Entrepreneurial Academics

When I was in elementary school, I was part of a group of students who were tested to see if they qualified for the “gifted” program. Reportedly, my results were borderline, with the guidance counselor telling my mom — and her subsequently telling me — that I was ultimately not “gifted” but made up for it with hard work. Then, for the rest of my life, I heard a clear narrative of decline over and over: there was a time not so long ago, the story goes, when someone could graduate high school in Flint, then step into a job at “the shop” (GM) and be essentially set for life, with a virtually guaranteed job, generous benefits, and a pension. I watched as people tried to convince themselves that Flint could reinvent itself — by finding another institution that would provide them with the lifestyle that GM had taken from them.

This brings me to this guy. (Incidentally, I’ve shared several posts from The Last Psychiatrist, a blog I discovered yesterday and subsequently devoured — very much worth adding to your Google Reader.) An entitled layabout, the subject of the New York Times profile discussed in the post is waiting for someone to come along and offer him the “full package”: a high-powered corporate management job with boundless potential for career advancement. In the meantime, he turned down a job for $40K in favor of living with his parents and searching for work online a couple hours each morning.

The Last Psychiatrist links this poor lad’s listless fate to a broad range of social circumstances that he characterizes as essentially an inter-generational Ponzi scheme of ever-growing entitlement paired with ever-shrinking risk appetite. What I wonder here is whether academia in particular has been something of an amplified version of this trend, with its guarantee of lifetime employment paired with a nominal meritocracy that “everyone knows” really comes down to institutional affiliation and patronage networks — if you can get into that Ivy League program and study with the right guy (let’s admit it, it’s an old white man in 90% of these scenarios), you’re set for life.

I wonder if the remarkable passivity of so many young academics — who know all about the “job market” but make no concrete steps toward a backup plan — in the face of these trends is due to a sense of learned helplessness. I had a lot of reasons, both good and bad, for taking the risk of choosing the lesser-known Chicago Theological Seminary when I had the chance to go to Vanderbilt, but one of them was my sense that the kinds of people who got “full rides” to well-known schools so often turned into the kinds of people who expect “full rides” all around, who expect that if they just fulfill their requirements, their institutional affiliation will ultimately carry them. When it doesn’t, they don’t really know what to do.

By choosing the lesser-known school and deciding to make up for it in the way my second-grade guidance counselor already saw as my characteristic way of working harder, I wound up with a much more extensive publication record than most of my peers. My success in publishing articles created a kind of snowball effect insofar as it boosted my confidence, enabling me to take the risk of writing the Zizek book — and more recently it’s allowed me to expand my writing into less conventional areas as well (most notably the awkwardness book, but also some cultural criticism in for the “general public”).

It could turn out to be the case that I totally screwed myself by not getting the “master signifier” of a quasi-Ivy school, but it’s also the case that I’ve probably better equipped myself to figure out something else along the way. Meanwhile, I know recent graduates from quasi-Ivies who ask me basic questions like how to go about submitting an article for a journal and who expect it to take an unspecified number of years before they’d even consider trying to publish their dissertations — and I know a lot of “starving artist”-type academics, almost always from a working- or lower-class background and very often first-generation college grads, who have been much more aggressive and entrepreneurial about trying to make an impact on their field.

A big example of this is obviously Anthony’s co-editing of the After the Postsecular and the Postmodern volume, and although I am sometimes snarky toward them, the circle of young academics and writers centered on “Speculative Realism” have also been remarkably aggressive in putting some real infrastructure in place for their movement, from conferences to an online journal to the large number of Speculative Realism books in the Zero Books series. There’s no guarantee that any of us will be successful in traditional terms, but in the meantime we’re doing what we got into academia to do: to be part of the conversation, to put our own stamp on the field.

I wonder if in this sense, a working-class or lower-class background might be an advantage — along with being part of a disadvantaged group more generally. The Last Psychiatrist rightly points out, for instance, that it’s impossible to imagine a similar profile being written about a female layabout. It’s been my experience in life and more recently in teaching that women tend to be more hungry and ambitious, because we’re at a very fruitful moment when opportunities for women have been opened up but are not yet taken for granted. Similarly, when I was at CTS, I made an effort to put out a periodic list of accomplishments from PhD students — conference participation, publications, teaching, etc. — and there was a very clear pattern that African American students were more aggressive in pursuing such opportunities. (Meanwhile, I got an e-mail from an incoming white male PhD student who pointed out that many of the figures he was interested in studying referred continually to bodies of literature he wasn’t familiar with and wondered what he should do about that. The obvious solution — read the stuff they’re citing — apparently had not occurred to him.)

