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Thinking beyond ourselves: The “crisis” in academic work


In the past few weeks some interesting and contentious threads of discussion have been unwinding on “Academic Twitter”, in particular one that’s focused on the current conditions of the academic job market in the United States. It seems the debate was kicked off by a post from Rebecca Schuman at Pan Kisses Kafka blog, who criticized a UC Riverside department for the practice of sending out interview requests only five days before the interviews would take place at the annual MLA conference. This provoked a response from Claire Potter in her blog Tenured Radical, in which she insisted that there had to be reasonable explanations for the process. Potter also critiqued the tone of Schuman’s post, describing it as a “hissy fit”. Multiple follow-up posts ensued.

After the exchange between Schuman and Potter, the flames were further fanned by Karen Kelsky’s response at The Professor Is In, wherein she made a comparison between the denial of privilege by the tenured and the denial of racism by white people. The comparison is inappropriate, but Kelsky’s analysis of the advantages of the tenured hit home, and it set off another intense discussion about the responsibilities of tenured faculty in a context where non-tenured peers/colleagues are working in exploitative conditions.

I think there have been a couple of things happening in this debate. One of them is the underlying issue itself – the job market and hiring practices and, at root, the culture of academe and its professionalization process. This is tied closely to the nature of the academic workforce, which in the United States now comprises over two-thirds temporary and/or contingent faculty positions (hence “New Faculty Majority”); tenure is becoming exceptional. But also emerging from this heated exchange about academic working conditions is the question of how we talk with each other, and the issue of the “policing” of people’s participation in the name of civility or professionalism as illustrated in Potter’s response to Schuman.

The MLA-related example provides a useful, if extreme, illustration of how the “market” operates for many aspiring academics in the U.S. right now. There have been plenty of horror stories about the process of job-seeking and the numbers of applicants for each position; based on those narratives we get a sense of what is required to land the right kind of job. For example, from the message Schuman shared it’s apparent that the “best” applicant will be “flexible” and will have prioritized their personal resources appropriately (i.e. already planned to attend the MLA). This person is able to overcome or set aside other life circumstances and plans in the name of being able to obtain the desired position. The underlying assumption seems to be that if the candidate doesn’t or can’t “choose” the right way, they weren’t worthy of the job to begin with.

Similar assumptions were already in place long before the most recent “crisis”. The market is an uneven terrain, and candidates have always experienced those inequalities in different ways. The current conditions have made things worse for most job-seekers, but more so for some than others. Tressie McMillan Cottom rightly points out that race and gender are missing from Kelsky’s structural analysis (in spite of her references to racism). We could also question how the “market” has been working for those with disabilities, or with children or other dependents, or for those who are queer, trans, working class, indigenous. When you increase the number of people seeking work and decrease the number of available jobs, life gets even more difficult for the already-marginalized.

If this is a crisis, then, a crisis for whom? Does the problem only become pressing when it reaches even those who previously would have been insulated from existing inequities? Who needs to be affected, and who needs to notice it and raise an alarm, before hiring practices and job market dynamics and the self-validating culture of academe itself become issues worth discussing?

Then there’s the matter of the discussion. The difficulty of the job market (and the stratification of its participants) is too often framed as a “new” thing. Rather than assuming this is something novel, I’d suggest that there was never an adequate level of discussion in the first place. The current quandary has been building for over 30 years, for my entire lifetime – to the point where we even have a whole field of inquiry dedicated to critiquing the changes happening in (predominantly U.S.) academe. Even in Canada, where the situation is less polarized, there was research available over 20 years ago; and there have been similar issues in Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

What’s perhaps “new” about what we see now is the increasing extremity of the situation – the intensification and expansion of effects – and also that there are more channels of communication through which those affected can share similar stories, raising the level of visibility. The US is also the world’s biggest academic “market”, so more people are paying attention. But framing this as a sudden crisis of the past 5 to 10 years is a mistake, and masks the slow sedimentation of decisions and events that brought us to this point. If we really want to know “how this happened” then we need to understand that this is a long-term inheritance, not just something that occurred because of a recession or recent PhD over-enrollment or lack of Baby Boomer retirements.

Aside from all this, I think relatively few people in precarious positions in the academic job market are willing and/or able to speak up about their experiences. Who’s being left out of this discussion? Who is OK with venting on Twitter or in a blog, and who’s excluded because they can’t risk participating? Which words are being echoed through the mediasphere and which are ignored? We need to find ways of including those most affected, to avoid the trap of allowing a few voices to define the issues and to claim control over the ways that others are allowed to discuss them. That means having respect for the experiences of others and recognizing when our beliefs are built on self-serving assumptions.

That’s hard when so many people are justifiably fed-up and angry and when the issues involved are central to the profession, thus central to the identities of many people who work in it (and who want to work in it). Not only that but everyone wants somewhere to place the blame. Predictable isn’t the same as inevitable – why didn’t someone see what would happen, why did no-one intervene, why was there no organized program of resistance? Worse, we can all see how much work would have to be done to change the course we’re on now, and no-one is sure exactly what that work should be or who needs to do it.

As for early-career academics, they’re not even sure if there’s a place for for them in the university anymore or if so, what it will look like. What this adds up to is a special kind of chaos that exists alongside, intertwined with, the still-stable roots and structures of academe; and it takes a lot of privilege to be able to close one’s eyes to that. This is the context that informs the discussion about the power and responsibility of tenured faculty in the United States right now, even as the traditional benefits of tenure are being eroded in various ways.

I think there are ways to talk about this without stalemate, or without hurting each other. This week I started seeing tweets about the MLA Subconference, which was organized by graduate students. Maybe this is an example of how early-career academics can come together and make sense of what they’re experiencing, taking first steps towards a new path in the profession. One thing’s for sure: in academe everyone’s in this together, tenured or not, and the past can’t be changed. But how we recognize it, respond to it, and think about the future – together or apart – that’s up to us.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Janni Aragon / January 11, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Excellent points, Melonie. I think that the ensuing MLAientation tweets were intriguing to watch unfold, too.

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