It’s that time again, by which I mean, I’m seeing the latest postsecondary-related piece from The Walrus circulating through my social feeds (just in time for “Back to School”!) and I’m irritated enough to write a response. It’s a type of commentary I’ve seen before, but since this one’s Canadian and in a relatively popular magazine, I decided to take it apart as an example. So beyond the weirdly uncomfortable figurative language (“like a piece of once-glistening pork left out on a counter”—?), I want to point out a few other things that are troubling about this piece.
Firstly, there’s a lot that we can’t know about this author because he writes using a pseudonym — even though nothing at all controversial is said in the article. But one thing that stands out right away is his lack of awareness of his own position within the context he describes, and the relative privilege he enjoys.
Many scholars have no choice but to try to build a career outside of academe
For example, in spite of the admission that “it could have been much worse”, there’s no examination of what makes it possible for him to do this work in temporary positions for such a long period without having to make a difficult decision about his career. I know you might be reacting to that with, “privilege? But he can’t even find a tenure track job!” But what this author isn’t mentioning (or noticing) is that many people who can’t find a job in their field in academe have no choice but to move on and try to build a career elsewhere, because they have obligations, responsibilities, or just a general lack of resources and no way to keep going at such a low level of income. If the author had children to support, for example, he might not be so willing to keep waiting for the right academic job to come along. If he had significant debts to pay, he might find himself needing a salary even if it isn’t an academic one. Many people working on contracts long-term admit they can only do so because of the support of a partner with a steady income.
Overall this gives the impression that the author’s point of view is almost completely disconnected from the rest of the discussion about contract faculty, which has been substantive and critical and has existed for some time (decades, even), and has been particularly visible in recent years. The column reads as if it’s written in a bubble. Black briefly mentions that “in all likelihood, most academics are able to tell similar stories” — and indeed they have, repeatedly, in many different publications and in academic research. But since this author clearly didn’t run a Google search, the piece is basically written as if he is the first person to have discovered this is an issue that might be worthy of discussion. There’s not even a mention of the widespread activism that has brought more attention to contract faculty in the first place. Alongside that gap, there’s no analysis of systemic issues at all; the problem is individualised as “my plight” even as Black mentions that it’s broader than his own experience.
Feeding the “crisis” beast
One reason I’m responding to this column is that there is the whole “crisis” framing that publications like The Walrus and The Globe and Mail feed with their coverage and commentary, and are in turn fed by the attention they generate from it. One problem with this is that it makes it sound as if the issue is new. I think this framing actually downplays the long-term systemic nature of the problems being discussed, which suggests the potential solutions are also superficial or short-term fixes. In reality the “over-production” of PhDs has been an issue since at least the late 1970s — and indeed as far back as the 1930s or earlier (with thanks to Inger Mewburn for that citation).
Another reason is that it’s very frustrating to see a serious issue being dealt with in this way. My expectations of The Walrus are, at this point, pretty low. But I still can’t help feeling disappointed when a national media source publishes weak coverage on issues I care about and/or have researched personally. It’s also just frustrating when a column or article points to relevant issues but completely fails to place them in context, flesh them out, reference any research or link to any other commentary, or provide critical analysis. I don’t expect a scholarly essay, but I do hope for some acknowledgement that there’s an existing conversation around these problems.
Enough with the “lost generation”
The article also feeds into the well-worn trope of the “lost generation.” That term, like “crisis”, isn’t helpful. We’ve had generations of “lost” scholars already, and I’m not just talking about anyone with a PhD who couldn’t get an academic job. I’m talking about (for example) the Indigenous scholars, disabled scholars, black scholars, queer scholars, long shut out of academe because their work wasn’t taken seriously or because academe could not embrace their difference. In this way, “crisis” is relative: those groups have been at a hiring disadvantage for a long time. If there is a “crisis” then it’s already affecting them the most, since their situation was more difficult to begin with; if hiring conditions are tough, marginalised scholars have always faced such tough conditions.
There’s another problem with the “lost generation” idea, a problem well-illustrated in Black’s column. It’s the assumption (yet again) that only a tenure track job is “success” and that every other option is somehow “less than”:
“until a tenure-track position arrives, we are academic waifs or the ‘unrealized’ who have failed somehow to live up to our potential.”
Anyone who can’t get one of those jobs is “lost”, but lost to what — to academe? There are talented and dedicated scholars who choose to leave academia for various reasons including the harassment and sexism that are still rampant (see this post by Sara Ahmed; or read this thread); the workload that can become untenable and is a dysfunction fuelled by an ever-present (peer) pressure to overload oneself; the intolerance of health issues or of the desire to have, or spend time with, a family — even to be able to build a life in one place instead of being “mobile” is something that might be regarded as showing a lack of commitment to academic work. If you’re not willing and able to hang in for as many years as it takes to get the “right” job, it’s assumed you didn’t want it enough.
Reinforcing the wrong message
Even as that internal logic justifies the loss of promising scholars, academe’s “loss” is a gain somewhere else; the university is not the only place where intellectual work happens. Far from it. We’re taught to crave the legitimacy and relative security of a tenured faculty position as validation for our scholarship, our research, our contributions to intellectual life. But it’s not a necessary condition for our practice, only (possibly) the ideal one. Unfortunately, articles like Black’s matter because they reinforce a message about what we should be doing and how we should feel when we aren’t doing it. They frame and re-frame our experience as that of unfortunate individuals, rather than participants in long-term systemic phenomena.
The fallacy of individual responsibility goes hand in hand with the assumption that academia is a functioning meritocracy. But an understanding of the university as a realm of the mind wherein you get to “do what you love” with total freedom to pursue “truth”, can only be sustained if you’ve never come into contact with the constraints that universities place on bodies and minds that are seen as inherently biased or less valuable due to their difference. By extension, the author makes it sound as if we all have the same expectations that a tenure-track job will come along just for us. This is the sort of commentary that reinforces stereotypes about academics’ sense of privilege, while downplaying the structural issues at play.
Media outlets love anecdotal evidence, because it feels more real than numbers; they love personal stories that trigger emotional responses, because that’s what generates attention, particularly online. Crisis discourse fits perfectly with this, and The Walrus has a track record of publishing articles that frame university education as a “scam” — including those by Ken Coates and Bill Morrison, and Ron Srigley. When considered in that context, this latest column fits into a narrative that’s not really in line with the usual critiques of contract faculty hiring. But that’s the narrative that people are buying, and it’s one that I hear echoed in too many spaces. While the university has plenty of problems, these narrow articulations of its “broken”-ness — which are still being produced by mainstream media sources — shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the conversation, given all that they erase and ignore.