Wednesday, February 26, 2014

When The Rules Suck So Bad, Maybe It's Time To Stop Playing the Game (Or "A Call To Arms: Why You Don't Need To Be Elite")

Recently a lot of my academic friends have been posting this piece from the Jacobin about the increasing pressures placed on academics (like everyone else) to produce more and more work for no more pay (essentially…there's obviously a lot more covered int he article). It has a significant number of echoes to the recent popular piece about how the mantra of "do what you love" devalues work and hurts workers. And of course, these are just two recent examples of an opinion that's being articulated in a large number of venues, but these two specifically speak at great length about the pressures faced by young faculty, of which I am one, so I've been thinking about this issue a lot. And while I agree with the general premise (like all workers, academics are being squeezed for more labor without being compensated for it) something about these articles doesn't sit right with me, and I think I've finally figured out why.

The Jacobin piece especially speaks of the incessant demands placed on academics to promote themselves, making their work and themselves into a "brand" they must relentlessly sell (or in the words of the article, "become an entrepreneur of themselves").  It's true that these pressures exists and that young academics are feeling them, but…

But the problem I have with this type of analysis (as much as I, again, generally agree with the premises) is that these pressures exist if you want a position at a top university. I'd like to humbly suggest that, well, that's a dumb thing to want. Ok, that's a bit too harsh -- people can want whatever they want and work toward it. But when people pen long missives about the incredibly bullshit they have to do to secure such a job, I can't help but ask the question they don't seem to consider: why do you want a job that makes you jump through so many hoops? Why not, you know, just not play those stupid games?

One reason is because we as academics are conditioned to believe those top positions are the only ones worth wanting. Not to mention the idea that what you're supposed to want in life is a good job, not say, happiness, fulfillment, or any number of non-work related things. I know the author of the Jacobin piece linked to above (not well -- we attended the same grad program, but were several years apart), which I point out only because I understand the message she's receiving, as it's the same one I got: pour all of yourself into your research, think about your research at all times, and be constantly networking and promoting your research to everyone you meet. Furthermore, while you might collaborate on research, for the most part you are to live an atomistic life -- do what furthers your career and research agenda, and be wary of helping others out, as that will be time not spent on your all important research. After all, your job should be your entire life, they not so subtly imply, so if you're not at all times pouring everything into your job, then you're not living your life to the fullest extent.

But another factor to consider is where this message is coming from -- faculty who graduated from the very top programs in our field and now work at a near-top department. In other words, the overachievers of our field; the department we both attended has several "name" scholars (as in, the ones everyone in the field knows) and more than a few rising stars who will likely get to that point. And they're trying to do what all academics do; that is, completely reproduce themselves in their students. So they pass along the same ideology they received, and which has clearly served them well. But…

But that's not the only way to do things. I completely loved my mentors and other faculty in my grad program, but it didn't take me very long to realize I did not want their lives. I saw many faculty who worked 60-80 hour weeks, who had very little time for their families, outside interests, or basically anything else. Which is a fine way to live if that's what you're in to, but it's not for me. They had all internalized the branding message, too, and were all pretty great at networking; I'd dutifully follow them around at conferences and try to schmooze at their level, but it always made me feel weird and more than a little gross.

So basically, I spent most of my grad career realizing all of the messages I was receiving (as the authors of the pieces linked above were also clearly receiving) were not for me. I've never been one to be "on" at all times with my work, and I loathe networking and glad-handing at conferences to a degree I can't really even put into words. I've also my entire life viewed work as a means to an end, not an end in itself. In other words, even in a field like academia which is supposed to be so wonderful and personally fulfilling, I work so that I have the resources to do the things I actually want to do (that is, after all, why they have to pay us to show up). So I share the disdain these authors have for the increasing pressure to commodify ourselves.

So I don't do that.

I know there are few things more annoying than simply dismissing complex social situations with the wave of a hand like that, but I do so just to point out that it's quite possible. I've never done anything resembling networking and my online presence is limited to the faculty profile I wrote a year ago and never updated. When in grad school, I didn't tweet, my blog had absolutely nothing to do with my work, and I had published exactly one paper in a very low-tier journal by the time I was applying for jobs.

And yet I got a job. Not an elite job, not the kind that will make people at prominent media outlets impressed by my credentials (there's a reason this is being published on a tiny blog no one reads and not a think piece being shared around social media), and definitely not the kind of job someone who graduated from a program like mine is supposed to be happy with. But it is a job in which I'm happy, have plenty of time to do the research I want, have plenty of time to be not working, and am surrounded by colleagues who don't care that I don't have a great "brand" nor that I'm not constantly networking said (nonexistent) brand. And I did it without playing any of these games.

