I am just back from a back-to-back conference trip, first to the American Anthropological Association conference in San Jose, and then on to Denver for the American Academy of Religion. At each conference I spoke on the postacademic transition. I encountered quite a contrast.
My event at AAA was one of just a tiny number of professionalization events. Searching “career” in the conference app, in fact, led to only four open events. The AAR, by contrast, had 16 that I could quickly identify in the program – and there seemed to be more.
At the AAA, the crowd for my event, which was meant to be a discussion-based workshop with one other postacademic speaker and me, was very small, even though the wonderful and dedicated organizer worked hard to promote it.
[Addendum: neither my co-presenter nor I were listed on the conference program. Why? Because we had not registered. Why had we not registered? Because why would two postac scholars pay the $3xx it costs to register for the AAA? And when our dedicated organizer approached the AAA to ask if they’d cover our registration fees, the AAA refused!
Meanwhile, I WAS listed on the AAR program. Why? Because the AAR voluntarily offered me registration as part of the invitation. And that, my friends, should have cued me into the two diverging experiences from the start.]
The tenured white man who introduced the panel appeared not to have the remotest idea who my co-presenter or I were, and laughingly wondered aloud if The Professor Is In were some kind of “pressure group or something.”
When we two presenters finished our talks—both very pragmatic and filled with examples of specific avenues for Ph.D. job seekers outside the tenure track job market — the first audience member to speak up was an apparently tenured senior white male. In great consternation he fairly shouted at us: “all this talk of autonomy and empowerment… Foucault would be turning over in his grave!” He went on, almost sputtering, “surely we need to stay IN the structure and SAVE it! Surely THAT should be the priority?”
I of course did not come all the way to smoky San Jose to spend my time talking to tenured white men about how to save the academy. I responded, “I am not interested in the structure and feel no obligation to save it, and neither should its victims, because it’s the STRUCTURE that is producing the victims: it is what leads thousands upon thousands of Ph.D.s to be launched into a catastrophic job market, and end up with six figure debt, the dead-end life of adjuncting, and qualifying for welfare and food stamps. I have no interest in the “structure,” and it’s not what I wish to spend my time here today discussing.”
He looked startled.
As the meme (quoted by my friend Adeline Koh recently on Facebook) puts it: “if you hire people into a broken culture, you don’t fix the culture, you break the people.”
The conversation went on from there, with a good part of the audience visibly unhappy at the concept my co-presenter and I were putting forward that an anthropology Ph.D. could or would choose to exert agency over their own fate. “All this talk of ‘improvisation’ and ‘entrepreneurship’,” said one young woman unhappily, “it’s upsetting and scary! How can you expect us to embrace that?” To which I responded, “Yes. It is scary. It is fucking scary. And the cause of it is the macroeconomic neoliberal shifts that have entirely defunded higher ed and the entire concept of a public good OR a secure job, in any field. My goal here is to try and point out options for individuals to survive and even thrive in these defunded, impoverished conditions, by telling you the truth about them, trying to pierce through the denial and mythologizing of your departments and advisors about them, and present some options for you to consider.”
“Ok, you’ve ALMOST convinced me,” announced the first tenured white male commenter as discussion drew to a close (I was not attempting to convince him). The introducer in turn gestured to me and exclaimed—“Surely universities would want to hire YOU in a position on their payroll to help their students with this! Is that not possible??” Not bothering to mention that I did not leave the academy and start a highly successful business that takes me all over the world and employs a whole team of people to entertain the idea of working for a paycheck in some university careers office, I responded, “Well, I’m not going to do that, but sure, somebody should.”
He looked startled.
Why would I not want to be on a university payroll, his look seemed to ask. He was, after all, the man who referred to himself several times during the event as “being one of the lucky few,” ie, those with tenured positions.
As a postacademic colleague remarked later, upon hearing my story, these are the people who are continually reminding everyone who will listen that it is they who have The. Best. Job. (“T.B.J.” in her disgusted parlance).
It was this introducer, indeed, who spoke glowingly of the large Executive Session that had been held that very morning on “Precarity” in the academic job market. “This double session, anointed by the highest AAA admin, surely reveals just how SERIOUSLY the AAA is taking these issues!” he enthused. Having not been aware of this session, I searched it right away on my phone, while listening to the discussion sputter along. Ah. There it was. A big fancy Executive Session on Precarity. That was made up of 14 presenters of whom – and no, I’m not making this up — eight were TENURED OR TENURE-TRACK PROFESSORS. Indeed, some of the same professors who caused this mishigas that I blogged about a few months ago “Epistemological Crisis?” read one title (love the question mark); “Provincializing Precarity,” read another.
These securely employed academics are literally still adding CV-lines on the backs of adjuncts.
I don’t even have words.
All I could say, as I left the workshop, was a text to an anthropologist friend: “I’m done. I’m never coming back to the AAA again. They are lost.”
