The Columbia “Strike”: A Merry-go-Round to Nowhere?

I can still vividly recall, some thirty-plus years later, my days at Columbia University as a Teaching Assistant (TA) in Anthropology.  As a part-time job, it paid little–but nonetheless provided complete tuition-exemption for those of us still registered as full-time grad students.  The lecture-hall was more like an auditorium: maybe 200 students taking a survey course on “Human Origins” (a course which I was later to teach there).  The professor would drone on-and-on, his pedantic style often inducing somnolence rather than fascination with the subject.  Later in the day, we TAs would meet with our “discussion sections”; i.e., students who chose to show up for some informal tutoring in the material.

Grading essay exams, both mid-terms and finals, was the most critical task of this part-time job–and we prepared ourselves for a few late-nights of reading endless “bluebooks.”  It was especially critical to carefully and fairly grade all the finals in an expeditious manner, so that the undergrads could receive a final grade for the course.  In that light, I’m more than a little uneasy with the present tactic of Columbia’s TA strikers–refusing to show up to do the grading, and/or withholding the grades until their demands are met.  Their grievances, real enough (if relatively minor), certainly deserve more negotiations.  But, as a former UAW/Ford auto worker–as I worked my way through college–I fear that the TAs are getting bad advice from the union (which probably has little to lose by conducting such “experiments”).  As far as preserving good-paying jobs nationally, the UAW has a fairly abysmal record.

I fear, moreover, that the TAs have a lot to lose.  I have no doubt that the Columbia administrators–like their peers on other campuses–are already looking for substitutes to perform the grading and related duties. In any event, in the near-future automation, always looming to de-skill mere humans, will no doubt include the grading systems, even of essay exams.  (Such technology apparently already exists.)

Like other “elite” graduate programs, Columbia’s GSAS provides a current breakdown of the costs of attending for one year: about $50,000 “tuition” (which, yes, means “instruction” — however elusive that may be), some $22,000 for “room-and-board,” and maybe $5-10,000 more for various sundries.  Equalling about $80,000 or so.  Students renting their own off-campus digs are, of course, paying more.  Overall, an astounding cost: and for what?

Relentless marketing over many generations can do wonders.  Think of the sacrosanct hush, the reverential kowtowing, evoked (knee-jerk style) by this magical mantra…”Harvard.”  Or, to an only slightly lesser degree, the “accreditational aura” conjured up by …Yale…Princeton…Columbia.  Yet, when the reality is experienced–what a letdown!  The callow undergrad is often simply overwhelmed by the arbitrary requirements and arcane readings–not to mention the sheer impersonality–of such elite “meccas of learning.”  The prospective Ph.D., “accepted” by such an elite bastion as Columbia GSAS, quickly seeks a “mentor” (advisor)–and preferably an up-and-coming “hot” commodity riding the wave of the latest intellectual fad (or craze, if you prefer).  Ideally, such a sponsor is plugged into a network of rising stars who might serve as contacts and “references” in the future.  Whether these “cutting-edge” scholars are often little more than poseurs and charlatans–especially in such fields as comparative literature and gender studies–is beside the point.  One is not seeking to advance human knowledge and enlightenment, one is seeking A JOB; i.e., a prestigious appointment on the tenure-track! 

The doctoral candidate thus willingly goes through an interminable rite-of-passage–characterized by mystifying ordeals and punishments–and finally emerges…as what?  Perhaps as someone whose most conspicuous achievement was to have exhaustively written about a topic so insignificant that the endless legions of previous scholars had no trouble overlooking it.  Yet upon graduation, the incredible scarcity of such tenure-track positions must be fiercely combatted by the aforesaid relentless networking — as well as by the relentless padding of one’s CV with “presentations given,” “comments on” Foucault’s footnote, “notes toward a theory of (something or other),” ad infinitum.