Though, of course, full disclosure: I am a white man in a culture that values white men over all others. I realize it's not this simple for everyone. But the point is not that there's suddenly a cornucopia of job opportunities if you don't jump through all these absurd hoops, but instead that the jobs requiring these ridiculous expenditures of effort and energy are pretty much only the top jobs. If you want to work at Berkley or Madison, then yeah, you best be branding yourself, and have a flashy website, and be pumping out research like there's no tomorrow. But to repeat myself, why do you want that? Why not instead go for jobs at regional state schools or even (gasp! the horror!) community colleges? Because I can guarantee that these institutions don't care about your brand (or at least the vast majority don't).

Obviously the neo-liberal pressures from all sides faced by universities require a fight on multiple levels. But one of the simplest and most within grasp is to stop participating in these ridiculous games ourselves. The crazy beauty of academia is that we're one of the very few professions which for the most part sets its own standards; what is required to be considered a good sociologist is generally established by sociologists, what makes a good physicist is set by physicists, etc. As such, we collectively control the means to make this process stop (or at least dampen it to a considerable degree).

Granted, we have little control over university policies and the like, but it's not like university administrators were ever going to listen to us anyway. What we do have, though, is what is always available to workers -- solidarity.

Because for the most part, the ridiculous hoops these articles point out that academics have to leap through are created, maintained, and advanced by academics. It's not university presidents that are making hiring decisions, it's academics (yes, in the very narrow sense university admins have final say on such things, but every academic knows the actual decision is made in the department by the scholars who will be the colleague of whomever is hired). So the problems of academics in getting jobs are not really like pretty much any other field -- it's not bosses who do not do our jobs (and therefore can easily insulate themselves from understanding the demands and pressures of it) hiring new academics, it's academics hiring new academics.

In other words, we're doing this to ourselves. While the pressures of fewer tenure lines and less funding and all that are clearly imposed from the outside, the result of requiring increasing numbers of publications, vast professional networks, self-branding and the like are far from inevitable outcomes. And not only are they not inevitable, these are burdens academics have placed on themselves.

No matter how many articles I see on this subject, I've yet to see one that acknowledges our own role in this, and none have even hinted at the possibility that we might, you know, do something about it. That bad news is that it will be difficult to do, but the good news is that it's rather simple to start: we, as academics, need to stop expecting this from people. And us young academics have to stop playing this game. Instead of turning on each other like crabs in a barrel and fighting to increase our "brands" and "visibility" enough to beat out the next person for the best job, we should be acting together to demand adequate university funding, to demand reasonable workloads and support, to demand reasonable class sizes, etc.

But we don't do that. Instead we write missives about how much this sucks, but just keep on participating. So…let's stop that. I wish I could come up with a more profound or erudite way to put it, but that's pretty much the point I'm getting at. We didn't create these conditions, but we did create our response to them. And our current response sucks, as we pretty much all agree. And while the work to fix it is long and complex, the first step seems pretty simple: let's just quit playing these stupid games.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Saying Goodbye to the Dome

It's weird to feel nostalgia at the demolition of a building. I mean, it's not like the building and I were ever friends, nor can I say I spent particularly that much time there, relatively speaking. But seeing this video of the Dome collapsing (insert Vikings joke here) made me feel all sorts of complex emotions:

No word on whether Gary Anderson personally detonated the collapse

To dispense with the obvious: the dome was a terrible venue. Spartan barely begins to describe it, watching a baseball game often required contorting yourself into all sorts of odd positions since the seats were designed to watch a football field, not baseball. It was cramped, the concessions sucked, and it was pretty much an eye sore.

But it was a lovable eyesore. In fact, I'd argue there are few things more quintesentially Minnesotan -- sure, it was an eyesore designed far more for practicality than any thought of comfort or aesthetics, but that describes most of Minnesota.

It was also a building that was almost Soviet, in both appearance and function. Who needs fancy architecture when we can just build a big oval out of cinder block? Not to mention it has to be by far the most adaptable, multi-use stadium ever used in professional sports. At one point in time, it housed a mind-boggling three (!) separate professional franchises, as well as multiple college teams, something probably only achievable in a place like Minnesota that places much more of a premium on function over form (and something which will never happen again).

It also housed some spectacular moments. The '91 World Series (arguably the greatest series of all time, inarguably one of the top 5), the soul-crushing 98 NFC championship, the return of pro basketball to Minnesota. It also retains the title as the only building to house the World Series, Super Bowl, and NCAA Final Four in one year.

