There Is No Academic “Profession”

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.

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37 Responses to There Is No Academic “Profession”

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  2. DM says:

    Great piece. I just loathe it when “calls for civility” masquerade as “calls to sweeten and use circumlocutions that blanch out the real issue.” I’m all for rawness, as PKK went for. And that’s what really got at TR. As you said, her response was to attempt to bamboozle and distract from the real issue.

  3. martin says:

    I think there’s a danger in creating a pointless conflict here over word-choice, which can be valuable at times if there’s some kind of ideological denigration going on. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, however: I get the point about the profession being hollowed out and Potter et al being blind to that, but then why is it bad to refer to the profession as the profession even if you think that it’s being deprofessionalized? Isn’t there a good argument that we should emphasize even more now the fact that people dedicate years of training to their professional future — because it IS a profession, undeniably — and for that reason alone the hollowing-out should be resisted. Would you prefer “the romantic vocation”? Other than that, I’m for talking about things that exist too.

  4. Because if you have read Foucault, Lacan and Baudrillard, Deleuze and Derrida you know that to use the word “profession” in this context is to use a “floating sign” acting as a mask to obscure the fact that it is empty of meaning..

    I hope that’s clear. If not you can read the above for a few years and catch up.

  5. Aretha says:

    I’d say that we do indeed have a profession (albeit, to be sure, a profession in crisis).
    A profession in need of some major improvement(s), an overhaul.
    Indeed, the other implied question, too, here is: whose profession is it?
    One man’s profession is another man’s . . .
    I take your important and thought-provoking question very seriously though, and will want to think about it some more.
    For now, I think:
    What constitutes a farce to the academic profession and will it ever concede that its very existence actually depends on obtuseness, obliviousness, obscurantism, myopia, and even a whole lot of absurdity?
    The Academy’s New Clothes . . .
    The Academy’s Sound & Fury (or Sound & Rage-y, rather).
    Thanks for thoughts toward change.

  6. Z says:

    What I do not understand is why people imagine things are not as they are. I entered graduate school in 1978 and it was completely clear to me what the situation was. Having fallen prey to the Bowen report, which it was easy to see the flaws in even at the time, is not a very good excuse in my view. I am not saying that means the situation is good.

  7. Pingback: In which I needlessly weigh in on academic searches and “the humanities” |

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  10. Jay Bird says:

    I confess a little frustration when I read these articles. In our last job search to replace retired faculty for a TT US history spot we got just over 40 applications – about 1/4 incomplete and the the other 1/4 not in the area (British Colonial US) we asked for. We used phone interviews to not cause people “conference stress” and costs. We were shushed by one applicant as he answered the door, put on hold by another, and had yet another ignore every question we asked. Campus visitors openly mocked our small town, belittled our program, and looked down their nose at us because none of us has Ivy degrees. Our pay is perfectly fine (52k for ABD, 54-56K for more experience) for our cost of living standards in rural US West, our workload manageable due to a strong union, and our student body is respectful and sharp – so to be treated like we were some ArkLaTex trash school was shocking. Sadly, the same thing also happened with our newly added Asia and Africa TT line searches. So, I agree that there may be no profession, but it is partly because sometimes job applicants can’t seem to act life professionals – or even courteous human beings – much of the time. Though I suppose they learned to be dicks from their advisers which only solidifies your entire point. sigh. head bang head bang head bang

    • Z says:

      I know, Jay Bird. I feel your pain.

    • Peter says:

      I’m very sorry to hear that Jay Bird. If I were a US historian instead of a medieval literature specialist, I would have jumped at an opportunity for a job like that. As for receiving applications outside of the area, you should point the blame at other search committees. Getting applications outside the stated areas of interest is a major gripe that I see, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence around that some, though maybe not most, search committees will look seriously at people who don’t fit what they ask for. My university ran a job search last year that specifically asked for applicants in a historical period with a focus on gender, queer, and/or narrative studies. None of the three finalists gave job talks that touched on any of those areas, although I personally liked all of them. There was another job for an advanced assistant professor that I didn’t apply for since I was ABD, but a friend who was also ABD did apply for it and got a first round interview. Another job hired someone whose research is so far afield that he doesn’t even list the very broadly defined area he was hired to teach as one of his research interests on his CV (I’m still confused about that one). The only reasonable conclusion most people on the job market can draw is that they should apply for any job that is remotely appropriate and even some that aren’t, as the only risk is mildly inconveniencing more conscientious search committees and the potential upside is getting a job. This also leads to the problem of incomplete applications, because many departments are incredibly vague about what documents they want and given the number of jobs being applied for it is easy to forget or omit materials that have to be tailored to individual schools beyond the minimum of a cover letter and CV in the initial application.

