A recent, reflective piece by Carolyn Foster Segal on the slippery definitions of academic work got me thinking about the ways that such work is understood in terms of its labor value.
This existential crisis is unquestionably a political one, as can be seen in a recent conflict between Graduate Student Research Assistants who are attempting to unionize and some opposing legislators and faculty, students and administrators at the University of Michigan. In question is the status of the work performed by graduate student RAs—is it the directed labor of an employee or the “learning labor” of a student? One thing that is clear from the comments and debates surrounding the case, is that sides are taken as much for ideological reasons as any that might actually reflect working conditions or an understanding of academic labor. Where does academic labor fit? The answer seems to have more to do with one’s general attitude towards workers and collective bargaining than the specifics of academic labor itself.