At an airport a few months ago, I ran into a professional acquaintance, a young anthropologist who had studied with a friend of mine. He was excited about the long trip ahead and about his “new gig” in a country that he had visited only once before. His use of the word “gig” to describe an academic appointment caught my attention, because at that time I was reading Adrianna Kezar’s book The Gig Academy.
My acquaintance, the self-described “gig academic,” was decidedly not one of the underemployed, poorly paid part-time teachers or postdocs about whom Kezar and her colleagues have written. He was looking forward to a leadership post that came with a competitive salary, benefits and a multiyear contract. He expected to serve in the new post for three to five years, as he had in two previous gigs abroad
Learning that this colleague was returning to the same region, the Middle East, for the third time, I inquired politely about his preparation for such assignments. Had he studied this region of the world in graduate school? Did he have personal or professional ties to the region or his new employer? How well did he understand and speak Arabic?
Specialized knowledge of the region and language proficiency were not required, he answered. As in the past, he would be working for an American-style university where English was the language of instruction and management. His duties? Recruit, supervise and evaluate teaching faculty and student services professionals; lead program development and assessment; and serve as CEO-in-charge during the president’s frequent absences from campus.
As we talked, I took notice of three things. First, the job description was generic and bland. It could have been written by any small private college in America seeking a chief academic officer or executive dean. Second, the job description did not mention that the campus of the employing institution was located less than 100 miles from an active war zone. And third, my young colleague brimmed with enthusiasm and confidence that “if this gig [didn’t] work out,” other opportunities would open up.
Again, I inquired politely about the sources of his self-confidence, citing Kezar’s grim assessment of market conditions and pressures on young academics in the United States. He expected my questions, and he explained.
For three years after earning his Ph.D. (a six-year journey), he had looked for a conventional, preferably tenurable, faculty position. There were a few in his field as well as full-time contract positions that paid decent salaries. But most positions were in places where he did not want to live or where the high cost of living meant a bare-bones existence and no saving for retirement.
The first gig, teaching social science courses at an American-style college in the Gulf Emirates, had opened his eyes to an alternative way of working and succeeding within the academy. Embracing the alternative entailed both gains and losses.
On the positive side, he cited the opportunity to learn how different cultures define an educated person; to earn fair, even generous, compensation; and to get on a faster track to leadership positions than is usually available to young scholars in America. On the negative side, he told me, were giving up expectations of long-term relationships with one particular institution; frequent moves, similar to the experience of career military and diplomatic personnel; and exposure to possible violations of contractual agreements or academic freedom. And, he added, in some cases, direct threats to one’s health and safety.
This casual encounter, and especially my young colleague’s comments about an alternative way of working and succeeding within the academy, piqued my curiosity. Using notes that I had compiled for a continuing research project on American-style colleges abroad, I identified other scholars who fit the profile of “voluntary nomads.” These colleagues were trained in several disciplines and were employed (or had been employed) at American-style institutions in Bosnia, Georgia, Kenya, Mongolia, Nigeria and Vietnam. Their stories were each distinct, yet they validated the observations of my airport interlocutor.
We do not have reliable statistics on the numbers and backgrounds of the American academy’s globe-circling voluntary nomads. We do know that they work as teachers or administrators at scores of American-style institutions, wherever local governments have seen fit to issue the necessary operating licenses.
Some voluntary nomads work at venerable, accredited universities, like the American University in Cairo, and at private colleges founded in Europe after World War II, like John Cabot University in Rome. About 30 such institutions are regular or associate members of the Association of American International Colleges and Universities, the roots of which go back to the American (Protestant) colleges of the late 19th century.
Since the 1990s, however, the most attractive, if risky, opportunities for voluntary academic nomads have proliferated in regions where America’s economic and military power grew rapidly after the breakup of the Soviet Union (Eastern Europe and Central Asia), but also in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia.
What do these quite different destinations for voluntary academic nomads have in common? Local leaders want to expand access to tertiary education for their citizens and to modernize curricula, pedagogies and facilities. American-trained gig academics -- mostly young, skilled and on short-term contracts -- are an important resource to indigenous societies in pursuit of such goals. Again, we lack statistically valid data on a group of scholars whose career patterns, aspirations and status do not quite fit the demographics of the American academy. What we do have are anecdotes -- personal stories of success and fulfillment, as well as of failure and frustration.
The academic nomads with whom I spoke had experienced the domestic gig academy, either during their graduate school years or after earning their terminal degrees. The stories they told suggest that even the young scholars whose time abroad went sour would not trade their experiences for the grind of contingent faculty lives on our traditional campuses.
