April 21, 2004

Cry Me a River

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article this week about single academics and their problems, the extent to which many of them feel like outsiders in the culture of academia. (Online version now available to nonsubscribers)

Feeling like a social outsider is one thing, and always worth discussing empathetically, as a human concern for one's fellow humans. Particularly in small, rural colleges, faculty social life is the main source of community, and if that community coheres around marriages, life can be very difficult for a single person, whether or not that single person is seeking a partner themselves. A goodly portion of the Chronicle’s article is taken up with these kinds of issues, and I sympathize and welcome any thoughts about ways that individuals and communities can help address these feelings, to show a soliticious concern for the problems of others, and strengthen human ties with an appreciation of differing situations.

The notion, given much airing in the article, that feeling like a social outsider is something for which one ought to be formally and structurally compensated, that all such feelings represent forms of injustice or inequity, is silly. Some of the single faculty quoted in the Chronicle article cry out for parity in benefits, arguing that if faculty with children receive tuition discounts for their children or health care for families, single childless faculty should receive some equal benefit. If I never have a cavity, I’ll never make full use of my dental benefits: should I receive a comparable benefit to someone who gets a new filling every five months? No, because I have the same benefit if I develop the same condition. Same for the single faculty: the marriage and child benefits are there for them too if at some point in their life cycle they apply to them. As one administrator says in the article, “Fair doesn’t necessarily mean equal”. I paid taxes to educating other people's kids long before I had a kid, and I welcomed doing so--because in paying those taxes, I was underwriting the labor of social reproduction, which as a member of society, I benefit from when it is done well and suffer from when it is done poorly.

In some ways, the article documents just how perniciously the trope of “minority status” and its associative moral landscape has spread to every single discussion of how communities are constituted. To talk of single people as an underrepresented minority in academia, as Alice Bach of Case Western Reserve University does in the article, makes no sense. Underrepresented in the sense that academia sociologically is not a perfect mirror of American society as a whole? Well, yes, of course. But Bach seems, like some of her aggreived single compatriots, to be saying that this lack of mimetic resemblance places a moral burden on the faculty of each particular academic institution to fix the problem, that the mere fact of a difference constitutes a moral failure. By that standard, every academic institution needs to designate a proper proportion of faculty to be paid below the poverty line, to be left-handed, to suffer the proper proportion of death and injury at the proper ages, to be polyamorous, to be Goths, to be Mennonites, to be hired with only a high school diploma and so on. If someone can demonstrate that at the time of training or hiring, single faculty are specifically identified and discriminated against and therefore that their underrepresentation is the consequence of discriminatory behavior, then that person has a legitimate point.

Otherwise, in the absence of that evidence (and I think such evidence will never be forthcoming), the aggrieved singles in the article are talking about the culture of academia, which simply is, in the same way that academia is intensely bourgeois. To argue that academia ought not to be bourgeois or dominated by married folk is something that one can legitimately do—but not from a social justice standpoint, only from an argument about aesthetics and cultural preference, or from the standpoint that bourgeois society per se or marriage per se are corrupted social institutions that we collectively need to destroy or reject. That’s fine, go ahead and make that argument if you like. Laura Kipnis has. Don’t cloak it in complaints about underrepresentation or stigma or minority status. Those ideological or cultural claims are not arguments about discrimination and egalitarianism—they’re a different kind of argument.

It gets especially silly when one of the complaints of single academics described in the article is that they’re not married—that the solitary nature of academic work is too stifling when you’re not with a partner or children, or that household tasks are more time-consuming because there’s no one to divide the labor with. At that point my head is spinning: so single faculty are discriminated against, but one of the remedies for discrimination would be to get a partner and kids? That it is an injustice that they’re not married and with kids? The comparable benefit to health insurance for families or maternity leave would be what, a colleage subsidy of a cleaning service or landscaping business for single faculty to simulate having a partner who can do household chores? How about we give single women a subsidy for a male-run cleaning service that only does 25% of the chores after promising to do 50%, and also subsidize a service that will come in the houses of single faculty and throw toys all over the floor and triple the laundry load on a regular basis.

The person who really drove me nuts in the article was Benita Blessing, a historian at the University of Ohio. Colleagues who have children or spouses, she says, are free to leave boring faculty meetings while she can’t just say that she wants to go home and watch reruns of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”. I really, really do try to see things the way other people see them, but this particular statement stopped me in my tracks. There are a million genuine and feigned ways that she could slip out of meetings if she likes: I feel no guilt for her lack of creativity. Then she complains that her department doesn’t have parties for people getting tenure or promotions, only bridal and baby showers. Could it just be that this is her department? The whole article is so shot through with freakish anecdotal reasoning from alleged academics whom one would think should know better. Somebody throw Benita Blessing a party already, though I’m guessing that she’s going to complain even if they do. Envy combined with a discourse of entitlement rarely respects restraints.