“Perhaps Even a Crisis”: How to Sully the Purity of a Vocation

There is a new piece from Cultural Anthropology, “Academic Precarity in American Anthropology,”  — co-written by a Full Prof at Duke and her new Ph.D. son who has “chosen” non-academic work — that literally defies description in its elitism, sanctimoniousness, and utter cluelessness about the conditions of academic labor for the past twenty years.

I’ve spent years lobbing bombs at the MLA for its job market insensitivity but honestly the MLA is Job Market Cutting Edge compared to this.

I’m ashamed of my field.  Anthropology has embarrassed itself vis-a-vis History, Sociology, and the MLA fields.  Worse, Anthropology doesn’t understand that it has embarrassed itself, which means the rest of us have to be embarrassed for it.  Adddendum 2/18: For years I noticed the absence of a serious investment in career/professionalization events on the official program at the annual AAAs, compared to the very real shifts in the programs happening at the MLA and the AHA, for example. I kept sort of excusing it… but no more. Now I understand the discipline is truly out of touch and indifferent to the real suffering of job seekers, and unwilling to engage with the idea of academic work as compensated labor. And that this refusal is seen as a signifier of ideological purity.

You can read the long piece yourself, but for now, let me just share a bunch of quotes, which really should be all you need to see. The piece ends with a rote set of generically blameless suggestions for things like better career services, placement data, yadda yadda….  but the thing is…

These are all presented as “insights” about the anthropology tenure track job market in 2018.

In 2018.

They literally JUST figured out that this was an issue worthy of attention.

In 2018.

As the authors write, without a shred of self-consciousness:

“This process has led [Anne] to an awareness of the need to become more cognizant of not only the routes to employment outside the academy, but also the negative consequences that holding on to an increasingly elusive professional ideal can have on those being trained.”

This is the apotheosis of #tenuresplaining.

No there is nothing technically incorrect about the observations or suggestions that follow–but the fact that the authors present them as new, and that they talk right over the space already vibrantly occupied by the actual academic precariat, which has been publishing on this for decades now, is in and of itself the manifestation of the privileged insularity of the tenured and their sanctioned ignorance of these decades of actual human suffering wrought by the depredations of the academic job market.

This job market is not “daunting” or “uncertain” or “volatile” or other pretentious evasions scattered throughout the essay. It is in a state of catastrophic 40-year-long collapse that has destroyed countless lives. And elite faculty, who by their own admission ( as in this piece) “don’t know what the fuck we are doing,” have failed utterly to train their students to cope with this catastrophe…. while at the same time (as in this piece) sniffily dismissing their students’ efforts to find advising elsewhere.

This sanctioned ignorance, friends, is why nothing changes.

For a palate cleanser, read this piece, written in words of fire, by this emerita professor of English Sharon O’Dair, that came out in the same week in the Chronicle (which I unilaterally de-paywalled): Shamelessness and Hypocrisy at the MLA.

English: 1, Anthro: 0

Selected quotes:

the scarcity and competitiveness of these positions is daunting.

Indeed, attaining a tenure-track position is still expected, if not exactly assumed, particularly in highly ranked departments at elite institutions.

This discrepancy between an aspirational norm and a more volatile reality, begs the question: if the outcome for as many as 80 percent of graduate students will be something other than a tenure-track job, why are PhD programs almost exclusively training them for a professional life that few will realize?

How do faculty and new graduates alike make sense of such pervasive “failure” on the job market?

