Jeffrey Williams with Marc Bousquet

Marc Bousquet
Marc Bousquet

Since the late 1990s, Marc Bousquet has been one of the most trenchant critics of labor practices in higher education. He disabused received wisdom about the job market, showing how its depressed state resulted not from a natural cycle, but from deliberate strategies, in his essay, “The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible” (Social Text 70 [2002]). And he has exposed other dubious practices of the corporate university: the rise of the administrative class; the way that professors have become managers, overseeing a pool of cheap teaching labor across the curriculum; and the way that undergraduates have been conscripted into the discounted work force in the current university. These analyses culminated in his book How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (NYU Press, 2008). Beginning in 2008 he has taken his commentary on higher ed to the blogosphere, with a regular column for the Chronicle of Higher Education in conjunction with his website.

While he was in graduate school, Bousquet cofounded Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, which published its first issue in February 1998. He also co-edited, with Tony Scott and Leo Parascondola, Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers: Writing Instruction in the Managed University (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), and edited The Politics of Information: The Electronic Mediation of Social Change (Alt-X Press, 2004). His pathbreaking work led to a special issue of Works and Days 41-42 (2003), guest edited by Teresa Derickson, that reprints five of his essays and fourteen responses.

Born in 1963, Bousquet grew up in Buffalo, New York, where his father was a manager for the Social Security Administration. He studied at Yale (BA, 1985), where he had courses with several of the Yale Critics well known at the time. Afterwards, he moved to the East Village in New York to write, working as an advertising copywriter and ghostwriter. In 1991 he decided to return to academe, entering the PhD program at CUNY (PhD, 1997). After a postdoc at Indiana University, he got a tenure-track job at the University of Louisville in 1998, moving in 2005 to Santa Clara University and in 2012 to Emory University.

This interview took place on November 15th, 2008 at Marc Bousquet’s house in Los Gatos, California. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams and transcribed by Heather Steffen.

Jeffrey Williams: Your new book, How the University Works, diagnosing problems with higher education, notably the disposability of grad students, the managerializing of faculty and the exploitation of undergrads, just came out and has become something of a rallying cry, especially for younger academics. Maybe you could talk about how you came to be a critic of the university.