An academic confession

It’s that time of year again — the time when people start getting offers for the increasingly rare TT jobs. This morning I read some great reflections on Facebook from James Stanescu and Eileen Joy about this dubious season, which I can’t link but want to credit, because they set my mind down some familiar paths.

My confession is that I did not get one of those positions. I selectively apply every year. It’s not that I have any particular desire to leave Shimer, where the teaching is truly unique and fulfilling. The reasons are more utilitarian: I don’t have tenure yet, and I work for a small and therefore inherently fragile school, which exclusively offers degrees that students and parents are told every single day by the national press that no one wants or needs.

The uncertainty bothers me, probably more than it should — but not enough that I do a full nationwide search every year. I’m too selective, and so it’s probably my fault I didn’t get anything. I should have been willing to uproot my life in Chicago to go to some remote rural hamlet where I would have no friends and where my partner could not find work.

Still, this year felt like it might really be the year, like lightning might strike and Solve the Problem, making me Set for Life — and, if I’m being honest, the year when I might get The Recognition I Deserve. I’m a prolific author who has had interdisciplinary influence. Without any research support, I have produced a university press book. There are full professors at R1 universities who will write glowing recommendations for me. I am arguably the primary translator of one of the most influential philosophers alive. I have an international reputation. And yet it feels like I’m clinging onto a position at the margins of academia.

It hurts my pride. And if the worst were to happen, if that perch were to collapse and let me tumble out of academia altogether, my gut reaction is not to worry about how I’d make my living or how I’d ever find fulfillment in my work — no, my first thought is about my pride. If I somehow fell out of the bottom of academia, I would feel humiliated and ashamed. Just thinking about the possibility turns my stomach. I worry about how I would manage it if it actually happened.

Objectively, this is not rational. The Girlfriend points out, rightly, that it’s not my fault that my chosen profession is apparently being phased out. Yet it feels like my fault, very deeply. It feels like it’s personal to me, like it’s a repudiation of me, like everything I’ve done could be swept aside and treated like it’s nothing — by people who will enjoy the privileges I have objectively earned and who will never have to give me a second thought.

Sometimes I wonder why people timidly go along with the marketization of everything, with the ever-tightening noose of austerity. And then I look at myself and how thoroughly needless competition and artificial scarcity have penetrated into my most intimate experience of my own self-worth. Maybe there’s a reason why the university is ground zero of neoliberalism — because we academics are the ones who most deeply believe in meritocracy and salutary competition, because we took something that didn’t need to be a contest and made it into one.

And the more it doesn’t work, the more desperately we need to believe that we will be the ones to outrun the boulder this time, that if we just ratchet up the achievements one more level, we’ll finally get the recognition we deserve. But we all know in our heart of hearts that it will go to some ABD from Harvard.

7 thoughts on “An academic confession

  1. Well, it did happen to me. And yes, there was a lot of shame. But you survive it. (I think that it’s unlikely it will happen to you, given your research record as you describe it, and I certainly hope it doesn’t. But it’s not the end of the world.)

  2. I hear you. I find the main thing, in my own endeavors with the question of (the lack of a) “career,” is to be as pragmatic as possible but to forget the whole frame, to refuse the (possibility of) aspiration. Better to just try to be amazing, “no matter what they’ll never take that away from you”

  3. In the Humanities end of academia, it’s especially galling, I think, to have to realize that the reason for the brutal competition for jobs is that our mentors (those who recruited us to PhD programs in the 80’s and 90’s) vastly oversold the need for our future services as professors, because they needed grad students to support their own employment. They may not have done this knowlingly, but they certainly did do it.

  4. Hi Adam, I was interested to hear about your experiences and thought I would say one or two things in response. I am becalmed at a mid-table UK university, Brunel, that specialises in science and technology, has no philosophy department or any languages. My work is continental philosophy as you might know and so I have to smuggled that into the context of teaching English Literature but the whole fiction is cobbled together and it is constant work to keep the train on the tracks. I have been successful in a small way, I have been full professor since 2008, but the big time has never come knocking.

    In the past I have developed two strategies, call then the stove and the sudden death strategy. The stove strategy is Brunel is like Descartes’ stove, I have hidden in there to do my work unmolested. The sudden death strategy is, write every book, every article, as if it could be my last and be satisfied with that.

    Time and again I have seen colleagues disappointed that their brilliant work is passed over by the academy as are they and have told them not to base their hopes on that but to judge success in terms of personal targets and the stove-sudden death strategy. That said after the publication of my last book I really expected something to ‘happen’. It didn’t. This kind of cracked my stove so to speak. So recently I have been trying to work on projects that are of a wider interest and that might raise my profile, but I can feel that sapping my confidence in the sudden death strategy as these are not pieces I write if I only have a year to live. Plus they take a lot of intellectual energy and time away from the work I am truly interested in.

    I don’t have any wise words or consolation except to say your exasperation is totally acceptable and something many of us feel on a regular basis.

  5. I have thought of Shimer in similar ways — since research isn’t part of my evaluation there, it means that I can do whatever I want without having to worry about tenure requirements, etc. I haven’t followed the sudden death strategy consistently, but I do feel like if I’m pushed out in the next couple years, I will have at least done some really substantial work — the Agamben translations, the pop culture project, and now of course The Prince of This World. I think I have more ideas in me, but it will take me a couple years to work up to the point where I know exactly what direction I want to go with my next book. Hence this would be a non-horrible stopping point, whereas I would be filled with regret if I’d never gotten to finish the devil project.

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