On Selling Out: A Semi-Manifesto – Langer #postac post

by Jessica Langer
Jessica Langer

Jessica Langer

I’ve got news for you: if you take a tenure-track position at a university that uses a significant amount of adjunct labour, you have sold out.
This may come as a surprise to you. Academia is the opposite of selling out, you may think. Academia is where we go to fight and write against systems of oppression! It’s where we can get tenure and then use our power to speak out! Or at least, it’s where we can live the life of the mind and contribute to the intellectual history and prowess of the human race!
There are two problems with that.
1. Academics aren’t the only people, or even necessarily the most significant people, to contribute intellectually to the world.
This is surprisingly non-obvious to a lot of people who are transitioning out of academia – and people who are still in academia. The ivory tower of higher learning is a seductive ideal and a compelling image.
But… think about it. Who innovates in every space outside of academia? Where do thought leaders come from in industry? Who comes up with new and different ways to use technology, to build homes, to create sustainable urban spaces? Who thought up the Apple Watch? Who writes for the New York Times? Who’s in charge of getting astronauts safely to Mars in 2020? Mostly non-academics.
The idea that academia is the be-all and end-all of the “life of the mind” is one of the most pervasive and most destructive lies that academia has ever told.
2. Academia itself is an oppressive system. It always amazes me, the extent to which some academics will consider leaving for industry a failure of morals as well as of ability. Capitalism is an oppressive system; workers are alienated from their labour in the context of a large corporation or organization; the people at the top get paid many, many times what the people at the bottom make.They’re right, of course. It’s the system in which we all function, and it is oppressive; and by being a successful businessperson, I am participating in that oppression.
But so are academics who work on the tenure track.
The reason they are able to be on the tenure track at all, to teach the courses they do, to make the salaries they do, to have the departmental funding and the job security they do, is because the “grunt” labour of teaching undergraduate students is done largely by a proletarian class of labourers who have none of those things. These labourers are paid shockingly badly (in the States, at least), are generally not eligible for departmental funding, get the last pick of courses, and have no job security. They are the sweatshop of academia: the tenure-track folks are the customers who tut-tut at the labour practices of the factories while at the same time loading up their carts with cheap T-shirts.
So: is there any way not to be a sell-out? 
The short answer? No, there isn’t. Not in this system.
We all sell out. We all make the compromises that we need to make in order to keep ourselves alive, clothed and fed. We all compete with each other, and we all close our eyes to injustices in the interest of furthering our own self-interest.
We all try our best to live our ideals, but here is my radical idea: accept the fact that you live in a system that requires you to “sell out” in order to live, and be deliberate about your choices with the understanding of that. In the current university system, you will be selling out whether you take an academic job or leave academia. Don’t worry about selling out. Worry about how your work, whatever it is, is going to impact the world at large and yourself, your family and your community specifically – and make your choices based on a nuanced understanding that goes beyond fear and into deliberate action.

About Karen

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


On Selling Out: A Semi-Manifesto – Langer #postac post — 11 Comments

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  3. ” Who innovates in every space outside of academia? Where do thought leaders come from in industry? Who comes up with new and different ways to use technology, to build homes, to create sustainable urban spaces? Who thought up the Apple Watch? Who writes for the New York Times”

    Definitely. All these people had absolutely nothing to do with academia. All of them were born and raised in full awareness of their superb capabilities and sucked in all basic information that they used to build all these “innovations” upon straight from the air. Nope, no role of “academia” there. If you think that Apple or New York Times

    “Academia itself is an oppressive system.” Any hierarchical system is “oppressive”. I would love to see an example of a system that is not “oppressive”. If you think that Apple, or New York Times are not “oppressive” you are not looking hard enough. The intensity of conflicts between R&D and management in most companies (that have R&D) is very high, it is just not reported as often as it is not in public domain

    Ok, now. You do not really suggest any solutions, besides what amounts to “be a good person” (which is somewhat obvious, no?). Shouldn’t try we change the system (or at least attempt to)? I am not sure that – “be a good person” is a viable solution, especially now when hiring decisions more and more often depend on administration benevolence. A number of universities at least attempt to bridge the gap between adjuncts and tenured professors (by mostly steadily decreasing the number of the latter). I am not sure that having too many adjuncts is a good idea for tenured professors either. Besides the simple consequences such as salary depreciation main problem is that adjuncts are not permanent employees and very often are less interested in long-term issues (department development, curriculum development, student development, limiting increasing administrative pressure) while often being swayed by short-term gains. My statistics on this is low, so I don’t claim it to be a universal trend but from observing one specific university adjuncts tended to side with the administration more often than with the faculty.

    • Are you deliberately being obtuse, or…? Because Jessica didn’t write that those inventors and intellectuals at Apple and the NY never crossed the threshold of academia. She’s simply pointing out that there are intelligent, innovative, intellectual people making great discoveries and thinking deep thoughts who aren’t employed within academia. Many graduate advisors would have you believe that when you leave academia you’re going to work amongst Cro-Magnons for thr rest of your life.

      She also never said that Apple and the NY TIMES weren’t oppressive structures. In fact, she says the opposite – that most corporations are oppressive structures. But staying in academia is not the way to involve working within one, because academia isn’t really much different from industry in that regard.

  4. Having been on both sides of the fence, I’ve seen both opinions. Most of the time both sides don’t understand the workings behind somebody choosing it (or just “being stuck” in it). E.g. I was talking to some colleagues about a recent presentation of an academic and it derailed to something along the lines of “Imagine what this guy could’ve achieved in our industry! And earned as well!” Obviously I just smiled and assented. But in my insides I was saying “well, perhaps some people don’t have the luck of getting hired by high profile companies, and have to scrub the bottom of the barrell” =(

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  6. Excellent article. As someone who has experienced the world of the adjunct and is about to jump ship to the commercial world, the exploitation in our current university system that you described really resonated with me. Thank you

  7. Thank you for this post. As someone who feels very ambivalent about continuing to try for the ellusive, privileged academic position or leaving for uncertain job prospects in the “civilian” world, I very much appreciated the suggestion that we are all “sell outs”

  8. I had a “prestigious” unpaid visiting scholarship after my PhD and was looked down upon when I left it (“sold out”) to take a paid job because others would have gladly taken it. Prestige and idolizing of “famous” professors only goes so far.

    I was in severe credit card debt and not young. Zero regrets! I didn’t leave academia, academia left me. As my unionized neighbor used to say, it’s not a job unless you’re paid.

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