I recently read an article that elicited a strange type of anger within me — the self-reprimanding sort wherein you say to yourself, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.” It is an anger produced of envy, which fortunately passes quickly, at which point you can return to admiring whatever in the article evoked the (mercifully brief) reaction of anger.
The article that created my embarrassing moment of envious anger was Miya Tokumitsu’s recently published “In the Name of Love,” which I only discovered because it received widespread attention within my social media circles. It is, quite simply, smart. Very smart. If you haven’t yet read it, I highly recommend clicking through and checking it out for yourself. Then come back here, because I feel compelled by Tokumitsu’s honed prose, crystalline evidence, and piercing insight to attempt to explain why I think her observations are so important for those of us working in academe.
“In the Name of Love” examines the widespread cultural trend within which we are urged to “do what you love,” which she shortens, appropriately, into the acronym DWYL. This mantra, reinforced within many corners of our professional and cultural landscape, is not, as Tokumitsu points out, merely a cutesy reminder to honor our own values, but is also a potentially damaging philosophy of labor. And potentially damaging for both individuals and our larger culture simultaneously, damaging at both the micro and macro scales.
Tokumitsu’s analysis is especially lucid in the moments when she points out how the pervasive calls and reminders to “DWYL” invite us to ignore the labor of others, as well as our own labor, and blind us to the economic aspects of labor. We work, after all, by definition in order to maintain or improve our economic positions. But DWYL asks us to work for entirely different reasons, for pleasure, for self-esteem, for passion. Compensation, DWYL implies, is crass.
The increasingly ephemeral American dream of working hard in order to experience prosperity is not only not working out (and we need look no further than our own adjunct ranks to see the evidence and to realize the complicity of our own profession), but it is being replaced to an extent by the privileged, sanctimonious notion that work isn’t worth doing unless we love it. I don’t know about yours, but my creditors don’t accept payment in currencies crafted from self-esteem. They only accept the hard stuff. I work for reasons other than, or at least in addition to, the satisfaction of my own psyche.
“In the Name of Love” took off in my social media circles, which are heavily populated with fellow teacher-scholars (i.e., academics), because of how applicable the article is to current working conditions in higher education. In fact, the second half of Tokumitsu’s article deals directly with how the DWYL mantras specifically devalue academic labor and those of us who undertake such labor. And not coincidentally does she connect the problems of DWYL culture to academe, for the author’s byline indicates that she holds a Ph.D. in art history.
The common trope within which academics, and indeed educators at all levels, undertake their work as a “calling,” and out of love, is a trope that marginalizes educational work within our broader cultural landscape. Some of the ramifications are hard to measure, such as declining respect for the ethical, community-serving, and indispensable profession of teaching. Other ramifications are quite tangible, as salaries are far outstripped by inflation while workloads simultaneously increase.
My doctor works to help other people, but also for money; my financial manager oversees my retirement account perhaps for self-satisfaction, but certainly also for the loot; and my mechanic works to take pleasure in a job well done, to be sure, but also to get paid, to make the damn rent. And none of them in that order. There is nothing wrong with any of this. Why then is there an expectation within our culture — and you’ve seen the evidence for yourself — that teachers teach, above all, for love? One reason is that it makes it easier to pay poorly, and makes it easier to reduce education from a profession to a web of part-time gigs otherwise known as “adjuncting.”
I hope that we do love our jobs, but the common notion that educators educate first for love and only then for pay is a perfect set-up for those who are actively seeking to undermine and/or privatize our educational systems for their own ideological or cynical reasons. If love alone were enough, I’d be fishing or riding a bike right now, but I’m probably grading papers as you read this.
I also want to suggest that we academics, if we are unhappy with our labor conditions, with expanding responsibilities, with extending work hours, and both in lockstep with shrinking compensation — if we as a category of workers (albeit white collar ones) are unhappy with such trends, then we must first admit to ourselves that we are complicit in our own “exploitation.” If we are working, we have, at least implicitly, agreed to the deal.
Readers in the non-tenure-track ranks will be quick to point out that they have it much worse than those of us in the tenured or tenure-track ranks. You are correct. And while we may not all being falling victim to the boomeranging combination of DWYL culture and educational gutting at the same rate, those of us who haven’t been knocked in the head yet will be soon. Unless something changes. Unless culture shifts, can be caused to shift. And that’s a tall order.
“Nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia,” Tokumitsu writes. Damn straight. I doubt that the devaluation of academic labor or the parting-out of teaching into adjunct gigs will stop until people start refusing the work, in droves. But that isn’t happening, and so we haven’t hit bottom yet.
We potentially make ourselves complicit in the ongoing compromise of our own labor by being stubborn and/or unimaginative in how we see ourselves and our professional lives. If you can only conceive of yourself as a professor, then you have condemned your labor to the mercy and whims of others. Only when a critical mass of academics — and particularly of top academics capable of securing the best academic positions — actively conceive of themselves as something larger than professors and academics, and pursue other forms of labor, might the economic situation shift. People will have to start refusing the deal, in droves.
There’s a flip side to all of this. If there are aspects of your profession, or your specific position, that you do not like, or that you perhaps even actively hate, it does not necessarily mean that you are in the wrong line of work, or that you’re in the wrong position. It means that you have a job. Not every element of our working lives needs to be lovable. We set ourselves up for disappointment if we expect to adore every part of our work. If you are fortunate enough to have a job that you love, things that you hate will come along with it.
It’s hard for me to avoid snarkiness when I hear academics, and particularly academics with tenure or tenure-track positions, complain about their financial compensation. Even though many of us don’t have it great, we still have it pretty good. Such complacency though is precisely how we got into the current labor situation. Because as a category of labor, we have been willing to accept the steady erosion of the economics of our profession. After all, we’re still here, working in academe, reading a professional publication, aren’t we?
My state’s legislature has, quite literally, devalued educational labor (by freezing and even lowering compensation) under the appalling logic that teachers will continue teaching out of, you guessed it, love. But, the obscene combination of the DWYL mantra and a systematic, politically motivated gutting of the education system (at all levels) has led to a leap in the number of teachers fleeing the state. Apparently, as the exodus of North Carolina teachers is actively demonstrating, love alone does not pay the mortgage. It’s not clear yet when the North Carolina teachers, leaving in droves, will compel the legislature to rethink its actions.
Enough griping though. I’m off to the bank, where I will tell my loan officer how important he is to me, how his attention to fiduciary detail changed my life for the better, opened my eyes to the beauty of the economic world around me, and where I will proceed to hug him approximately 900 times, which should about cover next month’s mortgage payment. You see, I’m on the “Stand and Deliver” payment plan, and my loan officer really loves his job.