Yes, we are all going to hell. Or Los Angeles.
I was lying on an air mattress on the floor of my friend Steven’s apartment in Los Angeles when I woke to an email from Prof. Johnson.* It was the first weekend of August, and I had scraped together some funds to do a week’s worth of research at the Huntington Library, where I was sifting through a trove of Chaucer manuscripts and early print documents that I hoped would contribute to my dissertation. The email was about my dissertation.
*All names have been changed.
Specifically, it was about the only two chapter drafts I’d completed, one on Chaucer, the other on Spenser. Each had gone through a half a dozen drafts; the Chaucer chapter had bumped around through a year of excruciating false starts and reboots, the Spenser chapter, while also difficult, had moved much more swiftly once I’d figured out my approach. Both chapters argued that these poets’ sense of authorship rested in part on a skillful manipulation of linguistic margins, with “strange” language filtered through a highly complex and varied poetic diction. In addition to doing more traditional literary research – i.e., reading everything there was to read and what critics had to say about it – I had also, especially in the Spenser chapter, attempted to quantify what I saw as a deliberate attempt to assign specific language sets, or discourses, to specific characters in The Shepheardes Calender.
Professor Johnson, in brief, did not like my chapters. He informed me, in polite but firm language, that my work on Chaucer, which now weighed in at a hefty 75 pages, rested on my analysis of one word. He repeated it for emphasis: “One word.” He accused me of that most basic of critical errors, “intentional fallacy.” As I later discovered when I retrieved his hand-written notes – since Prof. Johnson would only look at printed-out pages – he even argued in the margins with some of the critics I’d cited, critics whose work had come to be accepted as more or less authoritative in the field. The Spenser chapter, he conceded, was stronger overall but still prone to some of the same faults.
This message had the effect of sending me into a spiral of doubt and depression. Already, I’d been suffering from a strong case of “imposter’s syndrome” as I moved through the glorious shelves and gardens of the Huntington grounds. While the staff and other readers had been most welcoming, I couldn’t help but feel like a hopeless fake next to the young scholars from famous schools – Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton – here on months’ long fellowships, while I tried to cram in my own research on the small summer stipend I’d received from my school, SUNY-Buffalo. The worst part of Prof. Johnson’s email was that he’d cc’d my whole committee – my chair, Prof. Smith, and all the other readers. He might as well have cc’d everyone at the Huntington as well, might as well have taken out a billboard on the Santa Monica Freeway flashing my name and “Intentional Fallacy” in letters ten feet high.
What made matters worse was that the stakes were much higher than merely pleasing the third reader on my dissertation committee. I planned to make a run at the market come fall – my alma mater would be hiring a medievalist, and a former adviser had encouraged me to apply – so moving these two chapters forward was part of a larger plan I’d made with my chair to turn in three chapter drafts by the end of August and request letters from the rest of my committee, with the understanding that I could, with their feedback and some diligent work revising those chapters and writing one more, defend the following spring. Now that plan seemed foolhardy, even deluded. I spent the rest of my Huntington visit in a sort of daze, worriedly messaging with Prof. Smith and trying to decide what to do about the critiques of Prof. Johnson.
In the end, necessity and circumstance gave me an out. At Prof. Smith’s urging, I worked through August to revise the previous chapters and draft a new one that we hoped would satisfy Prof. Johnson’s misgivings; but at the same time, Prof. Smith and I reached out to another faculty member, Prof. Daniels, explaining the delicate situation and securing his agreement to join my committee if need be. This, in fact, is what happened. It was with something like relief that I read Prof. Johnson’s next email in response to my revised material, in early September, explaining that while he felt my scholarship was promising, he could not endorse me in the current academic job market cycle; he didn’t think I was ready. He tactfully added that perhaps I would like to make changes to my committee based on this information.
This sounds harsh, no doubt. And though this rejection did sting, I also felt genuinely grateful for Prof. Johnson’s forthrightness, and even his critiques, though some of them, as Prof. Smith and I agreed, seemed less than helpful. In truth, my nagging suspicion that we were not a good fit, in terms of temperament or critical approach, had prompted my early solicitation of his opinion on my chapter drafts. Such honesty was greatly preferable to protracted silence, or worse, a lukewarm endorsement that might have led to a counter-productive letter of recommendation reflecting his attitude to my work. I thanked him and said that under the circumstances I thought it best if he stepped down from my committee – there was a convenient excuse, given that he was about to spend a year’s leave on fellowship – and immediately wrote to Prof. Smith and my new committee member, Prof. Daniels.
And I never looked back.
Though I did not get a job that year, I had four MLA interviews – as many or more than any other neophyte applicants I knew – as well as a Skype interview for a postdoc at the Huntington Library. This response to my job materials at least validated my decision to go on the market and provided me with renewed confidence in my research and writing. I wish I could say that I rode that confidence from that point forward, with smooth sailing through my defense and eventual landing of an academic position. Alas, that was far from the case. For every spark of elation I felt at an interview request, there was despondency at rejection from 19 other applications – a pretty accurate ratio, given that over two years I applied to approximately 200 jobs and was interviewed exactly 10 times. Most often rejection came in the form of silence. Granted, some very few hiring committees responded with kindness and good wishes, and I grew to appreciate even a relatively prompt cut-and-paste rejection letter. Silence was the rule of the day, though, and it might come even after what seemed like a convivial and successful interview.