Compensation, of course, is a significant factor. Academic gigs abroad, especially those at American-style institutions, offer higher salaries and better living arrangements than those typically available to part-time or contract faculty members on U.S. campuses. But compensation is not the only, or even the major, driver for young scholars who apply for gigs abroad.
Describing their aspirations and motivations, several voluntary nomads used words and metaphors that are common among American foreign service and intelligence professionals or career military officers -- and not at all common in American academic circles. Some of the voluntary nomads mentioned the thrill of helping build something new. Others emphasized the opportunity to teach subjects they love while at the same time becoming students themselves, mastering a new language and negotiating unfamiliar cultures and places.
Nomads who had worked in different regions of the world also mentioned that each gig provided opportunities to test the strengths and limits of American models of higher education, especially the undergraduate liberal arts and sciences curricula preferred by American founders and (often) by indigenous elites.
The nomads I spoke with shared a belief that American models of higher education introduce non-Western students to values and modes of inquiry significantly different from those of indigenous institutions and necessary to support open, democratic societies. They acknowledged, however, that the American-style colleges where they are (or were) employed attract young people from elite families less because of superior values or modes of inquiry than because they hold the promise of good jobs in American or other Western enterprises.
Inspired by Kezar’s The Gig Academy, I raised questions about stability, continuity and community. Again, like foreign service officers, the academic nomads did not gild the lily. The “international gig lifestyle” (to quote one nomad on his fourth gig) takes its toll on individuals and families. But so does its domestic equivalent, the shared experience of most young academics on U.S. campuses.
Perhaps most interesting were the responses to questions about community. In the traditional setting -- or the idealized version thereof -- communities of scholars are built around organizational units that share a discipline (e.g., history) or a focus (e.g., hydrology) and that foster long-term relationships among its members. Clearly, the voluntary nomads I spoke with were living in a different reality. How and where, I asked, did they find community?
Predictably, some of the nomads mentioned their discipline or focus. They keep in touch and collaborate with graduate school mentors and peers and with colleagues at other institutions who share their professional interests. Not so predictably, several nomads cited networks of colleagues who share the gig experience across disciplines, academic ranks and nationalities. Their definition of community does not presume a shared physical space (campus), organizational unit (academic department, school) or even discipline. It presumes a shared experience of gigs during which they learned very different things than they learned in graduate school. Among other things, they learned to become students again and to live as members of a minority group amid not always friendly majority cultures.
Career Lessons for the Future
What is the future for academic nomads, and what can they teach us about careers in academe?
As I mentioned earlier, in the past 20 years, most of the attractive opportunities for international gig academics have become available in countries where political instability and violence are the norm. The American-style colleges founded in such countries have depended to a large degree on diplomatic and military protection of the U.S. government. Some are also heavily dependent on financial subsidies by U.S. agencies and private foundations.
Such arrangements will not last forever. Attitudes and policies are changing in Washington and around the globe. In Hungary, for example, a nationalist government targeted a successful private institution, Central European University, for promoting American (and more broadly Western) values. In Central Asia, a multinational university financed by the Aga Khan Foundation and others presents a clear challenge to an earlier liberal arts college founded and led by Americans. In Nigeria, Boko Haram, a violent political movement but also the ideological heir of pre-colonial Islamic piety and learning, views American-style colleges as outposts of Western neocolonialism. For a decade or two, the gig market is likely to remain vibrant, but the level of complexity and risk around the globe is rising.
We don’t know how many of the voluntary nomads will return home to the U.S. if and when international gigs dry up. Those looking for opportunities within the domestic gig academy will probably not be welcomed with open arms. Shaped by their international gig experience, however, they might play important roles in changing prevalent -- and mostly negative -- views of the domestic gig academy.
At the very least, returning nomads may question the wisdom and feasibility of returning to “the good old days” on American campuses, when tenured faculty shared in the governance of their institutions while younger, tenure-track colleagues waited their turn to join the magic circle.
Teachers and scholars who experienced the domestic gig academy but do not expect or aspire to join the magic circle might, for example, restart an older conversation about decoupling issues of academic employment -- length of contracts, salaries and benefits -- from issues of academic freedom. Contracts will vary over time, but the protection of academic freedom should be available to all scholars, regardless of where and on what terms they are employed.
Returning academic nomads will be especially well placed to restart another older conversation: Why does a powerful minority of tenured professors at our research universities continue to educate too many doctoral students destined for underemployment or worse?
Most important, returning academic nomads might start new conversations on American campuses. They might share their experiences in building academic communities that are not constructed around physical spaces or disciplinary loyalties but are organized instead to address common pedagogical and cultural challenges. And given the demographic transformation of many American campuses, the returning voluntary nomads might share their successes and failures in reaching students whose understanding of the world, of social structures and of the purpose of formal education itself is different from their own.