Academia, closed

I just read Sarah Kendzior’s article “The closing of American academia.”  Not uplifting.  My first reaction:

When is enough enough?  Seriously.

The main point of Kendzior’s article is that the high rate of adjuncts in academia is a sign of serious problems within the academy:

My friend is an adjunct. She has a PhD in anthropology and teaches at a university, where she is paid $2100 per course. While she is a professor, she is not a Professor. She is, like 67 per cent of American university faculty, a part-time employee on a contract that may or may not be renewed each semester. She receives no benefits or health care.

That’s right: 67 percent.

Here’s the point to really think about:

But all Americans should be concerned about adjuncts, and not only because adjuncts are the ones teaching our youth. The adjunct problem is emblematic of broader trends in American employment: the end of higher education as a means to prosperity, and the severing of opportunity to all but the most privileged.

Let those words roll around in your mind a little: “the end of higher education as a means to prosperity.”  I am going to keep this simple:

Now what?  Wait until it all “gets better” on its own?

Or something else?  Academia is, after all, what we make of it.  Or what we stand aside and let it be.

Ryan Anderson is a cultural anthropologist whose work focuses on the politics of development and land in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently living out in the desert while finishing up his dissertation. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

15 thoughts on “Academia, closed

  1. This was just amazing.

    “Anthropologists are known for their attentiveness to social inequality, but few have acknowledged the plight of their peers. When I expressed doubt about the job market to one colleague, she advised me, with total seriousness, to “re-evaluate what work means” and to consider “post-work imaginaries”.”

  2. Not that I know much about universities in the States, but is the problem funding?

    Proper taxation and public funding for research and teaching. Don’t have to close down all doors to the private sector’s involvement, but prevent universities from depending on them.

    Markets are fueled by apparent exlusion and rarity, education (and healthcare) should not.

    Don’t think this can be changed from within the academia.

  3. An other issue might be : should everyone with a PhD get a job in academia? If you can’t get a job outside of it, is it a failure of the institution to prepare students or students who can’t translate what they’ve done into the job market? Or simply the current horrendeous economic context for job seekers?

    Again, the problem, to me, is outside of academia.

    2 cents.

  4. As a sort of devil’s advocate response, if the problem is the neoliberal restructuring of society writ large—casualization/precarity of labor, destruction of class mobility, radical redistribution of wealth upwards, etc—minor tinkering (or even major tinkering) with academia isn’t enough.

    There’s an article David Graeber wrote for Harper’s (and an expanded version that was published in Current Sociology in 2001; it’s on sagepub: http://csi.sagepub.com/content/59/2/186 ) that, among other things, explains popular conservative resentment of the liberal left as growing very substantially out of the simple fact that all noble professions (journalism, academia, etc) are essentially locked away from poor kids via systems of debt and unpaid internships. But the part that came to mind as relevant while I was reading Kenzior’s article was that class mobility—or at least the mythic promise of it—has long been the key to maintaining social stability in America’s extremely class striated society. When that promise goes away, you get 68—or Occupy Wall Street.

    There is a very short summary of Kenzior’s piece: anthropologists one day woke and discovered they, too, were now working class.

    It may not mean much since I’m just an undergrad anthro major and my perspective on this is pretty limited, but staring down the prospect of grad school applications, (more) future debt, and the promise of getting fucking for the rest of my life as an adjunct on the other side, I’m not sure how one can come to any conclusion other than academia needs to be overthrown.

  5. @Steven:

    “if the problem is the neoliberal restructuring of society writ large … minor tinkering (or even major tinkering) with academia isn’t enough.”

    It’s not enough, you’re right. But it’s a place to start. If we send anthros all over the globe to look into things like social inequality and all of that jazz, maybe we should have our own house in order first. Or, at least in better shape. If we don’t start within our own ranks I am not sure where else to begin. Maybe not sending legions of debt-ridden graduates back into society would be a good place to start…

    “There is a very short summary of Kenzior’s piece: anthropologists one day woke and discovered they, too, were now working class.”

    Not a bad summary.

    “It may not mean much since I’m just an undergrad anthro major…”

    Stop right there. Your views matter. They should matter. This is one of the problems we need to break through in academia: undergrads are not just poor serfs who exist on the bottom of some stupid hierarchy.

    “…but staring down the prospect of grad school applications, (more) future debt, and the promise of getting fucking for the rest of my life as an adjunct on the other side, I’m not sure how one can come to any conclusion other than academia needs to be overthrown.”

    Well, there you have it. Either overthrown or folks need to start opting out. It all keeps going as long as we all keep showing up, paying money, taking out loans, and making it keep going. We put the fuel in the machine that has run off course. I still think anthropology as a vocation, discipline, etc has tremendous value. But it’s currently stuck within a regime that needs serious change.

  6. I still think anthropology as a vocation, discipline, etc has tremendous value. But it’s currently stuck within a regime that needs serious change.

    Spot on. Just remember that the regime is bigger than anthropology. It now includes everyone who pursues an academic career. Think united front.

  7. I have raised questions about this 67% adjunct figure before, and will do so again here. The earliest use of that number that I was able to find simply found that 67% of all people with any kind of faculty appointment at all had some kind of adjunct appointment or title.

    That included graduate students who teach a course for their department, people who hold courtesy appointments but never teach, medical school faculty — most of whom have always been ‘adjuncts’, volunteer faculty as they are called in my university — and others.

    The point was that adjuncts who have to make a living by stringing together low-paid one-off teaching jobs have a horrible time and are deeply exploited — but that there is no crisis for education in which 67% of courses are being taught by adjuncts. That is an invalid extrapolation from a figure that is not examined very closely.

