Years of defending academia and the value of a college education reared up inside of me, ready to make an impassioned speech. I wanted to tell him not to. And… I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. Because he was right. I could not in good conscience tell one of my best students that it was worth the loans. And in hindsight, that was the moment I decided I was well and truly done with academia.
I had been going to take one last stab at the job market this fall. With the Flood book done and maybe one or two more articles in process, and maybe even a book deal on an edited version of my dissertation. Just to answer the question, one last time, of whether I could make it in academia.
Which is, as it happens, terribly silly. Academia is not a meritocracy. It’s a lottery, in which the grand prize – a tenure track position – is dangled over the heads of everybody so that we agree to work for the appalling wages that adjunct faculty get. I’ll use numbers from the University of Akron, since I have them ready to hand: adjuncts make up 70% of the Univeristy of Akron faculty, and teach 62% of freshman and sophomore classes. They make up 15% of the faculty budget. The annual income for a lecturer teaching a 4/3 load – i.e. the equivalent of full time – is $20,038, which isn’t even $2000 more than the median income for fast food workers in Ohio.
Meanwhile, the odds on tenure track appointments are astonishingly grim. It’s not unusual for a job to get five hundred applicants. There were, last year, maybe two dozen jobs in my field. This is, to be clear, a change. Academia was not always dominated by part time labor. There has been an active decision at multiple universities to move away from full-time tenured faculty and towards cheaper adjuncts. There has been an active decision to expand PhD programs because PhD students provide extremely cheap labor. There has been an active decision to allow skyrocketing administrative salaries and increased bloat of administration while refusing to expand faculty. There’s been an active decision to favor MOOCs and other such solutions, often prepared by for-profit companies, for the sheer cheapness of them.
This creates a difficult dualism. On the one hand, the only way to describe the overall labor conditions of universities is “sickeningly abusive and corrupt.” On the other, the fact of the matter is that most faculty are pretty decent folks. My mentors at both my PhD program and my Masters program were wonderful people who I admire. And yet the institutional corruption infected both. It was simply expected of PhD students in certain fields that they would devote substantial amounts of time to propping up aging faculty members unable to handle their job responsibilities anymore, and nearly impossible to avoid losing at least a year of one’s graduate study to such tasks. I watched in bemused horror as students were quite literally expected to help faculty members clean their houses, all in the name of mentorship. And again, this wasn’t consciously abusive or exploitative. These were all good people. It’s just that the system they were working within compelled such structures. In the end, that’s what graduate students are for: the stuff too menial for real scholars to do.
My Masters program was no better – a one year program at the University of Chicago that offered no scholarships, essentially no hope of getting into a PhD program straight out of it (since your applications are due before you’ve even finished a quarter, and thus have no graduate school training), and cost $30k plus living expenses. The result is over $50k of debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and that cripples my finances even at the reasonably high combined wages my partner and I make. One might reasonably ask why I signed up for such a program. The answer is simple: I was a senior in college and it never occurred to me that an institution as respectable and renowned as the University of Chicago would run what is essentially an elaborate con on me.
Which is perhaps as good an explanation as I can offer. I cannot bring myself to work in a field where one of the leading institutions habitually cons twenty-one-year-olds to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars that can, in all likelihood, never be paid off. Because that’s the new normal. And given that I did get into academia out of an interest in a job that constituted public service, it’s not a normal I can live with.
One might ask how the situation got this bleak. Academia, after all, has been thrashed disproportionately in the Great Recession. One explanation – and a reasonably compelling one – is that it was an appealing target for the political right. Education and leftist voting patterns correlate, so dismantling the education system ought provide dividends for them at the ballot box. But this ignores the degree to which academia was always set up to fail at the task of providing a compelling educational opportunity to the vast majority of students.
Let us not forget that the ancient and august university system is first and foremost a tool of the gentry. Its original purpose is to provide wealthy white men with a culturally designated body of knowledge that “educated gentlemen” should have. This body of knowledge has only partially shifted. Last semester I taught “Classics of Western Literature,” a course where the majority of your syllabus is pre-determined. As courses on “The Western Canon” went, it wasn’t that bad; there were two whole women on it. And I taught it fairly well, if I may say so myself, in part by being open about the nature of the course and treating its premises as up for debate. So we would often discuss the sensibility of teaching random excerpts from The Divine Comedy to a bunch of working and middle class teenagers.
But the fact remains that there just isn’t a compelling reason why a first generation college student working at Best Buy to afford tuition needs to read Horace’s odes. It’s not something every twenty-something should know. And the effect of it – particularly on a campus with a large working class and minority population – is to demand assimilation to the standards of an ossified upper class. In effect my job was to teach second generation immigrants from Brazil how to act like white men from the 1920s.