White males have a tendency to be aggrieved about affirmative action, but I daresay that in a hypothetical pure meritocracy they’d be at a huge disadvantage anyway — women, minorities, and working- and lower-class people simply want it more and don’t expect it to be handed to them.

There are obvious drawbacks to this attitude — it can require a naive belief in a meritocracy that doesn’t exist, which can then sour into a presumption that everyone who is favored by the institutions is by definition undeserving (a danger that I think one can see in this very post); it obviously fits all too well with the ideology of neo-liberalism; and most crucially, it is oriented almost exclusively around individual advancement and is therefore difficult to channel toward systemic changes (because no one believes in the system more than the social climber; see Don Draper) — but there’s still something powerful about it, something promising.

38 thoughts on “Entrepreneurial Academics

  1. I’m new to this blog, but just figured out I’m not new to Kotsko…I read the Zizek book. Thanks for that.

    And for the Last Psychiatrist. It’s not just the elite white guys. We were blue collar all the way, but that fault line still runs through me. We were all raised on the “salary plus bennies pornography”, even if it came from school and TV instead of the folks.

  2. I agree with this post, caveats and all. Thanks for including the edited volume as well.

    I do think there is room for people who do the more laid back approach to the PhD, but they have to do it without the entitlement.

  3. Quite amazed by the email from the PhD student. Student required to read, sky blue. I could make a joke about helpless men but I’m too classy for such things.

    I think there’s a few factors that drive that hunger – a keener awareness of the “perish” part of the publish or perish equation. The knowledge that you *do* have to work twice as hard to get half as far without the old boys network can focus the mind amazingly (though just as easily depress)…

    But yes, the danger of this is glorifying “bootstrapping,” with all the depoliticising that implies…

  4. I have to admit, I have no idea what I will do if I don’t eventually land an academic job. This isn’t because I’m expecting it to come, I really don’t most of the time and have trouble doing the work sometimes because of that, but because I don’t know what else I could do that I’m as good at. Hell! I don’t even really know what people in general do!

  5. I’ve been digging ditches most summers, which I hope will help me land a good full-time ditch-digging job when the time comes. It’s not as backbreaking as people make it out to be, really.

  6. I’ve been working as a freelance journalist lately, Anthony. A lot of places accept on spec pieces cold or pitches if you have a decent portfolio. From one dying industry to another…

  7. I’ve thought of that, too, but the idea of writing on spec kind of pisses me off — although writing for journal publication is like writing on spec for no pay, and I’m really excited about an article idea I just had last week.

    I’ve also been doing freelance financial writing throughout grad school, which is mind-numbing but pays fairly well. Plus I really have a gift for telling investors the reasons behind their fund’s performance relative to its benchmark.

  8. Well, I don’t think my writing is up to journalistic snuff. It’s ok for academic journals, but I don’t think I would get much going in the freelance area. I’ve tried to hone my writing abilities, but like my body, I feel it’s at its peak. I could join ACORN… is that still a thing?

  9. It’s a massive piss off to be sure, but if you can establish a relationship with an editor then you can get by with just a pitch if they trust yer skills.

    Totally agree that journal publication is just as bad on some level, it’s *supposed* to be an investment in the future that gets you work… but what if that glorious future never comes?

    God knows it can feel like more of an accomplishment than anything else, but that doesn’t pay the bills for the wannabe academic!

  10. Book reviews might be a natural way to go. I did one a few years ago, but then never followed up — coursework, exams, etc., got in the way. Might be a good idea to get on the horse again in preparation for when the K College contract is up (even if I get a job for next fall, out of the six that have been posted relevant to my field so far, I’ll definitely be unemployed April through August).

  11. Yeah, book or film reviews would be a natural fit, you already sort of do that here anyway. It’s not too hard to get the journalistic critic “tone” rather than the academic one, and it can be satisfying to slide in theoretical ideas in un-noticed…

    That’s depressing about there only being six postings in your field, jaysus. I’ve applied for a lot of jobs here in English but besides the tough times generally, the differing priorities of my Australian education haven’t helped at all…

  12. I’m keeping myself from panicking by reminding myself that in recent years, job listings only really began flowing much closer to the end of August — including dozens literally on August 31. Still, the worst-case scenario of unemployment for at least the next year is my baseline scenario for planning purposes.

    Film reviews are a good idea, definitely — wouldn’t have thought of that. Some form of TV review would also be a natural fit, and I have a couple articles out already along those lines (and a book mainly about TV coming out soon, too — with plans for a follow-up). I doubt I could piece together a living out of just that kind of stuff, but combined with the financial writing and adjuncting or temping, I could probably get by and hopefully continue pay off loans as well.

