Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Reality Behind The Rage

Last week witnessed a rather intense dispute between two bloggers whose opinions I tremendously respect, and whose blogs are actually linked on this site.  Rebecca Schuman (aka Pan Kisses Kafka) had written another biting piece about the realities of the academic job market, particularly the case of a search committee who sent out their invitations to an interview and a national conference with less than a week's notice.  Claire Potter (aka Tenured Radical) took issue with Schuman's accusations, feeling that her tone was counter-productive and that the criticisms lodged by Schuman were ill-founded and not properly sourced.  It was difficult to read their heated exchanges on Twitter, since it was like having to listen to my parents fight.  (I also know people who know both Schuman and Potter and think they're good people, and I get sad when good people fight each other.  Yes, I am actually a huge softie beneath all of my bluster.)

Within Potter's critique was a strong reaction against "rage" based dialogues, and the response in the comments section of her blog and on Twitter duly  displayed the rage of many junior scholars and post-academics who are fed up with a system that has let them down.

I do not agree with Potter's criticisms of Schuman, but I can certainly acknowledge that expressions of rage are not always the most productive way to engage in dialogue.  However, I also know well where that rage comes from, and that until the powers that be in academia hear that rage, in all of its force, pain, and vitriol, contingent faculty will never have a chance at improving their conditions.  There are a lot of well-meaning tenured folks (hell, some of them are even radicals) whose hearts are in the right place, but aren't truly aware of the realities beneath the rage, and they desperately need to be, despite their good intentions.

I lived that reality for too long.  I worked two years on the contingent track as a VAP in a department where I had to use the metaphorical servants' entrance on a constant basis, and where many tenured and tenure-track faculty would not even say hello to me.  (There were, of course, some absolutely great folks that gave me a lot of help.)  My publication record surpassed that of some of the very people who treated me as beneath regard.  I busted my ass, putting in 80 hour weeks my first semester to get my classes up and running, but soon found out that my chair judged VAPs solely on the number of student complaints he heard about them.  Our job was to toil silently, STFU, and just give the customers what they want.

It took three years on the job market to land a tenure track job that turned into a nightmare of bullying, low pay, and being forced to teach a majority of classes outside of my field of study.  My publications were treated as threats rather than accomplishments.  I hoped to move on, but the 2008 crash happened, and despite three highly placed articles, several courses developed, stellar teaching evaluations (both peer and student) and a book contract, I did not get a single interview on my last go on the market.  I was stuck living in mental torture in an isolated, unfriendly town over a thousand miles away from my spouse, and the harder I worked to escape, the less success I had.

Many of my friends have had similar experiences, and I often felt like we were voiceless peons with no way to get anyone on the other side of the academic divide to understand what we were going through.  Except in rare cases (usually among former contingent faculty made good) they just didn't want to listen, or got angry or defensive in response.  I channeled a lot of the pain and frustration into my blogging.  You can read examples of my rage herehere, here, and here.

There are a lot of realities beneath the rage that established academics don't see or understand, but the shift in the job market is one of the biggest.  Many of those who have responded negatively to Schuman have repeated the handy mantra "didn't you know what you were getting into"?  One critic even callously called her "stupid" or "naive" to not realize the difficulties of the job market as a grad student.  These critics tend to assume that today's abattoir of a job market is the same as the shitty one they endured in the 1990s or even early 2000s.  It's not.  The market went from awful to impossible after the crash, and it still has not really recovered and never will, in large part because the austerity policies that followed in the wake of the crash have been used ruthlessly by administrators to slash tenure-track lines and even whole departments.  Those who were unfortunate enough to get their PhDs between 2008 and 2011 have had their careers killed, because today's search committees want what I call the "new car smell," and don't seem to want to hire candidates who have been on the contingent track for more than two years, even if they have released well-reviewed books with good presses.  (I have at least two friends in this boat.)  I repeat: the current job situation is not the crummy one I prepared myself for in grad school, but is something new where low-paid contingent labor is the norm, not the exception, for new PhDs.  Contingent jobs are no longer stepping stones to permanent positions, but are just waystations on the road to the next poorly compensated, low prestige position in another town halfway across the country.

When people are being exploited and treated like peons, when they are expected to STFU about their conditions or lose their jobs (which happened to two of my contingent friends), when they have enough qualifications to earn tenure at schools that won't even give them an interview, rage is an appropriate response.   As I wrote recently, I have made the conscious decision to let my rage go, based both on my personal health, and because I have had the extreme luck to have transitioned into a great job into an area of the country I love.  I applaud those still caught up in a cruel, unresponsive, inhumane system who are expressing their rage.  No one in power ever helped those without it out of the kindness of their hearts, and without the rage to make those in comfortable positions feel uncomfortable, things will remain as they are.

To quote Bob Dylan, there is one last reality beneath the rage that bears understanding, "when you ain't got nothing, you've got nothing to lose."  The rage of people like me could stand to be more productive, but it is not going away until things change.  Sorry, but those who are unsettled by it are just going to have to deal with it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You really opened my eyes. For years, I've been berating myself for not continuing my education and getting a "college job." I come from a working-class background, so I imagined the academic life as easy bliss in a tree-lined ivy college.
I dropped out after one year of college, and started working in horrible graphic art agencies, first doing paste-up, then progressing (as the technology changed) to typesetting, then genigraphics and adobe "creative" suite, doing dense car dealership and department store ads under brutal deadlines, with macho bullying the norm (I think the men were overcompensating for being in such a "girly" occupation).
Anyway, after reading your nightmare, I understand that my experience would have been just as horrible if I'd pursued higher education. Probably worse, because my background would have marked me severely as an outsider.