May 3, 2004

No Longer a Bird in a Gilded Cage

I am sorry to see that Erin O’Connor is leaving academia.

Some see a pattern in recent departures from academia announced on blogs, but the pattern, if it exists, is mostly that scholars who have been trapped in the labryinth of part-time teaching or work at the periphery of the academy have decided to let go.

O’Connor is different. It’s very rare to see a tenured academic in the humanities voluntarily leave a post, particularly one at a good institution, and to choose to do so for ethical and philosophical reasons. I’ve only known a handful of similar cases, and they’ve mostly involved people seeking some form of personal fulfillment or emotional transition that they think is unavailable in their academic lives.

O’Connor seems to have a little of that in mind as well, but her explicit reasoning is more that she views the contemporary academic humanities as unreformable and corrupt. I have a lot of respect for her enormous courage in choosing to leave. Not only is it hard to turn your back on the gilded cage of lifetime job security, it is hard to leave behind that part of your own self-image that is founded on being a scholar in a university environment.

I share at least many of, if not all of, O’Connor’s misgivings about the American academy in its present form. Academia, especially in the humanities, often seems to me narrow-minded, parochial, resistant to the forms of critical thought that it allegedly celebrates, and possesses a badly attenuated sense of its communicative and social responsibilities to the publics which sustain it. In many research universities, teaching remains privately, sometimes even openly, scorned. There, scholars are sometimes rewarded for adherence to self-confirming orthodoxies of specialization and mandarin-like assertions of bureaucratized privilege. And what one exceptionally dissatisfied respondent at Crooked Timber said is all too close to the truth: some academics are tremendously pampered and intensely unprincipled, in ways only truly visible to insiders behind the sheltered walls of academic confidentiality.

However, I’m not leaving, or even contemplating leaving, and perhaps that would make me one of the noisome defenders of academia that O’Connor criticizes.

I am not leaving because I’m happy. I enjoy my teaching, am satisfied with my scholarship, and generally am quite pleased with my institution and my local colleagues here. I like many of the people I know in my discipline and my fields of specialization. I learn many new things every week, read widely, live the live of the mind, make good use of the freedom of tenure.

Swarthmore does a pretty damn good job in many ways. I think I do a good job, too. I am proud of it and proud to be a part of it all.

It is easier to be happy when the basics of my situation are so comfortable. I am paid well, I have tremendous autonomy in my teaching and scholarship, I have many compensations and benefits. I have bright and interesting students about whose future I care deeply. I have many colleagues whose company and ideas enlighten me. I have lifetime job security. My institution is in good financial shape, prudentially managed, led wisely.

What’s not to like?

What is not to like, notes O’Connor, the Invisible Adjunct and many others is that my situation is unusual in the totality of academia.

I think some of that is the difference between a liberal arts undergraduate college and a large research university: it is the latter kind of institution that I think is the locus of most of the problems afflicting academia at present. There is also one aspect of this that I do not take to be particular to academia, but instead is true of all institutions, that some jobs are better than other jobs, some institutions are run better than other institutions. It is better to work for a top law firm than to work for a miserable firm of ambulance-chasers. It is better to work for Google than it is to work for Enron.

What is a bit different, however, is that academics mostly cannot pursue market-rational strategies that respond to those differences intelligently and predictably, and the distribution of talent in faculties cannot meaningfully be said to meritocratically map against the good jobs and bad jobs. I do not imagine that I am here because I am so much better than many of the people in jobs where they teach 5/5 loads, have alienated students, get no sabbaticals, have poor benefits and low wages, and indifferent or even hostile administrations. I think I am good at what I do, but so are many of the people who seek jobs in academia, and who ends up where is a much more capricious thing in the end than in many other fields of work. And once you're established enough wherever you land, if you're tenured, you're there as long as you want to remain--or trapped if you want to move elsewhere.

The conditions of labor at the more selective institutions feed on themselves in good ways: with regular sabbaticals, strong students, and institutional resources you can improve both as a scholar and a teacher. With heavy loads and no support, you’re hard-pressed just to stay afloat. If the end state of a tenured faculty member at the University of Chicago and the State University of East Nowheresville are different, that often has a lot to do with conditions of employment along the way.

It is hard to know what the solution to all this disparity is. I am not into sackcloth-and-ashes myself, so I’m not going to punish myself for my good fortune by leaving or donating half my salary to adjuncts. If I were, teaching at a good college would only be the beginning of the good fortunes for which I must apologize, and a relatively trivial one at that in comparison to being a white male American who grew up in suburban California in material comfort with supportive and loving parents. I do not see any magic way to make every academic institution wealthy overnight, nor would I want to eliminate the weaker or more impoverished institutions—the diversity and number of colleges and universities in the United States seems one of our national strengths even in comparison to Western Europe.

Instead, I think that the smaller, simpler solutions which many academic bloggers have described are the real beginning of meaningful reform.

Graduate institutions should dramatically cut their intake of doctoral students. Yes, that would simply move the principle of relatively arbitrary distinctions of merit to an earlier moment in academic careers, but that’s the whole point, to keep people from devoting seven years of their lives to a system that frequently does not pay off that investment of labor.

Graduate pedagogy needs to shift its emphases dramatically to meaningfully prepare candidates for the actual jobs they ought to be doing as professors, to getting doctoral students into the classroom earlier and more effectively, to learning how to communicate with multiple publics, to thinking more widely about disciplines and research. At the same time, doctoral study also needs to reconnect with and nurture the passions many of us brought to our academic careers at the outset—passions often nurtured in bright undergraduates by strong liberal arts institutions like Swarthmore. The excessive professionalization and specialization of academic work is killing its overall effectiveness and productivity. The possible purposes of graduate training need to be opened up, not merely as a compensatory gesture to disappointed academic job seekers, but as a deep and meaningful reform of the day-to-day labor of professors presently teaching graduate classes. The passive-aggressive combination of complacency, conformism and defensiveness that often afflicts academic culture needs to give way to something bolder, more infused with joy and creation, more pluralistic and varied in its orthodoxies and arguments.

Tenure as an institution needs to be rethought. If not actively abandoned, it should at least not be automatically, reflexively defended as inviolate, because it presently serves very few of the purposes which are often attributed to it. The use of adjunct teaching in its present form at many institutions should simply be outright abolished. Non-tenure track faculty should be hired on 1-year or 3-year contracts at a salary comparable to a tenure-track assistant professor with benefits to teach a normal load of courses, never on a per course basis, save in those cases where short-term emergencies arise (such as serious illness or other unplanned short-term unavailability of a tenure-track faculty).

There’s more that I could suggest, but I think many of these reforms would squarely confront the problems that have driven Erin O’Connor to leave academia. How we get to them is really the crux of the matter. I think the role of insiders who love academia but want to see it realize its potential—and possibly stave off the threat of a collapse—is essential. But so too, perhaps, are people who walk away. Here’s to the guts to walk away from a sure thing.