What matters and what doesn't: open thoughts on academia

(Update, 11 Dec 2012: A follow-up to this post can be found here: More open thoughts on anthropology and academia.)

With genuine appreciation to all those who have advised me over recent months not to get discouraged in the course of my academic job search, I'm sorry, but it hasn't worked. I'm trying my best not to be too critical or to project my dismay with job recruiters to the state of academia as a whole, but that's difficult, too. I currently hold a research postdoc affiliation through my alma mater while I am based here in NY. That means e-library access and (albeit merely theoretical) access to departmental staff to aid me in my career development. For this status, negligible to most, I am extremely grateful. This should be a fruitfully creative time for me. My passion for my work has not diminished and, indeed, I am working on a new ethnographic project as well as trying to disseminate the material in my PhD thesis. I have also produced some timely, engaging and pretty exciting syllabi that I’d love to get to teach before it gets dated. If only.

It is all the more frustrating, therefore, that I need to be preoccupied with my everyday survival – literally how I am going to afford to live from day to day - instead of publishing, getting to teach my fresh syllabi, developing my career and going to conferences. It is shameful how little I am able to accomplish as my temporary departmental affiliation ticks away. The AAAs are a luxury (see here and here) that I can't afford, my absence at which precludes me from networking and/or interviews, which in turn precludes me from affording to attend the AAAs, and so on. I'm avoiding the #AAA2012 hashtag like the plague so I am not reminded of this fact in real time, event by event, minute by minute.

Not long ago, I commented on Savage Minds that I have all but lost sympathy for adjuncts complaining about low pay and no benefits because I actually miss teaching enough to get ripped off and disrespected at work. As if adjuncts have a choice. With the horror of the job market and my changing personal circumstances (marriage, etc), I simply do not have the free time or funds to equitably participate in an academic economy designed to benefit those with job security and lofty senior titles at the expense, it would seem, of those doing the lion's share of the work.

My negative feelings about academia are not just about dire employment prospects and, dare I say, less than transparent hiring practices. There are problems with the way academics (within and between departments) treat each other and, especially, how they treat powerless adjuncts, part-time and junior staff, or - the lowest of the low - students and job seekers. Such problems within academia are fixable if enough people demand it and the power-holders can start by adjusting their own behavior. I'm not convinced that they even realize that they're behaving incorrectly, but they should. Here are three of my recent experiences to illustrate.

You don't matter

Not long ago, I applied to do some hourly teaching at a university about 40 minutes from my home. My teaching and research background was perfectly matched with the job's requirements so I carefully crafted a new letter of application and sent it off with the same blind optimism that one has when playing the weekly lottery. I received an email in a matter of hours from the course convenor. He sounded keen and offered me a few hours a week which would begin in a couple of days' time. Success!

Within minutes, he telephoned me to iron out the details, and a moment later my sense of mild accomplishment was abruptly cut short. He explained, with not even a microscopic trace of tact, how impossibly desperate he was to find anyone at all to teach for him since classes started in just a few days. I hate that. My skills, qualifications, experience and academic identity were all deemed irrelevant and insignificant in one fell swoop. He probably didn't even read my application. When potential employers are so flippantly disrespectful before they even hire you, I can only imagine the kind of jerks they will be to work for over time.

But I wanted the hours, mostly because the pay worked out pretty well, and also because the curriculum had a lot of promise. I wasn't that bothered about the short notice. This is the norm anyway, and I've successfully handled much worse. We talked for around 20 minutes about the class, the program, and who and what I'd be teaching, and he gave me my specific hours across a couple of afternoons each week initially up until January 2013. He also promised a decent bump in pay for my commute. So I swallowed my pride and accepted on the phone, pending travel arrangements which took me the remainder of the afternoon to secure, and confirmed it in an email which he would receive the next morning.

In the meantime, he had emailed me links to course syllabi and classroom materials to get started. I downloaded the first week's documents and started preparing. I also dug through my personal files, earmarked some documents and planned to make copies of supplementary materials to patch up the basic syllabi with relevant and interesting stuff. It seemed like a class with a wide enough reach that I could have some fun with it, and I admit that I was looking forward to teaching again. I spent the rest of the night getting back into the teaching headspace.

The next afternoon, I received a cryptic email retracting the offer by informing me that the class hours he gave me were now "covered", but that I'd be kept on a list. I requested a call back twice via email and was ignored both times. A few days later, I received another hastily written, panicky email at 1:30pm requesting that I be there for 2:00pm that same day (I recall distinctly that the subject of my 40-minute commute had been thoroughly discussed on the phone when he tried to convince me that biking for 2 hours each way in a New York winter was feasible and then promised me a wage bump for travel expenses, so what kind of a request was this?). I treated his email with the contempt it deserved and ignored it. Shortly afterwards, I received a one line follow-up email that the class had been covered. It did not take long to figure out that ALL the emails I had received from the convenor had also been BCC'd to a pool of other random applicants. That the emails were never addressed with greetings or closed with salutations was not just a nasty, lazy habit he had acquired, but a sneaky ploy to automate his unprofessional recruiting practices. He probably does it for all his classes.

