notes on academic overwork

This post was written whilst listening to Sharon van Etten’s Glastonbury set from 2015.

One: Preamble

This is a post about the proletarianisation of the university. This is a post about the exploitation of our labour-time. This is a post about how the political economics of higher education determine the annihilation of our souls because the very humane values we believed that we would live by have become fragmented and restructured by competition. Have become fragmented and restructured for value. This is a post about how our tears matters because they are the way in which our souls express solidarity with ourselves and those of others. This is a post about how we may lament that it was otherwise, when instead the abolition of the present state of things is our only alternative.

  • I have written about the proletarianisation of the University, in terms of the subsumption of academic life, through competition and financialisation, here.
  • I have made some notes about the [inevitable] proletarianisation of the University, in terms of student and staff narratives of dehumanisation, here.
  • I have written about Academic subordination to abstract time, here.

TWO: Broken

There is a different tenor of narrative emerging. Sets of narratives about how our whole, academic existence bleeds our souls in the name of value. Performance anxiety that bleeds our souls in the name of value. And so Liz Morrish has described how

This week I chose to open up to students about the relentless stress faced by academic staff in universities. Enough of the omerta, the conspiracy of silence.

What made me do this? Well, I have watched one after another of my colleagues taking sick leave, seeking help from the occupational health service, reporting loss of sleep or just looking exhausted.

I see the quitlit of academics daily. It is everywhere. I see the recounting of how the ongoing pain of academic reproduction, the constant reinvention of the academic Self in Student Satisfaction scores, relentless research publication and scholarship, entrepreneurial activity and knowledge transfer, workload management, performance management, is obliterating a meaningful life. This is overwork that obliterates the possibility that the academic might reproduce herself socially, because there is no time for care of the Self. That time is academically unproductive; unproductive for a life that is for work. And yet it also demands a level of productivity that is never enough. That can never be good enough. As Siobhan O’Dwyer argues

When your ongoing employment hangs on the outcome of a fellowship application that has a less than 20% success rate, it’s easy to abandon self-care in favour of working nights and weekends to increase your chances. When moving interstate or overseas is the only way to pursue your vocation, it’s hard to maintain a relationship or a sense of self. Almost every academic I know is either overweight, living with a mental illness, or has an autoimmune disorder. Those who’ve been lucking enough to avoid these things tend to be single, childless against their will, or in unhappy marriages. Almost all are financially worse off than their same aged, non-academic friends.

And this vocation is parasitic on the souls of staff and students, so that, as Liz Morrish continues, it enforces internalised overwork that then manifests itself as illness.

I told [my students] you could work 60 hours a week, never take a holiday or weekend off, have internationally regarded publications – lots of them, write textbooks, be a great teacher, and managers will still ask for more. And more.

I told them you are measured only by what you have not managed to achieve, not what you have achieved, never mind how valuable or prestigious.

I told them about the effects of long-term stress on the mind and body.

And Plashing Vole has outlined what this looks like in his 13 hour day. And a millennium ago, or so it seems, I explained how, in spite of and because of deteriorating mental health, I just had to keep on being productive. And Siobhan O’Dwyer argues that

you’ll understand why I put everything I owned in boxes and got on a plane when I was offered a permanent academic position in the UK. Although the move will set me back financially and require me, once again, to build a life from the ground up, it’s a small price to pay for certainty and the opportunity to pursue my passion for research and education at an international level.

Just look at what they make us give.

THREE: movements

I wonder how these narratives, which illuminate solidarity between staff and students, become more than moments of solidarity? How do they become movements of solidarity? As Kate Bowles argues academic narratives are important:

because our role is to educate, it really matters how we manage our own working. Whatever we speculate in marketing or curriculum about the future of work, the practice we model to students everyday is how we occupy our own jobs now.

If the expectations of academic pace and productivity are making work unsafe for some, shouldn’t we look harder at the values of the institution that causes these pressures to seem reasonable to anyone?

And the dissonance between values and pressures underscores protests by students at the University of Reading about their current Professional and Administrative Services Review of non-academic roles, as the University responds to a £14.8m deficit. As Niall Hamilton reports:

Today students and staff from University of Reading united in solidarity against job cuts happening across campus. Management at the University of Reading, under the PAS review, is currently targeting over 1,500 crucial but non-academic jobs.

About the same review, Nathan Hyde comments that:

The controversial £36 million review has prompted the university to adopt a new centralised operational model for administrative services and streamline those services by altering hundreds of job roles, offering voluntary severance packages and making redundancies.

Meanwhile at the University of Birmingham, values and pressures collide where there are ongoing threats of redundancies, in spite of surpluses being generated.

