Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em," Academic Job Edition

A UofC friend linked to Patrick Iber's devastating twitter feed before he wrote this piece for Inside Higher Ed.  As a fellow UofC History Ph.D., much of what he writes is familiar (minus the Harvard book contract).  My first year on the academic job market was truly horrible, despite getting a good response to my applications, and my first AHA was definitely a life lowlight.  The misery of my first academic job interviews will always be intertwined with the poor choice of Chick-Fil-A for my pre-interview breakfast.  Never mix spicy chicken on a biscuit, orange juice, and extreme mental duress (disclaimer: this was in 2007, well before the big CFA blowup.  I no longer buy food there.)

If year one sucked because of my nerves, year four (maybe) found me leaving my daughter in the NICU to fly to Boston to interview at the AHA (the major conference interviewing event in my field).  I went to the hospital in the morning to see LB, leaving directly for the airport, and returned the next day to head straight back to the hospital.  Because when you're on the academic job market you don't say "my baby is in the NICU and I don't want to leave her and I'm a physical and emotional wreck and I don't think I can do this," just like Patrick didn't say "my mom's in the hospital and we think she's okay, but it's serious and I don't want to leave town." If you get chosen from 400 or 800 applicants (and those are real numbers, much to the chagrin of hiring committees) and make it to the long short list, you can't give the committee any reason to pick someone who is just as good as you but doesn't have your "personal problems."  So you go, and at the time you think it's the right and normal thing to do.

My slow coming to terms with the fact that despite the fact that I slowly and painfully became a very good graduate student and a decent intellectual, I don't have the temperament to be an academic in the 2000s.  In the slower pace of 1965, I think I could have held my own.  Of course, having read hundreds of recommendation letters for graduate students in the 1950s and 1960s, I know that back then all the white ladies who got Ph.D.s were described as "high strung" at best, and "emotionally damaged" at worst, and shuttled off to appropriately non-glamorous jobs.  All the Black men were "not a top intellect, but certainly a fine fellow for your negro college."  I never came across any letters for women of color.  Funny (as in funny devastating, not funny funny) that as they threw open the doors to at least a few of us non-rich-white-guys, the conditions of labor within academia quickly degraded.

 Slow realization was punctuated by the "What the fuck am I doing" moment of realization that I was trying to get a breast pump through security at Logan while my baby lay in an isolette in Baltimore.  And the "Who the fuck are these people" moments of arriving at my office and finding the locks changed and someone else's name on the door, and then being told to move my thousands of books down a flight of stairs and through a building right quick while 6 months pregnant.  Or the flat rejections when I asked for help covering my class because I was on hospital bedrest at 29w trying not to give birth or have a stroke (although some people did help-women I barely knew, women on the lower rungs of academia, women of color and white women).  And if I'm starting to sound bitter, it's because academic life will make you bitter.

But lots of jobs suck, and lots of employment sectors are under pressure, and as much as I hated working at a university some days, it was better than my previous job at Starbucks, or baking bagels, or cleaning hotel rooms, or prepping meat at a Bar-B-Que joint, or any of the other awesome jobs I had before I became an soft-handed intellectual.

One thing that makes the problems of academic labor so frustrating is the seeming inability of people who spend their lives theorizing about "agency," "false-consciousness," and whatnot to even acknowledge that their choices have consequences.  Academics claim befuddlement and busyness as cover for their own part in the oppression of low-level academic workers.  In my experience, academics tend to be more concerned with protecting their own turf, however small, than acting as a group to protect labor.

Historians can deconstruct the hows and whys and wherefores of the boss man giving every woman three extra looms to watch and speeds them up x2, and understand that the workers suffer.  Historians can analyze the divisions of race, class, and gender, and the personal fears, that divide workers and keep them from collective action.  But they seem unable to turn that lens on the current conditions of academic labor.

The result isn't just the pathetic spectacle of very smart people acting completely helpless in the face of economic, political, and cultural forces.  I also see among academics an almost complete lack of teaching about the ethics of academic labor.  Established academics train the next generations, but, at least at UofC there is no training in the new realities of academic life.  It's not just the problem of suggesting that if you don't land an academic job, well surely you can go find work in a museum (good luck with that one).  It's the problem of receiving no training to recognize the difference between a fair wage and an unfair wage, reasonable working conditions and toxic working conditions, working for free that constitutes a reasonable apprenticeship and working for free that's just working for free. This training is important both for future faculty members who often become de facto HR officers (usually violating a few labor laws along the way), and for future contingent faculty who should be encouraged to draw the line against abysmal wages and working conditions-and I understand how hard that choice is when you could really use a couple grand.

I think this training and these conversation don't happen, at least in part, because there is so much shame in academia, and an inability to talk honestly about what constitutes success and failure in this age of Ph.D. overproduction.  Contingent faculty feel shame for not landing that tenure track position, for the feeling that they just weren't good enough.  Tenure track and even tenured faculty feel their own fears and shames.  The very real feeling that a position is always precarious, that it isn't prestigious enough, that one isn't hustling hard enough, and that hustling won't pay off.  It's never pretty to see a group of people struggling within an environment of scarcity.  And the worse one's situation is the less one is allowed to complain.  Faculty are unable to acknowledge the role that they play in the degradation of academic labor both through their choices, or votes, and by their silence and inaction. 

I guess I'm a walking-away-from-academia success story.  I have a job that I really enjoy in the geographic area where I want to live, and I have a reasonable approximation of work/life balance that includes family dinner most days, and hour or so for what I will in the evening, and some time to read for pleasure.  But, I wouldn't want to see my happiness turned into a narrative of "a Ph.D. is a great investment, you can always work outside of academia."  I got my current job by carefully omitting my Ph.D. from my resume.  Despite this state's significant need for highly skilled workers, there seemed to be no place for me.  There must be something terribly wrong with a society that is turned off by workers who are over-educated or over-credentialed.  If the issue is that the world can't afford to pay me like a tenure track faculty member at an R1 university, and certainly my current employer cannot, I can accept that-I didn't become an academic for the money.  However, like other workers, academics should live in a world where busting one's ass at work leads to a wage that makes a person ineligible for food stamps and includes or pays enough to cover health insurance.  But the distrust of academics seems bigger than the fear that we want a big check for sitting around cogitating, it's a strand of American anti-intellectualism that says too much education makes a person less capable.

Our current situationmakes me think of all the amazing artists and writers who were unemployed during the Depression and ended up working for the WPA.  The US found a place for them, and they paid back that government cheese many times over with novels, paintings, and research.  I have value.  Patrick has value as a teacher, a writer, and a researcher.  I want to live in a world that has a place for us to do what we do-work.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mary - someone just brought this to my attention and I wanted to thank you for writing it. I don't know what else to say, really - the situation is so bad for so many people. I'm glad that I was able to raise some awareness about that, and I'm glad that you've found work that you find satisfying. I hope that those who do make it to the privileged side of the tenure-track will be conscious of their responsibility to good stewards of academic life for the next generation. All best to you and your daughter.