Everyone who is thinking and writing about the implosion of the academic job market is by now aware of the dust-up between Rebecca Schuman and the Tenured Radical in late December.*
On Dec. 20, Rebecca Schuman wrote the post “Naming and Shaming: UC Riverside Gives Candidates 5 Days Notice” calling the UCR English department on the carpet for telling applicants to their tenure track job they’d be informed of any MLA interviews only five days before the conference, requiring some of them to scramble in a ruinously expensive fashion to travel to Chicago on the basis of a tiny scrap of job market hope. “This is a move that is both elitist and out of touch,” she wrote, “Dr. Katherine Kinney, you and your committee should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Most folks who follow the abuses of the current academic job market found this a legitimate critique, couched in Rebecca Schuman’s typical uncensored style.
A day later, though, the Tenured Radical posted a tone-shaming critique of Schuman’s piece, ‘Job Market Rage Redux,” on her Chronicle of Higher Ed blog, which took issue with what she called “chronic rage” in digital media. She accused Schuman of staging an “on-line hissy fit.”
Rebecca Schuman couldn’t let this stand, of course, and let loose on her blog with a post “A Radical Defense of the Status Quo.” Tenured Radical reacted with a snarky little “Christmas Eve Follow-up” to her original post complaining about the comments she’d gotten. Two days later, unable to let it rest apparently, she put up what purported to be an objective “thought piece” about the “larger issues” of internet civility. “Click (Dis)Like: Why Social Media Use is Now a Professional Issue”
Because all this happened over my official Christmas vacation-from-the-internet, I was late to the party and missed the window for real-time commentary.
When I did catch up to it on Twitter, however, I serendipitously found the exchanges intertwined in my feed with the #nopologetics thread generated by Suey Park. Park created the hashtag to solicit examples of the denials, evasions, and projections used by white people to deflect and/or shut down discussion of race and racism.
For a couple of years now I’ve been thinking about tenured privilege and all the ways that the tenured enjoy a sanctioned ignorance about the conditions of the post-adjunctification academic job market. I have been struck over and over at how their subject position is reminiscent of nothing so much as the sanctioned ignorance of white people with regard to race.
The moment I first realized this was in May 2012, when the Chronicle published its bombshell expose of Ph.D. poverty, The Ph.D. Now Comes with Food Stamps, highlighting the increasing reliance of people with Ph.D.’s on public assistance such as food stamps and welfare. The piece quotes James Grossman, Executive Director of the AHA, who says this: “nobody has ever heard of [Ph.D.’s on public assistance] among our members or other historians….No e-mails, no postings or tweets.”
Really, Executive Director of the AHA? You’d never heard ANYTHING about Ph.D.s in poverty? Not even a single tiny tweet?
This is not just ignorance, this is a specifically political will-to-no-knowledge.
Consider, for a moment, the definition of sanctioned ignorance: Westerners “maintain sanctioned ignorance (constitutive disavowal) of the role of colonialism in the creation of the wealth of what is called the ‘First World’ today, as well as the role of the international division of labour and exploitation of the Third World in the maintenance of this wealth” (Andreotti, Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices Vol 1:1 : 70).
Now consider this: “the tenured maintain sanctioned ignorance (constitutive disavowal) of the role of the adjunct economy in the funding of their own salaries and research support today, as well as the role of the two-track hiring system and exploitation of adjuncts in the maintenance of this economy.”
This parallel leapt out in full glory as I read the Tenured Radical column juxtaposed with the #nopologetics stream. Tenured Radical’s effort to shut down Rebecca Schuman eerily parallel white efforts to shut down discussions of racism.
Let’s walk through it a bit with a few examples from the #nopologetics thread.
Example 1: “I’m not defending that racist joke, but your outrage is disproportionate.”
Here is Tenured Radical:
On line hissy fits, some of which identify the crimes of named institutions and departments, have become ever more acute as a buyer’s job market prolongs the discomforts and insecurities of graduate school indefinitely.
Translation: I acknowledge that those shut out of the job market by virtue of 75% adjunctification of university instruction experience “discomfort,” but they have no right to criticize the system, much less make us who are employed uncomfortable with their rage!”
Example 2: “I’m sorry that you think I’m racist. But I’m very offended that you called me racist, can we please talk about that instead?”