Dr Roland Brandstaetter , said: “We cannot see an end of this avalanche of proposed redundancies. Every few months, the University adds another unit. While we are negotiating on the avoidance of redundancies more and more individuals are added to the list of proposed dismissals. We are exhausting all negotiation options and soon we will have no other choice left than to ballot for industrial action. The stress levels staff members are exposed to are not acceptable any longer. I am seriously worried about the wellbeing of staff at the University of Birmingham.”

Is there a potential for a movement against exhaustion that might spill-over national boundaries? There are reports of 100 redundancies at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. And the Teachers’ Union of Ireland is concerned that the enforced mergers through the proposed Technological Universities Bill will damage staff.

We remain gravely concerned about the potential consequences of this Bill given the current crisis of underfunding, understaffing and precarious employment in the institutes.

I wonder if it is possible, in the face of this assault on academic identity that is enacted through time and performance, to imagine a more general transformation of social relations. To work for the abolition of the academic labour that we fetishize as much as our managers. To work for this abolition as we work for the abolition of wage-labour in general.

FOUR: the rule of money

And we know from our reading of McGettigan, and our reading of Universities UK assessments, and our reading of the HE Green Paper, that the rule of (value for) money dominates our academic existence. And I remember what Engels wrote on the Condition of the Working Class in England:

I have never seen a class so deeply demoralised, so incurably debased by selfishness, so corroded within, so incapable of progress, as the English bourgeoisie; and I mean by this, especially the bourgeoisie proper… For it nothing exists in this world, except for the sake of money, itself not excluded. It knows no bliss save that of rapid gain, no pain save that of losing gold. In the presence of this avarice and lust of gain, it is not possible for a single human sentiment or opinion to remain untainted.

Frederich Engels. 1845. The Attitude of the Bourgeoisie to the Proletariat.

The instantiation of money for our social relations drives competition between academics, between academics and professional services staff, between academics and students, between subject teams across universities, between higher education institutions, and so on. Competition for students, over scholarly publications, and most importantly, over time, so that we have no control over the surplus time that the University demands from us, and that the university seeks to manage though workload planning, absence management, performance management, teaching/research excellence. As a result, their domination of our academic clock-time becomes a means of internalising entrepreneurial activity.

Competition is the completest expression of the battle of all against all which rules in modern civil society. This battle, a battle for life, for existence, for everything, in case of need a battle of life and death, is fought not between the different classes of society only, but also between the individual members of these classes. Each is in the way of the other, and each seeks to crowd out all who are in his way, and to put himself in their place. The workers are in constant competition among themselves as are the members of the bourgeoisie among themselves. The power-loom weaver is in competition with the hand-loom weaver, the unemployed or ill-paid hand-loom weaver with him who has work or is better paid, each trying to supplant the other.

Friedrich Engels. 1845. Competition.

I remember from my reading of Capital that the technological and organisational innovations being enforced on higher education are a desperate outcome of the logic of competition, which itself demands the development of the productive power of labour and an attrition on the costs of labour. We witness an increased technical composition of an individual capital or business, like a university, as a response to the need to increase surpluses (as a form of accumulation). This puts further pressure on the demand for labour, as investment in physical and virtual estates, and technological innovation in services, rise. As a result, there is a flow between:

  • the need for universities to compete and to remain productive through technological and organisational innovation;
  • the ability of universities to drive down the labour-time for assessing/teaching/publishing compared to competitor institutions, so that it can maintain competitive advantage;
  • the concomitant rise in casualised or precarious employment, because by driving down labour costs university senior managers buy a greater mass of labour power or ‘progressively replaces skilled labourers by less skilled, [and] mature labour power by immature’;
  • changes in the technical conditions of the process of academic production (through digital innovation, new workload agreements, and so on), which enable new accumulations of surplus academic products to become additional means of production. This drives new markets, or internationalisation or digital learning strategies, and offers the possibility of throwing academic labourers from one sphere of production (the university) into new ones (private HE providers or alternative service providers);
  • the ability to sustain surpluses, as concentrations of accumulated wealth, in part by forcing academic labour to set in motion more means of production, in order to reduce the relative size of its labour costs, and even worse to become self-exploiting entrepreneurs;
  • the ‘accelerated accumulation of total capital’ required to absorb new (early career) academic labourers or even those already employed, through the constant revolutionising of the means of production and the search for new markets for expanded cycles of accumulation; and
  • the drive to centralise and monopolise the production, circulation and accumulation of academic value (through league tables, enabling market exit, and so on), which changes the composition of capital by increasing the constant, technical parts (the estate) and reducing the variable costs of labour).

These [academic] labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal [in their teaching, assessment, feedback, research, scholarship, knowledge exchange], are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. 1848. Communist Manifesto.

As Marx notes, this tends to create a surplus, precarious population.

it is capitalistic accumulation itself that constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant population of labourers, i.e., a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the self-expansion of capital, and therefore a surplus population.

