One year ago, I published an essay about my inability to find stable academic employment. At the time, I had a new baby, and my mother, who had come to visit her new grandson, died suddenly while I was en route to the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. I pushed through two campus visits in the next weeks only to come in second in both places. I had done everything I could do -- I had a nearly complete manuscript and a book contract with Harvard University Press -- and still I had no job, after years of applications. Exactly one year later, on March 20, 2015, I signed a contract to become an assistant professor, beginning next fall. The worst period of my life is over. But the systemic problems that took such a toll remain.
When my essay was published, the response to it was instantly overwhelming. It appeared first at Inside Higher Ed, was widely shared, got kicked up to Slate and got even more attention. Strangers stopped by my office to commiserate, and emails poured in more quickly than I could answer them. Within academic circles, at least, I had become a minor celebrity -- (slightly) famous for not being hired. I had to face the likelihood that a short essay about personal suffering would probably be the most widely read piece of writing I will ever do.
It must be said that not all of the attention the essay received was positive. Some didn’t like that my story, as opposed to the many others out there, was getting attention. Some thought Ph.D.s who accept contingent employment are responsible for their own victimization. Others thought I was foolish to have children before finding job security. Trolls in the comments section helpfully suggested that my wife should leave me. (So far, she has managed to ignore them.) More serious critics thought that I came off as arrogant or entitled. Perhaps this last group had a point -- I was in probably in too much pain to be at my most generous.
But I also had seen that most writers who express public frustration with their outcomes on the job market saw their credentials attacked and were told that they were inadequate in some way. In trying to link my personal tragedy to the systemic crisis of adjunctification that had made it more likely, I had to establish that I was doing everything that could be asked of a scholar and a teacher, all to no avail. Only then could the essay convince people of the depth of the jobs crisis and thus make an important contribution to a conversation about responsibility and reform.
Most readers, as far as I could tell, took it in that spirit. Many people facing similar un- and underemployment thanked me for having expressed the psychological toll of being part of a broken hiring system in a way that helped them personally, and such endorsements brought me some comfort.
My own situation in the months after publication, however, grew worse. Seeing the essay, some people wrote to me to draw my attention to one- or two-year positions I might still apply for. I did, and was rejected by all of them. (I also applied to jobs outside of academe, also without any success.)
I went into May 2014 fully expecting to be totally unemployed. Then one place reversed course: a teaching program in political economy at the University of California at Berkeley, the same university where I had been working as a lecturer in history. It was a program I greatly admired, and it granted some family stability.
That summer, things slowly began to improve. We went to my mother’s home in Iowa to empty it out and prepare it for sale and then drove her car back to California with the kids. I finished my book and sent it for review. As teaching began in the fall, I was grateful to be able to design courses on topics such as the historical origins of inequality and on capitalism in U.S. foreign relations that are among the best syllabi I’ve ever assembled. And I began to apply to jobs again, creating a new round of measured hopes.
This year's AHA meeting was difficult; I will forever be flying to it on the anniversary of my mom’s death, and I doubt that I’ll ever be able to escape connecting the two. But I was relaxed during interviews, reasoning that, at the very worst, I would not get a job offer -- and still I’d have a better year than the one that had come before. It looked for a time as if I would be able to test my hypothesis. I wound up with only one campus visit and came in second for that position as well.
Meanwhile, however, my appointment at Berkeley was not a temporary fill-in for a professor on leave. The department of International and Area Studies, which houses the political economy major, is a teaching program that hires Ph.D.s on a continuing basis. Berkeley’s lecturers have been unionized for decades and enjoy good benefits. If you can get a full-time load (I had half), your salary will resemble that of a public school teacher. And if your teaching is good, you can count on continued employment and even go through a review after six years and get a kind of tenurelike security.
As I've watched developments in higher education over the course of the year, the arrangement I had at Berkeley already feels like it portends a likely future for our profession. For very good reasons, contingent faculty across the country (across the world, even) are pushing for unionization. If more and more campaigns are successful, they will define a new category of academic labor. Insecure and underpaid adjunct work could be replaced with lecturer-type positions such as the one I had this year that offer some job security, benefits, a modest but acceptable salary and no research responsibilities.
Mine has been a good workplace, and I’m grateful for the students and colleagues I have had. But it’s worth noting that even if in this relatively optimistic projection, where collective action results in less exploitative working conditions for adjuncts, we will have institutionalized a new form of non-tenure-track work, while tenure-track research positions are going to remain scarce. The jobs crisis will continue to exert downward pressure on wages and conditions everywhere except the academic stratosphere, and it should be of concern to everyone.
But if I felt like I was living a possible future of higher education last year, then next year I will be living its fortunate past: as a tenure-track assistant professor. Even if I was not first choice, I did in the end get a job offer. It is at a university with an interesting department and an important mission, and I’m excited to start.
Once you make it to the tenure track, it becomes easy to construct a sense of inevitability around your appointment. No doubt there were some readers of last year’s essay who thought I would surely land eventually. But to them, and to myself, I must say that even this year was a near thing. And I continue to see accomplished scholars and creative teachers go unhired, year after year. It’s still not clear to me that we are preparing people for a career that really exists.
And for those of us who do (or will, in my case) have the privilege of working as part of an increasingly rare model that supports our activity as researchers, I have increasingly found myself thinking about what we do and do not deserve, in the manner of the philosopher John Rawls. For Rawls, we cannot possibly deserve our lot in life. This is for many reasons: our skills and attitudes depend on accidents of birth and parentage, for example. More fundamentally, the qualities that we happen to possess are (or are not) valued in certain ways by our particular social arrangement at our particular point in time.
Rawls, famously, suggests that we should design a just society from behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing which position in it we will occupy after our birth. Under these conditions, Rawls thinks, we would grant everyone basic rights, and those inequalities that exist would exist only insofar as they benefited those least well-off. It would be hard to argue, looking only at the system of higher education employment that we have today, that it would meet any kind of Rawlsian standard of justice.
Those of us who have had good fortune to be on the tenure track need to be humble about our luck. We have indeed worked hard for our position, so it can be difficult to feel that we don’t deserve it. But the number of astonishingly talented people who also deserve what we have should shame us from such feelings. We are not behind a veil of ignorance, and we cannot build a new order from scratch. But we should make sure that we are attentive to ways that we can use our positions to improve conditions for those who are least well-off. We cannot deserve our privilege, and they deserve no less.
Starting this fall, Patrick Iber will be an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso. His book, Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America, will be published by Harvard University Press in October.
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