Anger can be healthy: it can also be a real problem in a colleague if it is a chronic response to insecurity… I don’t want to work with someone whose first response to a conflict is to broadcast their version of the story, spread unfounded accusations and express their negative feelings about me. I want to work with people who, like adults, are ready to resolve conflict and move on with our work.
Translation: The fact that the academic job market has imploded and adjuncts’ lives are wrecked by debt, insecurity, and poverty is really all about me and the kind of people I want to work with—ie, nice and polite people who don’t criticize the status quo.
Then there is the false equivalency line: “When you make everything a conflict about race, everyone loses”:
“Venting” publicly…. amplifies and justifies the rage, making it even more difficult for the person who harbors it to move on…. Is blowing the UC-Riverside English department off going to restore your sense of lost dignity?
Translation: You’re just being destructive; you’re the real problem here!
All sorts of familiar tropes showed up. Like this one– “you are irrational”:
Where academic rage really screws you up is if you start with the idea that you aren’t going to get the job anyway, its ok to be angry about it ahead of time, and because of that you might as well take $500 out and burn it in your living room as take a phone call from the likes of UC-Riverside.
Translation: I know better than you do how you should utilize your resources to get a tenure track job.
Or, “Let me help you overcome your poor judgment”:
If you are within driving or train distance, decide if it is worth traveling round trip for a day to have a job interview at the meeting, where you can be easily compared to the other candidates. Here are some things to think about as you make that decision: how much do you want a chance at a career on the tenure-track? Would you take this job if it were offered, or do you have other, better, options?
Translation: You clearly have no idea how precious and valuable the tenure track job interview really is.
And this one: “You personally are doing fine so that proves racism doesn’t exist”:
What worries me is that any number of people who have every reason to be happy about how their lives turned out — they made a good transition to non-academic work, they have tenure-track or tenured jobs themselves — continue to encourage generations of graduate students to be enraged that the job market of the 1960s no longer exists, and to express that rage in ways that immediately call other people’s reputations into question.
Translation: You have a column in Slate now! So stop telling other adjuncts and Ph.D.s to critique our precious academy!
And then there is the time-honored “uppity” trope; ie, the “who the hell do you think you are to presume to critique the way things are?”
People in other professions — oil and gas engineer, administrative assistant, restaurant franchise manager, coach, nurse, high school principle — go to great lengths to make it to job interviews where they have as much, or as little, chance as you do to get a job. Are you better than they are?
Translation: How. Dare. You.
All of these leading up to the classic wail of the white liberal: “I’m sorry you think I’m racist and haven’t taken the time to get to know me. I’m a very kind person who likes rainbows.”
Here, Tenured Radical links—in the second column– to a post by blogger Historiann which tells us how nice Tenured Radical really is:
Some of us–many of us–know her in person. Most of us really like and respect her, because she is the gold standard for collegiality, fair play, and intellectual engagement, not to mention her service as a public intellectual and radical feminist.
Historiann tells the story of how the Tenured Radical shared a cab with Historiann back when Historiann was just a grad student, and Tenured Radical PAID THE ENTIRE CAB FARE, PLUS TIP! Tenured Radical did not have to do this. She did it totally out of the goodness of her heart.
…When she generously shared her cab and her readers with me I was just another grad student, [and later] junior colleague that she helped out because she’s a stand-up guy and a thoroughly decent person…
Translation: Tenured Radical is a total friend to the little people, a champion of the downtrodden.
My issue is not that Historiann wrote this defense of her friend.
My issue is that Tenured Radical linked to it in her own post. Without grasping that this is a digital version of: “but my black friends said it was okay. They weren’t offended, so why are you? #nopologetics”
Tenured Radical nevertheless couldn’t fathom that someone wouldn’t have a stash of money available to make a last-minute trip to the MLA on the paper-thin hope of being short-listed.
Southwest Airlines last minute fares are really very cheap, and this year’s MLA meeting is in Chicago, one of the cheapest places to get to on God’s Green Earth. OK, it isn’t dirt cheap, but booked today, it would cost you less than $500 to go, with $100 for meals. Can you bunk in with a friend? Can you just fly back the same day?
Translation: seriously, you don’t have $600 in your pocket to blow on the faint chance of a job? What’s wrong with you? I am not affiliated with Southwest Airlines in any way.