How do students manage the uncertainty of professional futures during what can be a lengthy and grueling period of graduate training? And, as the viability of our current model of professional reproduction becomes increasingly untenable, what, if anything, is emerging to take its place? {bolding added}

The two of us, from quite different positions, have been struggling with these issues for some time. {bolding added}

She has dealt with her own students facing the travails of the job market for years. And she is part of a department where the issue has been recognized as an increasingly critical one, discussed by faculty in recent years with a new sense of urgency. {bolding added}

In what follows, we seek to understand why a standard of professional success is being maintained—indeed, normalized—despite the fact that is presently unattainable by all but a few.

we consider the professional training and subsequent employment of anthropologists in terms of both vocation and job. This is an inherently tense coupling, as Max Weber noted almost a century ago in his analysis of the capitalist spirit infusing the university system, one at odds with the vocational calling experienced by academics. {bolding added}

By calling the academic market precarious, we wish to emphasize how intrinsically and insidiously these two factors can be linked: the rigid clinging to an aspirational norm that, realizable by only a select few, contributes to the precaritization (as with, but not limited to, the adjunctification) of anthropology PhDs, more and more of whom are being produced by our departments. {bolding added}

Throughout this essay, our supposition is that academic anthropology’s limited labor market indexes broader and deeper problems in higher education.

few faculty members or PhD students have much awareness of what it takes to find such work, outside of applied anthropology programs that are typically offered at the master’s level and outside the R1 bubble. {bolding added}

such ignorance stems, we will argue, from the stigma that still attends applied and nonacademic work within anthropology: what are seen (and often dismissed) as instrumental jobs that sully the purity of a vocation. {bolding added}

It fails to recognize that the promise of a nonutilitarian professional existence—one operating outside of contemporary capitalism and its spiritual depredations—is ultimately a partial truth at best, as Weber recognized so long ago.{bolding added}

Making something as scarce as a tenure-track job in anthropology so normatively aspirational can actually promote a different kind of instrumentality. Among graduate students in particular, fears about the job market are increasingly dominant and have real consequences not only on professional futures, but also on the kinds of projects young scholars pursue—and thus the shape of the discipline as a whole. {bolding added}

Before proceeding, given our different positions in the field and relations to it (let alone to one another), some background about the origins of our collaboration is in order. The project began in the summer of 2017 when David (Anne’s son) began working at Adobe: a move that Anne initially found perplexing. Though she was well aware of the uncertainty of the academic market from her graduate students and had experienced her own professional anxieties (and a difficult tenure process) over the years, it had been over twenty-five years since she landed a tenure-track position and she was both secure and content in the scholarly environment of her home institution, Duke. Why would her son so hastily pursue industrial work and forego applying for postdocs or visiting professorships—the route she always advised her own students to take? {bolding added}

[David’s non-ac industry position is] hardly a perfect scenario, in other words, but a satisfying one. For Anne, seeing this scenario up close has been instructive. As a senior scholar whose research has for many years been materialist, examining relations of production, reproduction, and, more recently, labor precarity in postindustrial Japan, Anne came to better understand the labor dynamics involved in her own profession through observing David’s experiences. This process has led her to an awareness of the need to become more cognizant of not only the routes to employment outside the academy, but also the negative consequences that holding on to an increasingly elusive professional ideal can have on those being trained. {bolding added}

For now, when asked how graduate students in their own departments were doing on the job market and whether our speculative figure of 16 to 21 percent resonated, just over half of respondents said that this proportion felt intuitively correct, if not a little high. The other half reported slightly better figures, typically citing the fact that their department was highly ranked. Yet even in such elite programs, faculty recognized that their graduate students perceived the situation to be precarious, perhaps even a crisis. In fact, many faculty described both an awareness of the pressures graduate students face and a sense of paralysis around how they could or should respond. Several faculty members noted that they simply hadn’t been trained to be job counselors, at least for work outside of the academy. “I am going to be honest. We don’t know what the fuck we are doing,” a recently tenured professor at a prestigious institution said. “Many of our best students aren’t getting jobs and we don’t know how to help them.” {bolding added}

Even faculty members who are more skeptical about a perceived crisis in today’s labor market recognized that graduate students today are deeply anxious. {bolding added}

One faculty member lamented that many ambitious graduate students fashion themselves early in their training as fully fledged scholarly brands. They do so with customized websites, regularly updated Twitter feeds, and so on, making themselves into entrepreneurs defined by a specific niche instead of initiates into a field of intellectual and relational engagement. {bolding added}

Such motivations index a set of disciplinary transformations that some faculty participants found irksome. One tenured faculty member bemoaned this tendency, which she described as “reactionary,” in both students and junior colleagues. Simply doing whatever it takes to get a job should not be why one goes to graduate school in anthropology, she said. Otherwise, why not just become a banker? {bolding added}

I’ll stop here, which is not even halfway through the piece,  since I think you now get the gist of it.  This is not The Onion. (Oh and BTW, I am referenced, and not in a complimentary fashion, lol, shortly after the above).

