“The world is a vampire
Sent to drain
Hold you up to the flames
And what do I get
For my pain?
And a piece of the game.”
“Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
Then someone will say, “What is lost can never be saved”
Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.”
Smashing Pumpkins (“Bullet with Butterfly Wings”)
So, I’ll be honest. I skipped a week on this blog. Sure, I was busy. This is the first week of school in person (the last two weeks were online). But it was bigger than that. I’m frustrated. I’m angry. I’m at a loss as to what to do next. This is not the academia I signed up for.
So lets go back a ways, when I was a fresh-faced, optimistic innocent, first entering the world of academics. I had originally gone back to school because I needed to get my bachelors in order to progress in my chosen field (far from academia). But as I finished that, I was seduced by the lure of history. I decide, what the hell, let’s get a master’s, but that will be it. As I was working on that, I would hear “keep going. You could some day teach at an R1 university like this.” That became ” you could teach at a lower level university,” which shifted to “you could teach at a four year liberal arts college,” then “you might be able to teach at a community college,” finally settling on “you should really explore alt-ac careers.” I had fallen victim to an academic bait and switch.
The problem is who do I blame? I can blame myself, of course. In 2016, when Trump was elected, I should have seen the writing on the wall more clearly. The distrust of experts and higher education was pretty clear and likely to get worse (and it did). But I was functioning in a bubble, a bubble that reinforced that what I was doing was good, necessary, and productive. That is an allure that is hard to resist. I could have blamed the Republican Party, but that’s too easy. They only fed on a fear that existed outside of them, a fear with really deep roots in society (to be honest, academia has never really done itself any favors in regards to its relationship with society. The term “ivory tower” exists for a reason). As much as it pains me, I think the party is a reflection of its members, not so much the members’ guiding force. Besides, on a bad day, Republicans are way less than half the country. Where did the other half go? (Unfortunately, that is a complicated political question I just don’t have the energy for.)
I could blame administrations. But they are all reacting to forces larger than themselves. The push to see colleges as businesses (for the record, my students are NOT my customers), expecting them to respond to challenges in the same way that a business would, is driving many of the choices made my college administrations. But doesn’t that make sense? Look at the average Boards of Regents and Trustees. Lots of CEOs, businesspeople, and whatnot. Not so many educators or people with PhD’s in social sciences and humanities. When finances get challenging, when profits are low (I know most colleges are nonprofit, but do the boards know?), how do you expect them to respond? When all y0u have is a hammer…
Even so, the choices being made are bewildering. The arts and sciences are extraordinarily vulnerable at the moment as STEM threatens to take over. And why not? What good are the humanities? Well, sociology helps us understand how we interact with each other and why. Psychology helps us understand ourselves. Journalism (at least journalism practiced by trained journalists, anyway) keeps us informed. History shows us where we have come from and helps us see where we might be headed. The fine and performing arts show us that there are many healthy ways to express ourselves. our experiences, and our emotions. All of these disciplines contribute to a well rounded, informed, engaged citizen. They don’t all generate revenue, but they all help develop the American that I would think we all want. Yet they are all, in some ways, on the chopping block.
Let’s talk about tenure. I always wondered about tenure. As far as I know, only college professors and federal judges get tenure (I’ve always been suspicious of the latter). So if no one gets it, why is it important? All I can speak of is my own experience, but let me give you an example. Over the last few years, I have seen many professors call out their institutions for hypocrisy, racism, sexism, etc. They have also been quick to let everyone know when responses to COVID were inadequate. Many professors make sure that the schools they work for are held accountable for their actions. I, on the other hand, rarely draw attention to the iniquities I see, to failures of the administration, to things that I know are wrong. What’s the difference? I have never had tenure. There is no one to protect me when I speak out. Nothing to stop whatever college I work for from firing me. Like a lot of people, I need my job. Now, let’s imagine a school where everyone is like me: at worst an adjunct, with nothing really invested in the school, and at best, an at will employee. Who will speak out when the administration acts egregiously? Who will confront a school’s troubling past? Who will teach subjects that upset the largely white, male, conservative boards of regents? Students in the humanities will get careful, paranoid educations from professors afraid to risk their jobs. Good for administrations, bad for education.
I can’t say any of this surprises me. I knew that there had been a push to cut the humanities and eradicate tenure well before now, but the pandemic has allowed schools to push forward with those goals even quicker. My gut feeling is that the next year will see a scorched earth policy towards the social sciences. Then, schools will pick through the rubble, finding survivors, hiring them for non tenure track jobs. In the meantime, as positions are cut, remaining professors will be reminded of how lucky they are to have a job and told to make the shortages work. And they will. I have been lucky enough to have been taught by and worked with incredibly talented educators who get through difficult situations with aplomb. I suppose the question is, what will the other side of all of this look like? I have no idea. But I do know that I have to figure something out. I have given the last thirteen years of my life to academia. At this point, its all I know.
Next week: back to history.