In the end, Tenured Radical got decimated on her comment threads. “How dare people feel ‘entitled’ to have emotional responses as they see fit! And write about them on a blog!” wrote one commenter.
Such impudence! And imagine a workplace where the default response to being treated like shit was anger? Claire Potter is absolutely right that the ideal situation is a workplace in which the people with the power to hire are deferred to and assumed to be blameless and well-intentioned, while those hoping not to be fired relentlessly police themselves for any trace of unconstructive emotions.”
“More tenured than radical,” observed another.
The comments apparently struck a nerve, because Tenured Radical assiduously responded to nearly every one, at least for a while.
If this comment demonstrates the quality of your critical reading and argumentation skills….well, we’ll stop there.
And, “I’m thinking, you should seek anger management counseling.”
It goes without saying, Tenured Radical did not come out well from this.
The blowback was intense enough to cause her, two days later, to make smarmy internet-nice to Rebecca Schuman over Twitter. Condescending to the very end, she clumsily praises Schuman in over-familiar twitter-speak: “Srsly, u r very good writer, and am sure you will do well.” And seems to seek some kind of exoneration: “so lets talk, k? I understand.”
I think she vaguely grasped that in about five days, she had fallen from grace as “radical” in any meaningful way. She had forfeited her claim to the moral authority that has been her column’s bread and butter.
She scrambled to reclaim the moral foothold a day later, again on Twitter, but this time by trying to coopt Schuman instead of dissing her: “maybe @pankisseskafka and I would rather combine forces against injustice than fight each other.”
“Post-Academic in NYC” weighed in on the debate, on her blog, on the subject of civility. What is this “profession,” she asks, about which we are to be so civil, when “there are 1.5 million college teachers in the United States, and 1 million of them are contingent”?
What is stoking the rage of adjuncts and graduate students is not the ability to lob 140 character rage bombs into the ether. Rather, it’s that people like Tenured Radical still get to frame the operative questions, even though they don’t know much about the reality on the ground because they don’t have to know.
The tenured do not know because they do not have to know.
They are protected by their privilege.
What is tenured privilege, though? If privilege is the set of special rights or resources that accrue to groups based on the background into which they were born, then how does it apply to tenure, when nobody is “born” into the status of a tenured professor? It takes work to get there.
However, today’s tenured professors indeed accrued privilege by virtue of birth: they were born early enough to enter the job market and rise through its ranks before the total implosion of the university hiring economy. Yes, the academic job market was tight in the 1980s and 1990s. Sure it was; I was there! But tight is not the same thing as decimated. The tenured may have struggled mightily to find work, but there was still work to find, when universities had not yet begun the aggressive process of downsizing, shrinking the faculty, and eradicating lines.
In this sense, their “birth order” engenders the blindnesses that are the hallmark of privilege everywhere. The tenured indeed consider their way of life normal, unremarkable and normative. They believe their gains are the result of their own effort and merit, not systematic structural advantage. They hold the power to exclude and limit outsiders’ participation in its processes. They cast moral judgments on those who do not share their status based on their presumed individual failings rather than systemic disadvantage. They literally cannot see those who do not occupy equivalent status. They enjoy, in McIntosh’s words, an invisible package of unearned assets that they can count on cashing in each day—access to the library and travel resources, an office in which to work, health insurance, the security of knowing that their employment will continue next term and next year, the right to participate in departmental, program, and campus-wide decision-making, and so on.
As with all privilege, the ethical response is not guilt. I do not want the tenured to feel guilty about their status. For one thing, they worked hard to earn it. Post-Academic in NYC elaborates:
The important thing that more fortunate faculty (especially those with tenure) need to know is that you don’t have to feel guilty. Guilt doesn’t help anyone. You’re no more responsible for the state of affairs than the adjunct teaching in the classroom next to you. To fix what ails higher education does not require you to give up your job or anything else, except your illusions….
For another, guilt is narcissistic and self-indulgent. What the tenured must do with their privilege is rally to the cause of the disenfranchised. As PAINYC says, “Speaking up in solidarity with the growing numbers of qualified, talented, passionate people who are being flushed out as a waste product of the academic labor system is what is important.”