  13. In (partial) fairness to the guy who was taken aback by the swarm of citations to unknown literature, and admitting that I don’t know the actual email so perhaps it’s obvious that this isn’t what he meant, it’s very easy to get misled or to use time unwisely when finding one’s feet in an unfamiliar body of writing because one doesn’t know with whom to start, or with what writing even if one can figure out who the big names are. There’s always some (frequently much) dross in a bibliography. I know that I frequently ask my committee members if they have recommendations for particular areas or authors, and sometimes they even get back to me before I’ve figured the answer out on my own.

    In academia there’s a little ambiguity because what the system is even supposed to be is up in the air. I believe Adam pointed out, either here or at The Weblog, that formerly one wasn’t at all expected to have published by the time one went on the job market; being in grad school was for writing the dissertation (my advisor even confirmed this), whereas this is not so much the case now, at least de facto—yet one also hears of people getting gobs of job offers on the strength of their writing samples. (For real, and sometimes even deservedly so!) So it’s not completely beyond the pale to think of the aspiring academic who in grad school doesn’t publish but rather focuses on dissertating as conforming to a not entirely absurd understanding of what the systemic expectations are. (& it’s also easy to fall into despair here: what good will publications really do? But that’s a different issue.)

  14. queenemily

    I too am attempting to make the leap from one dying industry to another. The toughest thing I’ve found, and this sounds obvious but it wasn’t to me, is thinking about the reader. In academia, perhaps by virtue of certain shared background assumptions, when I write I don’t tend to think about this kind of thing. In journalism, it seems to be the first move.

    I agree with Adam’s post, though it makes me feel uncomfortable to do so since I recognise some of the privilege he describes in myself. Its a difficult thing to avoid and simple awareness isn’t enough, though perhaps occasionally a meta-awareness “I’m pretty privileged so I think it will be handed to me so instead I’ll work hard” breaks through.

  15. As someone who comes from this wonderful place (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RopJbz_ceCE&feature=search) I admit that upon entering graduate school I was downright angry at the way people didn’t think the opportunity to do a PhD was the most amazing thing a bookish person could land was a big deal. I’ve mellowed on that front but it still bemuses me that people don’t want to do all the exciting (though difficult) things like publishing, editing and so on. It was what we imagined as kids no…? (at least the writing bit I presume). For me the worst part is that my parents genuinely think that a PhD will land me a proper job easily and I don’t have the heart to explain to them that I may end up in pretty troubled financial straits. Upon entering graduate school I didn’t even know that the job market would be bad. I was naïve enough to assume that things would be relatively easy at the top of the education ladder.
    So I do think you need to create your own luck these days (the snowball effect) and at least one way to do that is to create your own infrastructure but I also think there are genuine reasons to challenge what is already in place. For example I cannot understand why most academic articles are behind pay walls when surely our goal should be to open up our research to the general public rather than make it accessible only to those enrolled in a University (this system makes a mockery of all University claims to be interested in what happens outside their [pay]walls) Incidentally almost all of the interesting people I’ve met whilst on tour (which is how I like to re-imagine going to conferences) were exactly of the type you have described. There is a kind of stagnation in among many in graduate programs where people listlessly attend talks and act as if it were the most horrible thing any human has ever had to do.
    I’m 50/50 myself on an academic career. Over here I have also tried my hand at non-academic writing but it is difficult to sustain. I’ve been musing about other, more settled options but that is almost a job in itself. Great post by the way and thanks for raising this issue as it is something that does not said nearly enough.

  16. Paul, I noticed your Twitter discussion about journal accessibility and thought about posting on that as well. It’s really disgraceful — perhaps one of the most emblematic cases of applying market logic where it cannot possibly work.

  17. This is all very interesting and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, I know some white-male students graduating from Ivy-league and lesser-known schools and getting decent academic jobs based on who they know, while having very little published (if anything at all!). And yet I see some other hard-working friends (e.g. you–Adam) not having an easy time finding a job. Kind of depressing, especially since I am not nearly as productive as my AUFS friends. I know I am making a redundant and worthless comment, but I want to join the other voices in affirming that some of you guys have in fact really been involved in the conversation and put a stamp in the field–something that people with the jobs handed to them have not done at all, and may never do! I admire the work ethic “around here,’ and I know it rubs off on people.

  18. Adam, I guess I identify with you to some extent, not being privileged and going to a non-Ivy. Also, it took me five years on the market beyond the phd to get a tenure-track job, and I was just about to give up, although like Anthony, I didn’t have anything to fall back on. My plan was to try to teach high school.

