A (Not Going) Back to School Post
No, not me. Y’all know I’m too attached to things like food and my pretty house to walk away from lifetime job security, even in the dying world of American higher education. (Tim Burke explains that higher ed isn’t the only thing dying in our sorry, twisted, clueless nation. Go read his latest here.)
Pardon me while I take a sip out of my half-empty glass. It’s hot here today. This is not the Labor Day post I thought I’d be writing, in part because it is kind of downbeat and I prefer to be a chirpy, uplifting blogger, but also because it involves matters not often discussed in public. Quiet, please. Nice people don’t talk about personnel issues.
Newsflash: People are leaving academia, and they are talking about why. (H/T to Historiann for the first of those links.) Those of us who haven’t left had damn well ought to be listening — and thinking and acting on our own campuses to improve working conditions before it’s too late. Too late for what, you ask? Too late to save the dying world or the generation of scholars we helped to train? Maybe. Maybe it’s already too late, but shouldn’t we try to do something?
I am haunted by the words of the departing: “I found that I couldn’t do the work I used to love. My motivation stalled. Something broke, and it seemed irreparable.” “I was tired of a system that served black students badly, promising an education that it failed to deliver, condemning them to repeat classes, to drop out, to believe they were stupid; I was tired of colleagues who marveled when I produced an intelligible sentence; I was tired of attending conference panels where blackness was dismissed as ‘simple,’ ‘reactive,’ ‘irrelevant,’ ‘done'; I was tired of being invited to be ‘post-black’ as the token African, so not ‘tainted’ by the afterlife of slavery; I was tired of performing a psychic labor that left me too exhausted to do anything except go home, crawl into bed, try to recover, and prepare for the next series of assaults.“
On my own campus, it isn’t just adjuncts who are quitting, worn down by brutal teaching loads and appallingly low salaries. The second quotation in the paragraph above is from my friend and former colleague, Keguro Macharia, who resigned his assistant professorship in May not to take a job elsewhere but to return to Kenya to focus on building not just a career but a sustainable life. He is not the only person to walk away from a tenure-track position without a firm offer or a clear sense of what’s coming next. I won’t go into detail, because others haven’t been as public as Keguro, but I know of at least three other assistant professors in the humanities at QTU who have resigned in the past three years.
The Woman Formerly Known as Goose points out that, when it comes to personnel issues, academics tend not only to be quiet but also maddeningly particularistic. We view each case in isolation and as somehow unique or exceptional. Oh, well, this one had health issues, you know, and that one had aging parents in a remote part of Never-Never Land, and I hear that other one was having problems with the book. For all our critiques of neoliberalism, we privatize personnel issues and fail to look for patterns and the structural inequities that might produce them. Is it a coincidence that all of the resignations I know of were from women or people of color? Given the glacial pace of hiring in recent years, shouldn’t we be concerned about this rate of voluntary attrition? I know I’m just a numerically challenged English prof, people, but this data feels significant to me. Shouldn’t we be paying attention to it?
I have worried for years about how assistant professors were faring in the cash-strapped, technocratic, lawyered-up, outcomes-obsessed postmodern university. Tenure has never been a sure thing, but it is a far less certain prospect than it once was, even for those who spend six years running themselves ragged on the hamster wheel of hyper-productivity. We mentor them to death, mostly, I suspect, to protect the institution from liability in the event of a negative tenure decision. We fill their heads with conflicting advice about what and where and how much they should publish. We urge them to focus on their research but worry if their anonymous student evaluations of teaching lack the now-expected comparisons to Jesus Christ. And some of us undermine them in ways large and small, treating them as a servant class or as children in need of hand-holding. In most cases, our actions are well-intended. We don’t want to lose them. We want to support them. We want to smooth the uncertain path toward tenure. And some of them are saying, “Thanks, but no,” and stepping off the path.
“I quit!” is both a refusal and an affirmation. It is a screw-you to working conditions that have come to feel unbearable, inimical to sanity or well-being. It is a declaration of the need/right/desire for something more or other than the hollow, uncertain promise of “security” in a broken, hostile, dying professional world. I applaud those brave enough to state their “I quits!” publicly and in thunder, though I mourn these losses to my institution and, perhaps, to my profession.
On this Labor Day weekend, I challenge those who are going or have already gone back to school this year to look around and notice what’s happening with assistant professors on your campus. Do you have data or observations that comport with what we’ve noted at QTU? How do you think your junior profs are doing these days? What great ideas do you have for supporting the up-and-coming without making them feel that they are being infantilized or surveilled?
While you ponder those deep questions, take a listen to the song that inspired the title to this post. A guy named Johnny Paycheck did the original back in 1977, but the Dead Kennedys did a cool cover in 1986. No, I am not cool enough to know that, but fortunately the Google machine is. Happy Labor Day, workers and ex-workers and non-workers of the world. Unite.