Actually, it’s worse than that. San Jose State University’s philosophy department recently penned a letter objecting to the adoption of a for-profit MOOC using a lecture from a Harvard professor. In it, they point out the staggering perversity of a majority-minority campus watching rich white Harvard students engage in dialogue with a professor while they have no access to said professor for questions. This in a course that is supposedly about social justice. The lesson isn’t how to act like an aristocrat – it’s realizing your place on the social ladder.
This is the sad and tragic fact of teaching. The bulk of the curriculum is obedience and the toleration of monotony – the primary skills needed for the bulk of jobs students at lower level state universities are ever going to have. The value of a college degree is proof that you have the personal responsibility necessary to navigate four years of courses. In the end little more than doing the assignments is necessary. Even the grade structure in American universities points towards this. When the line for failure is put at roughly 60% it means that any student who is actually completing the work is likely to pass a class so long as not everything they do is completely execrable. Failure is for people who don’t do the work. Students are simultaneously taught to chase the grade and that the grade is achievable through empty labor. The result is students who are extremely good at school, a process visibly distinct from intellectual thought. My students are better at passing reading quizzes without doing the reading than they are at actually reading and analyzing literature, and it’s difficult to blame them for their chosen skillsets.
And I just can’t participate in a system that gouges those students with crushing debt just to teach them the art of drudgery. Especially in an economy where jobs have become tight enough that the middle and working class is as dependent on networking and the game of “who you know” as the gentry used to be. It’s one thing to teach the curriculum of drudgery when the end degree is actually useful. That’s worth subverting. It’s quite another to do so for a functionally useless degree. Yes, I can teach something other than drudgery, and do, but it’s swimming upstream, pointlessly, and for shitty pay to boot.
I could comment on academic publishing and its hilarious insularity – on the fact that the least read and most mediocre blogposts I’ve ever written have had wildly more impact on the world than any academic article, and that the process of revising articles to fit the arbitrary standards of peer reviewers (the vast majority of peer reviews consisting of little more than a note saying “but you didn’t cite my favorite theorist!”) incentivises writing for as narrow an audience as possible. Seriously, academic publishing consists so heavily of writers who compose marginal works that nobody will read while consuming next to nothing anyone else is writing that it makes fanfiction look good. I could note how this furthers the art of drudgery, making professors who are actively uninterested in the question of what their students are interested in or find helpful. I could go on for ages.
But let’s instead note that for anyone seeking the actual ostensible purpose of a college degree – i.e. an education – that the Internet is, for the most part, far better. I’ve never seen a class on narrative structure more thorough and informative than TV Tropes. A few hours on Tumblr can teach feminism and various social justice topics covered more thoroughly than any intro class in the world. The digital divide exists, but Internet access is terribly affordable. For anyone who actually wants to learn there have never been more or cheaper opportunities to do so. And freed from the institutional structures of universities the dictatorship of the grade is finally removed. This sort of education isn’t about assimilation into a class structure, or, at least, the ways in which it is are limits it hasn’t run horribly up against yet.
And these opportunities have the delightful additional value of having to actually work for their audiences. We – because let’s face it, what I’m doing is as much freelance teaching as freelance writing – have to actually find topics people want to read about, and angles that people actually find interesting and edifying. We don’t get to just insist that everybody has to read The Aeneid without us having to make an argument for it that goes beyond “your grade depends on it.” There’s a democratization here; a requirement that we interest people without the benefits of a power relationship.
And it’s more satisfying than academia ever has been. I wanted to take one more swing at the job market because I had something to prove. Frankly, making it at the level where I could support myself, albeit meagerly, entirely on my writing income constitutes proving myself. I’m a working writer. I don’t feel like I have anything else to prove in terms of my skills at that point.
Yes, I’m lucky. I hit the jackpot on a different lottery – the “make it as a writer” one. I have a partner who makes good money such that the relatively low income of a self-published writer can supplement it into a solid middle class existence. I had the ability to devote the time to writing as a near full-time job for two years while I built up an audience. And now I can afford to walk away, which makes it easier to decide to. And much as I decry it, it’s not like I’m giving up my part-time adjuncting, in part because the $10k I make a year at it is rather nice, in part because it gets me out of the house (not to mention out of my own head), and in part because I do actually enjoy teaching as an activity and students as a population.
But academia in 2013 isn’t the career I went to school for. It’s not the career I fell in love with. And it’s not the career I want to be in. However many good people there are in it – and there are lots, including dear friends – it is a corrupt and abusive snake pit, and I don’t want to play anymore.