I shall now summarize for you the larger claim:

The job market is bad.

Perhaps even a crisis.

But we’re not sure.

The grad students certainly seem stressed.

I wonder why.

But this much we know:

That caring about getting a job to practice your discipline makes you instrumentalizing.

And utilitarian.

Because then you are careerist.

And calculate things like publications.

And cv lines!

And try and get help with career-building.

And that is bad!

Irksome, even!

Because it betrays the vocation.

Oh!  Quelle Irony!

Oh Weber, where are you when we need you?

Marx, can you not save us?

Oh {wringing hands} we had better conduct an ethnography!

And publish a piece!

Using words like phenomenology! and ethics!

That shall become a line on our CVs!

Why hello, merit raise.

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About Karen Kelsky

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.


“Perhaps Even a Crisis”: How to Sully the Purity of a Vocation — 12 Comments

  1. Thank you for this! Anthropologists really are a breed apart in terms of their clueless arrogance (I am one). Not only do they look down upon the normies with their “bullshit jobs” (Graeber), they also look down upon all other scientific disciplines, because obvs they are much more specialer than those poor sods brainwashed by the Western imperialist project of finding out how stuff works. Cue the completely detached cult-like waffle about “disciplinary quests” (Komaroffx2) and constant (clumsy) reinvention of the wheel. Who needs philosophers, we’ve got our very own ontology! Did I say one? We have lots of them!

    Not sure why anyone is surprised these people are the last to wake up to the realities out there (acerbated the fact that doing Anthropology of the West is the kiss of death on the job market, so people are actively discouraged from looking at what’s right in front of their noses).

    I think my favorite line from the CulAnth piece was “While the work draws on his ethnographic skills, it is, admittedly, different from what an academic position would entail. The research is never exactly his own and it must always, on some level, answer the question: “Can this help our bottom-line?”

    Because literally no university ever has cared about the bottom line.

    It’s about time that whole discipline got a rude wake-up call, otherwise it is going to be obsolete in a decade.

      • I am staggered at how clueless this CulAnth piece is… it shows how accommodated and arrogant some professors have become in so-called ‘elite’ circles. They are not afraid to say that doing other work ‘might distract from their true scholarly path’… I’m surprised these are actually anthropologists! If I learned one thing during fieldwork was that people say things, and they do things. We have to know the difference between saying and doing. I sat through a lot of talking and seen very little doing among academics, and seen a lot of hard work and people walking the talk outside the self-serving and back-patting world of jargon-ridden academia. I also seen how, when you disagree with a senior prof in order to help them not make a ridiculous argument, and look foolish on the long run, you’re taking huge risks, since they may talk about ‘dialogue’ and being ‘critical’ but know very little about it in real life. As a non-North American and non-European and someone who did not go to an IB high school, I’ve always been in a great disadvantage regarding ‘funding competitions’ that somehow would translate into a career job in the discipline I believed in. I find their recourse to Weber indeed embarrassing, and their veiled claims of being outside the spiritually damaging world of capitalism (and yet, working for ‘elite’ universities) ridiculous, since these universities are in the business of selling patents and serving companies with jobs since they’ve been conceived. The CulAnth piece’s ‘proposals’ are certainly unnerving, though keeping with the overall clueless thematic… I thank you for your outrage. Perhaps CulAnth is the new Onion, for this piece on precarity certainly reads like it.