Instead, what I see the tenured doing– not just Tenured Radical but most of the ones I know personally, hear of, or read about—is ruefully shake their heads about adjuncts (“I know, isn’t it just awful?”) while they run off to the graduate admissions meetings where they continue to admit the same number of students, with the same crappy funding, into the same dissertation-obsessed programs of study, based on the same outdated, indefensible job market premises, delivering the same vague, non-committal job market assurances (“the good people always get jobs”), as in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. All. Completely. Unchanged.
Privilege has insulated the tenured for a very long time. But the walls are crumbling. The disenfranchised just won’t be quiet any more. They won’t slink away in shame when they do not get the tenure track job and enter the hallowed gates. They turn back and cast stones at the crumbling walls of the academy, the walls behind which the tenured lead their secure and comfortable lives. While the tenued still enjoy their privilege, they are less and less protected by their ignorance.
Schuman refers to the tenured tendency to circle the wagons and shut out the critiques of the non-academically-employed “lifeboating.” It’s a good image. When the tenured truly get that they are on tiny, tiny departmental boats in a giant roiling sea of economic chaos that is engulfing our universities, they will, I hope, spend less time cultivating outrage at the audacity of the unemployed critics, and instead make real changes in their own practices. Some that I’d like to see:
Slash or halt graduate admissions
Make job market training (both academic and non-academic) central to the curriculum
Reduce time-to-degree of graduate programs
See and include adjuncts in the running of the department-both formally and informally
Tell the truth about the corporatized funding models in their universities that sustain their salaries and research funds by cutting other labor costs through the exploitation of adjuncts.
Tenured Radical is just the most visible recent public example of a vast phenomenon.
There is little better writing on this subject than Ann Larson’s ferocious 2012 indictment of the capitalist depredations of the neoliberal university, “Rhetoric and Composition: Academic Capitalism and Cheap Teachers.” She tells a story of attending a talk on her campus by two prominent leftist scholars, John Trimbur and John Brereton, and a question posed to them by a graduate student during the Q and A:
“The job market is terrible right now,” she said. “What advice do you have for us? Where can we find hope?” This was a very relevant, even poignant, question…. I too was very eager to hear some words of wisdom and comfort.
To my dismay, Brereton responded by advising the student to stick with her program undaunted. “If you have a Composition and Rhetoric doctorate,” he told her, “you will find a job.” Some in the audience murmured in disagreement. As for me, I was shocked at the complete ignorance of Brereton’s response. It’s not that I expected him to tell this student to choose another profession. Nor did I expect him to express the unmitigated job-market gloom that many graduate students and new PhDs know all too well. I expected, simply, the truth.
Even a sugarcoated version of the truth would have been preferable to (let me just say it) an outright lie about rosy job prospects for Humanities graduates in any field.
Was Brereton truly unaware of the labor crisis in the Humanities in general and in Composition in particular?
In the face of Brereton’s response and the stunned audience reaction, Larson writes, his co-presenter Trimbur maintained an irritated silence.
It seemed to me that Trimbur was annoyed to have to respond to a job-market question at all. Such queries were a distraction from the subject matter he had come prepared to discuss, I suppose.
Is this the same scholar,” Larson writes, “who has used Marxist conceptual models to theorize the circulation of writing? I was heartsick and furious.”
She uses this story to launch a wholesale analysis of capitalism’s absorption of the labor relations of the university.
In order for the American higher education system to grow, as it has done for many decades, increasing numbers of workers are needed. From the point of view of capitalists, the majority must labor for low wages and on contingent contracts in order to ensure maximum flexibility for capital. This is why some critics have called academia a “pyramid scheme” in which privileged tenured faculty, and those William Deresiewicz calls the “immiserated proletariat,” are both necessary for capital to function.
She concludes that against this capitalism, which operates by enforcing “a tiered system in which workers are encouraged to see themselves as fundamentally different from their colleagues,” only the joining of forces by the tiers can stage effective opposition. She says of the tenured,
As prominent members of the profession, it’s their responsibility to advocate for the next generation of scholars and reclaim the soul of higher education. These emissaries guard the gates of an academic discipline that is disintegrating. It’s time they recognized it.
Although a tenured commenter cautioned her against “using veteran faculty as punching bags” in her analysis, Larson certainly doesn’t.
Rather than try to identify who the individual culprits are, then, we need to continuously assert that this is a systemic problem that originates in the necessity of capital to control labor by ensuring that a few people get everything, most get nothing, and those two groups don’t talk to each other very much, or even see themselves as part of the same profession.