But for me, as I imagine most people who have any memory of the place, it's less about those moments than about the million small moments that bring people to love sports in the first place. Growing up in the middle of nowhere, heading to Minneapolis to see the Twins was always a highlight of summer. Coming up the highway and seeing the giant multicolored apartment complexes across the street, wandering through Dome Plus souvenirs and free baseball museum, being part of thousands of people attempting to blow the roof off of the homer dome…these are the kinds of things that will stick with me pretty much forever.

Things progress as they always do, and now that the Vikings have their official exodus planned, all teams that once called the Dome home now officially have shiny new stadiums (or at least a new stadium in the works) and the Dome should be completely gone by the time summer rolls around. And sure, all of these new stadiums are significantly better by pretty much every objective measure, but I hardly think I'm alone in feeling a twinge of sadness at seeing the giant grey bowl with its teflon roof and garbage bag for a right field fence finally crumbling into nothingness...

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Thursday Racism Round Up

As we enter the waning days of Black history month, it's somehow inexplicably necessary to point out racism still very much exists. Apparently extensive historical research has turned up the fact that MLK didn't magically end all racial prejudice which, I know, is pretty damn shocking.

As Louis CK points out far more eloquently than I (or pretty much anyone else alive) could, even educated white people often downplay the historical horrors of American slavery and especially its impact on contemporary America. One of the best points he makes in that bit is that slavery was, historically speaking, not that long ago (and as he astutely follows up that observation, it takes a little while to get past major historical crimes).

How not long ago? Again, as Louis points out, it's about two 70 year old people living back to back. A long time to you or I, but historically speaking, just a little blip. In fact, such a small blip that we still have a significant number of artifacts and records from the era. Sometimes even incredibly horrifying artifacts.

The article linked to in the previous sentence is about a Texas man, Shun Mullins, whose mother died after fire fighters on the scene refused to give her CPR because she was Black (and I guess they thought they'd catch Blackness if they touched her?). So doing what any normal human being would do, he went to file a complaint about the trained emergency responders who watched his mother die rather than help her (which, to clarify, would be the exact purpose of their job -- helping people in emergency situations).

But instead of receiving his complaint with embarrassment and a promise to look into as any normal human being would, the state investigator, William Sewell, instead told Mullins a story about how he owns a knife-sharpening crop made from the skin of a Black man his grandfather had lynched.

Let me just re-state that really quickly: the state investigator owns a strop made of the skin of a man who was lynched, a gory trophy passed down to him by his grand father. For even closer (historically speaking) than slavery is a time in which it was still entirely legal to murder someone in cold blood, tear their flesh from their dead body, turn that human flesh into a household tool, and then pass down the household tool made of the human flesh of a person you murdered as if it's a fucking family heirloom.

And not only is Sewell not, say, mortified of this, he instead thought it to be a peachy-keen story to bring up to a man whose mother just died because of racist inaction.

And again, because it bears some repetition: the object in question is made from the human flesh of a murder victim. But, don't worry, Sewell is already on the media beat apologizing. Whoops! Just kidding! He's actually claiming to be the victim of the whole ordeal because he was made to feel like maybe he shouldn't be proud of owning the flesh of a human being who was murdered.

Oh, and while all of this was going down, a Florida man murdered an unarmed Black teenager and was not convicted of murder. But hey, at least he didn't then rip the flesh from the dead kid's body and keep it as a family heirloom. This is surely a sign of progress...

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Welcome To My New Big Boy Blog

As you may have noticed, this space has been quiet for some time now. I assume your world came screeching to a halt upon not seeing my posts for so long, and I wanted to let you all know that you may resume your lives as normal.

The pause started because I was incredibly busy, but as it dragged on, I pondered the future of the blog and whether I should keep it going or just give up the ghost. On the one hand, I love the outlet for free-writing longer pieces I would otherwise just think about when in the shower or whatever. And I've been keeping this blog running somewhat steadily for nigh unto 10 years now. On the other hand, it's some work to keep up and it doesn't serve much of a purpose other than to record my scattered and meaningless thoughts. On the mystical third hand only true believers can see, I'm now in a grown adult job and may be judged both personally and (much more important) professionally by colleagues who may read this.

In the end, I've decided to keep it going, but with a bit more focus and in a style that won't embarrass me when a journal editor googles my name.

So what you're seeing now is the new redesign: I've cleaned out some of the older posts that were meaningless diatribes about dating and other minute of my life -- fun for me to go back to and read, assumedly incredibly meaningless and boring to anyone who is not me.  Also, I changed the name. I never meant for the previous moniker to be the actual name, it was an inside joke with an improv troupe I was part of when I began the blog and then I was too lazy to change it. But a big boy blog deserves a name that at least wouldn't make me cringe should I be speaking about it to other adults. it is. I'll be back to posting 3-4 times a week, so stop by regularly. Or don't.