Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Work 2016 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Theoretical Perspectives (Ethnography of the University 2016: Focus on Work)

From Kathi Weeks: The University as a Work Society

By Mirae Lee

In order to begin thinking and formulating questions for our individual ethnographic research, we first started by trying to understand what “work” is/means and what it means to be a “worker.”

According to Kathi Weeks in The Problem with Work (2011), work is the primary means by which an individual integrates into the economic, social, and political system. She argues that members of the society accept and are willing to work as a means to “earn a living,” therefore work becomes a “requirement,” even a “natural order, rather than a social convention” to sustain in the society. In light of neoliberalism along with post-neoliberalism, these regimes demand members to work for wages as capitalism becomes the main mode of production. Wage, or how much income someone earns determines the status of both the work itself and the worker in relation to other workers and within the overall society.

“Work” – whether the type of activity or labour, or the setting in which the labour is performed – is structured by relations of power and authority, hierarchical organizations, consent and obedience, and spaces of exclusion (or inclusion i.e. through membership). As workers we are constantly interacting with some form of power relations – whether someone’s position is more “dominant” or more “subordinate” over another person – which determine and is determined by class identification. If to understand students as workers, for example, a particular idea of “class” is associated with Engineering students versus Humanities students due to presumed future endeavours associated with their study programs. However, Weeks notes that this affirmation of value isn’t simply a category, but something we perform. We can conceptualize this with the notion of “doing gender” and how individuals practice a socially constructed notion of what a particular gender should do and be. If so, how do students embrace class or assign value to the program they study? How is this value produced, delivered and performed?

To further understand the power dynamics active within work as a site, Weeks points to the notion of “freedom” – the control or participation of an individual in shaping their conditions of life. According to Weeks, we are often given the sense of freedom in dictating our work, such as the freedom to choose where we want to work, freedom for creativity in performing our task, or freedom to choose our program of study with a general understanding of the type of “work” a certain program requires. But this freedom for decision-making is still ultimately performed within a particular power relation and structure.

If the line between what is work and what is the way of living is as blurred as Weeks argues, is there a space for contestation over the dominance of work over our daily lives? How does work exist in the university, particular the University of Toronto? If the U of T is predominantly a space for fostering students as future workers, what other work and workers are active in the University as a workplace? How is power at play in certain work relationships? How can a wage be reinterpreted in a university setting where non-wage “work” is predominant (i.e. students who “work” or study) and encouraged (i.e. volunteer work, extracurricular work, etc)? Is the demand for a wage absent in these types of “work,” or are these types of work fueled by the precise demand for (future, anticipated) wages? Along with the numerous questions which emerge from grappling with the idea of “work” and its relation to the University, one major question emerges. The above definitions of understanding “work” derive from Week’s argument that that we live in a work society, but do we actually live in a work society? And how does the U of T participate in perpetuating or formulating a work society?

The University as Site of Self-recruitment and Subject-making

By Madi Laurin

In preparing for our study of producing the work-ready student at the University we read and have relied on two pieces of theory: Frederic Lordon’s chapter “Joyful Auto-Mobiles”, in Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire, and Jason Read’s “University Experience: Neoliberalism against the Commons”, in Toward a Global Autonomous University. These two pieces allowed us to identify two specific processes of anticipatory work which proved especially helpful and important for our individual and collective studies of work at the University.

From Lordon we learned of the processes by which the consenting work subject is made. Lordon focuses on the process of desire-making in the workplace. He identifies that our desires (and thereby consent) to work are not actually our own; we do not desire things because they are intrinsically desirable, but because we have been made to see them as such, and have been conditioned to consent. The consenting subject who sees their work as desirable is not found intrinsic in the work subject, but is passively made through processes of desire and subject making at the point of production (i.e. in the workplace).

Further, from Read we learned that the making of the work-ready or consenting subject is not done only in the workplace or point of production, but is actively made through processes of self-recruitment in which students participate to represent themselves as work ready. According to Lordon, and clarified by Read, consent is passively constructed at work but the type of person who will likely consent to specific work is also actively recruited. Read identifies the University as the site where students are conditioned and recruited as work subjects as much as, if not more than, they are being educated. He speaks of the education experience as an investment in human capital; which is to say that people spend money on education because it is likely to land them a job in the future, or in other words it will make them more employable. It seems in practice that the action of recruitment and subject making begins much before the subject encounters the workplace proper, i.e. during a student’s time at the University.

The theoretical lenses which Lordon and Read provide have allowed us to identify the University as the site where the processes of passive recruitment, self-recruitment and desire/subject-making begins before the workplace encounter and have thereby made our study of what goes on in the University especially relevant and important to pursue.

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