Posted on | April 16, 2013 | 5 Comments
Recently I finished a review essay of three books written by feminist scholars that I seriously admire. It was hard work, as the tone of the piece will make obvious, and I’m not quite happy with the conclusion. Since one of the lessons I learned in the books is that happiness is not an entitlement, I should know better. So I am essentially writing a postscript to deal with my dissatisfaction with writing and its ends.
Having sent the piece to a few friends now I can see that the final para leaves things decidedly flat. I’m not sure how much that has to do with me or the books themselves or the artificial framing I gave the review by hitching it to the provocations of a Twitter account. Pitting the present generation of debt-ridden graduates against the leading practitioners of any field is an unfair opposition. The ending falls on a forced choice, between allegiance to established structures for academic achievement and a rejection of the theoretical mode that seems crucial to reward and recognition within it.
Association with academia is far more complicated than this, however. It is certainly far more complicated than my metaphorical title for the essay, ‘Stepping off the conveyor belt’, implies. I chose that name because being on a conveyor belt is what academic life started to feel like for me some time ago. Working at Sydney I was at the end of a production line that began with my undergrad degree and led to Honours, a PhD, two postdocs, and tenure (it probably started a lot earlier than that, really, if I count college and high school, and the supportive family of readers that raised me). At times it was my ideas and teaching that felt like the widgets being pressed into the right formulaic box for auditing. At other moments it felt like I was the one traveling down a factory funnel that just kept speeding up as my husband, friends and family veered away from me, headed in another direction. Every time I tried to thwart the destiny I was facing – to ‘throw a spanner in the works’, as we Anglos say – I was made aware of the expectations involved in following ‘the line’.
Having left the University of Sydney I haven’t left the competitive stress of professional work, nor am I cushioned from the consuming work culture of academics. My new job as a Researcher in Residence has me just as exposed to the day to day concerns of teaching staff and students, even if my position is doubly ‘alien’ as a corporate-funded visiting researcher from Australia. The real point to emphasize is that in January I was in a position to step off the conveyor belt in the first place. S put it plainly: ‘you left what is a form of privilege with a certain guarantee of recognition/ power/ status… it’s easy for you to say/do because you can’. This is the context missing in my review essay, of course: ‘you worry about writing your papers’, says S, ‘I worry about how I’m going to eat’.
Can I hold sympathy for both of these positions? Not really. This misrecognition is at the heart of precariat solidarity where well paid workers on renewable contracts feign affiliation with those not getting paid at all. Still, I can recognize my good fortune while also being annoyed at the university’s role in the shift to a winner-takes-all economy. In this system, success ‘in’ the edu-factory means being caught up in a rewarding cycle of busy-ness, an adrenaline-fueled task explosion that few students see because it is not in their interests to know that those with power over them (lecturers, advisors) also struggle to keep their head above water. Profs who spend countless hours in thankless and unrewarding service roles (read: good teaching) think that their ceaseless labor is helping – other colleagues, students, etc. To those outside the system, the same labor looks like hoarding, since the amount of work being attempted is typically more than any one person can do. It also prevents others from being hired to help when the sheer amount of work is actively obscured.
For those locked out of academia, unable to translate sessional contracts into viable portfolios, the reasons for their ‘poor luck’ are far from accountable. Particular combinations of desirable qualities are unspoken and highly rewarded, and include inexhaustible capacities to be enthusiastic, motivated, deferential and grateful. I’ve seen people abandoned by mentors, deemed unprofessional and refused regular work for reasons as stupid as: not being on campus on the day someone else quit, having an affair with the wrong person, wanting to go away for 2 weeks, wanting to pick up the kids, not living in Sydney long enough, not wanting to be on Facebook, not knowing there was work available. Beyond the sessional pool, hiring processes are geared towards metrics over all other contributions regularly enough. Sustaining the discipline is not as important as the faculty ERA result. Yet a department full of people who only know how to publish will have few teachers and no leadership.
This is the era of para-academic practice, of zombies in the academy. On a bad day, the job market can seem like so many vultures picking over the entrails of ‘opportunity’ that have been detached from the corpse of a career. Dozens of my friends who see this and reject it left homes, lost families, moved state, and built new lives around the promise that education would give them the financial and psychological resources to contribute to a community. These sacrifices too often mean that in their 30s the most pressing philosophical question is, How long can I keep paying this rent? And will anyone be around to help me move house – again?
How do we care for each other, what institutions do we need to sustain lives in the impasse? So far my best answer is: bandwidth. (I used to think it was social networks. But I don’t want some white boy profiting off my loneliness, however much of a Harvard punk he might have been. I certainly don’t want my secrets going towards the paycheck of someone who calls herself a feminist while answering email at 5am.) How do we create our own sense of belonging, stability, and reassurance that things are not necessarily going to get easier, but that this suspension is ours to embrace? Well, we can use our movement and our travels to be humbled by the worlds we see beyond our normal horizons. We can share this knowledge and appreciate how hard life is for just about everyone else, everywhere. And we can use our skills where they matter: where they are needed most. For some this will mean universities (though hopefully more state colleges, tech campuses, and non-metro locations). For others it will be in administration, government service, a church or a non-profit. For me, for now, it’s industry, and I am really enjoying the change.
Writing my PhD, I was convinced that the university was a more ethical location than others: that more could be done with these great containers of knowledge and privilege if we just stayed committed. I feel better for not expecting so much of one institution anymore. It is forcing me to be creative. I am rediscovering how to write in ways that gain traction. I’m trying to find platforms for expression that remain free. The important thing to be learning, after the bewilderment of higher education, is that when we are relieved of the illusion that university work is somehow more righteous, we no longer need to be scared to talk about it. Whatever we have achieved along the way – finding jobs, sustaining websites, cooking meals, publishing books, running marathons, surviving parents’ deaths, falling in love, winning fellowships, traveling the world, getting gay married – these successes can’t be stockpiled. We are no closer to the cherished sense of having arrived. But we are articulate and hungry to tell our stories, to demand more options. This is a better ending.