In reference to Tessa’s much-appreciated post about mental fatigue and self-care, I would have to diagnose myself as nearly burnt to a crisp on the burnout scale. My burnout, however, is specific to a particular type of library setting: the Great American University. To be perfectly honest, I find myself exhausted by the increasingly corporate culture pervading campus. Just the other day at the Research Assistance desk, I was approached by a student with her intro-level history assignment in hand and upon reading the document for context, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Along with requirements and expectations, the project was prefaced with an overly utilitarian justification for assigning a research-oriented assignment.
To paraphrase, the main rationalization behind the assignment was to prepare students to meet the analytical and information-seeking expectations of the job market. Sound familiar? It shouldn’t be hard to recall instances where this type of education-as-job-prep rhetoric has appeared, whether it be in previous courses or even library instruction. And to be frank, I’m really sick of it. When did the Great American University begin to prioritize student marketability over intellectual cultivation? When did job preparedness rather than individual growth become the main goal of academic institutions? When did corporate values replace academic ideals within higher education?
The moment this existential shift emerged within the university setting can be observed if we take a brief sojourn into American history. In the early 1970’s, nearly three-fourths of college freshmen indicated college attendance was essential to them in order to develop a meaningful, more well-rounded philosophy on life while only a third indicated financial well-being as the prime motivator for admission. Since then, those fractions have dramatically swapped (Berrett). So what happened? In the wake of the Cold War, higher education underwent a major structural adjustment influenced partly by the broader socio-political shift toward free-market orthodoxy, economic strain, and an increasing linkage between university operational budget and industry-related contracts (Berrett). It is at this point that corporate culture hijacked the traditional academic values. Thus was born the edu-factory in which “students are neither ‘customers’ nor ‘consumers’. They are the ‘industry’s’ ‘inputs’ and ‘product.’ The purchasers of the products—private, corporate ‘employers’—are the customers” (Rhoades & Slaughter 14).
Thus began the desperate pitch for the continuing relevance of liberal arts education in the wake of this reorientation towards economic competitiveness of its products (i.e. students). Although corporate interests ultimately stand as the beneficiaries of university efforts, student recruitment is also important for drawing in enough raw product for the university-manufacturer to ultimately yield its finished goods. While higher education was once lauded for developing young people’s potential—to think, to question, to reason—today it is instead presented to students as vocational training, to the point that these corporate values become widely-accepted and even expected by students. As a part of this recruitment strategy, universities offer world-class amenities, among which the university library stands as a major selling point. At my most cynical (and trust me, I’ve been feeling pretty cynical these days), the academic library merely signifies a marketing hook on a university’s recruitment brochures. For the corporate consumers of the student-product, on the other hand, the library represents a reliable brand which provides a type of collateral to hiring said student-product. And Area Studies librarianship—the field I am (was?) interested in pursuing—then would allow the university to check off its “‘multiculturalism”’ box and prove its ability to form a globally competitive workforce to both potential students and corporate interests. So then, where does that leave us future librarians?
It is impossible to completely detach the work we do as librarians, even when engaged in library instruction, from the “context of contemporary labor, capital, and the corporatizing university” (Eisenhower & Dolsy 306). I do not deny that many librarians are engaged in critical pedagogies that at times serve as alternatives to this corporate narrative. But I have to ask myself if information specialists and their critical approaches to teaching and library practices are even making a dent in the prevailing corporate culture. These thoughts I have been grappling with as of late are perfectly encapsulated by Eisenhower & Dolsy’s line of questioning: “What kind of work does our defiant speech do? Is it defiant enough? Is it defiant at all, or simply the expected questioning spirit that is finally disciplined by power arbitrarily executed?” (314).
Berrett, Dan. “The Day the Purpose of College Changed: After February 28, 1967, the main reason to go was to get a job.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 61 (2015). Accessed online: http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Day-the-Purpose-of-College/151359/
Eisenhower, Cathy, and Dolsy Smith. “The library as “stuck place”: Critical pedagogy in the corporate university.” Critical library instruction: Theories and methods (2010): pp. 305-18.
Rhoades, Gary, and Sheila Slaughter. “Academic Capitalism, Managed Professionals, and Supply Side Higher Education.” Social Text 51 (1997): pp. 9-38