A specter is haunting academia—the specter of something that has yet to definitively claim a name for itself, but is rising nonetheless. So many of us have been buried underground, so many breathing through small breaks in the soil that covers our pristine university campuses where guided tours are given and frisbees are thrown, where deep-pocketed donors stroll nostalgically and future debtors gaze longingly. Looking up, we may, each of us, feel like the forgotten seeds moldering beneath these hallowed grounds—but we are, all of us, the tectonic plate holding them together. When we move, the world above will feel it.
Academia is in the midst of an acute, unsustainable crisis. For those working in the higher-education industry, and increasingly for those outside of it, it has become impossible to ignore.
This may have been academia’s dirty little secret at one point, but it’s out there now for everyone to see. The conditions of the crisis are well known and have inspired many book-length studies (like this one, this one, or this one), and many, many articles to boot (like this one, this one, this one). There’s no sense in reciting these conditions yet again. We already know the score. New generations of faculty and students crushed by unprecedented levels of debt; the increased precariousness of the academic labor force; the systematic devaluation of academic labor itself; the corporate-style structuring of higher education—something, somehow is going to give. Still, either out of pure denial or self-preservation, we keep carrying on as if these circumstances can be ignored—as if they exist only in dark spots on the fringes, which we can escape by doing “better work,” enrolling in “better programs,” getting “better positions.”
This speaks to the truly tenacious allure and staying power of the foundational myths that shape the academic vocation. As I argued recently in a piece for the Chronicle Review, the essential function of these myths is to guide the currents of professional and existential want, to shape our desires and expectations for what life as an academic should be. Such professional myths tell us what we are and what we should be striving to be—via the perceived rewards they deliver, the cultural capital that colleagues and non-academics ascribe to them, and the way they shape our conceptions of what an ideal “academic” looks like.
Our professional aspirations are dominated by romanticized images of the lone, path-breaking researcher, of the superhumanly productive writer, of the attention grabbing and self-promoting (if politically useless) figure of the tenured “public intellectual.” Such images, in turn, mutate into gross and exploitable expectations about how “productive” successful academics need to be on a daily basis, about what their work should look like, about what they should know (or pretend to know), about what comes to them if they work hard enough, about what “success” means in academia, even about their mental health and personal relationships.
These myths spread like viruses throughout academic departments, conferences, and social media. Indeed, they can often serve to remind us of the eventual rewards that make the academic life such a desirable pursuit. For that very reason, though, when they are deployed to reproduce the neoliberal arrangements of university life, they become savage and poisonous. By channeling the hopes and desires these myths stir up, contemporary academia has succeeded in creating what Theory A-lister Lauren Berlant calls “a relation of cruel optimism” for the vast majority of academics. Wanting to become a tenured professor and to use your knowledge for the public good, believing that passionate teaching and the expansion of human knowledge can make a difference in the world—these are not awful goals, and our desire to achieve them is not inherently cruel. The relations governing our work become cruel, though, when, as Berlant notes, the thing we genuinely desire “is actually an obstacle to [our] flourishing.”
Academic mythology merges seamlessly with self-serving fantasies of meritocracy and capitalistic bootstrapism.
It’s time we come to grips with the uncomfortable truth that many of the desires and lofty aims that drew us to academia in the first place are killing us softly, rotting away our ability to achieve the goals that initially drew us in while compounding the conditions of our own exploitation. Our grand academic myths and professional fictions keep all of us striving for the wrong things, pickling in a brine of cruel optimism about what our individual professional futures might bring while our academic community is splintered by doubt, insecurity, envy, and fatigue. That is, after all, the supreme draw, the sweet poison, of such myths: they prey on the most self-serving and hyper-individualized conceits of an already laissez-faire academic culture that idolizes individual thinkers while equating professional success with genuine intellectual worth. It shouldn’t be hard to see how the mythology of such a culture merges so seamlessly with the neoliberal ethos of self-reliance and the self-serving fantasies of meritocracy and capitalistic bootstrapism.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a group of subjects who adhere more faithfully to the myth of meritocracy than academics. Even if our research and personal politics rigorously argue for the opposite, even if study after study reminds us that faculty hiring follows steeply hierarchical, non-meritocratic structures that reproduce profound social inequalities, when it comes to our own careers we adhere to all the oldest clichés. In spite of the cold facts—that “contingent faculty” make up more than 70 percent of the academic labor force, that the gap between doctorates awarded and jobs available is wider than ever, that the overwhelming majority of academic workers live in a state of economic insecurity—we remain individually hypnotized by the poisonous conviction that hard work is all we need, that the “best” people in the best programs produce the best work, etc.
