Capitalism, Innovation, and Labor in the Neo-Liberal University

Capitalism, Innovation, and Labor in the Neo-liberal university


This really should be my last SIF post, since it returns to the theme with which we began our fellowships, talking with Justin and Brennan last August about the meaning of “innovation.” I have been thinking about that lately in relation to my blog post from last month, and today, those thoughts received stimulation from an unexpected source, President Becker.
I should say right at the outset that I have been and remain suspicious of the word “innovation” which strikes me a kind of capitalist buzzword that means new, shiny, and expensive and of planned obsolescence, especially in relation to technology and to education, which has a track record of chasing “innovations” that often ends up looking rather faddish and only occasionally seems to really accomplish a whole lot other than shifting a lot of money from the public and from students into the hands of for-profit companies.
That, of course is a cynical and probably unfair characterization of a lot of what universities mean when they talk about innovation. But, it’s a way of looking at “innovation” within the context of the neo-liberalization of the university, a broad tendency that is clearly at work across higher education these days and one that I think is on the whole a serious threat to universities, or at least to the project of the humanities on which they have been built.
At this point, it may looking like I am gearing up for a rant, but that is not really where I am headed.
Today, I was at a meeting of the committee overseeing the implementation of the consolidation of GSU and GPC at which, to my surprise, the main topic of the day was the nature of innovation, with specific reference to both higher ed and technology. Among the participants in the little mini-debate that broke out on that topic was President Becker who made the comment that technology itself was not innovation. To illustrate this, he pointed to the strides GSU has made in lowering its number of drop outs and in helping students get their degrees in a shorter period of time*, was based in part on purchasing a piece of software that allowed them to track students and to use advanced metrics to identify students who were falling behind and to help with advising. But, as he pointed out, other colleges and universities who had purchased the same software had not seen the results from it that GSU had. As Becker put it, this is because innovation is the “marriage of process and technology.” He credited GSU’s success less with the software – important as that was — than with building a process to use the technology in efficient ways.
Now, President Becker knows more about higher ed than I ever will. But, I would like to amend his statement just a little, to emphasize that inside of the idea of “process” is the idea of labor. Process if you will, is a fetish in the Marxist sense that it “hides” within it labor-value, human labor.

So my definition of innovation would extend Becker’s just a little bit and emphasis that technology + process + skilled human labor = innovation.
And this brings me back to the SIF. The projects we have been working on often involve fancy technology – the 3d Atlanta project or the Drones are great examples of this. Sometimes they involve “innovative” software that seems likely to go the way of the MOOC rather quickly (I am thinking of you Captivate!), and sometimes it involves rather basic and boring technology that doesn’t rise much beyond the level of microsoft word or the basic html it takes to put together a website. But this is not what makes the SIF project go. Instead, what is “innovative” about the SIF is its relatively large-scale investment in creating skilled human labor out of grad students and honors undergrads and putting us to work.
This by no means exempts the SIF from examination as itself in many ways part of the neoliberal transformations in universities. But I think it provides one answer to the question with which the program began: what is innovation? We are.
*And thus with less debt. Perhaps my favorite line of the whole meeting came from Becker, who commented that the worst student outcome that GSU could be responsible was a student who had nothing to show for college except debt. Even though the college loan economy is intimately tied to the neo-liberalizaton of the university, that is a topic for another time.


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