Cue the Outrage

In my small corner of the social media universe, a huge storm erupted last week over the University of Illinois, Chicago’s posting of an open position for a Language Program Director. The posting indicated that it was a 67% job, meaning no more than 27 hours of work per week, with a salary of $28,000/year and “prorated benefits,” which most of us took to mean 67% of standard staff benefits at UIC.

This first showed up in a friend’s FaceBook feed, garnering lots of angry faces and too many swear words (a lot of them mine) to repeat here. Then Rebecca Schuman sunk her teeth into it (which you can, and should, read here: https://pankisseskafka.com/2017/07/16/rate-my-jil-2018-this-is-what-a-dead-discipline-looks-like/), followed, a day later, by Dean Dad, who presented a slightly more charitable account of how such a total travesty of a job might have come into being on The Chronicle (which you can, and should, find here: http://suburbdad.blogspot.ca/2017/07/a-speculative-postmortem.html)

I’m taking this opportunity to articulate more clearly (or at least in more words) what I said in at least two FaceBook threads dedicated to this job, variously described as a “shit show,” a “big ole serving of NOPE,” and “poison.” There are many, many reasons to look at this particular job posting—and the dearth of quality jobs in the humanities and social sciences that it represents—and get your panties all into a twist. I’m sorry for the people at UIC who now have the misfortune of seeing their German program held up as the epitome of bad professional form. I’m sure they mean nothing personal by suggesting that someone should be willing—or even happy—to take on a job that, done well, would easily surpass the allotted 27 hours per week and provides an income that will require food bank supplementation to subsist on in the Chicagoland area.

If you detected a bit of snark in that last bit, I’ll cop to that. It’s hard to self manage the outrage here. And I know I’m not alone. I think that moment when I heard a dozen or so of my former Germanist colleagues collectively spew their coffee all over their keyboards as they read the posting indicates that this one hits really close to home. We’ve become accustomed to there being NO jobs. We’ve become accustomed to there being only temporary, contract jobs. To see a job that is both temporary AND profoundly shitty and exploitative was just the straw that broke whatever backs were still unbowed and unbent.

From what I gathered on FaceBook and in the comments on Schuman and Dean Dad’s posts, the responses to the UIC job fall into roughly two categories. Those who immediately see that this is a structural problem that can’t be fixed except by large-scale measures aimed to redress inequality in hiring practices, adjunctification writ large, and crappy job prospects for PhDs in the humanities. Proponents of the structural interpretation rightly bring up issues like:
• How many students to admit to a given grad program in a given field
• Budgets
• Collective bargaining (and substantial legislative barriers thereto)
• Positioning of humanities in the academy
• Administrative bean-counting (bums in seats as only measure of value)
• Class issues in academia (as in, who enrolls in grad school in the first place)
• Building coalitions and solidarity “across campus,” which I take to mean “hey, you, profs with tenure, a little help over here, mmkay?”

These are all totally valid issues and their complexity and inter-relation with one another point out how challenging it is to lay the blame for the dumpster fire of the UIC job on any one person or department or administrator’s doorstep. These all also rightly point out the neoliberal business practices engaged in by higher education and decry the turning of expert scholars into nothing more than the semester-long equivalent of an Uber driver for your Introduction to Great Books by Dead White European Males lecture course.

The other set of responses focuses in a little more closely on the individuals involved in this and other unappetizing labour arrangements. This group asks what they, as individuals with stable jobs perhaps, can do in response to disastrous jobs such as this one. The comments here tend to include the awareness that the tenured (privileged) have a moral obligation to protect the untenured and contingent (underprivileged) by:
• Advocating for stricter accounting of part-time and adjunct prof hours, so that these people don’t work more than they’re getting paid to work
• Pointing out inequities in the system, “If you see something (like a dumpster fire job ad), say something.”
• Working across departments and campuses to resist exploitative hiring practices

This second group is also the one more likely to suggest that sweeping changes need to be made to graduate education in order to make it less of a vocational degree that prepares students only for jobs in the professoriat. They call for career exploration programs and portfolios for graduate students and support from faculty members for their grad students’ pursuit of non-academic job opportunities.

As an academic life and career coach, my views coincide with those of this second group of outraged scholars. I’m not in a position to expound on whether it is worthwhile to continue to train people in German literature and culture in PhD programs when it is abundantly clear to anyone with eyeballs that there are currently enough German PhDs in circulation to staff the available jobs/programs for the next generation. Personally—and sentimentally—I think that graduate education in the humanities has a lot to offer the world, but my attachment to what I learned and what it did for me does not take into account the realities of the graduate school → job market pipeline of today and isn’t really what I want to talk about here.

