Unless you’ve been buried under a draft of your unfinished dissertation for the last few days (or sleeping off your Christmas dinner and various related bouts of drunkenness), you’ve noted the blog/Twitter war that broke out between Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka) and Claire Potter (@tenuredradical).
On her blog, Schuman justifiably took the UC Riverside English department to task for announcing they would contact applicants to be interviewed for a position in American Literature on January 3, a mere five days before the MLA conference at which such interviews would take place. Potter no likey Schuman’s post. She thought it was too rage-y.
I won’t go into the particulars of the argument because quite a number of people smarter than I have already weighed in on the matter, mostly in support of Schuman because, duh.
But I can’t resist expressing exasperation in response to Potter’s latest post. She deflected the issue that Shuman originally wrote about – that search committees are often “elitist and out of touch” – and instead treated her readers to a long-winded discussion of all the ways people have said things on social media that they later came to regret. Then, moving completely away from the subject matter that started the whole conversation, Potter made the pronouncement that
Social media is, indisputably, now a professional issue: it’s time to figure out how to weave conversation about its uses and abuses into our ongoing professional development, at all levels.
I have no issue with encouraging civil discourse on social media, and there is no place for personal attacks anywhere. But Potter’s idea that somehow there exists a thing called a “profession” and that people “at all levels” are part of it is laughably absurd.
Simply put, there is no such thing as a higher education “job market” or “profession.” In an age when almost three quarters of faculty are teaching off the tenure track, it is beyond me how anyone can take seriously the idea that people who teach at colleges are part of anything, really. Even the word “profession” sounds pretentious.
I don’t mean to suggest that academics and would-be academics have stopped pantomiming “professional” behaviors. Far from it! There is a charade that gets played out every year wherein various people, most of whom already have jobs or attended Ivies or published a book with a prestigious press (probably all three), play musical chairs with one another and listen to their peers read various profound papers. Of course, each year some new faces are introduced into the mix, but hardly enough to justify calling the brutal conference interviewing season “a market.”
If we’re going to call for an end to internet incivility (a cause I heartily support, though I don’t believe Rebecca Schuman is a culprit worth mentioning), I think we should also demand an end to uncritical and empty uses of the terms “job market” and “profession,” as if those are facts of the universe.
Again, there are 1.5 million college teachers in the United States, and 1 million of them are contingent. How is the word “profession” a relevant or useful term in light of that reality? Why should any of us pay attention to “advice” from someone who nurtures such a fantasy? What is stoking the rage of adjuncts and graduate students is not the ability to lob 140 character rage bombs into the ether. Rather, it’s that people like Tenured Radical still get to frame the operative questions, even thought they don’t know much about the reality on the ground because they don’t have to know.
Of course, Claire Potter is far from the first person to assume the relevance of a word – and a concept – that is virtually meaningless. The MLA has an entire journal devoted to Humanities professors who want to work out their class anxieties in print, after all. (It is called “The Profession.”)
So what do we have in academia if we don’t have a “job market” or a “profession”? Helpfully, that question was answered more than a decade ago by Marc Bousquet who explained that what we have in the place of anything that resembles a market for job candidates is, well, shit. That’s right: we have graduate programs in the Humanities whose business it is to lure in gullible graduate students, using them for cheap teaching labor before flushing them out as a waste product of a system that no longer needs them. That’s the point that Tenured Radical keeps evading (at least in this instance) for reasons that remain unclear, as I’m sure she knows the statistics as well as anyone.
I’m in favor of civility and general niceness as long as we can all agree to talk about things that exist.
ADDENDUM 12/28: Bad Attitude has made an important comment about this post, which helps illustrate how urgent it is to unpack these myths of “the profession” from multiple angles and points of view. We need to learn and speak out about all the particular ways the majority of college teachers, as a group, are made disposable.