      • Loren Schmidt says:

        Don’t forget “desperation” as an explanation for applying for positions for which one is not a perfect match! When I completed my doctorates in 1984 and entered the pseudo-Darwinian academic marketplace, after 60+ rejections (some for positions whose descriptions seemed written for me alone), I definitely began to send out applications to positions that were (charitably) a stretch! And even in those days before computers made customized application materials easier, many of the schools asked for multiple unique items, so one definitely could misunderstand or forget to include some of those items. On the other hand, having served on many search committees in the ensuing years, I am surprised to hear Jay Bird describe the behavior of those history applicants, given that the field has seen decades of tough times, including one year in which nationwide tenure-track hiring was in the single digits . . . tell those young whippersnappers to get off yer lawn!!

    • Barry says:

      “I confess a little frustration when I read these articles. In our last job search to replace retired faculty for a TT US history spot we got just over 40 applications – about 1/4 incomplete and the the other 1/4 not in the area (British Colonial US) we asked for. ”

      You are lying. We are in a deep labor market recession, and in academia it’s been a depression for decades now. Any job opening will have a truckload of qualified applicants, and nobody will come for an on-campus interview and mock anything (frankly, that last bit was stupid; it makes it crystal-clear that you’re lying).

    • Barry says:

      “I confess a little frustration when I read these articles. In our last job search to replace retired faculty for a TT US history spot we got just over 40 applications – about 1/4 incomplete and the the other 1/4 not in the area (British Colonial US) we asked for. ”

      I don’t believe you. To others – what is the general real-world response rate for a TT job, especially in a likely more common area like US history? 100? 200?

  11. post-ac says:

    Hi Jay Bird. Thanks for reading and responding to this post. I don’t doubt your reports about your experience on a SC. But what happens at specific institutions must be understood (as I’m sure you know!) in light of larger trends in the whole sector. What we’re seeing, i think, is the manifestation of higher education being totally fucked up in multiple ways and that general fuck-up-ness being felt by everyone at various levels. What you could be describing is precisely the same thing that I am describing: a labor system that usually favors a few top candidates from top schools. It is not surprising that those who make it through grad school and all the way to your interview table (or Skype session) already believe themselves to be special and more deserving than those who didn’t make it to that point, which might explain why they sometimes act like jerks.

  12. Slicedmeat says:

    Jay bird, great points, which hit on the other side of the entitlement coin. Imagine having to compete with that though? Where people are drawn to certain schools because of prestige, rather than substance. It’s Infuriating as a candidate when your see other candidates talk like they’re owed a job, and they act like that. But the entire issue with these articles, and the fury, is the fact that the culture of interviewing places too much of a burden on an impoverished set of people, end of story. I’ve been on the market for a number of years, but no luck with a TT position yet. I’ve got one on site next week. I’m grateful. I’ve never had an AHA or MLA interview. And on the number of candidates applying? 190 for one position this fall, last year 400. Wide searches, but it’s difficult to hear you complaining about the realities of doing your job. Cull the duds, hang up on the shusher. There are plenty of us out there ready to work and contribute as scholars to communities like yours. Interview us, please.

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  14. I taught for 32 years at a mediocre college in Pennsylvania. We tried four times to unionize all of the teachers, adjuncts, grad students, the who shebang. We failed, not least because the tenured faculty at the central campus (mine was a branch undergraduate college) couldn’t bear the thought of having nonentities like myself, much less adjuncts and grad students, in the same organization with them. Even where I taught, tenured teachers were the most gutless assholes imaginable, elitist, disdainful of most of the students, the worst kind of suck ups to authority. One thing I learned quickly is that teaching is a job, like any other, and subject to the same kinds of forces (de-skilling, speed-up, and the like) as most all jobs. I quit when I was 55. Luckily, I have a pension and now social security, plus a part-time job with a left-wing publisher. We gave away our possessions and hit the road. I still teach one two-week class to labor union brothers and sisters in January. Typical tenured professorial shit doesn’t cut in there.

