Saturday, January 15, 2011

Reasons Not To Become An Academic

Waaaaay back in November, I wrote an introductory post saying that I was going to write a series of posts reflecting on the doing of intellectual work outside of the academy. I followed up with a couple of pieces to set the context -- one explained what I understand intellectual work to be, and explained that the subset of intellectual work that I feel I can say a few things about is that which is done with a sense of vocation and which is intended to be communicated in a mediated sort of way; the other explored in more depth my understanding of the social character of intellectual work. I have perhaps three more posts to write in this series, including this one, which talks about why one might not want to do (vocational, mediated) intellectual work in a university setting.

On first glance, it seems obvious: If you want to spend your life thinking deep thoughts, taking about ideas, and writing stuff meant to be read by other people as they themselves think through interesting and important things, what better way to go than become a university professor, right? It's secure, it pays well, it has a fair bit of social prestige associated with it. Moreover, in that institutional role, you have social permission to do intellectual work, including -- right-wing populist demonization notwithstanding -- weird, quirky, obscure, and critical intellectual work. The field of possibility seems huge. As well, even though it may not apply in the more fervently anti-intellectual corners of our culture, in many spaces, particularly many spaces that are themselves fairly privileged, intellectual work done in the academy starts out with a certain amount of legitimacy.

So there are lots of good reasons for someone who wants to do (vocational, mediated) intellectual work to consider an academic career. In this post I may be pointing out problems with it, trade-offs that it requires, but I'm not condemning it. My partner is an academic. I have lots of friends, acquaintances, and political collaborators who currently do intellectual work in universities or have done so in the past. I continue to toy with the idea of going to graduate school myself (though with another goal in mind than a conventional academic career). For some people, it is the best option for thinking through their own experiences, or doing work that supports their struggles and those of their community, or accessing institutional opportunities to counter systemic silencing, or just spending their time doing the work they want to be doing.

On the other hand, there's this:

That's a video that made the rounds a few months back. Yes, it's played for laughs, but it says a lot of things that the people in my life who have spent significant time in academic spaces recognize as real and true and very, very sad.

I've come up with my own list of down sides to doing intellectual work in academic spaces -- whether or not it is the best choice for you, it comes with both obvious and hidden costs and it is not the best decision for everyone.

The Down Sides

For one thing, universities in general are not reliably safe spaces for people who experience oppressions of various sorts. Yes, there are often passionate, well-informed folks working to make things safer and more just on university campuses. And it is true that intellectual work done elsewhere is unlikely to find space that is truly safe either. But the reputation that campuses have in some circles as enlightened havens in a cruel world is often far from justified. This shows up in all sorts of ways, from the early feminist descriptions of the "chilly climate" for women in Canadian universities, to more recent criticisms of the Canadian academy by radical women of colour and indigenous women (e.g. in this), to longstanding observations of academia's hostility towards people who grew up working-class (not to mention attacks on workers by universities), to ongoing homophobia and heterosexism (including an extremely unpleasant experience just last week by a local grad student that I know, which the institution in question does not appear to be resolving effectively).

Moreover, rather than the unrestricted, generously supported, broad-ranging pursuit of great ideas that it may appear from the outside (and in some media portrayals), doing intellectual work within universities requires committing to a particular trajectory that comes with all kinds of constraints and conditions. These constraints and conditions are introduced in the inevitable first stage of that trajectory, graduate school, and though they shift in form at later stages, they never disappear.

Again, there are lots of great things about being a grad student, from rockin' parties to the opportunity to be in an environment in which talking about ideas is normal and expected. Some people find community, find mentorship, find opportunity to explore sides of themselves and areas of work they previously wouldn't have imagined. Yet graduate school is regularly a source of trauma and a harsh introduction to institutional and disciplinary regulation that places serious constraints on what intellectual work can be done in academic spaces at every stage of your career, and that often end up, despite your best efforts, radically reorganizing your relationship to ideas, politics, and the world.

Academic demands in graduate school can be arbitrary and brutal, and at least some have dubious pedagogical value. It is not uncommon, for example, for grad students to be required to do more reading than is actually possible. The cumulative impact of this over a period of years can result in a significant shift in how they relate to ideas -- the is simply no time for thorough engagement or deep, critical reflection, and a kind of utilitarian relationship to ideas is fostered. Another example is the comprehensive exam, which is an important element of most North American PhD programs. The details vary greatly from department to department, but the ways that "comps" are done in many places seems to be more about creating an ordeal for the students than about any actually useful learning or demonstration of important skills.

For many people, the arbitrary and overwhelming character of academic work in graduate school causes trauma. It pushes some people -- people who are brilliant and who are very capable of doing fascinating and important (vocational, mediated) intellectual work -- away from academia and, in some cases, away from intellectual work more generally. Both some who go and some who stick around to become faculty find that the joy in reading and joy in ideas that drew them to graduate school in the first place has been killed. As well, the experience of regular overwhelm that is characteristic of the academic lives of many graduate students helps make them more vulnerable to the kinds of regulation and enculturation described below.