    So I see some of my productivity as driven by this situation, and I really think there’s this disconnect between the institution in terms of job hires and where the intellectual-theoretical excitement is, beyond just the basic fact of way too few positions in general. There’s a sense in which we’re not supposed to get jobs, so we have to be even more exceptional to do so, and even then it’s a question of luck, of finding a position or situation and digging in with ones fingernails. I still feel incredibly fortunate, and I know that I got lucky, that it’s possible to not get a career no matter how good you are or how much you publish. I guess in some ways I’m haunted by the fact that I did make it, and don’t want to take that for granted.

    But more than that, I want to prove not only that I deserve to be here, i want to challenge the whole system that works to exclude and marginalize not only me, but important, vital and transformative ideas.

  19. I should have tons to say on this. I really should. But at some point you just own up to your failure to “be” what you imagined you would. You don’t cry about. It doesn’t strike you as tragedy. You don’t even really regret the decisions that you made that led you down the road to failure. You just accept it as what it is. You let the non-vulgar “f-word” roll off your tongue, and you see friends and family shift in their seat uncomfortably, in ways even that the myriad permutations of the more traditional, vulgar “f-word” might not provoke. They refuse to allow you to say it: “Nooooo … you mustn’t say that.” For a while, you will believe them. You ironize the statement; or you nuance it to the point of meaningless. But at some point, you hear yourself use it — and you realize you’re neither being ironic nor looking for pity. “I have failed.” It is at that liberatory moment all other words about the situation fail you. And you begin rambling in blog comments by saying things like “I should have tons to say on this. I really should . . .”

  20. I have found, in dealing with these matters, that what is paramount is the ability to think immanently (ah! he’s going on about immanence again!), which is to think without reference to an external telos. Yes, a job is nice, but (for me in any case) what matters are activities — the activity of teaching, the activity of writing. If one can survive, and to do so in a place where one wants to live/survive, and if one can do so while performing such activities… then one has done something. To be able to take joy in — to enjoy — this is the only thing. Obviously a “job” can make all of this easier, but I have found it valuable, and in fact “right,” to make the job secondary to these other aims. The sad passions are lurking throughout the academic world, and there’s no compensation for indulging them. So I think it’s best to enjoy time, to give an affirmative body through activities in which one can take pride. That, for me, has made the genuinely immense amount of adjunct work I’ve had not just something to endure, but something to love.

  21. Did my PhD in 3 years because the money ran out. In fact, in the British system I didn’t have very good A level results and ended up going to Sheffield as an undergrad instead of SOAS, which for some crazy reason was my first choice. Best thing that ever happened to me though.

    Graduated with a first, got a Japanese government scholarship and did all my graduate work here in Tokyo for free. I now have 3 things published already this year, not in academic journals, but in intellectual magazines sold nation-wide (bit like Temps Moderne, that kind of thing). Have 2 book chapters and 2 translations in the pipeline, potential mini “lecture tour” in the New York area this December, and potential trip to Hawaii in the Spring for a conference. All good.

    Agree with everything Adam says here.

  22. Brad, I don’t think it’s possible to truly succeed without failing, and I think we live in a culture that radically forecloses the possibility of failure, which makes not succeeding on the job market even more difficult.

  23. My comment about the church earlier was really to lead to this: If even a tenth of Ph.D. job seekers look for work in the church, it would revolutionize the church in small ways and would have a tremendous impact on the “academy.”

    Currently working in the church, I have some R.E. curricula (for which I am being paid) in the works; a regular, paying editorial and indexing gig for an academic journal; three freelance articles coming out soon, for which I will be paid fairly well for what they required of me; and three book chapters, one peer reviewed journal article, one long book review, and a book all waiting to come out. On top of this I have one or two other submissions out there. My next three projects are already on my mind. All this while preaching nearly weekly, and I think I have officiated 15 weddings this year and maybe 10 funerals, and a handful of baptisms, plus numerous other community and civic appearances and services.

    My first point is that I feel that I have found a way to make a contribution, be paid for it, and work outside of the system. I am fortunate that I have a church community and a family that supports this, and it may be that I can’t do this forever.

    My second point is that I feel like I have a much larger audience through the church than had I gone straight into a teaching position from the Ph.D.

    The downside is that I am often moonlighting as an academic, and sometimes question whether I am truly accepted by the academics. I have no question as to my acceptance within my church community–which I hope is saying something given my theological leanings. There are probably ways I could make a similar contribution to the church and have a church audience from within the academy, but I am having a great time with it now, and have more stuff going on in terms of publications than I would if I were working full time in the university.

  24. Regarding the value of work: I was just writing (for my R.E. curricula) about how the 23rd Psalm is largely a meditation on the theological insights found in the banality of the workplace.

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