Selling Out

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Nathan Fisk, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]

Over the past year, I’ve had to carefully consider the meaning of “selling out”.

Of my blogger colleagues, I’m probably the farthest removed from academia – or, at least I’m moving in that general direction. This certainly does not mean I’m abandoning research, quite the opposite in fact. It does, however, mean that I’ve all but given up on the idea of staying in academia and searching out a tenure-track position. For the time being, anyway. Instead, I’m looking to transition into the corporate world, but ideally in a way which would allow me to still do interesting ethnographic research. But, before I get ahead of myself, let me explain a little bit about my background and current position.

In 2011, I wrapped up my doctoral degree in STS – the first to graduate from my program under the soft four-year deadline slowly hardening under increasing institutional pressures. For years, I had labored, perhaps delusionally, under the hopes that if I was working on a “hot” and highly visible topic a job would simply materialize by the time I reached the end of the doctoral plank. For me, that topic was youth Internet safety. I developed my dissertation research with jobs beyond academia in mind, and deliberately built into the project opportunities to meet with school administrators across New York, in the hopes of expanding my contact network for eventual consulting work. I envisioned possibilites in state government, doing technology policy work. I thought I could even keep writing, given the two freelance books already under my belt.

The imagined job never really materialized. Between the economic downturn and my failure to anticipate what I’ve come to describe and recognize in others as post-dissertation slump, things simply stalled out. My dissertation research panned out in a way that made consulting difficult – schools want someone to come in and talk to kids about cyberbullying, not so much someone to tell them that the idea of cyberbullying is fundamentally problematic. State positions dried up during budget cutbacks, and I never really figured out how to get into a position that would allow me to write policy briefings. In terms of more writing, merely considering the idea of returning to Internet safety issues after almost a decade of research on the topic made me nauseous.

Thankfully, the unofficial departmental safety net sprung into action, and I was hired on as an adjunct to teach two courses per semester. Deepa mentioned that adjuncting “ain’t no fun at all,” but my experience was a little different, despite the fact that I dreaded the idea of teaching from the start. Once I got over the neurotic terror – “What the hell am I going to talk about for 4 hours a week?!?” – things went really well. Sure, the pay was terrible and I was excluded from faculty governance, but I also had reduced responsibility and a level of insulation. I could focus on teaching, and engage with departmental politics more or less on my terms. After the first semester, I managed to garner something of a student fan base, and I was offered the opportunity to develop and teach a class based on my dissertation (Youth and Teens Online). I had a great time, was tremendously lucky, and the students loved the course. For me, it offered not only an easy return to my work, but also numerous opportunities to see it from new perspectives and to reflect on my own ethnographic practices – a topic I’ll return to in later posts.

But, my time as an adjunct came at a cost. I find myself in a position where only one thing really matters – a stable and livable paycheck. Despite the fact that the department wants to keep me around as an adjunct, I simply can’t afford to stay, particularly when faced with newly activated student loan costs, rising costs of living, and the realities of adjunct salaries. While pay is the issue that keeps me up at night, I also find myself frequently considering my social status as an adjunct. I can critique gender roles and class status all day, and my wife, family and friends are all tremendously supportive, but none of that allows me to simply ignore the tropes/positions of “deadbeat husband” and “professional student.”

Obviously, I’m on the job market, if a very small one. My wife and I purchased a home here in Upstate NY when I started my doctoral work, she is doing her own doctoral work (and working full time) locally, and our families live nearby. In other words, the price of moving for an academic position is simply too high, particularly when considered against often temporary, contract or low-paying jobs. As teaching locally full-time (or sustainably part-time) ceases to be a possibility, I have increasingly positioned myself as what my former committee member Kim Fortun described as a “methods man.” Qualitative and quantitative research methods skills are in demand, particularly in a corporate world increasingly focused on data mining, niche marketing, and forecasting. Market research firms, strategic consulting firms, and various media industries all need researchers, and typically offer salaries which are far beyond what can be found in entry-level tenure track positions.

In some ways, I find the range of opportunities available to me to be liberating. There are genuinely interesting ethnographic research projects to be had out there, and while I don’t want to over idealize, I’m willing to bet that corporate research has a slightly higher chance of actually being used for business and policy decisions. I’m even finding calls for positions – both in the corporate and non-profit realms – which are looking specifically for Internet safety experts. That said, there’s still something a little unsettling about considering a corporate position.

