Anthropology minus one and counting

Another testimonial from the trenches of academia.  This one written by Eliza Jane Darling over at Zero Anthropology.  Her post Less Than Zero Anthropology speaks to some of the same issues that Sarah Kendzior brought up in her piece (see this post here at SM).  Darling’s essay is also a powerful biographical look into the kinds of not-so-inspirational “challenges” that many freshly minted and aspiring anthropologists face these days.  Here’s a selection:

A few weeks back I turned 40, the age at which I once pledged that if academia didn’t throw a real job my way, I’d kick it to the curb and do something else with my life. It was an arbitrary number based on the calculus of shame, a countdown to the break point of infantilisation tolerance that reached Anthropology Zero in early August and is now ticking away into negative figures. From my perspective on the launch pad to a brave new world beyond the university, it dawns on me that I’ve left my mid-life crisis a bit late. The problem with spending twenty years learning how to do anthropology is that it doesn’t leave vast amounts of spare time to learn how to do anything else.

Her post is about anthropology, yes, but also about the breakdown or failure of something larger.  Something that draws in a lot of hard-working, energetic, and hopeful people.  Face it: a lot of people are attracted to anthropology (and academia in general) for many positive and important reasons…but something happens along the way.  Not to everyone, of course, but to far too many if you ask me.  So what’s the problem?  All of the debt?  The lack of jobs?  Is ‘anthropology’ itself the problem?  Darling does not seem to think so, since she writes: “anthropology was, and is, brilliant. I wouldn’t trade the education it gave me for all the tea in China, or any of the other ports of call to which it never wound up taking me in the end.”  So what is it then?  What’s gone wrong here?  Read:

It’s taken a bit longer to apply the heal-thy-self edict to the individual scale. For me, that’s meant finally separating anthropology from academia. And hold on to your hats because I’m going to let the cat out of the bag here – a lot of the time, academia’s a drag. The bureaucratic busywork, the public vilification, the endless struggle for meagre funding, the mousy obeisance to those who occasionally chuck a dime our way, the manic publishing treadmill which favours quantity over quality and pushes all production toward mediocrity, the incessant big-fish-in-a-small-pond dick-waving, the self-consuming spiral of endless, imperious critique. I’ll be more than pleased to drain that dingy bathwater while I struggle to keep hold of the baby.

An idea for a post that has been rolling around in my head for the past couple of months.  The title would be something like: “Does academia own anthropology?”  The post itself would be about whether or not anthropology is or should be considered the sole property of the academy—and what anthropology would or could be if it escaped certain confines.  Darling’s essay broaches the subject quite forcefully.  Good.  We should all talk about this, instead of sweeping our worries, disagreements, and fears under the rug to deal with them…tomorrow.

Is academia the problem?  If not, what is?  And more importantly, where are the solutions?

Read the rest of Darling’s essay, here.  Then get back to me.


Update I: Hat tip to SM reader Brandi Squire for sharing the link to Darling’s post on our FB page.  Thanks!

Update II: For more reading along these lines, see this post by Jason Antrosio over at Living Anthropologically.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

10 thoughts on “Anthropology minus one and counting

  1. Yeah, being an adjunct kinda stinks — its a job with no future, and its intensely disheartening that no matter how hard you work there’s no chance for promotion.

    But once, I sat down and divided my pay check by how many hours I put in to two weeks worth of labor and it was like $40/hr. You’re not going to get that at Barnes and Nobles. Some people have it a lot worse. This will be my best year yet. I’ll pay taxes on $20k! (ps. I’m 35 y.o.)

    I know, “It could be worse,” is not much of a rally cry. But I’ve worked many, many shitty jobs and adjunct professor is by far the best. My very limited responsibilities include: (1) go to class, and (2) turn in my grades. Plus I get to wear blue jeans to work.

    And on a clear autumn day, when I’m by myself browsing the stacks in the art library, listening to Steve Reich on my iPod headphones it almost seems worth it.

  2. The cultivated helplessness that Darling describes rings so true. When I failed to get tenure, while the current crisis was just beginning, I felt the same way. Do remember, though, if you find yourself in this position, that you are pretty smart. You’re a fast learner. Once you’ve figured out that you need another way to make a living, you can pick it up pretty quickly. You may need to get over some prejudices—learning to work with your hands, learning to parse numbers, learning to program, or learning how to sell. Most of all, you have got to stop looking for a job as an end in itself. Your goal is a life worth living, and a job is just one more tool along the way.

    That’s what I think I’ve learned since my last full time academic job back in, when was it? Yes, 1976.

  3. Thanks for the re-post, Ryan. Matt, the thing about temping (in the US) at my age, when various body parts start to go south – or even for younger workers who are parents, or differently-abled, or have chronic illnesses or kin with same – is that it’s not just the wage, it’s the benefits, and the security.