Karl Marx. 1867. Progressive Production of a Relative surplus population or Industrial Reserve Army.

FIVE: overwork

Increasingly abstract time dominates academic labour: the 50-minute hour; the four-week turnaround for feedback on work; being always-on through tethered technologies; the production of journal articles and books; the production and circulation of learning materials; the production and circulation of assessments and feedback; the exchange of ideas as commodities; the governance of production and circulation by intellectual property, patent and copyright law. A value-chain that is real and virtual, and governed by abstract time whilst its temporalities are regulated by the cultural space/time of student-as-consumer.

Abstract time dominates the life of the University as academic labour is really subsumed and recalibrated by capital. As the products of academic labour are re-constituted as commodities, academic labour is disciplined by impact, performance management and internalising league tables and satisfaction scores. The focus becomes less the concrete labour that produces a journal article or a podcast or a report, but the value that can be extracted from those products as they are exchanged through research funding or knowledge transfer or the fees that accompany student retention, and then realised through the accumulation of wealth.

Amongst others, Adam Price asks How much do our academics work? and highlights that some staff are keeping and sharing informal tallies of their time on task, as evidence of academic overwork. And yet we need to be careful because managers need evidence of time spent on task in order to drive down the socially-necessary labour time for specific activities. Because, if they can evidence that she can turn scripts around in 15 days, why do you take 16? Or if they can evidence that we can turn scripts around in 15 days, why would you wish to study somewhere it takes 16?

And as a result of this domination of abstract time, and of the compulsion of managers to drive down socially-necessary labour time, overwork redefines academic life.

The overwork of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of the reserve, whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the former, forces these to submit to overwork and to subjugation under the dictates of capital. The condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness by the overwork of the other part, and the converse, becomes a means of enriching the individual capitalists

Karl Marx. 1867. Progressive Production of a Relative surplus population or Industrial Reserve Army.

In the academy, overwork is a function of, first the threat of cheaper labour, be it international or domestic and precarious, and second senior managers’ demands that we become perpetually efficient. That we are able to reinvent ourselves over-and-over, to do the teaching, preparation, assessing, feedback, knowledge transfer, curriculum design, scholarship, and so on, of multiple academics. To internalise the academic division of labour, that demands superhuman, entrepreneurial possibilities, or our reduction to cheapened, precarious teaching or research assistant, or project manager, or whatever. And we know that in the latter case, where the academic is unable structurally or personally to deliver superhuman capabilities, their labour risks becoming simplified and worthless.

And in the attempt t become superhuman, we generate and offer-up our own surplus labour time to the university. This is a desperate attempt to remain on-side, and the university as business, as competing capital, takes this as central to its model for grounding growth and competitive edge through exploitation.

Let us assume that the average necessary labour time = 10 hours, and that the normal surplus labour = 2 hours, hence the total daily labour time of the worker = 12 hours. Now assume that the capitalist sets the worker to work for 13 hours a day during 6 days of the week, hence 1 hour over the normal or average surplus labour time. These 6 hours amount to 1/2 working day in the week. Now one has to take into consideration more than this surplus value of 6 hours. In order to appropriate 6 hours of surplus labour, the capitalist would under normal conditions have had to employ 1 worker for 3 days or 3 workers for one day, i. e. he would have had to pay for 30 (3 × 10) hours of necessary labour time. With this daily extra hour of surplus labour he obtains half a day of surplus labour a week, without having to pay for the 3 days of necessary labour time he would have had to pay for under normal conditions, so as to appropriate the 6 hours of surplus labour. In the first case a surplus value of only 20%; in the second, one of 30%; but the last 10% of surplus value do not cost him any necessary labour time.

Marx’s Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63. Absolute Surplus Value by Karl Marx: Advantageof Overwork.

They need our overwork. Our surplus labour time. Our exhaustion. Our internalised precarity. Our anxiety. In the face of the threat of restructuring and redundancy, they need us to internalise and reproduce their exploitation. To make their exploitation our means of academic reproduction. So that we truly become self-exploiting entrepreneurs. Because in such a high-status game, what could be worse than becoming worthless? And the double-bind is, for all the narratives of academic distress and quitlit, for all the stories in search of solidarity, that our overwork is a function of their marketised and financialised competition. It reduces us so that academic competes against academic, in order to reduce socially-necessary labour time, and to immiserate academic labour conditions further.

Furthermore, to the same degree in which the division of labour increases, is the labour simplified. The special skill of the labourer becomes worthless. He becomes transformed into a simple monotonous force of production, with neither physical nor mental elasticity. His work becomes accessible to all; therefore competitors press upon him from all sides. Moreover, it must be remembered that the more simple, the more easily learned the work is, so much the less is its cost to production, the expense of its acquisition, and so much the lower must the wages sink – for, like the price of any other commodity, they are determined by the cost of production. Therefore, in the same manner in which labour becomes more unsatisfactory, more repulsive, do competition increase and wages decrease.

