Friday, January 10, 2014

Critics Of Academic Hiring Practices Are Not Merely Pining For A Lost Past

Claire Potter aka Tenured Radical recently wrote an interesting piece comparing the academic world to Downton Abbey.  There were a lot of compelling points, including the need for major structural change, the rigidity of academic hierarchy, and the need for political action to stem the tide of austerity.  However, there was an assertion within it that Potter made in her recent critique of Rebecca Schuman that she repeated here again, but needs rebuttal.  I have seen versions of it in other places, and I feel that it dismisses and misrepresents what critics of academic hiring practices actually think.  In so many words, she thinks critics are pining for an idealized past that never existed.  To wit: 

"It seems to me that part of what has been going on on this blog for the past several weeks is a vast ressentiment that the system of academic employment is broken, but only recently broken and thus can be returned to an imagined past if only there were the will to do so.  However, this romantic academic past, where merit was honored and everyone had the job they wanted, never actually existed. Those searching for jobs imagine that there was a time when there was full employment. They blame forms of gatekeeping like the traditional conference interview, or the fear of the currently tenured that they will be outshone by newcomers, for keeping employable grad students out of a well-regulated world where there is a place for everyone and everyone has a place. These things have never been true, I’m afraid: the academic world has always relied on exclusion to maintain its fictions of equal opportunity and meritocracy. There have always been people kept firmly at arm’s length in the academic job market: people of color, women, queers and Jews. But more importantly, the idea that the hiring system itself is a source of gross inequity neglects a quite recent past in which the conference interview was introduced as a democratizing reform. It replaced a system in which faculty merely called their friends and asked them to simply recommend “a good man” to replace a retiring colleague. Hate conference interviews? How about not even being allowed to apply for jobs in the first place?  In other words, if you think the current system is not transparent, you should see how they used to do business."
No, just no.  Those searching for jobs do not imagine a world of full employment ever happened, or that it used to be a meritocracy.  I, like my peers,  am well aware of how the conference interview came into being, but also know that it has outlived its usefulness.  Expecting destitute students to blow a large chunk of their meager money for a twenty minute interview in the age of Skype is needlessly cruel and silly.  To dismiss this criticism by saying "forty years ago this was a good practice" just does not cut it.  Who's the one living in the past, anyway?
This whole line of reasoning about starry eyed, supposedly naive junior scholars is another version of the "it could be worse" mantra that is used to shut people up.  Not happy with going into debt to apply for a job?  Well at least you aren't a blind beggar on the streets of Lahore.  The message I hear from Potter is this: "things are so much better than they were in the bad old days of the old boys network so stop your complaining."  However, like the informal old boys network, the current hiring system, with its onerous expenses and innumerable inhumanities, has outlived its usefulness as well.  Its expense alone means that the privileged get a leg up, just like in the bad old days.
Job candidates and contingent laborers are not looking to a past that never was.  Rather, they are looking to basic human standards of behavior, like not being paid poverty wages for a job that requires a PhD and not being forced to spend money they can't afford for a twenty minute interview on a hotel bed.  Now that I work in secondary education, the total dysfunction of academic hiring practices is quite vivid for me.  The vast, vast majority of teachers are paid salary, have a modicum of job security, and do not have to spend hundreds of dollars in their job application process.  This is not some kind of special world, it's the most basic, baseline expectation you could have of holding a professional job.  Contingent academics have been treated so bad for so long that achieving basic dignity seems too far out of reach.  We act as if things that secondary teachers -hardly a well-paid or privileged lot- can take for granted are impossible for adjuncts and contingent faculty to achieve.  
The problem is not that critics of academic hiring are naively fixated on a non-existent past, but that the expectations of the system are so low that people who want only the most basic pay and job protections are treated like naive dreamers.  It's a profession that demand a lot, and gives so little in return, and I am glad I stopped wasting my life by trying to be a part of it.

1 comment:

jrhoskins said...

Thank you for this astute post which reveals the weak logic Tenured Radical relies on the "police" the tone of the discourse. I agree completely with you that the hiring system is outdated. At most college campuses, the adjunct who teach the majority of the classes are already doing the job for which they justifiably could be hired full-time. Although any solution to the broken academic labor system would of course require political action, in concept, the solution is simple: let's just hire adjuncts who are already working at the campus, in a system that resembles K12 hiring practices. What would be wrong with that? Why would that be so hard to sell to politicians?