        • I’m so ashamed of my field, Rodrigo. For years I noticed the absence of a serious investment in professionalization events on the official program at the annual AAAs, compared to the very real shifts in the programs happening at the MLA and the AHA, for example. I kept sort of excusing it… but no more. Now I understand the discipline is truly out of touch, truly indifferent to the real suffering of job seekers. It’s truly stunning that anthro in 2018 thinkgs talking about capitalism and career-seeking as spiritually damaging is some sort of theoretical intervention… I’m genuinely flabbergasted.

          • Thank you Karen. After I finished my Ph.D., I was told that I had to start dressing up, going to every AAA to beg for jobs, and get ‘flashed interviewed’… but what about the cost of this in time and money? It meant a lot more expenses and no certainty whatsoever. Profs seem to promote their students to get ahead in their own careers, and it has way more to do with whether they got grants (very often from questionable sources) than with whether their work is good. And anthros have, as the first ‘anonymous’ commentator noticed, looked down on other disciplines for being so-called ‘normies’. Yet, I got tired of seeing, already during my MA (2006-2010) how much time was wasted with the flattery of scholars from so-called elite institutions, as if that had anything to do with doing good anthropology. Once Charles Briggs from the mighty Chicago elite visited UBC, and two of the most ‘ambitious’ faculty members, instead of asking questions that were simple and to the point, went on and on babbling for several minutes with supposedly complex jargon thinking they would be very impressive. The speaker dismissed them saying, ‘you should write a few books from that question’, which he couldn’t have followed anyway. Many anthros suffer from an alarming sense of self-importance. When Appadurai visited, the same babbler made a sycophantic presentation, listing everything from Appadurai’s thesis to his most obscure papers… it went on forever – I even forgot what Appadurai talked about later. All of that was embarrassing enough then, years ago, but I believed and still do in critiques of Western institutions and on lessons we can get from our engagement with indigenous ways of knowing, small communities, and real people out in the world (beyond academia). I noticed also how our ‘ethnographic’ and ‘analytical’ skills were turned off when it came to analyzing the university system itself, which was for many their home! They made an analysis of ‘power’ making sure their role was never included… after all, anthros must ‘grade’ their students, often hurting their academic futures. I will share an anecdote, this one from a conference I attended in Estonia for the EASA. There was a Norwegian student from Cambridge who was struggling for funds, and came out to watch a conference presentation I gave in Edinburgh about my fieldwork and we became ‘friends’. After the beginning of the EASA 2014 conference in Tallinn, we were walking and talking, in transit from the University to the concert hall where there would be a number of talks, all quite overtly pompous and long to my taste, followed by a food and alcohol binge, as often required, and we indulged. It is part of how anthropologists love to grandstand, just like so-called ‘normies’. We were in the middle of a conversation when this student abruptly cut it off, and said, ‘wait, I have to listen to what they are saying’, pointing to a prof who was walking, surrounded by eager students. I was puzzled, and the student explained that she needed to befriend that prof in order to get on her good side and find some opportunities. I stood in silence, thinking about what just had happened, as she eavesdropped into the conversation taking place elsewhere, meters from us. The amount of insincere back patting and full on flattering that I observed among students in the UK paired with the hypocrisy of professors talking about being critical, acting like cowards and avoiding critical discussions was amazing. Students put up with horrible work conditions, look tired and sad, miserable really, just to get a glimpse of the ‘old man’. It’s quite a wonder to behold. And yet, I still stand for anthropology as being one of the only disciplines that supposedly takes seriously indigenous ways of knowing and being, which is my inspiration to keep going. I was visiting your site after a great friend, another anthropologist, asked me to check it out again before writing a cover letter to a position, and I found this… and what’s funnier is that I’ve proposed a panel (with no expectation of having it go though) that I called ‘The Anthropology of Anthropology – Critical Reflections on Mobility and Workplace Precariousness’. The precarity issue is a big taboo among anybody with a job in the field, however precarious, even if they may complain like crazy in private. A friend of mine said Oxford is not only uber-sexist (postdoc men get to be promoted while women get admin jobs) but also more precarious than McDonald’s (actual quote); but won’t ever admit it in public, fearing for status and riding the ancient brand of the place. Whenever I mention such issues in social media, I usually get silence, because anthros have been bullied into conformity and fear for retaliation from their ‘superiors’. But, of course, they are too busy being ‘critical’. Staggering to think that MLA is taking care of their people while anthropologists love talking about ‘community values’ and are hardly capable of implementing them.