An additional feature of graduate school in many instances, I think particularly at schools with more prestige, is often a kind of toxic organizational culture. You can look for its roots in all kinds of places. I would be inclined to blame both the kinds of practical demands described in the preceding paragraph and the regulation I talk about below. I think there can also be an element of intellectual machismo, perhaps most emphatically embraced by young, privileged men, but because of the pressures of the environment at times taken up by people of all backgrounds and genders. This culture tends to encourage competition, individualism, intellectual status games, and a kind of ruthless critique that is about self-aggrandizement, engagement with ideas first rather than people first, and performing smartness and superiority. I'm sure not every department is like this, and certainly not every person in any department, but my impression is that elements of this kind of toxic environment are not unusual. This kind of institutional culture acts in concert with the practical demands, the content, and the intellectual regulation of graduate school to foster particular ways of relating to ideas and peers, and instills particular assumptions about how ideas and "real life" are (or are not) connected.

Despite its great variety, the content encountered in graduate school tends to take a particular shape. There is certainly lots of variability that depends on discipline, department, and individual choices. As well, I think it can be a positive thing to be pushed to engage with ideas that you might not choose yourself. However, it is my sense that in most graduate school environments, the supposedly holy demands of the discipline result in the content with which most graduate students engage having a clear centre and periphery. Certain ideas, certain approaches, certain questions must be taken seriously -- even if you are critical of them, you have to think lots about them, write about them, respond to them. Other ideas, other approaches, other questions may be introduced -- and I have a sense that this is how many programs integrate more politically critical material, if they do at all -- but students are not pushed to engage with them as thoroughly and they are not treated as seriously. So even for students approaching graduate school with critical politics, it would require tremendous effort (and even that might not be successful) not to be pushed towards a certain organization of ideas, a certain centre and periphery in understanding the landscape of their discipline. I think even for those who do actively resist, and have some success in doing so, the mere act of having to spend X number of hours engaging with and figuring out how you disagree with a particular cluster of ideas at the centre of the discipline and having a fraction of that time focused on engaging with exciting critical work at the edges will still have an effect.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there is the intense regulation of intellectual work that begins in graduate school and persists in modified forms throughout academic careers. Mentors, teachers, and peers act based on institutional and disciplinary norms (and their own past experiences of having been regulated in the name of those norms) when they respond to your ideas, your work. You get questions and comments in classes, seminars, and when you give talks. You get feedback on written work, whether it is drafts circulated for comments, papers handed in for grading, or articles submitted for publication. You get some material criticized and rejected, and other material praised and circulated. You get 'friendly' advice. You see lots of examples modelled for you by more senior people in the department and through exhaustive reading of the literature in the field. It is all those little teaching moments in which you get a sense of which sources are acceptable and which aren't, which methodologies will get respect and which will be met by contempt by people with power in the department and in the field, which topics will get published and which will get snubbed, which questions are worthy and which are gauche or ridiculous. You are trained into an instinctive sense of where the (vigorously patrolled) boundaries lie between inside and outside the discipline, between 'real' work and sloppy opinionating according to that discipline's standards. It might sometimes also take the form of arguments in class and over beer that for those with privilege are just about ideas but that cut deeply within the body for those who experience various oppressions, given that it is an environment which often favours vigorous debate over any concern about retraumatizing people who struggle everyday against white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, and ableism. These norms are enforced by the threat of not doing well, not succeeding, not being well regarded, not getting the treasured job. Or any job.

So lots of hard-to-resist messaging, including both overt and hidden curriculum, as well as regulation of various sorts pushes you to approach intellectual work in particular ways and to do certain kinds of intellectual work. Consequences, from peer snark to denial of professional opportunities, punish you for deviating too much. Certainly a range of possibility remains, but these conditions favour particular kinds of intellectual work and disfavour others. These consequences mean that over the academic career trajectory, people who do particular kinds of intellectual work, and who do work in ways that adheres to institutional and disciplinary norms, are selected for and rewarded. It means that even those who attempt to work against these constraints and manage to avoid being pushed out have their actions shaped in directed in certain ways. And, most insidious of all, I think lots of people have their sense of what is possible distorted, reduced, and limited, their visions of what intellectual work is or could be or at least what it will be for them completely wrapped up in dominant norms and practices -- much to their loss, and ours. Lots of people who enter graduate school without any particular critical intent have their sense of possibility severely constrained. They may never particularly care or resist, but it still means that vast areas of intellectual possibility are being denied them. Many people who do enter with critical intent and with intent to resist this kind of professional enculturation, or who pick up such desires along the way, nonetheless take up some aspects even as they resist others. Their intellectual imagination and desire are distorted and limited, sometimes in ways that they recognize and regret, but sometimes not. The fiery worker organizer becomes the producer of vaguely interesting but not terribly useful or relevant political economy; the social movement star enters grad school with the idea of producing knowledge useful to movements but is seduced by the name of "social movement studies" and ends up doing work that is completely detached from the needs of actual movements on the ground; the undergrad feminist activist is channeled into a faculty career of theorymaking that may have a useful core but is understood by few and has nothing to offer those trying to revive a movement in decline. The pressures against a North American academic doing their work in ways that would be recognizeable as a "public intellectual" are considerable, and few even try. As one academic I talked to while writing this ruefully admitted, the pressures and demands of the job have pushed her to be less engaged and more conservative, in practice if not in intent.

