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Academe’s Firing Squads

A quick Google search shows the wild popularity of a new genre of academic writing: the graduate-student blog about the evils of graduate school. With names like “100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate Schools,” these posts are populated by a cast of Dickensian caricatures of innocence and wickedness. Advisers are narcissistic thugs, and students are helpless, poverty-stricken orphans. Doctoral study, especially in the humanities, is a merciless fraternity sustained by cruel hazing rituals—arbitrary exams, endless work, and unpleasable professors. But these stories have no Oliver Twist happy ending. As William Pannapacker (then writing as Thomas H. Benton) once told prospective graduate students in these pages, “Just Don’t Go.” There have now been dozens of imitators: It’s become almost common wisdom that graduate school is a cult that degrades its initiates.

Critics have legitimate concerns, but they often undermine the very institutions that would attempt to deal with the problems. Even if the American labor movement has declined in influence, the academy still cherishes certain organizational structures that allow for collective action. Among these are learned societies and faculty unions, as well as the university itself (which, thank heavens, isn’t yet completely profit-driven). By mobilizing within these structures, we academics might still have some capacity to protest the abysmal state of our working conditions. But the institutions that enable our collective action are increasingly under attack— often from the inside.

In the humanities, Rebecca Schuman has become a voice for the university’s dispossessed. More often than not, Schuman uses her platform at Slate and elsewhere to throw out the whole university baby with the bathwater of adjunct labor. Schuman herself, it’s worth pointing out, is a product of a broken system. A prestige-obsessed research culture indoctrinated her and others like her into believing that the tenure-track R1 job is the only path to a good life. Then, after years of humiliating rejection in a terrible academic job market, Schuman, as she retells it, is relegated, with so many part-time faculty members (myself included), to a row in the adjunct galley, keeping the ship of academe afloat—while being treated (as the Emory English professor and Chronicle columnist Marc Bousquet so floridly puts it) as the “indigestible remainder” of a system that thrives on exploitation.

Schuman is not alone in publicly and destructively trashing the university and its structures. Look, for example, at recent discussion of the Modern Language Association’s “Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature.” Schuman asserts that the MLA has no credibility, since it consists of people who can afford to pay membership dues and aren’t interested in the lower rungs of the profession. Hence its report is bogus. According to The Chronicle, a number of adjuncts agree. (One comment: “The perspectives of the adjunct and the full-time tenured faculty are absolutely oceans apart, and have been for 25 years.”) As if channeling this discontent, a blogger claims that the American Philosophical Association also fails to represent all academic workers.

From my own cheap seat, it looks like the MLA and other professional associations like the American Historical Association have made good-faith efforts to be inclusive. Joining these organizations isn’t free, and it doesn’t come with a guarantee that they will perfectly represent all points of view. But after several years of not being a member, I’ve realized that there’s still a reason to join organizations like the MLA. Just as there is a reason to keep paying my graduate-student-union dues. If we—academics at all levels—are going to have a chance to save our professions and our universities, we need to organize as a group. Without professional societies and unions, we’d be in a much sorrier place, crying into our beer rather than trying to protect our livelihoods.

It may very well be that the MLA’s report has flaws. But attacking the institution itself threatens to stymie any attempts at reform. It weakens our ability to pursue common purposes. The increasing stratification of the academic labor market already reduces our capacity to work for the common good. As a fellow laborer in the graduate-student and adjunct vineyard, I can certainly empathize with feeling alienated from my profession and my graduate school. Recently a friend of mine got annoyed when he noticed that none of the three professors on his orals committee had signed a petition asking our university to raise the wage for adjuncts. Then he realized that these professors probably hadn’t heard about the petition—because they were on vacation in Europe. It’s hard to believe in a “community of scholars” when tenured and affluent faculty sometimes treat labor issues callously.

Or consider: At my own institution, the City University of New York, full-time faculty members recently voted no confidence in the administration’s plan to restructure the undergraduate curriculum. Graduate students and adjuncts generally oppose the plan, too, and they would have voted that way—except weren’t eligible to do so. Slighted, they drafted a petition condemning the vote and censuring the faculty union. In the process, they may have undermined the effectiveness of the faculty’s vote, despite generally supporting its ends. There’s plenty of blame to go around here, but my point is that we need to keep our eyes on our mutual goal. Sometimes the ends do justify the means. I wish that the academy’s discontented, out of pure self-interest, would develop the political savvy to know when to support a measure that serves them.

It’s clear that the status quo has shaken the faith of graduate students and adjuncts in education as a collective enterprise. In response, we’re turning to venomous bloggers who, outside academic disciplines, can’t be held accountable to academic standards of civility, and who, being individual guns for hire, don’t speak to the needs of the profession so much as they serve the needs of their editors. Indeed, it warrants repeating that many of the dispossessed no longer see themselves as belonging to a profession—hence they don’t feel obliged to speak courteously, think honestly, or work for the common good.

We need an ethics of solidarity. Solidarity, as I understand it, means recognizing one’s political allies and supporting them to attain common goals. But—and this is crucial—solidarity won’t be forged if the beneficiaries of the academic caste system continue to ignore the problems that plague of the rest of us. Unions and learned societies, and especially their tenured members, had better take note.

A.W. Strouse is a doctoral student in English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and teaches as a graduate fellow at Hunter College. His book of poems, Retractions and Revelations, is available on JERKPOET.

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