“The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”
—Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
Sarah Kendzior’s interview from the summer over at PolicyMic started making rounds again on my facebook feed recently. If anything, it seems to resonate more now.
I spent this past Thanksgiving with a bunch of orphaned activists and grad students. At some point, I foolishly started asking people for advice on grad school, assuming I’d find similar sympathies with more perspective. But I was shocked: several people told me it wasn’t that bad, that they enjoyed it, that it was better than anything else they could be doing—and even that finding jobs wouldn’t be that much of a problem.
I pressed: 76% of professors are now non-tenure-track, and nearly 45% are adjuncts—the fucked-of-the-fucked—making $10,000/year. I love the work, but the thought of subjecting myself to 6 or 7 years of a meager stipend while my undergraduate loans blossom into forever debt—all so that I can become an adjunct while hoping I win the tenure-track lottery—sounds like the worst idea in the world.
At this point, a currently-teaching professor seemed to simply lose interest in the conversation. A grad student with over 100k in debt became suddenly very depressed and asked to change topics. I appreciated his honesty and felt like an ass.
But I was also pretty upset.
Among my friends, this has become known as the Absent Future conversation. At some point in just about every night, we’ll end up talking about the jobs that are not out there, the death trap of academia, the terrifying insurmountability of debt and internships. It’s impossible to make real plans for the future, to choose to live with your friends or follow a partner or even think much about finding meaningful work. Finding even liveable work feels like a bit of a joke sometimes, and more friends than I’d care to count have disappeared and moved back in with their parents. The ones whose parents who can pay their bills work internships and and hope for a job after a year or two. It doesn’t always happen. Most of my friends with elite liberal arts degrees serve food.
One afternoon last semester, my advisor turned to me and told me give up and be a plumber. At least you’ll have stable employment, they can’t outsource it, and you can be an intellectual on your own time, he said. Another professor fiercely protested: you have to go to grad school, she told me. What else would you do? Miss out on all those jobs you’ll get? For five years at least, you’ll have enough money to starve, read books, and fight in the streets.
These were rare moments, though. Most of the time, the reactions I get from professors fall into one of two categories. The first is simple disagreement. It’s not that bad, says the tenured baby boomer professor. You’ll scrape by for a year or two, but there are jobs, and the economy will get better. The other reaction, more common, is sheer disbelief. Can it really be that bad, asks the tenure-track anthro professor who studies neoliberalism for a living? How are all my best students living with their parents and waiting tables?
And here is the crux of my anger: these are not professors I dislike. These are people I respect, teachers who’ve mentored me, whose opinions matter to me and who in many ways have made me who I am. They are also the people who were supposed to look out for us—and when it comes to our futures, they failed.
There are exceptions. Some professors really do realize that teaching is not a clean hands profession, that universities now run on the mortgaged futures of their students, that this is a society that eats its young.
But most of the time, the only people who seem to know how bad things really are are the visiting professors passing through on yearly contracts. My school pays them unusually well, but they know it’s only for a year or two, and after that, it’ll probably be adjunct-poverty work again. A few have gotten lucky, and most have not. And they are bluntly honest: don’t do it. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how much you nurse the dream that you are brilliant enough to rise above the competition and overcome the economy. Some of the best never make it. It is a trap.
My question here is a simple one. Why do professors still tell their students to go to grad school?
Of course, in a way, I’m asking the wrong crowd. This is the discipline that produced David Graeber’s Debt, and this insurgent corner of public anthropology is by far the least out of touch. And yet still I find myself wondering at the professors I know personally, so many of whom are too busy with their own research and teaching duties to realize that the ship is sinking.
Anthropology, as a discipline, has built perhaps the most open access scholarly infrastructure I know of—not merely excellent open access journals like Hau, but open intellectual communities like the Open Anthropology Cooperative. But the transition from some open access projects to a discipline free from the debt-walled cities of academia is not a simple one, and I don’t know how many, even here, would agree with me that we should abandon ship, not because it is sinking but to make it sink. Last summer, when Sarah Kendzior’s first essay broke the silence, n+1 issued a call to burn the “the diplomas that paper over the undemocratic infrastructure of American life. A master’s degree, we might find, burns brighter than a draft card.”
But what if we burned the university, too?