I am taking the time to blog about this here, recognizing that I may be shooting myself in the foot as far as potential employers are concerned, because I know that many other postdocs and adjuncts are put through this annoying and humiliating set of circumstances each term. What bothers me most is that I was supremely qualified and experienced for this particular job and would have done it really well. Obviously, whoever he got to cover it backed out at the last minute and this happened more than once. Judging by the mass emails I received later, he had to repeatedly cancel classes and scrounge up replacements. He admitted to me on the phone that it was his own ineptness in dealing with admissions which led to his overbooking of the course. If I were a student in that class, I'd be furious to drop that kind of tuition on a sub-par education. This guy should lose his job and the students should have their tuition refunded.

University teaching is not always predictable; classes get cancelled for lack of enrollment or fill up before you have enough teachers. I'm used to that. I've lost teaching hours before under the same unforeseeable circumstances. That's not what happened here. I'm also used to covering classes for colleagues at short notice with less than a half hour to prepare. But I always give the students all I've got. My worst class has never been as poorly prepared as this guy matter-of-factly and shamelessly announces to potential employees. And yet, with all his rudeness and unprofessional behavior, he's the head of an interdisciplinary program responsible for hundreds of students, while I'm at home on a weekday blogging about losing a couple of hours a week of adjuncting. Academia, shame on you.

This is just the tip of the iceberg on adjuncting: "It's drudgery and adjuncts carry about the same status as a Wal-mart greeter or grocery bagger, and the pay is about the same". If the contents of that link are not shocking enough, also check out this report by the Center for the Future of Higher Education and this video.

Disposable labor

Lest oblivious selfishness seem like a purely UK/US concern, early last year, I signed on to contribute a chapter to an edited collection with a team based in the Netherlands. The initial submission went well. Shortly before the second-draft stage, a follow-up email confirmed that some participants had dropped out (again, these things happen, no big deal) and it would take a bit longer to put it all together (even better, gives me more time to edit). Fast forward a year and no news. My emails to the "editor" have been returned undelivered. It turns out that the main editor jumped ship from academia to start an online clothing store, his academic CV now replaced by dainty dresses and shiny accessories.

As the content of this blog post attests, I understand why someone might want to give up on academia in exchange for a different career. But at the very least, take some responsibility and let people who have been relying on you know what is going on. The participants in this particular edited collection were mostly grad students and postdocs who would have benefited from the publication more than senior academics who couldn't care less about a single book chapter. I could have submitted the paper as it was to another CFP I had seen last year when it was fresh material straight out of my PhD, but now it's aging, framed in niche context (means re-writing again) and I'm still looking for somewhere to submit it.

I'm pretty sure we've all been in situations where deadlines have snuck up on us, manuscripts weren't finished, chapters never arrived, or any other number of issues that would hold up a collection of papers or any other collaborative academic work. Indeed, commitment to ongoing collaboration has largely been the sticking point with the "co-op" in "open anthropology cooperative" (see my previous post). I have since had other papers fall through, but for sensible reasons and with plenty of upfront explanation, as it should be. Meanwhile, other "collaborations" routinely fall apart because someone gives up without a word. This says something about reliability in academia and how we view our own and others' efforts as disposable. What a waste.

Value for money

A final example highlights the lack of "pastoral care" infecting the day to day culture of academia, at least as I have experienced it in the UK. With a bit more effort, I could make a mile-long list of disgraceful behavior on the part of my university from the time I started as an undergrad to the time I finished my PhD, but a majority of this would be griping about the central administration and poor policies affecting HE as a whole. More insulting is when bad treatment comes from one’s own department (cf. these posts from when I was still a student).

After completing my doctoral thesis in 2010, I had a small balance of fees remaining on my student account, which I have had to pay in small monthly installments until clearing the balance in Sept 2012. The total outstanding amount was so negligibly small that financially secure senior course convenors with no moral sensibilities of the likes featured in example #1 probably spend that much on Starbucks every month without batting an eye. But my decade abroad paying international fees added up and left me broke.

It was therefore with no small amount of joy that I sent in my last tuition payment two months ago. I instantly sent an email asking my department secretary to finally release my hard-earned doctorate. Did an email of congratulations from someone that I had worked with for over 8 years follow shortly after? No. Was my PhD express-mailed to my home in NY? Certainly not. In the first instance, my email was ignored. My follow up to another person confirmed that my first email had been received and the recipient was not - as I had myself suggested to diminish my feelings of worthlessness - on vacation or indisposed, but just "too busy" to reply. Surely this second recipient would take care of it? No, this person did not bother either. "Maybe in a week or so" the too-busy secretary would get around to releasing the degree that should have been released two years earlier regardless of the few pounds I owed them after 8 years of studying and teaching there. Two weeks later, I had to send another follow-up email begging for my PhD. These are people I saw every day for 8 years. Not even a courtesy email. As of today, I am still not in receipt of my doctorate. Yeah, that sounds about right.