Into that silence crept more doubts and dark thoughts. Thoughts of giving up. Thoughts of inadequacy, mingled with “What was I thinking?” levels of despair. I cannot say that I was truly, clinically, morbidly depressed, but tossing and turning in bed some sleepless nights, it certainly crossed my mind that ending my life would be easier than finishing my dissertation and finding a job. And I realized, even as it was happening, that such feelings were endemic to the system in which and through which I was struggling. As I wrote at the time in a sort of “dissertation memoir” I was working on:
This is what the system is designed to do. Not make you kill yourself, at least not literally. It is designed to be this Darwinian struggle, however, in which some unspecified percentage of candidates simply get ground up in the machinery and spit back out as substandard, not good enough. I feel the competition even among my cohort at UB, even though none of them are studying the medieval period and so we are unlikely to be competing for the same jobs. There is still the struggle for prizes, fellowships, professors’ favor, better classes to teach or even better teaching schedules. There are social snubs, cliques, and the working of slender wires in many directions for every advantage, however slight or illusory. And so part of what you learn is how to play that game, manipulate those wires, and grab the little social and academic rewards that might help you attain the next level—otherwise you feel yourself getting caught in the gears, pushed out the other side.
I was reminded of this when I read Kelly J. Baker’s Chronicle of Higher Education essay “Academic Waste,” which retold her own job market disappointments while riffing off Marc Bousquet’s book How the University Works. Mirroring my own depressed and depressing realization, Baker writes,
Like so many others, I’d assumed that our current job system was somehow dysfunctional. Ph.D.s were supposed to end up in tenure-track jobs. I thought increasing reliance on contingent workers was a fluke, a bug in the system, and could be fixed to make things run more smoothly again. Bousquet shows us, instead, that the job system is actually working exactly the way administrators want it to — making “all employees other than themselves ‘permanently temporary.’”
As for me, I am thankfully off the market. I eventually landed a job at a private university in the Middle East. I feel lucky and grateful to have my job. It’s an exciting and unique opportunity, though there is no tenure system and it’s certainly not what I envisioned when starting off on this path over ten years ago. Depending on the circumstances, I may be back on the market again someday.
And of course, I have many friends, new and recent PhD’s, who are going through the search process. Indeed, in the past few weeks, I have been in contact with a number of friends who are struggling through the system right now, some for the third or fourth time. They come from a range of backgrounds and hold a variety of positions. One is stuck in a demanding post-doc that pays scandalously low wages. One has a VAP position that carries with it increasing pressure to find the next gig. One of my new friends is making the difficult decision to leave a job he loves in this part of the world for a position back in the States, because he knows it may be his only shot at such a position. There is also a couple, caught in the fabled “two-body” problem, who currently hold tenure-track jobs in a state that has grown hostile to higher education, trying to make a move to a better situation for themselves and their family. Others are adjuncts, or lecturers, or out of academia altogether.
Baker describes the gender bias that disproportionately shunts women towards the contingent, “academic waste” pile, but the one thing the system is indiscriminate about is how and against whom it discriminates. Young scholars are made to feel as though they lack experience and “seasoning,” which they are encouraged to acquire through years of underpaid labor. Older scholars worry that the system is already calculating their decreased “use value” compared with younger colleagues, who can be expected to work more and longer. Some feel that they are at a disadvantage next to shinier candidates from more prestigious schools. Others suspect they will lose out to candidates who already hold positions and thus have more burnished credentials. Race, religion, disability, sex, age – the potential grounds for discrimination, we all fear, are varied and endless.
And we’re not wrong: we have all seen such biases operate to a greater or lesser degree in job searches at our home institutions. The market is just that stacked against us, just that jam-packed, and it has never been and can never be a pure meritocracy.
Again: The system is designed to do this. It is designed to spit out a certain percentage of candidates every year, to expel them from academia altogether, or to keep them around as “zombie labor” at below poverty wages. We are all touched by this. If we are not ourselves “academic waste” – if we are not contingent, underpaid, overworked labor – we are benefiting from its existence, which helps keep our own course load low and frees up funds for our salary and research. Even if we are not directly benefiting from academic waste, we might be training eager students who eventually will become such waste (if they are not already, as working graduate students with little or no realistic future in academia). There is simply no way to escape it altogether, with clean hands and a clear conscience.
This is all the more true because, as I noted above (and as Orwell might have foretold), the system also demands our complicity every step of the way. It is neoliberalism par excellence, in that it requires our silence and consent to continue operating at maximum efficiency. It works to turn us into willing participants, eager to play the game in order to get ahead, separating us into winners and losers, successes and failures, the latter always potentially the former and the former always in danger of becoming the latter. It promises that if we just do this and wait for that, we can be free, free to speak our minds and be ourselves, but it continually withdraws the promise of freedom, pushing it back or rendering it hollow.
So why, after all of this, do I feel somewhat hopeful? Should I – or is that hopefulness simply part of my own ongoing delusion, my own complicity?
Of course, I love my students, and I love my research (indeed, these are two of the main rewards the system offers us to win our complicity, though time and resources to conduct research are increasingly withheld). More than that, I love the people – the thinkers and scholars, artists and human beings – that academia has brought me in contact with. And I know that many of them do understand what is happening, and are distraught about it, and desperately want to work to change it. Many of them have thought and worked harder than I have, or am, and I love and respect them for it. Moreover, as an “older scholar” who worked in a number of fields before pursuing academia, I am under no illusion that there is some pristine way of earning a living in the modern world, one free of the stain of the system’s waste. The academic system will change, and is changing, whether we want it to or not. I remain hopeful that those of us who love it enough to see it clearly for what it is will make the sacrifices and do the work so that it changes towards something less problematic, less compromised and compromising – and better for us all.