Monday, November 4, 2013

No, Most Academics Don't Have It "Pretty Darn Good"

I know I promised to stop writing about academia for awhile, but things keep happening to pull me back in.  However, I think I will try to write from a matter-of-fact perspective, rather than the one of burning anger and bitterness that once defined my missives about the ivory tower.

Since I have left academia, my life has drastically improved.  My time away also has put in high relief just how cruel and ridiculous the profession is in light of how things are done in the world outside.  For example, in the independent high school where I teach, the idea that there would be "real teachers" with permanent jobs on a hierarchy above a group of disposable, low-wage teachers paid a pittance by class and not given health benefits would be considered absurd and immoral, because it is.  In academia, such a hierarchy, where many gifted scholars and teachers must toil without security, decent pay, support, or a voice, is accepted as a given.

The ongoing economic depression has brought what was already a crisis to a breaking point.  Many folks who have left the profession, and many others who remain, have begun to raise their voices against the hypocrisies and failures of the current arrangement.  Rebecca Schuman (aka Pan Kisses Kafka) is one of the more (justifiably) well-known of these writers, and today I was alerted to (yet another) piece taking her to task by one Merinda Simmons.

Simmons' essay is yet another addition to the fine and august tradition of lifeboater apologetics.  As I mentioned in a previous post, lifeboaters are those who have secured a tenure-track position, and then refuse to do anything to help those in the contingent world drowning around them.  Their apologetic writings are usually complaints about the loud thrashing and screaming noises made by the drowning, rather than the fact that people are drowning in the first place.  Simmons actually managed to distill the lifeboater perspective into one pithy statement:
In our worry and (in Schuman’s case, outright anger) over the current state of academe, though, it’s easy to lose sight of a very important fact: professional academicians have it pretty darn good.  
What kind of "fact" is that?  Well, according to Simmons, the fact that she is able to contemplate and write about this issue while drinking tea on a weekday afternoon is proof.  Never mind that a majority of professors, adjuncts or otherwise, do not have comfortable appointments at research institutions.  Never mind that most faculty are now contingent.  Never mind that those lucky enough to be on the tenure-track are often stuck spending their lives in places they would never choose to live in or that in many cases must face separation from their spouses.  At most institutions even the tenured are being asked to do more with less.  I left academia to be an independent school teacher. I get paid more, am living with my spouse, living in a place that I love, and I work for an employer that treats me like a valuable asset, not a piece of garbage.  I am working what is technically a lower-prestige job than the one I left on the tenure track, but just about everything is better.

Simmons basically feels that despite the problems in the profession, all academics should be happy because they aren't shoveling shit:
I’m not at all suggesting that the increase in and reliance on adjunct positions and lectureships isn’t a lamentable fact of the institutional matter.  And I’m not saying that the market isn’t a difficult territory to traverse.  But difficult according to whom and compared to what?  Is it as difficult as collecting garbage during hot Alabama summers?  Is it as difficult as working the graveyard shift as a 911 operator? 
First off, "lamentable fact" does not adequately describe a grossly unfair and hierarchical system whereby dreams are crushed, spirits broken, and longterm adjuncts are so poor that they are buried in cardboard boxes.  "Difficult territory" is a rather poor phrase to describe an arbitrary job market that makes ridiculous demands on its participants and leaves people with stellar teaching and publication records begging for contingent work.  These statements betray a staggering detachment from the reality that a great many academics live with each and every day.

Second, I have family members who have hauled trash and worked the graveyard shift as 911 operators.  I have worked factory jobs, telemarketing, farm labor, and behind the counter at a convenience store.  These jobs are not abstractions for me.  (They also pay more per hour than what most adjuncts make.)  As a child of the rising lower-middle class, there is nothing that tells people like me to shut up and do as you're told than saying the equivalent of "You're unhappy? Well, you could be digging a ditch or shoveling shit."  I cannot put into words just how insulting such statements are when they come from a position of privilege.  It could always be worse for everyone, according to that logic.  Minimum wage too low?  Going bankrupt due to a health emergency?  Collecting garbage in the sweltering Alabama summer?  Well, at least you're not a Moldovan sex worker or a blind beggar on the streets of Lahore.  Stop bitching and go back to work, peasant!  This is not "checking privilege" on anybody, it's an attempt to muzzle those being screwed by a cruel system.

This piece also dispenses a healthy dose of the "you chose this path and no one guaranteed you anything" line as a strategy to counteract critiques of the system.  There's also plenty of the "life is hard all around" cant, essentially telling critics of academia that their problems are nothing special.  As I said before, we don't have adjunct labor at the other levels of our education system, this is something unique to academia.  Expecting non-poverty pay, a voice in the workplace, and health insurance is not "entitlement," it's a demand to be treated with basic human dignity.

Simmons also cites those (like Schuman) who have gone to success outside of academia without considering for a moment that these stories are the exception, not the rule.  The prominent success stories are prominent because of their success, nobody takes notes of those who can't transition to well-compensated work.  For the vast majority of forced refugees from academia, a humanities PhD is a huge liability in starting a new career, not an asset.  For many others (including myself) it means taking a job that did not need a PhD in the first place, and having lost out on years of the earnings necessary for home ownership and retirement.  Yes, my situation beats hauling trash like my grandfather did, but what the hell kind of standard is that?

I have multiple friends who have published books and excelled in the classroom stuck without permanent gigs.  They have met every requirement and qualification, but are still stuck doing the professorial equivalent of ditch digging, often with less-qualified colleagues in tenured positions at the same institutions.  To say "they knew what they were in for" or "it's like this in all walks of life" or "you are forgetting just how privileged you are" is merely an apology for injustice.

Some academics do indeed have it "pretty darn good."  I don't hold that against them, hell, some are close friends and I am very happy for them.  But if those few who have it pretty darn good refuse to stick their necks out for or even acknowledge the problems of those who don't, they are collaborators with the current corrupt system.  Enjoy your lifeboats, because the current storm, which has left so many drowning in despair, will eventually claim you, too.


Anonymous said...

Well said! Is there a link to her article/blog/whatever?

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Thought I had, realized I hadn't, so I put in links. Thanks for letting me know.

Mike said...

As in every industry, you can't count on management or the labor aristocracy to look after your interests, and you generally can't count on the wider public. Mid-twentieth century automobile workers got their middle-class paychecks and reasonable safety regulations, etc., because they DEMANDED it. And I don't mean they blogged (or wrote letters to the editor). The lumpen professoriat is not going to get better conditions until or unless it puts a tangible hurt on the universities and agrees collectively that no one will be willing to cross the picket line and work as a scab.

Not up for that? Then I fear the cause is doomed. There's not a realistic chance of solving this by legislation or by appealing to the consciences of the tenured.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

@Mike: I think organization is the only viable solution, but the temporary nature of the work, and the fragmented nature of those who do it makes organization difficult. Some brave folks are out there doing God's work to make this happen, and I tip my hat to them. Now that I am out of academia, I can only really cheer on the sidelines.

Anonymous said...

Many high school systems have substitute teachers whose work is contingent and without benefits.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

That's true, and I think that ought to be acknowledged. However, unlike in academia, this is by far the exception, rather than the rule.