But a successful job search also requires considerable skill in “impression management.”  Having carefully balanced a well-measured sycophantism with maybe just a dash of unthreatening “originality,” the ambitious young academic makes sure to project a blandly reassuring mediocrity, sure to please each-and-every member of the prestigious Department’s Search Committee!  Then–hooray (well, almost!): if the Dean and the Provost and Assistant Dean for Harmonious Relations all approve–and, yes, the President, as well as the Legal Department–then one is now…an Assistant Professor!!

I’ll admit it: although I was committed to choosing specializations and writing articles that I truly believed in, I was as susceptible to the frantic “desire to succeed” as most others.  Way back when, I got a call from a prestigious professor who “sat” on one of those prestigious inter-disciplinary “Committees” at the University of Chicago.  Fly out immediately!  It’s between you and another fellow–a coveted Mellon Lecturership in Social Science!  (Little did I know who the hell (the sinister) Andrew Mellon was.)  When I arrived at my hotel, very late that night, I found a huge ream of course materials–all regarding the courses I would be expected to teach in the coming semester.

Since I spent the early morning hours plowing through the stuff, I was quite groggy when, at 9:00 a.m., I began my pilgrimage, Kafka-like, from office to office–meeting the innumerable taciturn and unprepossessing colleagues with whom I would be expected to work.  Finally, at a late lunch, I met the Dean and several other professors–all of whom proceeded to ask me guarded yet probing questions.  Apparently, I was a socialist–after all, my CV listed articles in Dialectical Anthropology.  But was I also somehow a “conservative”?  After all, I had published a book and several papers on Freudian (well, neo-Freudian) topics, and hadn’t Women’s Studies scholars entirely discredited Freudian theories?  (My book Riddles of Eros, in fact, adopts a radical-feminist perspective on liberated female sexuality.)  The Dean suddenly became wary–and when I casually mentioned that I admired some of the points made by his colleague Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), he went ballistic: “Bloom is insulting to our students!”  He then left the table in a fury.  The other four professors remained conspicuously silent, staring into their coffee cups (or was it cocktails?).  When he returned, ten minutes later, he announced that the interview was over, and that I could go outside to the curb, where a limousine would arrive momentarily to whisk me back to the airport.  This whole episode, way back when, was most instructive to me–about petty dictators attracted to the exercise of arbitrary fiats.  The priceless irony: I had believed, naively enough, that a university is a sanctuary for–intellectual freedom!

But to return to the current situation at Columbia.  To my mind, many contradictions abound.  The graduate students, knowing full well that neither they nor the hapless undergrads are getting high-quality skillful teaching (especially from the elite profs who, when they deign to stand in front of an undergrad lectern, are usually more interested in dazzling and intimidating the young students than helping them and inspiring them to love the pursuit of humanly-valuable knowledge).

Moreover, these grad students, aware of Columbia’s obscenely massive treasure-chest (investment portfolio of some $14 billion, which increased $3 billion or so in just the past year), are in effect saying: we deserve some of that!  Sure, it’s only a part-time job with little skill required, and we do enjoy a tuition-exemption (as well as a below market-rate apartment rental), but…it’s expensive to live in NYC!  And we need decent dental insurance!  Few, despite their often pro-Bernie sentiments, seem willing to commute from, say, cheaper neighborhoods in the Bronx (or from working-class New Jersey, as I did).

By contrast, in past decades Columbia protest-organizers focused first and foremost on the corrupt, amoral nature of Columbia’s investments (fossil fuels, armaments, nuclear power, apartheid South Africa).  Or, going back even further (1968): Columbia activists were certainly in earnest when they kicked out profs doing Pentagon-funded research from their offices.  In those days, before the baton-wielding police arrived, the student-activists were actually able to shut down university operations entirely.  Why? To try to force the university to abandon its ongoing expansion plan of tearing-down adjacent tenement buildings in Harlem.  Today, with the urban poor more isolated and beleaguered than ever, one can only wonder how many of the current Columbia graduate “workers” — their (often) progressive political attitudes notwithstanding–would even dare to venture the several blocks into those Harlem streets.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.