  2. Of course, being the child of a prof at an elite school, her son probably had a far better chance of a tenure-track job than most of his classmates, regardless of respective accomplishments.

  3. What pieces like this CulAnth article ignore is the reason that the number of applicants to graduate programs exploded at the same time that demand was dropping: the technological disruption that occurred at the same time as the economic downturn. Of course, there are a whole host of reasons why institutions accepted these candidates despite knowing that most of them would not find gainful employment, but I think it is important to remember that ten years ago many of these now-PhDs lost what they thought were stable non-academic jobs and were motivated by legitimate concerns that without further education their opportunities were limited.
    In my case, as I approached the end of my BA years I was given lots of advice as to what careers to avoid but no guidance as to what fields would value my liberal arts degree. I did find a good job as a claims analyst, but barely over a year after starting this job I learned that the company I worked for had lost several contracts and everyone in my department would be losing their positions at the end of the year. So, in 2009 I entered a MA program. I really didn’t have all the information to make an informed decision about this program, but I was faced with the looming certainty of unemployment at the end of the year versus an uncertain future after two years of guaranteed employment as a graduate assistant. I thought, may as well do it – I won’t be any worse off at the end of two years than I am right now. When I started classes in the fall, I found that most of my MA cohort had similar motivations.
    Of course, at the end of my MA program the economy was still not really recovered so I ended up going straight into a PhD program. In the UK.
    In hindsight, pursuing graduate education was perhaps not the best choice. However, it is important to recognize that many recent-PhDs who are in the midst of this academic-job panic are the product of the non-academic job panic ten years ago. We may not have all made the best choices, but then, decisions made in panic seldom are.
    As we discuss what to do about the precarity of academia we should keep this in mind.

  4. This piece, and a select few of the accompanying essays, are infuriating. I had to reread it the first time I came across it because I could not believe what was being “argued” as an innovative discovery or intervention, nor could I stomach the self-indulgence of the auto-ethnography. This is not a discovery, it is an act of appropriation of the academic labor of so many who have been sharing and theorizing their experience for years. Some of the comments that have popped up on the culanth site are also infuriating in their adjunct-blaming responsibilization of the problem. I have been skeptical of, even estranged from, the journal for years, partly because the exclusivity and theoretical vapidity was so concentrated, and partly because I refuse to believe that the future and politics of our field rest upon the star-making pretensions of this journal. Precarity has been the norm since I entered graduate school in the year 2000. To pretend otherwise is intellectually and morally bankrupt.

    • There still aren’t very many comments on the CulANth website relating to these pieces, so I suspect the “infuriating” comment you refer to was mine!

      I don’t know what responsibilization really means in this context, is it negative/ positive? Dr Karen’s service seems to be exactly about responsibilization- taking responsibility by taking your career into your own hands, etc. Anyway, my comment, aimed at the adjunct who launched a pretty impressive “adjunct manifesto” in a side comment, was a suggestion to submit it to the collection where it had better chance to be heard. And I’m sure we can agree her views were of similar if not better quality!

      It struck me that introducing the comment with “for what it’s worth”… was a sad symbol of her feelings of marginalisation, and I encouraged her to put these thoughts forward, as submissions to the collection are being solicited.

      Perhaps some of the comments here should be resubmitted there?

      I thought the main article was pretty transparent nepotism and got the impression that the only reason the prof noticed there was a problem was due to darling son being suddenly unemployable, but I really enjoyed some of the other articles, specifically “teaching precarity” by Thorkelsen.

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