    Profession? What a useless word to describe what most teachers do these days. Or what I did then. I once had a telling experience in NYC. My wife and I met with the head of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The organization’s office had been recently firebombed. We went to lunch later, and the head paid for our lunch. That night I gave a talk at Columbia University. We ate at the Faculty Club. I had to pay for my wife’s dinner! The most pathetic academic chitchat took place until we said that our three sons were cook. Conversation stopped. The subject of my talk was the US labor movement.

    • Z says:

      When we started working toward unionizing TAs and RAs at Berkeley, we started with what we thought would be an uncontroversial campaign: a petition requesting the university provide health insurance for these workers. Most graduate students would not sign on grounds that this could get them blacklisted on the job market later. The only faculty who signed without requiring a long speech were foreign.

    • I can’t speak to anyone’s experience at colleges in Pennsylvania. However, sweeping generalizations about “most” faculty aren’t especially compelling no matter where one taught or what one’s experiences are. Such generalizations are insulting to those tenured and tenure-track faculty at less elite institutions (including community colleges) who do lobby their administrations and state governments for better pay, benefits and treatment for adjuncts, and who fight to hire tenure-track faculty instead of exploiting additional contingent labor, on top of the fifty- to seventy-hour weeks they put into their teaching of less privileged students…and with no promise of a pension, let alone any chance of retiring at fifty-five. Such faculty ARE labor, not management; the trends toward exploitation of labor, de-skilling, larger classes, and so on aren’t coming from the faculty I know, but from state governments bent on moving to a standardized “business” model founded on an endless pool of underpaid and disposable labor. So, while I’m no expert on whether there’s a “profession” at NYU or Columbia, I’ll stand on my own experience to promise you that a bit further out, a lot of us are still professionals, trying to make the profession as we know it a better place for all instructors. And characterizing us en masse as gutless, elitist, suck-up assholes doesn’t make that any easier: rather, it offers inaccurate but doubtless welcome ammunition to those whose whole goal is to exploit us more efficiently. Speaking as labor, thanks for nothing.

      • I offered my experiences, not yours. No, you can’t speak to what I said, so you shouldn’t try to. There were good tenured faculty at the main and branch campuses, just not enough of them. So, I apologize for being much too general in my post. And yes, of course, it is administration, business elites, and political people who are leading the charge to gut education. As to characterizing yourself as a professional, well, that is your take, not mine. I think it would be more helpful to building solidarity if we thought of ourselves as workers. Still, though, solidarity is key whatever you call yourself. Just so long as you fight for a better workplace for all at your college, not just teachers, but secretaries, custodians, ground crews, cafeteria workers, staff, everyone. That is what we always tried to do.

        BTW, I put in those fifty to seventy hours a week too and taught working class students for many, many years. Whatever you have done, teaching-wise, political-wise, etc. I’d bet I can match you task for task. If you ever marked 2,000 papers (plus examinations) in one term or taught 480 students in one semester (with no assistance), you let me know. Also, I was in a nonelite school if ever there was one. I gave a talk at Columbia, and I was scared to death, so I have no idea what academic is life at such a place.

        That de-skilling, etc. doesn’t happen without some going along by faculty (do you do student evaluations and assessments, put out your yearly “I did this” list for your supervisors, and so forth?) So, a complete analysis doesn’t stop with forces external to the colleges and universities. Just like an assessment of the state of the US labor movement doesn’t stop with what others are doing to labor, but goes on to discuss what is happening inside the labor movement. Both factors, external and internal, have been going on for a very long time. Veblen wrote about the business model of higher ed in 1920!
        Capitalism tends to bring forth people and institutions in its own image. Unions mimic businesses, workers mimic bosses. Why be surprised or angry that someone says so? Overcoming all of this is a more daunting task, I think, than lobbying or some sort of amorphous “fighting.”

        I didn’t retire, I quit. Just for my information, are you a tenured teacher but have no money put aside for retirement? There is no pension at all where you work?

        Anyway, solidarity in your struggles.

