“If I can’t love her, no one will”

I wrote a piece a little while ago about some analytical and rhetorical failures that are common to critics of the political economy of the American university, and this Rebecca Schuman post is a pretty perfect example of what I’m talking about. I agree with some of the specific proposals she’s discussing; it would indeed make sense to reduce the number of doctoral students in many graduate departments, particularly if it resulted in higher stipends for those who remain. But as always with Schuman, there’s a basic question: is she more committed to improving the lives of adjuncts and unemployed PhDs, or to celebrating the demise of the old academic model and mocking those still trying to navigate within it?

As I said in the earlier piece, it is a classic mistake of capitalism for non-unionized workers to direct their anger against unionized workers rather than against management. The failure to identify these types of arguments as being a part of that dynamic– workers against workers instead of against management– stems from a failure to identify the university as just another workplace and academics as just another set of workers. It’s like I said in the earlier piece: I think that, despite her attempts to appear as cynical as humanly possible about the university, Schuman is a good example of someone whose analysis is actually informed by a fundamentally romantic vision of the academy. I was raised in a university family, and I have seen the academic culture and system from the inside for my whole life, and so I have never had any idealistic notions about the university. It’s just another widget factory. That’s all it is. And you can’t allow the management to fool you into directing your anger at other workers rather than at management. It’s the oldest trick in the book.

This is a constant aspect of pieces written about the death of tenure: people are far more likely to rail against deluded/undeserving/”mercenary”/whatever recent TT-faculty hires than they are against the politicians and administrators who are actually responsible for the changing conditions in the academy. If any recent faculty hires oppose adjunct unionization or other attempts to improve the material conditions of adjunct lives, they’re assholes and they should be called out as such. But none of them created this situation, and they have remarkably little ability to actually change anything. I know many of them, and most of them are hardworking, political, caring people who know that adjunct conditions must improve. They didn’t create the conditions of adjuncts. The deans did, the university presidents did, the state legislatures did. I don’t understand the failure to direct anger in the right place.

The most likely outcome of pieces like that essay is not to improve the lives of adjuncts; it’s simply to hurt the tenure tracked. That might have a certain emotional satisfaction for some, but it does no good for the adjuncts or most anyone else.

A frustrating aspect of Schuman’s work is that she is constantly insisting that people who disagree with her are somehow deluded and misguided– the “blinkered graduate students” of this piece, or old and out-of-touch tenured faculty, etc.– but that she herself sees with perfect clarity. But clearly, she is deeply hurt and angry about her failure to get a tenure-track job. I mean, that was the entire point of her original Slate piece. She’s absolutely right to call the system broken, and I myself have argued that at length for ages. But saying “other people are blinded by their particular situation, but I’m not” is not a responsible or fair way to argue. I wish she would consider whether she herself is capable of objectivity when she admits upfront to such anger, and when she has such profound, aggressive condescension and distaste for those who are still within the system. I know that it can seem as though derision and criticism are somehow more honest than understanding, but Schuman is very sharp, and I think she can understand that she is no more objective than any of the rest of us.

Schuman has insisted, ever since her original piece, that graduate students like me will be left emotionally bereft and devastated by this process. Well, I have been having some version of this discussion for a long time. And I have been told, many times, by those who went through the process and failed to find jobs, that devastation is inevitable. I always tell them the same thing: both of my parents died when I was a kid. Afterwards, my cobbled-together stepfamily broke apart, and my siblings and I were left to fend for ourselves. And I genuinely wonder: can they really imagine that not getting a tenure track job would be harder, for me?

I have been as pragmatic as one can possibly be in this very non-pragmatic process. My program has a 100% TT placement rate for its PhDs. I would never have gone to a program that did not have such a consistently excellent TT hire rate, nor would I have gone into a field that was not itself at least relatively healthy compared to others in the humanities. You can call me mercenary in my choices; I’m used to hearing it from people in literature or creative writing or philosophy. But our PhDs get jobs, mostly at teaching universities. Besides, I’ve taken on no additional debt in my PhD program. I left no job behind; I left, in fact, several years of applying to hundreds of jobs and getting nothing, even those jobs that would not have paid much more than my current stipend. I have enjoyed myself immensely while here. But look, I have had no illusions. I know the challenge as well as anyone. And if I don’t get a TT job I will move on. I’ve had nothing before. I am unafraid of the possibility of having nothing again. I am genuinely sorry for the people whose lives have been hurt in the process, but I am tired of the insistence that I could not live through failure when I have already been through so much worse. Does Schuman want to save me from the emotional hardship of going through what she went through? Or does she actually want me and those like me to go through it too, to come to be as cynical as she is? It is frequently hard to tell.

