Teaching at an institution like mine is not some dream gig, and you will do a ton of administrative work and generally stupid paper-pushing, along with fighting battles you will likely not win, and you will not be leading a life of the mind 90% of the time, and so seriously, people probably shouldn't lump all professors together into one big pile of privilege, because the fact of the matter is, not all tenure-track jobs are created equal, and no, I do not feel guilty for being on the tenure track nor do I think that I should have to do so.
Now that I've submitted the abstract that I labored over for the past 6 hours (and yes, it was only a 250-wd abstract, but I was in a very dark place with it), I can actually write the post that goes with the above.
First, let me link around a bit. It all started with this post from Dean Dad. And then Tenured Radical chimed in, and then Historiann picked up where that post left off. And now here I am.
So let me give a totally reductive and stupid summary of the above. Dean Dad asks, "what kind of idiots would go to grad school in any liberal arts discipline and what could possibly motivate them?" and then TR is all, "Hey, did you see that post by Dean Dad? And here are some suggestions about what grad schools should do." And then Historiann was all, "the comment thread over at TR's was wack and stupid and people need to take some freaking responsibility." (Let me reiterate that I totally realize the above is a reductive and stupid summary. It's just I'm not going to be responding point by point, so I figure stupid and reductive is the most entertaining and briefest way to go.)
So here are my thoughts, in no particular order, having witnessed the clusterfuck that resulted from the above posts to which I linked. And I'm talking as much if not more about the various comment threads as I am about the posts themselves.
- There seems to be an implicit assumption that students will choose grad school because it's more "comfortable" in some way than going on to get a "real" job. As a woman who chose an academic path when neither of her parents had education beyond high school (and whose parents' siblings didn't even finish high school, and who has cousins younger than she is who didn't finish high school and who survive by working as gas station attendants and such), and who attended a regional undergrad institution where the vast majority of students had no clue that there was anything beyond the B.A., and as a woman who advises a student population from a similar background, I am totally confident in saying that the only people who think grad school is the "easier" choice are people who come from backgrounds where, at the very least, college is a totally normal and expected thing. Seriously, it would have been easier for me to go and get a job in a cubicle. The people I love would have understood it, and I wouldn't have been a freak. For me, and for my students, the thought of pursuing a graduate degree is a big fucking deal, and it is not something entered into out of a sense that this is a more "legible" path than other paths. Sure, I was always good at school. But the fact that I even went to college was a stretch, and the idea of going to more college was pretty much unthinkable. (And that's all any of my family thought it was: "more college." I was ABD and my dad referred to me as a "lifetime student" like I was some fool who hadn't graduated from undergrad. He totally didn't get it.) So it's not like I thought that grad school was the natural path, and I don't think that this is the way that most students who go to regional universities, who are in the first generation of their families to go to college, think.
- I didn't think, in pursuing grad school, that I was a unique snowflake who'd succeed because of my innate awesomeness. In fact, I thought that I was likely to fail because I had no clue about the culture of academia and I felt like a fraud and a loser who would be expelled at the least provocation. So when I went to grad school, it was not because I thought I was exempt from the market (about which I had been - in a way that was totally unproductive, incidentally, because the person who warned me basically was like, "you're never going to make it and you're a loser," and I was all, "you are a bitch and you can kiss my ass and I'm doing it anyway" - made aware), or because I thought I'd be some sort of exceptional success story. No, I took that path because I figured I had nothing to lose (I mean, seriously, when your parents make like 40K combined, and when you've got friends from high school who are bartending for a living with no benefits, how big of a risk does it seem like it is to take 7 years, with tuition remission, a stipend, and insurance, to read more books?) and that I really had questions that I could only answer and ideas that I could only explore if I took that path. I entirely figured that I would fail, if "failing" means not becoming a professor. And part of the reason I felt that is because people who come from where I come from don't become college professors. I mean, seriously. My mom, even when I was in my PhD program was all "you know, if you can type you'll always be able to get a job." This idea that a job as a professor was some sort of obvious end point for me just didn't exist.
- I am entirely against the idea of equating education with job training. I know that's how it works in the corporate economy of contemporary universities, but I think it's disgusting to do so. And also really short-sighted and stupid.
- Faculty have little to no power over budgets. Budgets determine hiring lines and they determine policies regarding adjunct hires and TAs. To act as if tenured or tenure-track faculty have any power in terms of these issues is, seriously, idiotic. When people make the argument that tenured faculty are responsible for the problems with contingent labor, I am... confused.
