Over the Christmas break I got promoted. What a terrific gift at a challenging time of year. The promotion was especially welcome news because I wasn’t convinced, until the very last letter was signed, that it was actually going to happen; I was going up on the strength of a lot of edited work and teaching labour, not on the back of the coveted “second monograph” that is the “gold standard” in most academic departments like mine. So I’m genuinely chuffed to report that the external examiners, the internal committee, my Chair, Dean, and Provost all decided the work I’d done was in every respect worthy of promotion. A happy new precedent at my school, I hope.
This promotion doesn’t come with lots of added frills, mostly just bragging rights: I’ve got to the top of the academic food chain. But it has also come at an opportune time, just as I’ve been thinking about how and when and where we move, what privileges many of us can and cannot access – and how sometimes those who seem most mobile are in fact most profoundly stuck.
Academics have weird jobs. Those of us in tenured or tenure-stream positions get to work from home a lot of the time, and are often jetting around to conferences and paper-giving events around the world. I’ve piggy-backed most of my holidays for the last decade on top of cool conferences in Asia, Europe, and the states, airfare paid by my employer or an external granting agency. I’m writing this post in my pyjamas.
We are, in other words, gifted with flexible time, the means to travel, and an awful lot of cultural power besides.
But that’s hardly the whole story. Most importantly, and worth mentioning straight away, is that those of us in cozy jammies are truly the gifted few: a shocking number of our colleagues work contract positions without benefits or job guarantees. They go to those same conferences, too, but on their own dime most of the time and in desperate need to land a more permanent job. They struggle under the heaviest teaching loads at most universities, and sometimes under heavy admin loads too. They work to survive, but appear outwardly to be mobile professionals. And that’s the way universities like it: the less attention drawn to the actual working conditions of sessionals, the better for a school’s bottom line.
(This is a subject that has been much written about, and my own experience of it is as an outsider, so I’m not going to focus on it here. But I want to direct attention its way, and for those interested in reading more I recommend the terrific work of Melonie Fullick in University Affairs.)
So being among the lucky, tenured few brings plenty of certainty, and stability, to be sure. And I am so, so grateful for both. But sometimes certainty and stability hide other problems – and I know these problems are relative, of course, but they are also real. I talked in my first mobility post, back in December, about the value of feeling placed in the world: knowing where we are rooted allows us to fly free. Those without roots – those who must migrate in order to survive – suffer the hard strains of place’s very lack. But being in place can also mean being profoundly stuck, and more than a few academics I know feel stuck, trapped in fact, in the very jobs that guarantee their livelihoods.
There are a few reasons for this.
The first is scarcity: tenured jobs, particularly in the Arts and Humanities where I teach, are fewer and further between than ever. Partly this is cyclical, but it’s primarily a side effect of the rise of neoliberal university culture, which depends increasingly on flex-time labour (sessional contractors without benefits), promotes STEM fields over liberal arts ones, and encourages instructors to teach toward future employment, rather than toward broad and informed citizenship.
(My own faculty is in big trouble these days, as are many of its kin across North America, because numbers in our classes are dropping – we tend to offer more citizenship training than job training, which seems nebulous and irrelevant to lots of people who just want to get good jobs/their kids to get good jobs. However, because our budget remains tied in large part to the number of bodies in our seats, fewer students wanting to learn about art, literature, and foreign languages right now means less money for all of those things in the future – especially for replacement faculty for those retiring today.)
In other words: when you get offered a tenure-stream academic job, dammit, you cling to it. Doesn’t matter where the hell it is.
And there’s reason number two: universities are not exactly like engineering firms. Even if Richard Florida rates both profs and engineers as high-impact “creatives“, the fact is that as an academic you don’t generally get to pick the city you want to live in, or even the province or state. Even massive global cities boast at most half a dozen major schools, not all of which will have departments in your field (and even fewer of which will have hires coming up anytime soon). Then there’s the question of whether you could even afford to live in London/New York/Tokyo on a professor’s salary! (Answer: barely.) On the flip side, many universities, including very good ones, are in deep-space places: far from major cities, in towns where those not associated with the university resent it, or in a region that doesn’t share your political values in any way. If you realize one day, as a colleague of mine confessed to me recently, that you literally cannot bear the place your school is located as a home for your family one more minute, you’ve got two choices: massive upheaval, assuming you can find a comparable job elsewhere (big assumption), or leave the academy altogether and start over from scratch.