    There’s also the dignity quotient. I can (and have) worked for peanuts too, and yes, other precarious workers are in the same boat. But why should any of us accede to such conditions, whether we work at Barnes & Noble or Barnard? There is also a broader question of capitalist political economy and the consequences of labour’s long defeat combined with the implosion of credit markets. The decline of Fordism comes with riders, among them the potential for overproduction and underconsumption. A few thousand impoverished adjuncts is hardly going to break the bank, but as you point out, we’re not alone. All of which is to say, there are good reasons for demanding a living wage including the externalities, some with more revolutionary immediacy than others. As an aside, I’ve personally never been able to make academic temp work pay $40/hour, but maybe I’m a less efficient teacher!

  4. I think what’s really happening is that we professional academics are becoming more like everyone else. 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. Not much sympathy will be be gained if you are misinterpreted as mourning the loss of privileges that most people do not have to begin with.

  5. Hey Matt,

    “I know, ‘It could be worse,’ is not much of a rally cry. But I’ve worked many, many shitty jobs and adjunct professor is by far the best.”

    Well, ya, it could be worse I guess.

    I worked in restaurants since I was 15. Some were better than others. At 19 I worked for some Americana chain restaurant, barely made any money. When I was 22, I worked as a bartender for 4 years or so. I used to work about four-five nights a week and pull in about 400-600 per week, averaging around 22-28 dollars per hour. Before going into grad school back in 2007 (for an MA first), I worked in CRM. I started at 12 bucks and hour and worked my way up to about 20. Depending on who I worked for, the job was decent.

    To be honest, the days of bartending and CRM are looking good after the past 5 years of grad school. I absolutely LOVED teaching classes during grad school. I was one of my favorite parts of the whole experience. But when I sat down and did the numbers with my hours and pay, I came to a figure of about 12 bucks an hour. At best.

    After about 10 years of school (2002-2012), facing the prospect of a low-paying temp job after completing three degrees (BA, MA, PhD in progress) is not thrilling. Especially with a pretty high debt load.

    Overall, I am more interested in finding solutions than lamenting the woes of academia, grad school, etc. But first we have to identify the problem(s). At the very least, maybe we should address the debt problem. That would help.

  6. “Not much sympathy will be be gained if you are misinterpreted as mourning the loss of privileges that most people do not have to begin with.” Such is the lament of skilled labour movements everywhere; there’s nothing new or singularly academic about that particular divide-and-conquer strategy (though the Coalition government in Britain, where deriding academics as useless is a national blood sport, has exploited it to particular effect, proffering the exclusivity of higher education as a justification for accepting its further enclosure without complaint).

    Of course you’re right about the battle of perception, but that street runs both ways. Positing such meagre demands as a living wage as a “privilege” is part of the problem; look up instead of down the class food chain and academic privileges don’t look very privileged compared to those of, say, bankers, particularly in light of their trillion-dollar public subsidies. Ultimately I think there are no long-term solutions outside the context of a total rethink of value, where it comes from and how it manifests now and might manifest differently. Ironically anthropods are rather good at that sort of thing; it underscores our very real capacity for creativity. If only we can make a living in this world while we’re dreaming up what comes next.

  7. “But once, I sat down and divided my pay check by how many hours I put in to two weeks worth of labor and it was like $40/hr.”

    I would first deduct the debt accrued to get the PhD to get that temp job, then deduct the years of income lost while studying, and before you know it the sum you’re actually looking at is dragging on asphalt. Lots of adjuncts also don’t get summer teaching but hey who needs to eat when the sun is shining.

    Still it’s nice that we get to have a class of professionals that has to worry about where its next meal is coming from. Nothing says progress as much as the sweet smell of desperation.

    It’s just great if you get to work jeans to work. So do all my neighborhood gas station attendants. So do most of the tenured profs in my department. Not really a sound measure of one’s position is it.

    “It could be worse” is actually a great rallying cry, in prisons.

  8. To follow from the last comment: Benefits and assets also should be considered. Some adjunct jobs pay benefits such as at least minimal health coverage and a bit toward retirement, while of course many others do not. And, the added value of such benefits and assets make up much of the difference between permanent full-time jobs and the majority of work–especially over a lifetime of earnings, and especially where those earnings have been interrupted (influencing whether you can afford to retire and in what circumstances). Another consideration should be the very different costs of living, for someone who is actively working (whether full or part-time, since going to work even in blue jeans can be expensive, especially for those with caregiving responsibilities), retired, and/or in need of increasing health care, across different regions. Finally, because of discrimination practices not everyone can anticipate making the same amount as others for the same work over his/her lifetime, or afford a lawsuit when discrimination occurs, so assessing relative conditions for those who are unemployed, underemployed, or employed in any field or profession should allow for those differences too. Of course, that’s not to say these concerns are unique to academia, or any other employment for anthropologists, or that it’s all an issue either of victimization and exploitation or of choice and avocation; it’s just to contribute to the depiction of the uneven, irregular, and unstable conditions within the field of anthropology, as fabulous as it is.

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