We feel like it would diminish our life’s work to admit in public that, actually, the system is rigged.
The core self-worth of the typical American academic is deeply invested in the notion that we’ve spent most of our lives rising to the top through determination and intelligence. And as a reactionary and masochistic correlate to that faith, we harshly link each other’s professional failures and our own to some presumed lack of such qualities. We feel like it would diminish our life’s work to admit in public that, actually, the system is rigged, that many of our successes are due more to luck than anything else, that most of the “best work” is not being produced at all because the collective, variable talents of our community of thinkers and teachers and partners are being wasted in the competitive pursuit of individualistic success that our livelihoods depend on.
In order to overcome this daunting litany of professional self-delusion, it will take a profoundly existential reckoning, a rejection of the meritocracy myth, and the establishment of a radical sense of equality with those we’ve been trained to out-compete. Moreover, this sense of equality depends on the practical work of highlighting one basic truth: the neoliberalization of higher education is every academic’s problem. This is the reality in which we are all participating, even those of us at “top” programs, even those of us who have reached the promised land of tenure. Not surprisingly, many at the top are mostly fine with it. But their eager complicity makes it all the more incumbent on the rest of us to recognize how deeply the current system skews all relevant outcomes—from the accrual of professional prestige to basic salary-and-benefit protections—in the favor of the already privileged. Then, and only then, can we start doing effective battle with the deeply unfair conditions that prop up star-system privilege in the academy—like incredibly skewed admissions barriers, hierarchical hiring practices, exorbitant tuition rates for top programs, and indebtedness as graduates, just for starters. And when we talk about academia as the sacred arena of “knowledge production,” we’ll further have to accept that the majority of that knowledge, which will determine the shape of fields across the academy, is likewise being produced by those privileged few.
To effectively overturn the exploitative industry that academia has become, we must ignite a communal effort to break the thoroughly individualistic belief system that encourages our continual, cruelly optimistic submission. Such an effort will not survive unless it has the strength of communal support and can be fortified through communal practice. Nowhere else is that sense of academic community being called forth more forcefully, assembled in solidarity out of the abyss of dispersed individuals, than in the work of organizations to mobilize the academic labor force and to restructure higher ed’s neoliberal power arrangements. Contingent faculty and graduate student unions are ground zero for the future fight to claim and affirm academia’s not-yet-realized potential.
These efforts across the country to unionize the “precariat” and resituate its position in the labor hierarchy comprise the most revolutionary academic work being done at universities right now—because the rearrangement of power in academia is as much a question of knowledge production as it is a question of workers’ rights. My aim here is not to downplay the latter, which has been at the center of discussions of academic labor organizing, but to highlight the former, which has often been overlooked in those discussions.
Organizing initiatives among graduate students and adjunct faculty have often sparked dismissal and derision from the non-academic public as well as senior faculty and administrators who fail to understand or sympathize with the drastic implications of the current crisis. The transformation of colleges and universities may not be the most pressing issue of our day, but if these institutions are the sacred bastions of knowledge and culture we say they are, then how we deal with this crisis will have serious consequences for the future of knowledge and culture themselves. It can’t be forgotten that the current regime of academic labor crucially determines where the bulk of academic knowledge is coming from and what forms it will take—and indeed, needs to take for the producer to achieve professional success in the current system.
This means, first of all, that we set the boundaries of academic inquiry via the research of a privileged minority. These select few are granted the desirable option to forget that their privileged position is made possible by the precariat’s exploitation; meanwhile, the rest are told in no uncertain terms to focus all their efforts on joining that small club. It in no way diminishes the genuine intellectual contributions of this minority to acknowledge that the collective knowledge power of the rest of our academic community is being either wasted or severely limited in order to maintain this dire trickle-down distribution of artificially scarce academic prestige and job security.
Imagine a rising generation of academics who make the deliberate and profane effort to only cite the work of non-tenured scholars.
From the ground up, we must harness the power of labor to organize an opposition to every facet of neoliberalism’s power arrangements. This includes the arrangements within academia that exclude or devalue the scholarly work of the precariat, that perpetually define academic “success” in purely individualistic terms, that erode the capacity of so many to teach well or differently, etc. The work of organizing and bargaining can and must be extended to include concerted campaigns to reorient the disciplines we’re in the process of sustaining, and the nature of academic work itself.
