I’m gonna say something that may seem obvious to some but is, nonetheless, an important distinction: your job and your work are not the same thing.
First, let me define my terms: your job is governed by the rationale and systems of exchange which allow you to get paid for your labor. To put it perhaps too simplistically, your work is the stuff that feels vital and necessary to the underlying purpose of why you labor. An academic’s job may be being a professor, but they see their work as teaching/research/mentoring/etc. …
There’s lots of jobs where people don’t have access to the pleasures of work. There’s also people whose work has nothing to do with their jobs. For example, many see their families as their work, and a job may simply provide the capital resources which underlie those efforts.
E.g., Wallace Stevens had jobs as a lawyer and a business executive. His poetry was his work.
The ways individuals negotiate the tension between their job and their work are infinite.
My view is that as professions go, academics experience as small a gap between their job and their work as just about anyone. After all, it’s the work that likely put the individual on the path toward professorship to begin with.
Or maybe I should say used to experience as small a gap as anyone. I don’t think folks laboring in an academic institution expect their time to be all work and no job, but there does appear to be a growing recognition that aspects of the job are threatening to overwhelm—or have already overwhelmed—the work.
As someone who lived the life of the precarious academic, on the one hand, it was awesome because I could concentrate almost 100 percent on the work of teaching, the work that called me into the profession to begin with.
But ultimately, the problems of the job—namely that it offered no security, limited pay and no prospect for advancement or growth—won the day, and I moved on.
Writing at The Chronicle, Lindsay Ellis calls the present age “the great disillusionment,” and I think a huge part of that disillusionment is the way that the pandemic has revealed the ways that the job has steadily encroached on the work for all but the most privileged academics.
With the clarifying lens of COVID, it seems as though many have started to realize that much of what they’re asked to do under the auspices of their job in order to earn access to their work just isn’t worth it.
Being forced into spaces that may expose you to a lethal virus will have that effect, and once the scales fall from one’s eyes, it’s hard not to start seeing all kinds of things that simply don’t make sense.
As I have argued, ad nauseam, I believe these problems are largely structural. The academic work life is governed by the forces of labor just like any other job, but academics of relative privilege have been slow to grok this and allowed the erosion of value attached to their work to happen steadily under their noses. When a portion of your work—teaching—can be done for $2,500 per class per semester, that is now the actual value of that labor, no matter how much you are paid for it. It’s only a matter of time before everyone reaches that floor.
As Kevin McClure observes, the years of austerity visited on many institutions has left them emaciated, literally incapable of responding to a tight labor market. So far this has appeared to affect staffing positions over faculty the hardest, but the declining morale is a problem for anyone remaining at the institution.
Some academics have been sheltered from this reality, but the number who are insulated is rapidly diminishing, and in some cases, that number includes those working in entire states.
Consider the situation in Florida, where University of Florida researchers destroyed COVID-related data because they feared they would run afoul of Governor Ron DeSantis and would face retaliation. And of course three political science professors were barred from testifying as even unpaid experts in a lawsuit against the state.
Or take my home state of South Carolina, where Republican legislatures want to cancel tenure for any faculty hired after Dec. 1, 2022.
Other states where legislatures are actively tearing down the structures academics say are vital to their work are too numerous to name. Even if these challenges are beaten back, there is little doubt which direction the tide is going.
The solace of the work is no longer sufficient for the degradations of the job. I’ve had faculty I know whom I could not imagine walking away talking seriously about what else they might be able to do with their time and their expertise.
They reach out to me because I’ve managed to cobble together some work outside the academy that is still tied to the issues I’m most passionate about. On the one hand, I’m fortunate. On the other, I am working really hard to forge this path, but admittedly, it’s no harder than many other people are prepared to work.
Which is to say, yes, it’s doable.
With a plan for public funding for two-year colleges, the Build Back Better bill offered a blueprint out of the spiral of privatization and competition for resources that is so destructive for nonelite (meaning the vast majority of) institutions, but in a devastating act of shortsightedness, four-year institutions lobbied against it.
If we can’t change the structures that are crumbling beneath our feet, who is going to be left standing?
And who is going to turn the lights off when it’s all over?