “academic viral” moment was a failure. Primarily, it derailed the conversation I intended to have with students. I returned to class and told students what had happened via Twitter and how many hits the course site had received, and students were taken aback. Some, who were already have trouble logging into WordPress (how precisely to do so was a tutorial I had also planned for that evening’s class), decided they didn’t like the idea of blogging their weekly response papers. They didn’t want to be on the Internet. Others felt the course site should be made private, and we discussed that option. Others seemed unconcerned about issues of privacy but also confused about why so many people might be interested in their class site. Given that my class is designated as “writing intensive” and that a good portion of our readings stress the need for public conversations about labor, I was not eager to get rid of the weekly blogged reading response assignments that I had envisioned, nor did I want to make the site completely private. My thought was that we could incorporate public voices into our classroom, but in the end students convinced me that the attention made them uncomfortable. Many said they were just then learning the basics of labor studies (at that point in the semester, several students were unsure of even what a union was) and didn’t want potentially critical or harsh attention. Others, perhaps already biased against social media (several of my students this semester report that they do not use Facebook; even more report they have never used Twitter), remained adamant that WordPress was too confusing to use and that they preferred not to post online. In the end, we created a compromise: some students used the blog, and the others e-mailed me responses. And I would ask students to reflect on their posts during class, so that we did not lose the spirit of extending the class conversation. In short, however, the blog component of the class, in which students can really take ownership of the space and feel free to post and comment there without reprisal, fell short of my intended goal.
In addition to this (though perhaps it was simply this group of students), the class seemed to want to reject the Internet almost entirely. In past classes, I had used WordPress not only to blog but to post links to readings or downloadable PDFs. This class preferred a printed reader, which totaled more than four hundred pages when printed. As a result, I ended up taking a much more decisive (especially given that once the reader was printed, new readings could not be easily introduced) and slow approach to the texts, often breaking students into groups and asking them to focus on one or two paragraphs and to break down the language of the readings. A few weeks into class, I realized we had barely returned to the world of social media or Internet conversations. In this respect, a certain portion of the failure contained a success in that it created an embrace of slower, close readings. And overall, the Internet and its bounty of easy-to-access videos or news footage played a much smaller role in the class discussions.
But beyond this, the Internet-driven extramural publicness of the first weeks of the semester brought something I had not seen before into class: an overt rejection of social media, particularly of Twitter, which my students seemed both not to understand and to consider a waste of time. While academics are currently exploring how their own scholarship is being reformulated by the microblogging platform as well as how what the future of learning might look like in a “restructured” university that seems eager to embrace corporate-funded platforms such as Coursera’s massively open online courses, my undergraduate students last semester wanted and demanded something that seems in sort supply on the Internet: slower conversations; close reading of longer texts; and chances to write, revise, and get written feedback. While students did seem to take the adjunct conversation we had seriously (sometimes insisting on calling me “Karen” or proudly pointing out to me that they had indeed spoken with a “full-time faculty member”), I also felt as though I was standing in two worlds while teaching the class and that the two worlds could not quite meet. This is not to say that students did not understand the relationships between the adjunctification of the university, the rising costs of tuition, and their own personal student-loan debt and shrinking future prospects for work. They did, and several took up this topic for their final papers. But it seemed to me that students rejected the very publicness and speed of the Internet because it seemed to threaten their desire for a slower form of professionalization and education.
It was not until the end of the course, after we had covered the early formations of the American labor movement, the rise of the New Deal, and the birth of “big labor” and its economic convulsions of the 1960s and 1970s, that students were able to ask questions about the role of technology in the shaping of labor — as both a political and economic force and as a personal experience. As globalization, outsourcing, and layoffs started to enter our class discussion, students then wanted to talk about the ways in which particular digital technologies had played a role in the facilitation of new organizations of labor and in the rise of a new form of financialized capital. Only toward the end of the semester could we revisit the notion of social media as a new space of labor — not only academic labor — that demands new skills of us: namely an ability, capacity, and willingness to work in and with publicness. Comparing the contemporary experience of work to Fordist labor arrangements predicated on a sharp (gendered) split between the public factory and the private home, students began to ask why that division no longer held and how it might be that the seemingly idealized “professionalization” of the classroom was being pressured by forces that continually want to draw them online and into digital production. In this case, I saw myself as one of these forces, and while I am certain that the Fordist arrangements of the factory are not returning to these students’ lives, I also had to take a step back and ask myself where was I hoping to lead students, had we really embraced the publicness of the first few weeks of the class. While I remain a firm supporter of “making things” in the classroom, it is also the very context of labor studies that asks us to think about the nature of that labor we’re encouraging students to perform. Seeing that digital labor such as blogging or Tweeting is by no means a resistance to the casualization of work (Deuze 2007), I am left with a pedagogical failure, which is also a place to rethink my own goals for the course. In a well-meaning attempt to make transparent the labor conditions under which the university operates, I drove the course into a head-on collision with the relationship between time, labor, and value. It became apparent to me that my students’ demands for a private classroom were also a demand for a certain value to be place on their time.
Did my students want their time spent in a classroom to lead to a professionalizing credential, and was this desire perhaps based on an outmoded notion of an easier correlation between a college degree and social mobility? Yes. But, at the same time, they were also asking for time to learn in a way that is not marked by productive outcomes or immediately public objects. And, if they could get this rarity from an adjunct, then all the better for it.
Deuze, Mark. 2007. MediaWork: Digital Media and Society. Malden MA: Polity Press. OCLC 769666945.
Finkel, Donald. 2000. Teaching with Your Mouth Shut. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook Publishing. OCLC 42680610.
 The syllabus for my Labor Studies course can be viewed here: http://lifeandlabor.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/fall_2013_laborsyllabus.pdf
About the Author
Karen Gregory is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). Karen is also an Instructional Technology Fellow at the Macaulay Honors College (Hunter College) and is currently an adjunct lecturer in the Labor Studies Department of Queens College.