- The big elephant in the room for me in all of these discussions about the structure of higher ed (which this is ultimately about, as grad students are part of this current structure, as are the supply of PhDs that we produce in order to staff classes as adjuncts) is incredibly obvious, but nobody wants to say it. The way to fix all of this is to stop pretending a) that a college education will produce a middle-class lifestyle b) that all Americans "deserve" or "have a right to" a college education c) that we can support a general education curriculum (one that is in many ways mandated by accrediting agencies) with the current level of state funding, without limiting access. You want to immediately fix the problem of the "oversupply" of English PhDs? Get rid of the mandatory 2-semester comp requirement for all college students. You want to reduce the number of adjuncts across disciplines, given the situation with endowments and state funding? Limit enrollments to those that can be supported by t-t faculty. Either we throw general education out the window, or we just admit that not everybody has a right to an education. Would such a course have meant that I wouldn't have had access to a college education (let alone grad school)? Yes. Would such a course of action mean that higher education would be the perk of people who were white, male, and privileged? Probably. But at least what we'd have in that case would be a fuck of a lot more honest than the hemming and hawing that we now have about adjunctification and privilege and inequity. Yes, what we've got now is unfair and wrong and whatever. But the reality is that what we've got now is why everybody thinks that college is an achievable goal, why employers think that they can require college degrees even for jobs that really only require the ability to answer the phone and to alphabetize. The short version of this entire bullet is that this conversation is not actually just about graduate education. It's about education generally, and the ways in which graduate education feeds into that. And the easiest answer to these problems is also the most offensive. No amount of advice or "thinking outside the box" about job prospects changes that.
Once upon a time, BFF told me about an encounter with a student, who told her that he wanted to pursue an academic career because he felt that being a professor would be "both lucrative and rewarding." When BFF recounted this tale to me, we both laughed heartily. I think that most professors across the world would join us. Because you know what? It surely ain't lucrative, and while there are rewarding moments, the vast majority of my life as a professor is not about the "rewarding" moments but rather about being what amounts to a middle-manager. Sure, I've got my own office, which is better than a cubicle (I've had a cubicle in my time) or than sharing an office with 20 other people (I've done that, too). Yes, I have ecstatic and phenomenal moments of joy in this job. I have moments where I feel like I'm doing something that really matters. But the vast majority of the moments that I have are not those.
People say that the solution to the problem with hiring in fields like mine is that professors should teach more. I teach four courses a semester. How many more would you like me to teach? And still have time to do the MOUNTAINS of service (department, university, community, professional) that my institution expects?
People say that tenured folks should take a pay cut, in order to facilitate the hiring of more full-time instructor folks. How much are we talking about, for the work that I'm doing, work that people off the tenure-track don't do? 5K? 10K? You think that the solution to this problem is further to depress the market in this field? In order to get t-t folks for all of the instructor and adjunct positions that we've got, complete with benefits, I'd imagine that tenured faculty would need to agree to reduce their salaries by at least 50%, if not more, which would put me someplace around 25K a year, and I'd be at the upper end of the whatever this new "equitable" pay scale would be. That solves the problem?
None of this takes research into account. I teach at a university, a crappy one, but a university still. We've got an MA program. Research is expected of me, though obviously not the amount or quality of research expected of people at actual "research universities." Do I do this for "love"? This thing that is a total requirement of my job?
Here's the thing. I really like my job. I think I'm really good at my job. I care about my job. I even care about my institution. It would be awesome of all people felt the way about their jobs/institutions that I do about mine.
But it's a job. It involves a hell of a lot that I never experienced in grad school, and it involves a hell of a lot of bullshit that resembles more about my days temping than it does some sort of idealized life of the mind. And sure, there are a thousand adjuncts who'd kill for my job, but I'd argue that they'd kill for it precisely because they don't realize the bullshit that it mandates. My saying that is not me being a diva, nor is it not realizing my "privilege." I realize that I'm privileged in that I've got a job I like and that uses my training, but that makes it no less a bullshit job.
Look. I teach four classes a semester. I'm on two major university committees, a department committee, I do service in the community, and I'm the president of an MLA Allied organization. In addition to all of this I'm an active researcher. The most significant romantic-style relationship I've got is with somebody who lives 2K miles away from me (and seriously, this is barely a romantic-style relationship), my grandmother is in the hospital and I can't get away to go see her, and I've never taken an actual vacation in my life. I've lived in a crappy apartment for the past 7 years, and I'm 50K in student loan debt. Oh yes. I am the exemplar of motherfucking privilege.
But here's the thing: I don't think that I don't deserve what I have because academia is fucked or because my discipline is fucked or because I am basking in some sort of undeserved privilege. I think that I have a job - just like my friend who works in the non-profit world has a job, and just like my other friend who's a photographer has a job, and just like my friend who works in insurance has a job. I work hard, and I did what I had to do, and I got lucky. Yes, I got lucky. But that doesn't mean I should have to apologize for the bullshit job I've got. This job may not be the 2-2 job that my adviser imagined for me, nor may it be an adjunct gig where I'm making 2K a course. Either way, I don't have to feel sorry. The fact that I've got the job I do means that I can do the kind of work that really matters for my students and for an institution that serves that kind of student. For me, that justifies the existence of jobs like mine, even if I'm not an exploited adjunct, and even if I'm not at an upper-tier research university or elite liberal arts college. I feel like the whole conversation that resulted from the posts at DD's and TR's especially indicates that people like me should feel sorry. As if all t-t gigs are created equal, and as if all of them are bastions of happiness and light. Can anybody possibly believe that this is reality? Seriously?
You know what I advise my students who think about grad school? I advise that they should never get a degree in my discipline without full funding. Period. Whatever the circumstances. And then I advise them that the market sucks and that if they're going to pursue grad school then they need to know and really think about it. But I also tell them that if they want it, and they get an offer of full funding for grad school, and they have nothing else they'd rather do, that I'll support them. Because I believe if they want it after all of that then I probably should respect their choices. Isn't that the least my students deserve? Basic motherfucking respect?