    In my department, just to illustrate, we have more “adjuncts” listed than regular faculty — so it would appear that 60% of our faculty are adjuncts. But — follow me closely, as Wodehouse used to say — only one of those adjuncts teaches any courses at all (and he has a full-time position), and the rest are full-time colleagues in other departments who just get a courtesy title in our department, or other local colleagues who have full-time jobs in the public sector (I’m in Washington, D.C.) and like to have an academic title, use of our library, etc. One of our intro courses this Fall semester is being taught by a grad student, so perhaps we have 65% adjuncts — but there certainly doesn’t seem to be a crisis in our department that would have students worried that they aren’t getting taught by professionals or by full-time faculty.

    Again, the plight of adjuncts is a real problem — I just am a little cautious about the claim that 67% of all faculty are those adjuncts who are scrapping together a meager existence on $2500 a course. My cardiologist husband has a adjunct appointment in our medical school and I can safely assert that he has no complaints about his income.

  8. @Barbara:

    “Again, the plight of adjuncts is a real problem — I just am a little cautious about the claim that 67% of all faculty are those adjuncts who are scrapping together a meager existence on $2500 a course.”

    I agree we should check into it further. We should always scrutinize claims like this–that’s the only way to work toward a clear picture of what’s going on. The problem is real, as you say, so it’s a matter of checking the details, assessing these kinds of stats and numbers, and then figuring out what to do about it.

    Have you seen any other estimates about the number of adjuncts? Let me know.

  9. It seems that some sort of engagement with the anthropology and sociology disciplines and cultures themselves would help too. Yes, things suck one the “outside” (privatization, stagnant wages, class inequality), but if anthropologists are just discovering they are working class as Steven summed it up, then where have they been and what have they been doing all this time?

    As an undergrad sociology student, I see a strong culture of disengagement from inequality and social problems on our very own doorstep as the norm in academia. Living with the contradiction of lecturing about inequality, or the academic discourse of the “other”, and then being blind to and doing nothing about university workers wages, student debt, etc., or any sort of engagement in the community would do my head in. If that’s the culture of mainstream anthropology and sociology as academic disciplines then I don’t want anything to do with them. I see that many of those doing engaged, “activist”, collaborative anthropology and sociology, or any sort of decolonial practice and theory, democratic knowledge production, etc. are largely marginalized, and many do not get tenure or full-time faculty positions. I’m not saying that the disciplines dug their own graves, but they haven’t exactly been innocent bystanders in the closing of American academia.

  10. Crappy benefits and poor job security are entirely typical of the current job market in general. So I would be cautious about framing this in terms of dignity when the dynamics you describe coincide with a shrinking of the distinction between academic labor and other kinds of labor.

    Exchanging five to ten years of wage/salaried work for job security and decent benefits seems reasonable to me. Exchanging five to ten years of wage/salaried work for the same prospects you would otherwise “enjoy” does not.

  11. Almost two years ago, when I was just wrapping up my PhD and had 8 hours of adjunct teaching per week, I would have been commiserating with the poor woman struggling to scrape by on $2100 a course (even though I think that works out as considerably more than I’ve ever made per course). Now in my perpetual unemployment, I’d gladly take her job. Maybe even for less pay. On the wider job market, my PhD in anthropology means absolutely nothing and hasn’t helped to get me a single interview. Academia has hung me out to dry and I actually feel sick when I think about how many times I advised my students that the diverse subject matter constituting an anthropology degree makes it a worthwhile investment for a variety of academic and non-academic careers. Anyway, I guess that proves the point at hand.

  12. @ CarlosFM
    You write:
    “An other issue might be : should everyone with a PhD get a job in academia? If you can’t get a job outside of it, is it a failure of the institution to prepare students or students who can’t translate what they’ve done into the job market? Or simply the current horrendeous economic context for job seekers?”

    In most cases, it’s certainly not the fault of students. For those of us studying in elite or wannabe elite departments, faculty, for the most part, have neither the means nor the inclination to provide applied training so that students have an alternative to the pursuit of academic jobs that don’t really exist. Unlike many of my grad colleagues, I learned this early on and worked extremely hard to create a plan b for myself. I haven’t quite finished my PhD, but my plan b is already paying me more than most tenure track assistant professor positions would, and I doubt I’ll even consider the academic job market as I finish up. Faculty at high profile institutions depend on their students to subsidize research and admin costs by teaching for a pittance and also expect us to engage the sorts of research problems and questions of most interest to them regardless of whether or not these have real world purchase. We’re being ripped off, but the illusion of engaging in an important, “cutting edge” disciplinary debate keeps many of us in line, as do the anomalous success stories about x student who landed a great gig at y big deal department. Most of my colleagues drank that kool aid and several are now collecting unemployment checks. It’s not the responsibility of every serious anthropology department to ensure that its students develop a set of skills that will be viable outside of the academy, but, at the very least, they could start by being brutally honest about our academic career prospects.

  13. Fran, I hear what you’re saying. When I was looking for a job after failing to get tenure, nobody cared about my Ph.D. in anthropology (or, if they did care were worried that I was overqualified) or even my three Asian languages (Mandarin, Hokkien and Japanese). The corporate communications shop that gave me my first job wanted a writer and editor who knew about computers and other digital technology (hot stuff in Japan when I was job hunting in 1981). My takeaway from this experience is that, if you decide to pursue non-academic employment, you don’t need to hide the Ph.D. in anthropology, just don’t make a big deal of it, and, instead, use your fieldwork and other research skills to find out what employers are looking for and how you can present yourself as having what they need. Then, with a little luck….

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