More than anything, there’s this: it is not merely the academic job market that is broken. Schuman may be appropriately cynical towards the tenure track job market, but in constantly gesturing towards other kinds of employment, she shows insufficient cynicism towards the broader world of employment. It is not just the academy that is broken. The fundamental system of trading work for material security is slowly dying in a world of capital-biased technological change and automation. But our people, even brilliant, political people like Schuman, have refused to address the fundamental brokenness of our system, because they have been busy identifying chumps, identifying other people who they feel are making bad choices. I think that’s a reflection of a profound anxiety about the future of work and the future of stability. Because before, the factories at the edge of town closed, and the textile mills, and so many good jobs disappeared and never came back. And the travel agents and the photographers, the session musicians and the beat reporters– all “disrupted.” Tomorrow it will be waiters and taxi drivers. Maybe further down the line, doctors and nurses and elementary school teachers. Or, more likely still, the army of people who work bullshit jobs they hate in cubicles across America, unsure of what they’re really doing or why, in constant fear of the next popping bubble, which will result in their destitution. We are all chumps now. 

I will continue to support adjunct unionization and other attempts to improve the lives of at-risk instructors, and I join Schuman in identifying the many problems with today’s university. And I will proceed under no illusions about the uncertainty of my own future. But I also know that uncertainty stalks all of us, and I know who the real enemies are, and in an America where the very idea of satisfying work is dying, as more and more money is captured by a tiny slice of rentiers and capitalists, I refuse to direct my anger at that tiny sliver of people who have been fortunate enough to work the last good job.

7 Comments

  1. You are one of the least-blinkered grad students out there, I think it’s fair to say, but roughly half of the people that I knew in grad school were completely deluded and should never have been admitted to a Ph.D. program (or given loans). It will take some of them a few more years in terrible adjuncting positions before they realize (at age 35) that they’ve made a terrible mistake; not only financially, but also because they clearly weren’t meant to be professors. Grad school is, all too often, a panicked choice (a 22-year-old can’t get a job and is only good at going to school, so …), and these deluded people shouldn’t be given the rope to hang themselves with.

    In other words, Schuman’s description of “blinkered grad students” is actually quite accurate, and she isn’t referring to “grad students like you.” So many grad students literally seem like cult members to me … and they assume that just because a humanities Ph.D program let them in the door (to be cheap teaching labor, essentially), that they’re entitled to, and bound to receive, a tenure-track job.

    1. That’s a fair point. I really have a hard time understanding people who maintain such a deluded outlook in the face of all the evidence.

  2. the university. It’s just another widget factory. That’s all it is.

    But there the widget-makers are not substitutable for each other (the way you lecture vs me, is more different than the way you quality-control styrofoam cups, vs me) — and they’re granted a level of authority well above all widget-makers.

    I guess this is not the sense in which you’re trying to use the phrase—but I’d be interested to know how you square those realities with the diploma-mill reality.

  3. people are far more likely to rail against deluded/undeserving/”mercenary”/whatever recent TT-faculty hires than they are against the politicians and administrators

    Not sure I believe that. Readers/commenters of The Chronicle will rail against both, and every anti-college piece I can remember reading raises the issue of rising administrative costs.

    1. If any recent faculty hires oppose adjunct unionization or other attempts to improve the material conditions of adjunct lives, they’re assholes and they should be called out as such.

      I think it’s more common to direct anger at those who have long had tenure. Adam Kotsko did so (describing the superior publication records of junior faculty over senior); Philip Schrodt pooped on Boomers who stay on as emeriti; Karen Kelsky aimed her barbs at the most senior prof’s as well.

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