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!