So, this is where I’m going to focus the posts that follow – what ethnographic research is coming to mean to me as an individual in a state of employment limbo, between the academic and corporate worlds. Because I’m not really actively doing research at the moment, my discussion will focus a little more on my experiences with the job search and the anxieties that come with considering research outside of traditional academic channels and support networks. Next up, a return to selling out, from Goldman Sachs to Human Terrain…

Nathan Fisk is an Adjunct Lecturer in the Science and Technology Studies department at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he teaches Sociology, and Youth and Teens Online. His research has focused primarily on issues of youth Internet safety, although he has been occasionally been known to make vaguely interesting statements concerning video games, childhood, digital democracy, and hacking. He is the author of two books, “Understanding Online Piracy,” and “Digital Piracy.”

10 thoughts on “Selling Out

  1. As an anthropologist working in the non-academic sector for the time being, I’m so tired of the stigma attached to working outside of academia. Had I had real support in my department, were there more jobs available, etc., etc., for many of the reasons Nathan enumerates, I would have very much liked to have stayed in academia. It has been discussed extensively, but I think the lack of opportunities is something that our discipline really should take more seriously. My sense from more established faculty is that the reason many of us don’t have academic posts is that we just “don’t want it enough,” or that the problem is with us, the supplicants for jobs, rather than a system that doesn’t have room for many of us. It is unfortunate Nathan recapitulates the concept of “selling out,” as though making practical choices for one’s family, one’s stability, and one’s desire to have some relative security were due to lack of morals or investment in the intellectual projects. I do miss the freedom of doing my own work, the time and space to think about a problem for more than the 2 month or 3 month cycle of working as a consultant requires, but I don’t think I deserve to be called a sell-out. While I expect my own trajectory will be a bit hodge-podge, there’s also something nice about paid vacations, good health benefits, and…gasp…maternity leave. It would be nice to see SM re-frame this challenge from an epithet to a real practical problem and to resist disparaging members of the anthropology community who have made different choices than the standard track, out of necessity or preference for a different type of work environment than the highly insular one that academia presents.

  2. There was a time when staying in academia was taking the moral high ground. But given the abysmal treatment of “contingent” (choose your label) faculty in so many institutions, not to mention what we do to our students to reduce costs per credit hour, staying *in* academia requires a certain selling out to (or oblivion of) the shady underworld of ed biz. This is so much in the news, but anthropologists don’t seem to have joined the conversation.

    Thank you for revealing the economic hardships facing precarious academic labor; I think you are the first blogger in this series to do so.

  3. I don’t at all see Nathan’s use of the “selling out” phrase as disparaging to those who’ve chosen (or had to choose, for whatever reasons) a non-standard track. Rather, I read his post as suggesting that the non-standard track comes with some stigma, like it or no. And that it’s something we wrestle with, both personally and professionally. The “We’re supposed to critique corporates, not aid them” attitude, for example, has been strong enough for long enough that it’s hard to think of that sort of work as respectable–unless we tweak our understanding of its benefits, in one way or other. I recall being asked to do some work for a cultural consutancy group way back when, and an advisor suggesting that the way to rationalize such participation was to remember that corporates also underwrite cultural production in other countries — something like that. I do think some of this is changing, with more anthropologists actively seeking employment outside the academy, and the academy increasingly recognizing such means of survival as legitimate, though the challenge to remain ethnographically productive in traditionally recognizable ways, not simply give oneself over to one’s field, or even just in touch with the discipline in ways that allow us to retain our ethnographic qualifications rather intensifies. All this said, sure academia can be overly insular–and smug about its ability to uphold classic models of research, when in reality, as Amy says, there’s a great deal of selling out going on within. And that not just to ed biz, but equally to for-hire models of research in a quest for positioning and, perhaps as important, increasingly hard-to-get research funding. It’s something I take up in my next post, and I think Nathan’s concluding lines promise to do something similar.

  4. @SD: Deepa is right – I’m not trying to be disparaging, but as someone who is looking to possibly leave academia, I can’t help but *feel* like I’m “selling out”. I don’t actually think that those who do leave academia and look for opportunities elsewhere are wrong to do so, but there is, as Deepa noted, a stigma attached to doing so.

    Let me be absolutely clear, I think it *is* a problem that such a stigma exists, and I mean to approach the topic with that in mind, but I wanted to start with a little something on the way I’ve come to understand my own situation.

    Much of my post for next Friday is going to address what I mean by selling out, and where the feeling of selling out comes from.

    @Amy: I completely agree, and I’ve often considered the fact that my work as an adjunct continues to allow my university to avoid opening new tenure track funding lines. Just this past weekend I had an interesting discussion with a graduate chair on the topic of adjunct “capture”…

  5. @Amy:

    “There was a time when staying in academia was taking the moral high ground.”

    Exactly the point that came to mind for me. I think that academia is still benefiting from what it supposedly used to be at some point in the past. Meaning that it gets new recruits year in and year out because of idealistic beliefs about education, the academy, and so on. Anthropology is a good example–and I am one of the ones who came to the discipline for reasons along those lines. But those glory days are basically over, and in many ways I don’t see how the university system is ideal or let alone morally superior. Especially because of some of the points you mention.