I know from personal experience how hard it is to “see” adjuncts when you are a tenured professor. I wrote about my process of learning to see in this blog post, “Two Societies, Separate and Unequal—Thoughts on the TT-NTT Divide.” When I was a tenured professor at a public R1, I didn’t feel elite per se, and I was painfully aware of how, at the perennially cash-strapped University of Oregon, I enjoyed far, far fewer resources than peers at Ivy Leagues and upper crust institutions.
But on another more core level, [as a R1 professor eligible for generous research funding] I was elite indeed. … At the time my identity hinged almost entirely on that elite status. Not consciously, mind you. It wasn’t that I felt others were inferior. It was that they were irrelevant. I was a player, and they were not. I was in the game of academic status and competition and they were not. I was credible, I was legitimate, I was competitive (for grants, awards, and honors) and they were not. The people I “saw” (ie, who were visible to me) were the others who, like myself, were in the competitive status game.
Now, I hasten to add that even labeling that context a “competitive status game,” is to descriptively fail. Because at the time, in that world, it wasn’t conceived of as a game but as sober and serious “work.” It also didn’t feel competitive in an immediate sense since collegiality was common, and collaborations were also possible.
And above all, status was never, ever openly discussed…
In this post I grapple with my own privilege, and my inability to see it.
Because we only “saw” and engaged with others equally privileged, those outside that world were rendered invisible. They were not people who mattered. I’m not proud of this. But I bring it up to articulate, with difficulty, my sense that because we occupied two societies, the tenure-line and the non-, the needs and concerns of the non- were utterly invisible to me.
More to the point, looking back now, I do not know how I could have found any place of common interest with NTT faculty at the time, or indeed through most of my career, extending well past tenure and even into my administrative career as department head. As a department head wrestling with criminally inadequate program funding (albeit in a department that almost never hired adjuncts because we used graduate students for our grunt-work), I mainly just wondered how fast I could find one when needed.
This state of affairs did eventually change.
As my absorption in this world declined for a constellation of reasons both personal and vocational, my ability to “see” those off the tenure-track increased. When I stopped drinking the Kool-Aid (and this was a painfully slow, difficult, and shame-ridden process indeed), the rotten structure, the crumbling edifice of the whole system became visible, and in fact, inescapable. A growing friendship with a NTT faculty member on campus, and hearing her story and daily experiences, brought it into relief. After a time I couldn’t see anything BUT those who are excluded and marginalized by the system of privilege I had once uncritically inhabited. And that status began to stink, and I didn’t want it anymore. By the time I had the opportunity to leave, I was ready.
Now I look back and marvel at the ignorance that was supported and sanctioned by my entire social, professional, and scholarly community of colleagues and peers.
All of my scholarly “work” had been dedicated to the critical analysis of social privilege and power. How was it that someone totally committed to a “critical” ethos was able to spend 15 years in a profession and never turn that critical eye onto it? How was it that power and class status were something I analyzed, but not something I inhabited?
The obstacles to overcoming this sanctioned ignorance are enormous. But I believe that the tenured can learn to see the adjunct, her exploitation, and what it means for the tenured person’s own position in a disintegrating system. But only when critics of the academy keep up the pressure on them, and subject their thoughtless responses to essential critical scrutiny. Just the way critics of racism have done to the edifices and practices of white privilege for many years now.
There is no question that among the tenured are some who are earnestly striving to do the right thing to correct or slow the abuses heaped on the precariously employed and ameliorate the impact of corporatization on the university (I say ameliorate because I don’t think it can really be halted).
But when veteran faculty continue business-as-usual graduate admissions and training, blithely reassure panicked graduate students about a rosy job market, or write words as tone deaf, condescending, elitist, self-protective, and out of touch as these recent examples by the Tenured Radical, they cannot be surprised when they are counted among the enemies. Their politics are exposed as utterly reactionary, couched in defense of an arbitrary privilege. Far from the self-proclaimed “radicals” of the academy, they are the most determined defenders of its outdated and destructive status quo.
*[1/2/13] Please see my follow-up to this post acknowledging the inappropriateness of a racism analogy to articulate my point about tenured privilege, The Problem With My Analogy. This follow-up was written after I read and thought deeply on many critiques of this piece that arose on Twitter and other places from scholars such as TressieMC, Jonathan W. Gray, Roopika Rikam, etc.