Discouraged, I packed my bags and journeyed on to the AAR in Denver. This was my first time at the AAR, and I didn’t know what to expect. I did know that my invitation was to an event that clearly had the official imprimatur of the association as a whole and that the AAR admin appeared quite invested in this and a host of other postacademic and professionalization events that filled the schedule. Indeed the first event I was able to attend at the meetings was a lunch for contingent faculty with the incoming President of AAR, whose purpose was to provide a venue for them to freely express to her the things they most want her to know and to do on their behalf. I was stunned by the care with which she listened, and the total absence of what I have come to call “tenured bullshit.”
This impression was intensified when I wandered through registration and the book exhibit and saw that there was a whole official initiative called “#AARSolidarity” meant to foreground the position of contingent faculty in Religious Studies departments.
There were pins, and postcards, and badge tags to wear to demonstrate awareness of the issue. And more than that, there were placards set conspicuously in the main hallways, making the issue truly unavoidable to all participants.
Then I attended my events. I did two of them. One was a panel discussion with four other postacademic Ph.Ds: Dr. Amy Defibaugh, Assistant Director of Academic Affairs at Temple University, Dr. Sarah Peterson representing the ImaginePhD initiative from the Graduate Careers Consortium, Dr. Jenny Whitcher, founder of the Juniper Formation non-profit, and Dr. Emily Swafford, who is the Director of Academic and Professional Affairs at the AHA. The conversation on this panel was absolutely fantastic – every member of the panel was deeply and imaginatively invested in the true scale of both challenges and opportunities that the postacademic job seeker encounters. Every speaker brought the intellectual sophistication of their Ph.D. training to very specific suggestions for job seekers. There was not a moment of empty rhetoric or mournful performativity (or performative mournfulness). The speakers were smart, focused, funny, empathetic… and the Q&A session could not have been more dynamic and engaged.
I was delighted with the audience of approximately 40; imagine my surprise when the organizers rued the “small numbers.” The AHA speaker was particularly incisive, explaining the many initiatives spearheaded by that association to assist History Ph.D.s in the postacademic transition. One of the most valuable of these to me is their investment in the idea that just because you work outside the academy, you have not lost your identity as a scholar or a Historian. One of their motivating queries is: “how am I a historian in this job?” – helping Ph.D.s to reclaim the scholarly identity that may have been brutalized by the unsuccessful struggle to find a tenure track position.
It is true, as one postac historian colleague pointed out to me, that this move is potentially quite problematic: it can be interpreted as a discipline and association attempting to disappear the pain, loss, and crisis of Ph.D. career reinvention and under-report the true level of historian un- or under-employment. However, I do think based on my own life trajectory that it can be valuable to discover that one brings ones disciplinary training into other career realms. It took me about five years of running The Professor Is In to realize (and only because a client said it) that I was indeed an anthropologist of the academic career. At the panel, discussing the tension between jettisoning an over-rigid investment in a singular academic identity, and re-embracing a flexible sense of scholarly identity later, I blurted out, “It’s like a Hegelian dialectic!” to which a co-panelist said, amidst general amusement, “See, and you still get to talk this way!”
Fresh from the AAA, seeing the AHA determination to actually consider Ph.D. unemployment a crisis was heartening. As was the willingness of an AAR event to share AHA initiatives.
Similarly, my own individual event (a one hour Hacking the Post-Academic Career talk followed by Q and A) that followed right after drew a crowd of approximately 60 responsive, attentive audience members, who stayed engaged even when I mortifyingly lost track of time and spoke almost 20 minutes too long (breaking my single most sacrosanct professional rule!) and staying for energetic conversation that pushed us well past ending time.
The previous day, shortly after I arrived at the conference, a TPII reader who came up to introduce herself smiled mischievously and said, “I know you have sometimes called yourself an ethnographer of academic conferences! I’m dying to hear what you think of the AAR!” At that moment I had not yet had time to make any observations, but writing this on the flight home, I can say this: I am struck yet again by the contrast in disciplinary associations’ and tenured faculty members’ willingness to engage in the scandal and crisis of contingency in any meaningful way. The AAA is truly an embarrassment, and it saddens me, since it is my home discipline. But other associations are doing better. To be sure, I don’t want to idealize, and I know that insiders can see things that I can’t. My postac historian friend is entirely disgusted with what she sees as the AHA insistence on co-opting History Ph.D.s’ struggle to survive in order to rationalize the continued existence of History Ph.D. programs. And there was conflict at the AAR around the issue of #MeTooPhD, and graduate student members issued a statement about their feelings of exclusion and silencing.
But, as a few folks I spoke with at the AAR panel remarked, the foundational “ethical” orientation of many of the scholars who belong to AAR may be playing a role in sensitizing the association to its obligations to its least powerful constituencies and to the devastations of adjunctification in the academy. Some of its administrators, at least, are not turning a blind eye, and are not coating the issue in self-serving academic jargon and elite and elitist events. Anthropology, by contrast, apparently seems determined to continue to package “precarity” as the latest academic buzz-word, and leave the actually precarious out in the cold.