Say something

It is almost laughable that I and many others are even vying for positions in this profession. And yet at the close of this blog post I will be applying for two more academic jobs, one research and one teaching. Glutton for punishment? No. The fact is that I love the work that I do when I'm able to do it; I believe in the value and worthwhile impact of my research and the quality of my teaching; and I think a strong academic sphere is essential to the wellbeing of society. Making change from within the system is not nearly as difficult as it is from out here. And it is really not that hard to be respectful, engaged, open and honest. I can't understand why so many people struggle with it. I'm tired of not saying anything about it for fear of retribution or never getting a job and you should be, too. Maybe I won't get a job in the future because of this post, but then it probably wouldn't have been the right environment for me, anyway.

Have you had similar experiences in academia as a student or faculty member? Do you think that there is a problem with how we treat each other or is it just the business we're in?

Although I'd like to know who you are, some readers will be reluctant to give their names or universities for fear of losing their jobs, so you can also comment anonymously if you want.

By the way, if you are job-hunting, contribute to this wiki, it's outstanding.

*Update, 27 Nov 2012*

Further reading

Anthropologist Paul Stoller (Huffington Post): Changing Culture in Higher Education

Thanks to Ryan over at Savage Minds for featuring this post in Stop the silence

Ongoing discussion over at the OAC: Producing academic scholarship: If universities are failing, where else do we go?

*Update, 11 Dec 2012*

A follow-up to this post can be found here: More open thoughts on anthropology and academia.


Paul Moore said...

A great many academic departments will have to take a close look at themselves in the mirror after reading this important blog post. Fran, I commend you for having the courage to say what most people already know but choose (quite disgracefully) to ignore.

John said...

Bravo, Francine, bravo. Allow me to connect this conversation with one that Erin Taylor has started on OAC: http://openanthcoop.ning.com/group/theanthropologyofanthropology/forum/topics/producing-academic-scholarship-if-universities-are-failing-where

It strikes me that you, Erin and Ryan Anderson could put together something pretty interesting.

Fran Barone said...

Thank you Paul and John. I have seen Erin's OAC thread as well as Ryan's posts on Savage Minds over recent weeks. Just today Truthout had a post calling for change in HE(http://truth-out.org/news/item/12942-working-for-change-in-higher-education-the-abysmal-state-of-adjunct-teacher-pay). Similar arguments are being made public across departments and disciplines. I'm happy to be a part of this very important discussion which has been long in coming for academic anthropologists.

Paul Moore said...

As far as I'm aware, over 1000 people have read or visited or shared this blog post over the past few days. It's a great pity (and very telling), therefore, that only one person has had the courage to leave a comment. A lot of people should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves! Talk about collective cowardice!

Matthew Wolf-Meyer said...

Part of the silence is most likely that people take their experiences to be idiosyncratic (i.e. this institution, this person) and rarely get put into the position to try and bring their many problematic experiences together into a coherent picture of the state of the academy.

That being said, I'm not sure that it's any better or worse than any other workplace -- it's just that we want it to be, and that egalitarian ideals often convince us that it should be. Until those ideals are revealed to be pure fantasy (or nearly so).

I will say this about these particular bad acts though: First, everyone has a boss. If you're getting jerked around as an adjunct, write a letter to the next higher person you can find (department chair, dean, academic personnel office) -- hiring decisions can be taken away from lower echelons if they prove ineffective or abusive. And second, don't publish in edited volumes at the beginning of your academic career -- for just the kind of experience you outlined, and for so many more reasons .

I would also hasten to add that for every bad act out there, there are many more that are benign if not positive, and it's worth thinking about what makes the academy a good place as much as a bad one.

Marco Cuevas-Hewitt said...

Fantastic blog post and one that strongly resonates with my own experiences. Thanks for breaking the silence, Fran. It seems we're allowed to be critical of everything in university, except the institution of the university itself. I think this important sharing of experiences needs to continue despite the fear, and would also hope that it blossoms into something like an academic equivalent to Institutional Critique in the art world. Such a project, however, would need to go beyond simply pinning the blame on the lack of respect, openness, and honesty on the part of individuals within the apparatus (a term I prefer to "structure", but that's another discussion), and strive to critique the apparatus itself. Intrinsic to this is the neoliberalisation of higher education, which is the big "elephant in the room" here. It affects student experience, work regimes, publishing regimes, everything (on the publishing side of things, a good critique of the current state of affairs can be found here: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/10/20121017558785551.html). Some colleagues and I have been considering setting up a new political collective that would aim to foster a kind of para-academic counter-culture to neoliberal orthodoxy; a space of refuge for dissidents, but also a base for resistance. One proposed first step is a "diablog" (a blog-facilitated dialogue) on the current state of academia and what we can do about it. If you're interested in collaborating, please do get in touch.

Post a Comment

If you got this far, you should probably leave a comment, no?