    So this issue about “selling out”? Well, I don’t see how it’s selling out or morally objectionable to try to find a way to survive and make a living after getting a degree in anthropology. And if the *jobs don’t exist* in the academy, then folks are going to have to look elsewhere. Myself among them.

    In short, the existence of this whole stigma about selling out is a part of larger problems. Especially if it serves to guilt people into staying in a system that clearly is not working. In fact, I’d say we’re actually selling ourselves out if we don’t start rethinking things just a bit. In the end I am still kind of an idealist though, since I do think that it is possible to do something about the present state of affairs. But basing life choices on some abstract notion of selling out isn’t really going to get us anywhere, IMO.

  6. I love that Nathan called his post “selling out”. The title puts that stigma right out there as something to be faced head-on. What the phrase calls up for me (as Amy, Deepa and Nathan’s comments all point to in various ways) is the persistent assumption that academic labor is pure and disinterested.

    @Amy: So glad to have your comments as part of this series–I especially appreciate your comments on the ways in which laboring within academia also entails a degree of complicity with structures of power. (I also appreciated the link to your report on the difficulties of organizing academic labor in an earlier comment.)

  7. A very worthwhile topic, and one I feel passionately about (as you will see).

    I find it curious that despite the authors’ best intentions to dispel this stigma, everyone still seems keen to rationalize or excuse themselves from the decision to pursue employment outside of the academy: having paid vacation is nice, lack of opportunities in academia, we all need a paycheck after all… or as Ryan succinctly puts it: “Well, I don’t see how it’s selling out or morally objectionable to try to find a way to survive and make a living after getting a degree in anthropology.” Yes, that’s true, but I’d like to take it a step further, by suggesting that:
    1) opting out of academia is not merely an act of understandable desperation, but can be a measured and willful decision prompted by ethical as well as economic concerns. That is, an act which is not only NOT morally objectionable, but even morally desirable!
    2) we should seriously investigate the ideology and power dynamics behind this pervasive norm. Academia’s prestige as a social group, as an occupation, as a construct, lies in reinscribing the same old markers of status. Institutions do not take well to being destabilized.

    Point #1: What about the pride of using the skills we develop throughout our Ph.D process – sophisticated critical thinking, appreciation of the contingency and embeddedness of social practice, qualitative research techniques – to tackle projects that will concretely benefit other human beings? I’m talking about improving human quality of life, whether it’s by adapting a production process at a plant by taking into account laborer’s unique circumstances and needs, or making sure people have access to services that are actually useful, or by facilitating communication across cultural rifts in settings where cooperation is necessary. I have only just finished the first year of my socio-cultural Ph.D program, but I am already tiring of the existential sniveling, whether it be high-theory (“what is the relevance of anthropology?”) or of personal immediacy (“what am I doing with my life?”). There is a smug sense of superiority underlining all this self-doubt though, because no other options are genuinely taken into consideration. Sure, there is some gesturing towards “activist anthropology”, but I suspect that mostly involves being more public with one’s ideas. The kind of applied practice I envision which *should* be allowed to complement scholarly pursuit in a dignified and egalitarian way is not necessarily loud at all – it is merely the concrete implementation of abstract theorizing. These should not be mutually exclusive, but rather reinforce each other, “keep each other honest,” maintain perspective. The shame is not in using our insights in one sort of occupation or another – the shame is that social sciences such as anthropology, which pride themselves in being broad-minded relativists and equal-opportunity critics, display such shallow provincialism in the realm of their own discipline. It’s the bourgeois scorn of “working with your hands”, coming from the intellectual heirs of Marx!

    Point #2: An undergraduate degree and one year of Ph.D under my belt, and the little I’ve heard officially discussed about non-academic jobs has been in tones of pity or contempt. The Ethics segment of our Methods class featured a few readings by academic anthropologists that lambasted applied anthropologists’ moral compromises, but not a single rebuttal. How about letting that subaltern speak… I wonder whether social science disciplines like anthropology (and socio-cultural especially) are more categorical in their rejection of applied outlets because of the tremendous existential upheaval of post-modernism which still has us reeling and insecure about our legitimacy. We may have closed ranks as a defensive maneuver. The question is, who benefits from this? And at what cost?

    To be honest, I have not decided which path I will take, and perhaps I may have little choice in the matter due to practical constraints like this abysmal job market. Still, I think we all have a responsibility to acknowledge applied anthropology in its many forms (except where it entails serious ethical compromises) as a legitimate, productive, intellectually stimulating and socially valuable field in which to exercise our inquisitive minds and generous hearts.

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