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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this! I actually agree with you on most points. Here is another article that I have seen and liked (which I probably should have included in my Jacobin piece) that includes a lot of individual strategies for resisting academic work imperatives (I especially like the section on "strategic complacency.")
I also considered the fact that publishing in Jacobin might play into the very things that *I* criticize, but I also knew that this was the audience that was most often supporting that Corey Robin critique, and so I figured trying to write for Jacobin would be the best way to reach that audience.

Woz said...

Awesome, glad to hear you liked it. I really enjoyed your piece as well -- it really helped clarify a bunch of critiques I had floating around in my head but couldn't put words to. Thanks for publishing it!