That brings me to reason number three academics get stuck: workload creep. Lots of us are in jobs where the day-to-day is so onerous it eats our research time in huge mouthfuls. Can’t publish the book/major article/make the major breakthrough at the lab, can’t move; it’s as simple as that, no matter how good an undergrad chair you are/how high your teaching scores tend to be. When I look at my permanent, tenured colleagues who struggle under 3- or 4-class per term teaching loads, plus administrative duties, I am genuinely embarrassed by how much time I have to write, edit, and publish. Yes, of course, I just got promoted to full professor at a relatively young age because I am totally gifted and amazing! But, no, wait: I ACTUALLY got promoted because I have made a series of life choices that mean I work in a department where I teach a 2-2 load, in classes with maybe 25 students each in them, and rarely have to do onerous admin without lots of help.
Now, about those choices… there have been some serious trade-offs. Some of them sit very heavy on me.
Some of them have broken my heart. But –
I know, I know: talk to the hand. We’re damn lucky. We have good jobs. We have salaries, benefits, and can’t be fired at the whim of our employers because we are protected by strong unions (often) and academic freedom (more often). Being a prof is fucking cushy, I won’t deny it. But it doesn’t mean we’re all just delighted, bouncing through the heather. Most of us are, in fact, depressed. Exhausted. Some of us are commuting huge distances on alternate weekends. Unsure if we’ll ever get out from underneath the job’s grind. Afraid to leave because where could we go? If we could actually get another offer at a better place, could our partners find work too? Would the kids mind moving thousands of kilometres away? And what if it was just more of the same?
While I was writing this post and fighting with myself to get the tone right, so I didn’t sound like an overprivileged douchebag whining about bullshit problems, I took a break to eat some dinner and watch Meryl Streep accept the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes. It’s a riveting, heartfelt performance of hurt and despair at what might be the highlight moment of her career, and I really recommend a watch, if you’ve not seen it. Here it is:
Meryl reminded her audiences of a few important things in this speech. First, that Hollywood actors, and the Hollywood foreign press – despite being two of the most outrageously privileged groups on earth – are also currently among the most “vilified segments” in America (“Hollywood. Foreigners. And the press”). Why? Because it is their job, actors and journalists alike, to inhabit difference, call out falsehood, and speak truth to power – even when it places them at risk. She reminded everyone listening in the auditorium of the weight of responsibility their privilege brings, the responsibility to model empathy and compassion, and to refuse to stand for bullying, belittling, humiliating acts perpetrated by those with power. When we are secure, are em-placed, we speak from a built-in podium; let’s speak loudly, and clearly.
But let’s not underestimate our own vulnerability, either; that’s a lie that not only does our own selves a disservice, but also reduces the potential for ally-ship with others. And this is where those of us in secure academic jobs should learn from Meryl’s words: to be conscious of, and grateful for, our own freedom and mobility, but not to take it for granted, and never, ever to assume its normativity. It’s likely that more than a few of our colleagues, even just down the hall, are feeling more precarious than we know; if we overstate and universalise the privileges of this fortunate job, we risk erasing the details of struggles barely recognised.
There are lots of ways that tenured faculty can be allies with contract faculty, graduate students, and others in the university precariat, and we should embrace them all. But we must also be each other’s allies, and make space to talk honestly about that all-too-common feeling of entrapment that lurks around us. How might we alleviate it? I bet there are dozens of ideas waiting to be hatched, if we’d just take this problem seriously as shared, personal, and an impediment to our collective strength as teachers, scholars, and community leaders.
Job shares? Advocating for better regional transit on behalf of university populations? Proactive planning for commuting profs, including on-campus housing, centralised carpooling, air or rail discounts? New models for spousal hiring and support? These are off the top of my head, but I bet there are more, and better, examples floating around. I’d love to hear about them – please share!