We need, for instance, to encourage more self-reflective research that makes a deliberate effort to explode the imbalance of knowledge at the point of its production. Emerging cohorts of scholars can carve out a new trajectory for thoroughly communal forms of scholarship with many “authors” and to seek out and learn from such experimental scholarship that already exists. It is all too easy to lose sight or remain unaware of the path-breaking work that is already being done but is not included in the purview of our disciplinary training. For that very reason, an essential component of reframing academic work in a more communal light necessarily involves expanding the means of accessing and formally engaging with such work. My generation has already shown an incredible penchant for creating new, electrifying venues for irreverent writing and research outside of academia. We need only to focus some of that energy inward, to storm the castles of our disciplines and oust the old guard of venerable academic journals with new ones that not only invite reconfigured forms of scholarship, but also devote themselves to highlighting and engaging the work of unrecognized scholars and scholarly questions. In that vein, we might also imagine a rising generation of academics who are thoroughly versed in their fields’ defining debates, but who make the deliberate and profane effort to produce scholarship that only cites the work of non-tenured scholars. If and when that prompts a riot among some of our tenured elders, we can rightfully savor asking them the question we already know the answer to: How does it feel to be forgotten?
Such exploratory shifts in how academic work is done don’t represent any shattering break with the past. The “new social history” of the 1960s and ‘70s upended how we know history itself, replacing the narratives that center on “great men” and official government policy with stories from below, from the masses that make history move. Radical interjections by feminist, queer, and postcolonial studies, to name only a few, have continually shattered the logic and power of our established normative modes of inquiry. When there’s no space for new or different knowledge, we make it—that’s the core radical principle informing all truly distinguished academic work. And that principle submits neither to the venerable traditions of academic disciplines nor to the exploitative character of academia itself.
One of the most persistent and pernicious myths of the scholarly vocation that those of us who devote our careers to it have done so because we truly love the glorious pursuit and production of knowledge. The neoliberal university does many cruel things to perpetuate its system of neo-feudal labor relations, but perhaps its greatest cruelty is weaponizing this love against us.
University administrators routinely leverage our love for what we do, for our “calling,” to create a host of adverse working conditions. In the name of love for our work, we are induced to tolerate new levels of exploitation that routinely downplay our status as workers (putting us more on the level of devoted amateurs), while justifying and capitalizing on the sacrifices we’re willing (and expected) to make. This same love factor, which university administrators use to market the quality of education we provide for student-customers, is simultaneously used to belittle our concerns when we organize to ensure some baseline economic security (wages, benefits, fair and equitable treatment, etc.) in our chosen careers. The administrative apparatus shames us for “ungratefully” asking for adequate compensation, as if doing so somehow devalues the love we’re supposed to have for knowledge work. But this same managerial cohort is hardly steeped in love or gratitude; instead, it’s perpetually looking to squeeze optimal monetary value out of both the day-to-day work of academic inquiry, and the community of scholars performing it.
The notion that we’re expected to sacrifice our fundamental well-being for the vocation we love keeps us silent in the face of outrageous workplace abuses.
And, on a more informal, but equally twisted basis, the notion that we’re expected to sacrifice our fundamental well-being for the vocation we love keeps us silent in the face of outrageous workplace abuses. It’s even cynically manipulated by the university administrative class to instill in us a perpetual gratitude for “getting to be here” in the first place. If we love what we do, we’re told over and over, that should be compensation enough. In this placid paternalist view of things, everything else—from health benefits to fair wage compensation—is, more or less, a bonus.
The only adequate reply to such managerial sonorities is: Bullshit.
Demanding the dignity of fair and equitable treatment in our careers has nothing to do with being “ungrateful” or turning on the universities that trained us. Indeed, it’s about proclaiming unfalteringly that we are the universities, that we love academia more than those who have hijacked it and subordinated the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of profit and prestige. And until we become collectively determined to free it, we will each individually contribute to its enslavement. The more that we act in our daily professional lives as if we are not already embroiled in this ongoing crisis—the more that we pretend that it’s only going on somewhere in the background—the more we surrender both strength and power to the forces that are destroying what we love. And all the while, the umbrage-filled upper caste of university boards, presidents, deans, provosts, administrators, and donors will go on assuring us this is what we signed up for, whispering gently that we’re oh so lucky to be doing what we love, even as they take turns stepping just a little bit harder on our throats.
Loving something doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be bullied and exploited by it. Loving something means you are willing to suffer for it, yes, but when your suffering becomes a requirement, that’s just abuse.
