Status anxiety

From most perspectives, I’ve lived a charmed life. I live in a city I love, with an amazing partner. And miraculously, I’ve somehow managed to be employed full-time in academia since finishing my PhD, despite graduating into the Financial Crisis, and as a result, I am now much more materially secure than I could have imagined during the dark days of grad school. I’ve had a really unique and diverse teaching experience, and I’ve had enough time to do the writing and research I am interested in. My writing has opened up a lot of great opportunities, including international travel (to the point where I may eventually be able to “get” every inhabited continent).

In short, I am living the life I want to live and have always wanted to live. My main source of legitimate anxiety is whether I can make it last for the long term. And that ties into another, possibly less legitimate anxiety — over status. On the one hand, I currently have more job security than most professionals in most industries. On the other hand, I am working in the one industry that purports to offer a select few near-total job security, in the form of tenure. That job security is, in the ideology of academia, tied very closely to professional status and prestige. Hence it is difficult to keep those two elements separate: the desire for tenure as one of the few forms of genuine job security in the world and the desire for tenure as a kind of earned recognition of my personal value as a teacher and scholar.

Technically, I have always been full-time contingent throughout my career. I was visiting at Kalamazoo College and am now visiting at North Central College. In between, I was at Shimer College, which did not offer tenure due to its very small size. The lack of tenure at Shimer didn’t bother me, because the norm was that, after a clearly structured and even-handed evaluation process, it was assumed that every faculty member could continue as long as they wished to. I was worried, to varying degrees, that Shimer College might close — rightly, as it turned out — but I was never worried about my job security within Shimer College, nor about my status. I did sometimes fantasize that if I got another job, they would hire me direct to tenure, but I was never aggrieved not to have tenure at Shimer.

The issue of tenure came to occupy my mind much more when we joined North Central, for both reasons. On the one hand, I was very anxious about our job security in a new setting. On the other hand, North Central does have tenure, so suddenly my status — and frankly, my pride — was in play as well. On a certain level, this latter concern was strange. No tenure-track or tenured faculty at North Central — nor, indeed, anywhere — has ever suggested to me that I was inferior to them or somehow unworthy due to my lack of tenure. All have expressed absolute confidence that, were I to have the opportunity to go through the tenure process, I would coast through. That’s because everyone recognizes that I have an exceptional publication record and public profile. And it may well be the case that my publication record and public profile have actually benefited from my freedom from the strictures of the tenure process, which demands a very specific type of publication in very specific settings. Outside of the status issue, meanwhile, the benefits of tenure are ambiguous. I would presumably get a raise, but I am not having any financial difficulties at my current salary. And the greater security would bring with it more service and administrative obligations — indeed, my more senior colleagues (at North Central and elsewhere) appear to be absolutely swamped with them. And yet…

One reason this issue is hard to grapple with is that the current structure of academic employment really is unjust. But it can be so easy to slip into the mindset that it is particularly unjust in my case, because I have done so much. Similarly, when I get nowhere on the job market — I have applied selectively every year since graduation, mostly as a precautionary measure — my concern is not only that, if push comes to shove, I wouldn’t be able to find a new position if I needed one. It also rankles my pride, as though it were a personal insult for a particular school (with which I have no preexisting relationship) to pass over my application. And that same wounded pride can also cause interpersonal conflict with colleagues who have a level of privilege that, in my view, they do not fully “deserve” (whatever that means).

These pride-based issues tend to crop up more when I have more reason to be anxious about the job security issue, but they clearly take on a life of their own even then. I don’t really think that I will die on the streets without academic employment, but the end of my academic career — at least when I picture it in those moments of anxiety — would be overwhelmingly shameful, the final judgment that all my hard work had been worthless. And that’s obviously unhealthy, because I don’t think my sense of self-worth should depend on the decisions of (mostly) strangers who are (mostly) operating out of concerns other than pure meritocracy. And as I write this now, with an attitude of relative detachment, I wonder: if I am feeling this — as someone who has always been marginal to the prestige game of conventional academic institutions, both in grad school and in my teaching career, and as someone who enjoys a high level of respect and recognition for my work — then I can’t imagine what is going through the mind of someone who is much more embedded in the academic game and who, in part precisely for that reason, isn’t getting the kind of positive feedback I’m getting.

My status anxiety is mainly focused on a potential lack of status, but I observe that the black hole of status anxiety is all-consuming — because there is always another level of status to achieve, or another threat to your current status. No one ever fully “arrives” at a fully secure status. Watching people in my age cohort get tenure, I notice that it seems to induce the opposite of stability and security. From what I can tell, there’s a good chance that when you get tenure, the rest of your life will fall apart — in the concrete form of divorce, often, and also in the more abstract sense of disillusionment with the work to which you’ve dedicated your life. Both could be a positive sign that, freed of the constant stress and anxiety of the tenure process, you finally have the “headspace” to recognize when a relationship isn’t working or to reflect on what your real priorities are. But why should the process have been so overwhelming that you didn’t have time for that before? Why does the whole thing have to be so cruel and arbitrary when the end result is the rather prosaic assurance that you will have a job doing socially-necessary work in the profession you have trained for, as long as you want one? Why should you have to prove that you are the best of the best to have a basic job protection that every competent employee in every industry should enjoy?

The answer is, in part, neoliberalism, but there is a reason why neoliberalism has hit academia harder and faster than most other parts of society. We always believed in meritocracy, in artificial scarcity, in proving our worth through competition and assessment. We were sitting ducks, and it’s hard for me to imagine a way out of it if even I, a prominent critic of neoliberalism whose career is definitive proof that academia does not operate as a pure meritocracy, can’t figure out a way to stop wasting my emotional energy on these stupid delusions of status and prestige.

2 thoughts on “Status anxiety

  1. i write as someone who didn’t get tenure

    my dad – an immigrant high school graduate who ended his career as a colonel in the u.s. army, said ‘go along to get along’ – if he had been better at going along, or more interested in it, he might have been a general – he was smarter than many of them – but his levels of social anxiety on the one hand, and personal integrity on the other, put a glass ceiling on his career – his last position of public trust was as mayor of the florida town he lived in after retirement

    and then there’s the folk saying, ‘if the train don’t stop at your station, it ain’t your train’

    life goes on if you don’t get tenure – like the farmer whose horse ran away, who knows if it’s good or bad?

    may your days be merry and bright, and may the creative forces of the universe stand beside us, and guide us, through the Night with the Light from Above

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