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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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In Academia, You're Always Doing It Wrong

A system without a way to win, even when you're on top.

February 13, 2018
 
 

If you are working inside of academia, odds are, you’re doing it wrong.

A tweet from Nicholas Christakis of Yale arguing 60 hour work weeks as the norm for full professors recently went viral.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Anamaria Dutceac Segesten remarked writing at IHE’s Unviersity of Venus blog, the tweet “touched a soft spot for many who work in higher ed.” 

The particular insidious brilliance of the Christakis tweet is no matter what, you’re doing it wrong. If you work less than 60 hours, you’re failing the test of a “true” academic, as modeled by prominent scholars such as Christakis.

At the same time if you work 60 hours a week, you’re also likely on the wrong side of the work/life balance, buying into a system that seeks to exploit its laborers and hold them to unreasonable and unsustainable standards.[1]

Of course hours are and always have been a lousy way to measure “work.” In the kind of work academics do, it’s difficult to draw a bright line between work and not work.

The hullaballoo reminded me how academia seems uniquely structured as a place in which people can be made to feel defective for one reason or another.

When I was inside the academy, my chief defect was my status as contingent faculty, coupled with the low salary which accompanied this status. If I was worthy, surely I would get paid more than $25,000 a year.

I mean, I knew I was doing good work, and deserved to be valued, but the institutions I worked for lacked the conceptual framework in which this work can be explicitly rewarded. You are only entitled to increased pay for the work of an academic if you are tenurable. If you are contingent, your academic labor is instantly less valuable.

If you do not have status, the work you do does not necessarily hold “value.”

A particularly poignant and painful reminder of this has been rocketing through my Twitter feed in the form of an essay by Erin Bartram titled, “The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind.” Currently a VAP, Prof. Bartram has decided to end her pursuit of a tenure track position after not securing a tenure track job this year. In one part of her essay, she responds to the common sentiment that even though she’s leaving academia, she should continue her scholarship.

“’But your work is so valuable,’ people say.  ‘It would be a shame not to find a way to publish it.’”[2]

“Valuable to whom? To whom would the value of my labor accrue? And not to be too petty, but if it were so valuable, then why wouldn’t anyone pay me a stable living wage to do it?”

It’s worth noting Prof. Bartram already has a full-time position doing the labor of academia, but it is a position on the wrong side of an entirely arbitrary divide. She writes of her emotions after starting her visiting position:

“I remember feeling really sad at the end of that first month, coming out of the first A&S faculty meeting. I wasn’t sad because I didn’t think I could do the job, I was sad because I realized that I could do it really well. Of course I could do it really well! This was what I had been trained to do. This was what I wanted to do. I was sad because I knew that I might already be on borrowed time – that I probably wouldn’t get to do it for my whole life.”

This is the part that brought me back to my own not exactly “quit lit” essay from two years ago. This was the loss I felt, though I did not express it as clearly or as well at the time. 

Two years on, the grief has dulled, but reading Prof. Bartram’s essay brought it back in an instant.

There is evidence and examples that one can survive after giving up the “dream.” Rebecca Schuman has been chronicling her re-entry into the academic job market after a four-year break having established a career as a writer and freelancer. Being out of academe has allowed Schuman to develop a different perspective on the rejection which feels almost inevitable. 

I hope one day to be an example to others, but Prof. Bartram’s essay reminds me I’m not there yet. I could feel the anger at the pointlessness of a system which flushes so much willing talent with hardly a care. I was angry on behalf of Erin Bartram, angry on my own behalf.

Leaving teaching has accelerated my work as someone who writes about pedagogy and our messed up systems of education. This time next year, if things go according to plan I’ll be touted as an expert on these things I care about. But even then, I will have to leave my identity as a teacher on the shelf.  

The day will come, I believe, when I’ll be back in the classroom – maybe sooner than I think – but my response to Prof. Bartram’s essay tells me I’m not ready for it yet. I’m still sad. I’m still angry, and it’s all the more difficult because there’s no one to be angry at, no one to blame, just a screwed up system where we’re all doing it wrong, including professors at Yale who seem convinced they’ve got it all figured out.

 

[1] As Anamaria Dutceac Segesten notes, you may also be flying the face of what research says about productivity. If you’re working 60 hours a week, you may be allowing 40 hours of work to expand to fill the space, rather than being maximally efficient.

[2] During my six years at Clemson University I published two books and was co-editor on another volume, easily meeting any expectations for tenure track faculty, except I was a lecturer being paid $25,000 per year, so my “scholarship” was worthless. Had I been in a tenurable position I would’ve earned at least another quarter-million dollars for the same work. 

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