It’s also true that loving something means you will fight for it—and that’s increasingly the only option we have left. But this struggle is vastly complicated by the realization that what we’re actually fighting for—an independent, communal, decently compensated life of the mind—has been taken hostage by the very thing we’re now fighting against: the ever more corporatized and compromised higher education scene.
Resources for Resistance (an introductory bibliography):
Craig Lambert, Harvard Magazine, “The ‘Wild West’ of Academic Publishing”
The Conversation, Articles on Academic Journal Debate
Hugh Gusterson, The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Want to Change Academic Publishing? Just Say No“
Michael White, Pacific Standard, “How to Change the Centuries-Old Model of Academic Publishing”
Jonathan Gray, The Guardian, “It’s Time to Stand Up to Greedy Academic Publishers”
Jane C. Hu, The Atlantic, “Academics Want You to Read Their Work for Free”
Modern Languages Association, “The Future of Scholarly Publishing” (2002 Report)
American Council of Learned Societies, “Crises and Opportunities: The Futures of Scholarly Publishing” (2003 Report)
Christover J. Broadhurst and Georgianna L. Martin (Eds.), “Radical Academia”? Understanding the Climate for Campus Activists
The Sociological Imagination, Radical Education Projects
Robin D.G. Kelley, Boston Review, “Black Study, Black Struggle”
Simon Batterbury, The Winnower, “Who Are the Radical Academics Today?“
Gwendolyn Beetham, Feministing, “The Academic Feminist: Summer at the Archives with Chicana Por Mi Raza (An Interview with Maria Cotera)”
The SIGJ2 Writing Collective, Antipode, “What Can We Do? The Challenge of Being New Academics in Neoliberal Universities”
Culum Canally, Antipode, “Timidity and the ‘Radical’ Academic Mind: A Response to the SIGJ2 Writing Collective”
Yasmin Nair, Current Affairs, “The Dangerous Academic Is an Extinct Species“
Cary Nelson, American Association of University Professors, “A Faculty Agenda for Hard Times”
Jennifer Ruth, Remaking the University, “When Tenure-Track Faculty Take On the Problem of Adjunctification“
Thomas Duke, The Undercurrent, “The Cause of the Adjunct Crisis: How a Research Focus is Destroying Higher Education”
Debra Leigh Scott, Adjunct Nation, “How American Universities Have Destroyed Scholarship in the U.S.“
Mary Elizabeth Luka, Alison Harvey, Mél Hogan, Tamara Shepherd, Andrea Zeffiro, Studies in Social Justice, “Scholarship as Cultural Production in the Neoliberal University: Working Within and Against ‘Deliverables’”
Alison Mountz, Anne Bonds, Becky Mansfield, Jenna Loyd, Jennifer Hyndman, Margaret Walton-Roberts, Ranu Basu, Risa Whitson, Roberta Hawkins, Trina Hamilton, Winifred Curran, ACME, “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University”
Sarah Banet-Weiser, Alexandra Juhasz, International Journal of Communications, “Feminist Labor in Media Studies/Communication”
Heather Fraser and Nik Taylor, Neoliberalization, Universities, and the Public Intellectual
Kevin Birmingham, The Chronicle of Higher Education, “‘The Great Shame of Our Profession’”
Shannon Ikebe and Alexandra Holmstrom-Smith, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, “Union Democracy, Student Labor, and the Fight for Public Education”
Anonymous, Inside Higher Ed, “Treadmill to Oblivion”
Lucia Lorenzi, thoughts on mediocrity
Miya Tokumitsu, Jacobin, “In the Name of Love”
Sarah Kendzior, Vitae, “The Adjunct Crisis Is Everyone’s Problem”
Hamilton Nolan, Gawker, “The Horrifying Reality of the Academic Job Market”
Denise Cummins, PBS, “Why the Backlash against Adjuncts Is an Indictment of the Tenure System”
Christopher Newfield, American Association of University Professors, “Avoiding the Coming Higher Ed Wars”
Henry A. Giroux, Truthout, “Angela Davis, Freedom and the Politics of Higher Education”
Charles R. Hale (Ed.), Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship
Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, Social Text, “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses”
Ji-Young Um, #alt-academy, “On Being a Failed Professor: Lessons from the Margins and the Undercommons”
Undercommoning Collective, ROAR, “Undercommoning within, against, and beyond the University-as-Such”
Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, Is This What Democracy Looks Like?, “Not Your Academy: Occupation and the Future of Student Struggles“
Trish Kahle and Michael Billeaux, Jacobin, “Resisting the Corporate University”
Levi Gahman, ROAR, “Dismantling Neoliberal Education: A Lesson from the Zapatistas“