Friday, March 30, 2012

Why the Morale of My Generation of Academics is Broken

Last week I had the pleasure to visit some old friends down in North Carolina.  One of these friends is the quick wit behind the Will Cooley Fan Club blog, and as we have done in recent years, our conversations turned to our career paths.  Both of us have decided to leave academia in our own ways, but I think it's safe to say we are much happier now than we were a year ago.  One of my favorite posts on the WCFC blog came this week, when my friend wrote a dream letter to a prospective adjunct employer that is well worth reading.

I have other friends who are still in academia, but who have endured more than their share of indignity.  Another close friend just got his book published with a fine university press this month, and had yet another article (I believe his third or fourth) accepted for publication with a good journal.  He did not manage to get a tenure-track job this year, despite the fact that he already has enough credentials to get tenured at a majority of four year universities.  Instead, he works off the tenure-track as a "visitor."  Another friend at my old institution lost her adjunct job last year, but her well-received book now sits on my shelf.  Her firing had everything to do with professional jealousy and incompetent higher-ups feeling threatened, not her scholarly acumen and amazing skills in the classroom.

The dehumanization and exploitation at the lower rungs of academia is well-known to those who've lived it, but hidden to most others, including many tenured faculty in departments that rely on an army of low-paid visitors and adjuncts to function.  They often don't know, don't care, or, in most cases, don't care to know.  In the latter group, they either think of themselves as simply superior to those beneath, or they are so morally unsettled by the implications of their department's faculty slum that they would rather just not think about it.  A precious few are truly sympathetic and helpful, but usually you'll find that they have their own battle scars from the contingent trenches on their bodies, and that they feel a moral obligation to their fellow front veterans.

The indignities of the low-side of academic life bite hard and leave deep wounds.  I was thinking about this today as I was reading a book called The Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst.  It's an incredibly funny and harrowing look at his life as a career minor league baseball player.  He writes movingly of a dilemma that I had to face, namely, how far to you go to preserve your dream when the pursuit is destroying your life?  Here he muses on this issue while being so impoverished in the off season that he has to sleep on an air mattress in his kooky grandmother's basement:

"This is my question-my giant, dinosaur-turd-sized question: How much longer do I want to keep living this dream?  Truthfully, not very much.  I know folks would say that walking away from such a great opportunity would be a mistake.  But what if giving up some of the best years of your life for something that may never happen is the mistake?  There comes a moment in life, no matter what your line of work is, when you have to step back and wonder if you're heading in the right direction."  

More and more talented teachers and scholars of my academic generation are kept awake at night by this question, and not just adjuncts and visitors.  Some of my friends are on the tenure-track at rotten institutions in dysfunctional departments, with their scholarly abilities feared rather than supported.  I am at least glad that some of my friends have found permanent positions good enough not to face Hayhurst's dilemma, but the current assault on higher ed, including massive state cutbacks, means that they are vulnerable, too.  On my old blog during the time before I took the leap out of the academy, I wrote the following, and I think it's even more relevant today than it was then.


This weekend I paid a very enjoyable visit to two old friends in Mississippi. I had a great time, but our many conversations about the current state of academe were full of bitterness, disillusionment, and fatigue. This was much the same case on a recent sojourn to Georgia, where two other friends told hair-curling stories about junior faculty peonage. Since returning home another friend in academe has expressed a fear, which I hold as well, that our entire profession is about to be destroyed. Reading today about a recent move by Texas A&M to rate their professors completely on the bottom line of the amount of money they bring in hardly reassures me.

My friends and I are part of an academic generation that has been sold down the river, double-crossed, stabbed in the back, and left for dead. We started our graduate work at a time when universities expanded graduate programs and started new ones, leaving a glut of scholars going into a ruthless market where tenure-track jobs have been eliminated in favor of adjunct jobs that pay peanuts and lack security. For most scholars of my generation, tenure has already been eliminated by the casualization of academic labor. In effect, the "reformers" calling to eliminate tenure are merely completing a process that has been going on for decades.

Those of us on the tenure track like yours truly have our own reasons to be demoralized. We are facing severe cutbacks (especially in the humanities), a time-wasting "assessment" regime, politicized assaults on academic freedom, and worst of all perhaps, generational oppression. What do I mean by that? By "generational oppression" I am referring to the fact that the young survivors of the cutthroat academic job market find themselves placed in subservient positions despite their often superior qualifications. For example, when I was a "visiting professor" I published more in the two years I was at Frontier University than multiple full professors on the faculty had in their entire careers. Despite that fact, I was the one being paid less, teaching more classes, actually barred in one case from being able to teach a 400 level course, and had to experience their privileged noses literally turned up at the sight of me. (I should add that many other faculty members, both young and old, were very helpful and encouraging. The academy needs more people like them.) While I am sympathetic to older academics whose retirement accounts were hurt by the financial meltdown, a system that allows the less worthy of them to continue to be mediocre teachers and absent themselves from scholarship while thousands of more capable scholars and teachers must work for minimum wage pay without benefits is disgusting.

When the cuts come down, as they are coming fast and furious now, they will spare the children of the Baby Boom, who are safely tenured. Heck, many universities are saving money by offering retirement buy-outs, a nice send off gift for an academic generation used to living off the fat of the land. With enrollments increasing, universities can't just slash their number of faculty, however. Instead, more and more future tenured lines will be eliminated, and more and more contingent positions will be created, to be filled by my generational comrades. And this is where I really get upset. The tenured class has spent the last thirty years responding to the neo-liberal assault on the universities by kicking the can down the road and sacrificing the future. They allowed and even encouraged the growth in contingent and grad student labor and they welcomed more graduate students despite worsening chances for eventual placement. After all, where were the TAs going to come from to actually teach the undergrads? As long as the tenured class was insulated from the harsh winds battering academe, nothing else really mattered. Now, just as the whole edifice is crumbling to the ground, they will get to have the cushy retirements that their scholarly descendents can never dream of when working for $2,000 a class. I hope they're happy.


Debbie said...

Thanks for the shout out, friend. It's sad to see that we've had this conversation more than once, but I know they've made me feel more empowered.

Brian I said...

Sadly enough, I recognized myself in both posts, too. In each post I was a "visitor" at a different institution. Also, even more sadly, I think I may now occupy the office of one of the other people alluded to in your previous post. Ugh.