In my coaching practice, I work with individuals in the academy to help them visualize and create careers that fulfill them. It is against this backdrop that I read the debate surrounding the UIC job-of-the-doomed. Fulfillment is, of course, a tricky term and not one-size-fits-all. But in my experience, it arises out of a combination of being clear on what you think your purpose is (in this job, in this life) and making sure that your values and goals align with that purpose to every possible extent. Most people settle on a vision that follows a pattern something like this: I am here and do this job because I want to introduce the next generation to this body of knowledge/this kind of experience/these habits of mind, so that they, in turn can XYZ. In order to do this job successfully I need an office, a computer, access to research materials, adequate classroom space, well-prepared students, supportive colleagues and managers, and A LIVING WAGE. In the right conditions, I can expect to have an impact (fill in the blank with your impact of choice.) For me, the UIC job ad describes a crappy job because—AMONG OTHER REASONS—of the disconnect between scope of duties and experience and education required on the one hand, and remuneration and autonomy on the other.

This job was, I imagine, created to fill a dire need in the department and took only the department’s needs into account. Although a professor in this department went to some lengths in semi-private venues to indicate that there might be some personal career benefits accruing to this position, those potentialities are fuzzy enough not to have made it into the posting. In short, this job seeks only to churn through someone with enough desperation and energy to apply for it, giving them nothing in return. The kind of professional or personal impact this Language Director is supposed to have is inconsequential. It is as if the only need to which supplicants job applicants are entitled is the gratification of having a job, any job, in the first place.

How did an entire cohort—more than a generation, really—of PhD recipients find themselves in situations where it might make sense to believe that their time, expertise, and dedication are worth no more than someone working a full-time food service job in Chicago could expect to make? What does that say about both the profession of professor and the education of graduate students in general? What does graduate education teach students about their potential impact on either their discipline or the world?

This situation, to me, calls out the loudest for reform of humanities graduate education. Arguably, graduate school in humanities and social sciences trains people SOLELY to conduct and write up one very large research project. Most programs offer minimal to no pedagogical training, so claiming that graduate students are taught to teach is inflationary, and I can’t think of a program I’ve encountered or heard of that specifically “trains” people to be professors. Without acknowledging the vocational nature of the PhD (as in: here is the job you’re preparing for; here is how you do it well), programs churn out graduates who are smart as hell, capable as anything, and yet feel themselves completely under-qualified for work in the world. I suggest that even minor curriculum and culture revisions that cast graduate education in terms of project management, leadership abilities, supervision experience, etc. might contribute to PhD program graduates seeing themselves as something other than beggars who cannot, indeed, be choosers.

At this point, I hear people hollering about the further neo-liberalization of the academy and the wholesale capitulation of the university enterprise to business speak and MBA mumbo-jumbo. Someone on the original Facebook thread I participated in put this in terms of not “trusting” the free market economy to succeed in employing graduates of PhD programs where the academy had failed. That commenter has a point, in that NO ONE is guaranteed a job in our capitalist system. However, they also implied that the university and “the free market economy” were separate things. To my eye, one of the reasons we find ourselves in a situation where the UIC dumpster-fire job can exist in the first place is because universities LONG AGO adapted to and adopted the neo-liberal model of expecting everything from the individual and nothing from the collective. Adjunctification IS the gig economy of academia. There is NO separation between academia and “the real world.” The Ivory Tower just has different names, and arguably worse compensation, for the same kind of shitty jobs that BA graduates take to make ends meet when they can’t get their career started.

So, if the gig economy and temporary employment is our new normal, (and Canada’s Finance Minister, Bill Morneau said to expect just that in a speech in October 2016), then I really worry about the efficacy of coalition building, solidarity, and—essentially—theorizing precarity so that we understand it. Whether you’re looking and Marx or Ahmed or Weber, you can find a framework to help you understand the current crisis. But knowing how it came to be and what fuels it does not pay the rent. I think that, instead of looking internally to sources of theoretical/historical knowledge and, or looking internally to individuals who might have the power to temporarily change a situation, we as participants in an industry need to look closely at what our industry currently looks like and think of innovative ways to survive in it by adapting—or leave.

Academia is not immune from the disruptions that have faced other industries. Many women and people of colour in my generation of academics got their shot to impact scholarship and get a job because the tweed-and-pipe patriarchal culture of the humanities academy had come under attack. Now the model to which we are attached is being eroded. Maybe for good; maybe the Dead White Dudes content and our critical theory are all going to vanish forever, victims of the stupification of the West under toxic parochialism. That would be a damn shame. Even more shameful to me, though, would be to be the last person to sacrifice their own promise for fulfillment and impact on the altar of a crappy, exploitative job.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *