Friday, August 2, 2013

Of "Meritocracy" and Academic Lifeboaters

Recently on the blog Pan Kisses Kafka, Rebecca Schuman fired off what I think is her best essay yet on the degradations of the academic humanities.  This has prompted the usual chorus of Mr. Blifil-type priggish jerks who croak "meritocracy" in protest.  To them anyone who complains about academia's inequalities is just a bitter failure who didn't get a job because they just weren't good enough.  Needless to say, such words put me in a blinding rage.

These folks usually ignore larger social and economic forces when making such accusations.  They conveniently forget 2008's financial Gotterdammerung, when the already paltry academic job market in the humanities went into full-on starvation mode for years. New jobs stopped opening, and other listings got axed completely.  Until very recently, professional organizations like the AHA had been acting as if this wasn't happening.  I think the change came once the anointed scions of the profession's big name profs couldn't get jobs.

Many of the meritocracy chorus are the type baby boomers who inspired the deathless Old Academe Stanley meme.   Like the rest of their peers in other walks of life, boomer academics have been savoring their lucrative late-earning years, and even the most supposedly Leftist among them often seem wholly ignorant of the ways in which their champagne and caviar lifestyle is supported by the ramen noodle penury of adjuncts, visitors, and graduate teaching assistants.  Worse yet, they refuse to recognize that if they had to apply today for the job they got forty years ago, there is no way a great many of them would get hired.

But I'll save my boomer rant until later, since that will require more reservoirs of outrage than even I can muster. No, I'd rather go after a contingent of scholars who I like to call the "life boaters." These are junior scholars who don't bother thinking about the naked exploitation of a system where adjuncts are paid as little as $1,700 a course, and do just as good of a job (or better) as they do. In their minds, they won, they're on the lifeboat, and fuck all those other people drowning around them.

Some lifeboaters are just willfully ignorant; they got a good job straight out of graduate school, and came out of their apprenticeship into a comfortable journeyman position, just like their advisor said they would. These lifeboaters merely annoy me, at least until they take their position for granted. I have witnessed, and heard anecdotally, of many lifeboaters who have decided to become driftwood even before their tenure, wholly oblivious to the fact that there are hungry academic gutter snipes with publications on their CVs and fire in their bellies ready to take their place.

Other lifeboaters, usually from more elite institutions, have the attitude of nineteenth century Social Darwinians: since they are doing well, it must be purely based on their own efforts. They look at those around them drowning under ridiculous teaching burdens, a total lack of scholarly support, and a tight job market and see failures and losers who just didn't try hard enough to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They refuse to acknowledge that blind luck and their advisors' connections/reputation have a lot to do with success on the job market. I myself partially got hired to my old t-t job because my research topic was inordinately interesting to someone on the hiring committee. If not for that coincidence, I probably wouldn't have gotten the job.

This is not to say that people with tenure-track jobs haven't earned their positions, they have. It's that there are a lot of people out there just as hard-working, intelligent, and qualified who deserve far better than they have received. Plenty of academics seem to recognize this dynamic in wider society, and realize that privilege and luck have a lot to do with one's social class, not just "personal responsibility." Yet when they see these class dyanamics happening in their own fucking backyards, they prefer to think of their place on the hierarchy, and the lowly ones of many of their peers, to be completely natural and just.

As much as the lifeboaters drive me into a state of blind fury, I know that they are soon to be reaping a brutal harvest.  The current system of temporary labor is eroding tenure and eating away at professorial privilege; soon only the Ivy elites will have that great big tenured position in the sky. The reserve army of the unemployed has been and will continue to be used a cudgel against tenured and tenure track faculty: do as you're told, or we can replace with someone who'll do the job for less money and do less complaining. Or better yet, via MOOCs and other schemes, professorial work will be automated and only the superstars will lecture, most of the folks on the tenure-track crying "meritocracy" will find themselves demoted into glorified teaching assistants.  That's not something I want to see, but the lifeboaters who have passively accepted or actively defended the adjunct system of cheap labor and hierarchy are complicit in this dark future.  Enjoy your comeuppance, meritocrats!


Vanessa Vaile said...

every bit as delicious as PKK promised. #lifeboaters will make a great hashtag too

Alessandra said...

Brilliant post; in my fruitless search for a job so far here in the UK I have met all these types. Here is me, teaching at a university, paid by the hour, with no benefits, security, not even mentioned on the university's website, and my 9 (+3 in progress) publications, being told by a recently hired lecturer (associate professor in the US), with one publication in her CV, that she had worked so hard for securing her job; like what, I hadn't?
Fact is, I don't resent her getting a job, but fucking acknowledge the element of blind luck, and don't make me feel as if I am lower than you because I don't have the all important permanent post (no TT here in the UK, once you are in, you are in).
Ah of course, all marxists, or at least left wing critical legal studies people....

Freddie said...

The oldest trick that capital ever pulled was fooling workers into blaming their problems on each other. In recent years, academics have been in exactly that position: adjuncts and other exploited labor direct their anger overwhelmingly at other academics, rather than at the bosses and management that actually created these conditions. This blog post is a good example of that. And it plays directly into the hands of management, even while it decries the conditions that only management could have created.

The truth is that there is nothing particularly special about academic labor or the condition of adjuncts; it's just classic, ugly, capitalist exploitation. The only weapon against that exploitation is cross-worker solidarity. But the academic system is an incredibly efficient machine for making workers hate each other.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...


The whole point of this post is that so many in relative positions of privilege are refusing to engage in solidarity. I also came up with the notion of the "life boater" during the time that I was on the tenure track myself. I was disgusted by so many that I knew who refused to see the problem, and who treated non-tt faculty as lesser people. As long as that attitude persists, changing the system will be impossible. If they are not called out about, how will they ever knock it off? I hardly think that's doing "the work of management."

Yes, those who run our universities are engaging in the kind of behavior that would make the most craven corporate barons blush (something I've talked about elsewhere.) That behavior is enabled, however, by people lower on the scale who are willing to not question it as long as they maintain their privilege and position.

Last, I hear a lot about "solidarity" these days in the discourse on academic labor, but usually as a means to get less advantaged scholars to pipe down and be quiet. I would love for it to be a real thing and not a rhetorical trick, but few scholars in positions of power think that way.

Susan Spilecki said...

For my second masters (in theology this time, like there are any more jobs for that), I did my thesis comparing the Ark and the Titanic as models of environmental survival. Rare are the Molly Browns who will direct their lifeboat toward the drowning and not away.

J. Thomas McAlister said...

Thank you. It always makes me feel better when I realize that I am not alone in my opinions.