  15. post-ac says:

    Thanks, Michael, for these comments. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  16. post-ac says:

    HI Catherine, Thanks for your response. I hear what you’re saying. Please note that I wrote in my follow-up post to the one you commented on that full-time faculty are “no more responsible for the state of affairs than the adjunct teaching in the classroom next to you.” You’re correct that full timers are labor as well. And your distinction between the Claire Potters of the world and faculty teaching at less prestigious institutions is key. But many adjuncts and job seekers have reported being ignored and having their concerns about the job market and their working conditions dismissed by full time colleagues, at many different kinds of colleges. This whole discussion got started with Tenured Radical’s tone deaf, elitist response to Rebecca voicing complaints about UC Riverside’s treatment of job candidates because TR’s stance – of complete and utter disregard for reality – is one many of us recognize. As far as the existence of a “profession,” it seems to me that your own description of what full-time faculty do these days proves my point. You say they “lobby their administrations and state governments for better pay, benefits and treatment for adjuncts, and ….. fight to hire tenure-track faculty instead of exploiting additional contingent labor, on top of the fifty- to seventy-hour weeks they put into their teaching of less privileged students…and with no promise of a pension, let alone any chance of retiring at fifty-five.” That doesn’t really sound like a “profession” to me. It sounds like a nightmare.

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  18. martin says:

    It looks as if there are three models for rendering the current situation in the academic humanities:

    1) The profession is undergoing a period of economic pressure and functional uncertainty; everything from budget cuts to technology to academic corporatization is putting the nature of the university in question; despite those circumstances, however, graduate students remain enthusiastic, search committees try to recruit the best junior colleagues, and teaching and research continue; the profession is, despite all, alive and kicking.
    2) We are in a bad way and there’s no denying that the job market cratered in 2008 and hasn’t recovered; not only are there fewer opportunities but the duration of the crisis means that contingent faculty have increasingly less chance of breaking into a TT job as the years pass; add to that the pressure from corporate-style administrators and other actors who want a results-driven academy, and it’s grim; despite that, however, there is a strong element of belief in one’s own abilities in academic life (this is my article, that’s her book) and that is part of the professional matrix that should be defended; also, only tenured faculty can fight for retention of faculty lines — otherwise, nobody gets hired.
    3) “The profession” is now an outdated and even pernicious term, that serves no end except to confuse or sabotage the kinds of discussion and action that all workers in the academy should be engaging in; it is only used by tone-deaf elitist individuals who are always on hand to defend whatever gatekeeping structures the tenured minority operate to protect their privilege — indeed, the very proportion of tenure-track to contingent faculty is itself a bleak testimony to the disappearance of anything resembling a “profession.”

    Keeping it short, I think that 1) is hovering on the edge of self-delusion but there are enough points of contact between 2) and 3) to make a war to the death between them nothing short of stupid. It would be sad if the last two colleagues to go down under the wheels of the corporate academy were beating on each other about the status of a particular vocabulary.

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  20. potterc2012 says:

    There is some slippage here — I used the adjective “professional,” meaning the demeanor generally agreed upon in a workplace, which I think is different from this English Lit habit of referring to the entirety of what they do and are as “the profession.” It probably makes no difference in relation to how you understood my post, but it does send the interpretation off in a slightly different direction. Just saying.

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  23. Nathanael says:

    The AAUP’s proposed solution is unionization, of all college teachers including graduate students and contingent faculty. This has, in fact, been the AAUP’s proposed solution for nearly 100 years. Pretentiousness on the part of tenured faculty has prevented this at most institutions; now that tenured faculty are a shrinking minority, perhaps it will be taken more seriously.

    Regarding the word “professional”, it is clear that UC Riverside English Department behaved extremely unprofessionally. The appropriate professional response to that level of unprofessionalism — as most professionals know — is to curse them out in public, which Schuman correctly did, a most professional behavior on her part.

  24. Marni says:

    I recently did something outrageous. I applied for a job as an adjunct and got it. Adjunct pay, as we all know, is pretty dismal but this school was worse than most. Also, it was required that we attend 5 professional development workshops and we would get paid $500 if we attended all 5 and nothing if we missed one. I went to the first which was 6 hours long. Now I can imagine many topics that I would have found interesting but this one was filled with nonsense. In the middle of this ‘so-called’ professional development the Dean of Arts and Science got up and actually said that this school was so great because it invested in the faculty. As proof he pointed to the ‘dinner’ that we were served. Choice of beverage was water and decaf. Main course lasagne and pasta served with the cheapest plastic knives and forks imaginable. It wasn’t just a plastic fork, it was an incredibly small plastic fork that I could not imagine eating spaghetti with and so I just had the lasagne.

    And so, the day before class started I resigned. I came to the conclusion that college administrators cause a lot of pain and it was time for me to do the same to them for the sake, not only of my fellow adjuncts, but really for the students since they are the ones really getting hurt by all this. They are putting themselves in debt for the rest of their lives and not getting the product/service that they are paying for.

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