The labourer seeks to maintain the total of his wages for a given time by performing more labour, either by working a great number of hours, or by accomplishing more in the same number of hours. Thus, urged on by want, he himself multiplies the disastrous effects of division of labour. The result is: the more he works, the less wages he receives. And for this simple reason: the more he works, the more he competes against his fellow workmen, the more he compels them to compete against him, and to offer themselves on the same wretched conditions as he does; so that, in the last analysis, he competes against himself as a member of the working class.

Wage Labour and Capital. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/ch09.htm

Saying no. Refusing work. Working to rule. How else to demonstrate solidarity?

SIX: social reproduction

And the stories are worse, because we know that academic overwork damages our wider social relationships. Our overwork squeezes the space and time available for the reproduction of the Self. It distorts the ability we have to care for ourselves. To clean, feed, love, nurture ourselves and those around us. So that, time-poor, we outsource so many of our needs or those of our families. So that work and accumulation colonises our care as well, and our souls are more fully lost to us in this ‘brutalising condition’ (Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England). As Sylvia Federici states

while production has been restructured through a technological leap in key areas of the world economy, no technological leap has occurred in the sphere of domestic work significantly reducing the labour socially necessary for the reproduction of the workforce.

We are brutalised through the compartmentalisation and fragmentation of ourselves as academics or teachers or researchers, which reduces our humanity, and which is a result of our desperate urge to be socially productive. And so we help to conjure up new forces of production, through technology and organisation and innovation, which in turn further our exploitation and reduce our ability to take care of our social reproduction. This is an academic arms-race that we cannot win.

[T]hey mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.

Karl Marx. 1867. Different Forms of the Relative surplus population. The General Law of Capitalistic Accumulation.

And here the terrain of the personal narratives noted above connects in-part through academic time. These narratives open-up the possibility that we might discuss a reduction of academic competition and overwork, in relation to academic time and the socially-necessary labour time of academic work, and the abolition of wage labour and exploitation itself. As Jehu notes:

Since the competition within the working class is over who will sell her labor power to capital, as a practical matter a reduction of hours would reduce the competition within the working class. But it could not reduce working class competition without also reducing capitalist profits. The working class thus not only must overcome competition within its ranks to reduce its hours of labor, the reduction of competition within the working class makes possible the end of wage labor itself. The reduction of hours of labor is just the periodic expression of the movement to end wage labor in its entirety.

Because the flipside is the need to internalise and incorporate the kind of employability bullshit that focuses on depersonalising (dissociating?), picking yourself up, brushing yourself off, and generating your own internal value (moving forward). Or, as Siobhan O’Dwyer notes, generating uncertainty as an acceptable form of academic post-traumatic stress disorder.

But here’s the thing: I still don’t feel certain. Twelve years of uncertainty and instability has taken its toll. Multiple moves have taught me never to get too comfortable; to not recycle the packing boxes but instead keep them at the back of the closet. As a result of the unpredictable mix of fellowship successes and rejections, I have internalised the message that I am not good enough. Too many ‘down to the wire’ moments –  in which I was forced to wait until just a few  weeks before a contract ended to find out if I would have another – have made me question my worth. And so I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I keep wondering why they hired me. I hesitate to buy new clothes or appliances, knowing they’ll max out the 30kg luggage allowance if I have to move again. I was genuinely confused when my new boss suggested I spend my first few weeks “just getting to know people.

Perhaps, as Amy Wendling notes, academic time appears to be our everything and must be made nothing. No thing at all. Our fetishized academic existence annihilated, so that we might return to some alternative form of intellectual, physical and humane existence.

[I]n the communist future, which is not subject to the calculus of value, time must diminish in importance. When we extrapolate Marx’s visions of free time, therefore, we must not only envision the lengthening of the disposable hours the worker marks between short stints of productive labor. We must instead imagine a modern life freed from time, or at least modern life freed from time’s abstract and alienating dominations. (p. 199)


2 Responses to notes on academic overwork

  1. You make painfully accurate points.

    Cruelly, when the ranking and reputation of the institution that has broken and bled us rises, our chances of secure employment and improved conditions lowers. The competition increases.

    We are so overworked and exhausted that we find ourselves in a well of solitude and without an exit strategy. What we know best is what has robbed us of time and life force.

  2. Hi Richard,
    nice post.
    Liz Morrish’s blog post is not available any more – neither on Academic Irregularities, nor on THE. I wonder what happened? Is it time to be seriously concerned about academic freedom?

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