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Reviewed by:
  • Steal This University
  • Gary Rhoades
Steal This University edited by Benjamin Johnson, Patrick Kavanagh, and Kevin Mattson. Boston: Routledge, 2003. 272 pages. Cloth $75.00. Paper $18.95.ISBN 0-41593482-4.

The anthology, Steal This University (Routledge, 2003), provides a collection of essays on "the rise of the corporate university and the academic labor movement." Organized into three sections, the volume provides an overview of the corporatization of American universities, commentaries on "laboring within" the privatized enterprise, and essays on "organizing" academic workers. The latter two sections consist of first hand accounts written by people working within higher education in "contingent" positions (e.g., as adjunct faculty and graduate assistants) or working to organize contingent instructional personnel. With a few important exceptions, Steal This University is largely about graduate assistants and adjunct faculty, and is a welcome addition to the literature, which is thin in this area. It is also about unionization in academe, another topic on which the literature is thin, despite the fact that graduate assistants and faculty are more likely than the typical employee in the U.S. to be represented by a collective bargaining unit.

The strength of the book is in the very readable essays of those authors who are working as or are organizing graduate assistants, adjunct faculty, or tenure-track faculty. It is an accessible anthology for undergraduates as well as graduate students. There is a directness and force to these accounts that is compelling. The essays are not intended as objective reports but are presented as powerful, subjective renderings that give life to the issues at hand. In my view, such an approach has a great deal to offer. These are real peoples' lives, and there is an urgency to and insight that comes with first-person narratives. Too often this dimension of reality is lost in distanced discussions of restructuring, corporatization, and typologies of part-time academic work. Particularly for readers interested in the struggles, strategies, and power (and professional) politics surrounding the unionization of graduate employees and of adjuncts, this volume has a great deal to offer.

Kevin Mattson's essay traces his realization as a graduate assistant that he is part of "contingent labor generation"; apropos of administrative arguments that graduate assistants are apprentices, he offers an insightful analogy of what the guild system in the U.S. was really like in the 1800s, which eventually involved the journeymen (equivalent in academe to today's graduate assistants and adjuncts) forming their own unions. Alexis Moore's description of her life in "academic piecework", teaching at one time at six community colleges, is equally powerful in conveying tensions between the adjunct faculty and the faculty [End Page 594] union, controlled by full-timers. In "Blacklisted and Blue," Corey Robin offers a chilling story of the threatening and retaliatory actions of Yale faculty, including some leftist scholars, against graduate students supporting unionization; his narrative nicely reveals the personalizing and romanticizing features of faculty's attitudes towards students and the conception of Yale. Joel Westheimer offers a similarly chilling narrative about his experience as a highly productive assistant professor at NYU who was denied tenure not long after having testified before the New York regional office of the National Labor Relations Board in support of graduate student unionization. His story reveals the ongoing threats to academic freedom and an ongoing administrative investment in corporate style discretion with regard to all its employees in contemporary academe. Lisa Jessup provides a wonderful insiders description and story of the strategies that underlay the successful unionization campaign of NYU graduate assistants, revealing the political sophistication of these students. Michael Brown, Ronda Copher, and Katy Gray Brown offer a contrasting, but equally thoughtful inside account of the failed efforts of the graduate student organizing drive at the University of Minnesota, thwarted by a focus more on winning the election than on building a strong union, as well as by an anti-union campaign led by some graduate students. Cary Nelson speaks to the case of efforts within a disciplinary association, the Modern Languages Association, to address wages, working conditions, and academic freedom for graduate employees and contingent academic laborers. Barbara Gottfried and Gary Zabel...


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