It would be hard to say I enjoyed reading Roger Whitson’s very fine recent meditation in the Chronicle on the quest for a tenure-track job, his ambivalent feelings on finding one, the mixed feelings of exaltation and guilt at getting what so many of his peers would never find, and of leaving behind an #Altac existence where he had begun to make a home.
Hard to enjoy reading both because the story seems to typify what our academic life has actually become, and, frankly, because it reminded me too much of my own wandering years as a new academic a couple of decades ago. I spent seven years full-time on the job market back in the day (if you count the last two years of graduate school). I have estimated in the past that I must have applied for at least 700-800 jobs during those years–the idea of being targeted and selective a joke for a new father. Fortunately I was actually only totally unemployed for four months during those years, though that was enough to plunge me thousands of dollars in to debt paying for health insurance. For five of those seven years I had full-time work in various visiting assistant positions, and for two of those visiting years I was paid so little I qualified for food stamps, though I never applied for the program. I worked as many extra courses as I could to pay the bills–probably foolish for my career since publishing slowed to a crawl, but it saved my pride. I remember asking, naively, during an interview for one such visiting position whether it was actually possible to live in that area of the country on what I was going to be paid. The chair interviewing me at the time hesitated, then responded, “Well, of course, your wife can work.”
Only one of those years did I not get an interview, and only two of those years did I not get a campus interview, but even then this seemed like a very peculiar and unhelpful way to claim success for a beginning academic career. We did not have anything called #altac in those days, and my plan B–which on my worst days I sometimes still wonder whether I should have followed–was to go back to cooking school and become a chef (I know, I know. Another growth industry). I never felt bad about pursuing a PhD in English, and I don’t think I would have even if I had gone on to become a chef. The learning was worth it, to me, at least.
But I did grow distant from college friends who became vice-presidents of companies or doctors in growing practices , all of whom talked about their mortgages and vacations in the Caribbean or Colorado, while I was living in the cheapest 2 bedroom apartment in Fairfax Virginia that I could find and fishing furniture, including my daughter’s first bed, out of a dumpster. (The furniture was held together, literally, by duct tape; I had to pay for conferences). And I spent a lot of evenings walking off my anxiety through the park next to our apartment complex, reminding myself of how much I had to be thankful for. After all, I had a job and could pay my bills through the creative juggling of credit card balances. A lot of my friends had found no jobs at all. A low rent comparison, I realize, but I would take what solace I could get.
I do not resent those days now, but that depends a lot on my having come out the other side. The sobering thought in all of this is in realizing that in the world of academics today I should count myself one of the lucky ones. Reading Roger’s essay, and the many like it that have been published in the last twenty years, I always get a sick hollow feeling in the gut, remembering what it was like to wonder what would happen if….
Reading Roger’s essay I was struck again with the fact that this is now the permanent condition of academic life in the humanities. My own job story began more than 20 years ago at Duke, and even then we were told that the job market had been miserable for 15 years (but was sure to get better by and by). 30 years is not a temporary downturn or academic recession. It is a way of being.
The advent of MOOC’s, all-online education, and for-profit universities, are responses to the economics of higher education that are unlikely to make things any better for the freshly minted PhD. While there are some exciting innovations here that have a lot of promise for increasing learning to the many, it’s also the case that they are attractive and draw interest because they promise to do it more cheaply, which in the world of higher education means teaching more students with fewer faculty hours. Roger’s most powerful line came toward the end: “Until we realize that we are all contingent, we are all #altac, we all need to be flexible, and we are all in this together, we won’t be able to effectively deal with the crisis in the humanities with anything other than guilt.”
This is right, it seems to me. In a world that is changing as rapidly and as radically as higher education, we are all as contingent the reporters and editors in the newsrooms of proud daily newspapers. It is easy to say that the person who “made it” was talented enough or smart enough or savvy enough, but mostly they, I, we were just lucky enough to come out the other side. But we would be misguided to imagine that because we made it in to a world that at least resembled the world we imagined, that that world will always be there. We are an older institution and industry than music or radio or newspapers, but we are an industry and an institution nonetheless, and it seems to me that the change is upon us. We are all contingent now.