Why Academia Should Be Burnt to the Ground: Personal Anecdotes

I have been an adjunct since Fall 2013.  This employment has run contemporaneous with my PhD work, and I have been near criminally compensated the entire time; paid, before taxes, a mere $2000 per course.  This is roughly $1000 less per course than the national average for adjuncts.  As a PhD student, I received only one year–the maximum given by my university–of a rather paltry stipend, although tuition was waived.  Adjunct pay has not been increased at my university in over a decade, despite, in that time, an approximate 30% rise in cost of living in my city.  Graduate student stipends were raised last year by 75%, but both too late for me and with an additional work-study component.

Once upon a more naive time, I met with my university’s president and provost to discuss adjunct compensation.  The president was 15 minutes late, and so I was made to give my spiel twice.  The provost told me it was a financial impossibility to give any sort of raise whatsoever–implicitly admitting, in the course of this assertion, that the impossibility was not one of financial lack, but due to “budgetary constraints”.  In other words, not that they couldn’t give a raise, but really just that they wouldn’t; that even a 2% raise was impossible.

When the president arrived, and I’d gone through round two, he turned to the provost and said that they really need to look into giving a 2% raise.  The provost’s face went to shit, hearing the president say that they were going to look into what the provost had just told me was an impossibility, and watching his stone-faced “going to shit” look was the only enjoyable moment of the whole meeting.  Not that I ever got the 2% raise, of course… and that’s a shame, because that extra $40 per course would really have made a difference in my life.

Since my university is non-profit, naturally, I was sitting there with the knowledge that these two individuals are, combined, compensated to the tune of over half a million dollars per year.  The provost is an educated and intelligent human being, but spineless.  This lattermost seems to be his chief qualification for being provost.  The president is so ignorant that he suggested to the English department that they host a “William McGonagall Society Event” to raise funds, because he’s “Sure there are some McGonagall fans in the city”, and asked a classics professor if the Gospel of John was “the one written in Greek”.

And they offered to “look into” giving adjuncts $40 more per course.

Meanwhile, I was offered no benefits, had to compete with others in my program for courses to teach, had to work another job (or two) to make ends meet (mostly to live in crappy apartments), and, oh yes, also worked on a rather lengthy and heavily-researched dissertation.  12-14 hour days for six (sometimes seven) days a week have not been an uncommon occurrence–more the rule.  The only truly comfortable living situation I’ve had is from the charitable offer of a single, childless tenured professor in my department, who had a spare room to rent.

My university is small.  Traditionally, it has had success as a liberal arts university, having attracted good faculty in the liberal arts field.  Being in a large city, with many (better funded) universities, it has always been competing from behind in the sciences, but of a nevertheless good–if somewhat limited–liberal arts reptutation, especially the philosophy program (and most especially philosophy graduate program).

The current president, however, has made it his goal to make the university one of higher, wider, and more public prestige; a larger enrollment, more graduates, more programs, especially STEM, with less emphasis on and funding dedicated to the liberal arts.  His understanding of the nature of a university, however, is marred by a commercial, consumerist attitude, and so he has not even succeded in making it a better STEM university.  In short, his, realized or not, goal has been to run things like a business.  This president has largely succeeded in this endeavor, mostly by deceiving the board of trustees and donors, promising them that there would be enough cake for everyone.

I came to have myself a slice of the cake of the liberal arts, only to watch a vocational-training-attitude toward the sciences gobbling it up right off my plate.

In addition, I see the liberal arts’ cake being devoured everywhere, sometimes from without, oftentimes from within.  I look at PhilJobs.org and HigherEdJobs.com every day, and it kills me.  Even when there are new postings, 19 out of 20 involve a specialization far removed from my own; or their department only hires from Tier 1 universities; or it’s in, you know, Bemidji, Minnesota.

I have applied, in desperation, for many jobs.  I have received, in despair, many rejection letters.  One assistant professor posting, at Gonzaga (they technically had 3 openings–incredibly rare–but an inside source told me two of those were slated for inside hires) received 466 applications.  A postdoc received 350 applications.  Another assistant position received 249.    Even Bemidji is likely to have hundreds of applicants, though I won’t be one of them, because I don’t hate myself that much.

What I find far more depressing than the financial aspects of my career, however, are the shitty people who share the same profession, though certainly not the same passion.  Everything I have mentioned in my previous posts–the pettiness, the intellectual sleights to obfuscate poor work, the overwhelming concern with reputation, the overspecialization, and even the bureaucracy, are problems I have seen from within my own program.

I recall one former fellow graduate student, now graduated and working on a postdoc at a Very Prestigious University, who has published more articles than many professors do in their entire careers, who admitted that in arguments he will often just start rattling off texts to win an argument, despite these texts have little-to-no necessary relevance to his point.  For example, I often encountered him saying things along the lines of, “Oh, you should have read So-and-So’s article in the Paper Journal, and this primary text here, here, there, here, and there, as well as articles X, Y, Z, Zed, Quird, and Popplecock, if you want to talk to me about topic D”.

He would, like many others, do much the same thing in his published works, dumping a massive number of “relevant” works in an early footnote, showing the “exhaustive” knowledge that he possessed of the topic.

Frankly, I would be insulted to find my work cited in such a manner.  I’d like to think that my work is more significant than to be simply, uncritically, lumped in with a mass of others.  Maybe that’s my own egotistical problem.  Maybe he’s still an asshole anyway.

The same student, incidentally, admitted that he had little interest in his dissertation topic, but chose it because it was currently a hot topic, and one that opened career doors for him.

This same student told the director of the program when I made some cynical joke about the university on facebook, such that I was (indirectly) censured–which actually lead to the Krampus Anonymous identity (and to my saying “fuck facebook”).

This same student has been held up by the program as a model for others to follow.  He is “professional”.  He is “prolific”.  He is “successful”.  He’s also a dishonest asshole, who, while admittedly rather smart, is constantly polishing his own image.

That many of the faculty in my program hold him in such high esteem is illustrative of how fucked up their priorities are.  Few of them are actually that familiar with his work, or with the fact that it actually says very little of substance; but he has garnered some reputation for the program, and that’s what they really care about.

“You won an award for that paper?  Then it must be good.”

“You wrote your dissertation in a year?  That’s really impressive!”

“You’re friends with Dr. Smartypants?  Why don’t you give me a call–we’ve got an opening next semester that you’d be good for.”

“You published in Famous Peer Reviewed Journal?  No, we won’t read your article, but golldernit, you’re hired!”

Who wants truth, when you can have success?

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2 thoughts on “Why Academia Should Be Burnt to the Ground: Personal Anecdotes

  1. Pingback: Consciously Uncoupling from Academia

  2. Pingback: Returning to the place it all began: Radical acts of refusal from an academic on the outside – The Precariat & The Professor

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