Institutional and Disciplinary Norms

I want to digress briefly to talk about the character of the institutional and discplinary norms that are defended and reproduced by this regulation and all the rest. There is this right-wing idea that universities are hotbeds of radcialism, which deserves to be refuted in a bit more nuanced way than it sometimes is. For one thing, students can be an important source of radical energy, whether that is Paris in '68 or the U.K. in the last few months. However, when such uprisings happen it is much more about the broader context and how students are situated within it than it is about what they happen to be reading in their first year philosophy course or their senior anthropology seminar. Just to take the more recent example, it would be a ridiculous distortion to try and claim that the uprising by students in the U.K. is somehow about tenured lefties imposing subversive curriculum rather than a reaction to the Tory scum (a pithy label frequently used during this round of student protests) running things in Westminster declaring a full-on neoliberal attack on post-secondary education and on the ability of poor and working-class youth to attend.

The right-wing myth of the radical academy draws on this history but completely misrepresents its meaning. It also contains elements that are entirely made up, and counts on inciting a kind of willfully ignorant populist rage among people who have no interest in understanding how universities actually function. It often takes the comparatively rare vibrant critical spaces that remain in universities, cherry-picks exceptional examples, and uses them to vastly exaggerate their number and extent. This is made easier by the fact that universities are among the few elite institutions in society where even such few and small critical spaces exist.

The remainder of the myth has to do with a deliberate conflation of elite liberalism and the left, which has been a staple confusion in mainstream political rhetoric in the U.S. for decades. That is, most universities and the nooks and crannies within them have a dominant organizational culture that is liberal in the sense that it favours a certain kind of superficial openness (in which gender, racial, sexual, class, and other hierarchies are left mostly intact) and knowledge production that is rule-based. This is in contrast to those who lead the charge against universities, whose reactionary sensibilities reject even the superficial openness to the (still subordinated) Other of liberalism and who are politically invested in knowledge production that involves a large dose of just making stuff up (a la Beck, Limbaugh, climate change deniers, intelligent design advocates, etc., etc.)

A detailed description of the social organization of universities, disciplines, and professions is way beyond this post, which is much longer than I'd intended already. The norms that are dominant in the academy flow from that social organization. However, I'll mention a few key features that should indicate the direction that a more thorough analysis would take. Universities, even the most lowly, are institutions that play a social role that is critical for other important institutions and forces in society. A good deal of the functioning of capital and state relations require people who have training that happens in post-secondary educational institutions. Universities, in turn, depend heavily on state funding and/or funding from corporations and individuals who have lots of money. They are regulated directly by the state in some ways, and by semi-autonomous organizations (certifying bodies, professional organizations) that are themselves deeply integrated into the status quo. Many are governed by boards that are largely comprised of elites, or of 'respectable' middle-class and upper middle-class folks who are selected in part for their capacity to represent (or at least not threaten) dominant interests. Disciplines and professions tend to be organized and governed by organizations largely controlled by senior members with high status and 'respectable' reputations.

There is also a long story about how the rules of each discipline came to exist and the ways in which they shape knowledge production within those disciplines. These processes, as I've said, tend to be rule-based, and tend to assume a mantle of "objectivity." Often they are a mix of useful and decidedly not useful, and the details can be quite subtle and can vary a lot from discipline to discipline. I'm not going to try and sketch even broad strokes. However, this is an area for struggle, and probably every discipline, profession, and area of study has within it critical challenges to its dominant norms and practices for knowledge production. If you want to know more detail, do some research in whatever field it is that interests you. I think it is a sound generalization, though, that the dominant practices of most disciplines and professions are part of ruling relations and do not fundamentally challenge relations of oppression and exploitation. Even much that is produced using these practices that sounds radical ends up being nonthreatening. However, the struggles about standards for knowledge production within each discipline, and struggles to tear down disciplinary and professional boundaries, can have important material consequences, even if taking that up as your life's work is likely to lead to a great deal of frustration and conflict.

Perhaps a good way to summarize this is to relate it back to how I talked about the social character of intellectual work. Briefly, I described a series of steps creating a kind of disjointed, asynchronous, unidirectional relation between you and other people -- you and the page, the page to a circulable artifact, the circulation of said artifact, and the engagement of other people with the content of the artifact thus circulated. Intellectual work in the academy requires that you take up lots of rules about how you can engage in the step that connects you with the page, and how you can't. Your knowledge must be produced this way, not that way. Now, this provides you with tools and supports, some of which is very useful, but it also constrains you. Some of the guidelines are limiting and are politically dubious. And part of how this constraint is enforced is found in the rest of the chain of relationships that is intellectual work. Other people whose choices are also organized around institutional and disciplinary norms control access to the means of publication. In order to survive and progress professionally you must publish, and the ways in which you publish must meet certain institutional and disciplinary standards. The need to produce work that can get through the hurdles from artifact to reader is one of the primary ways in which the standards for the self-to-page route are enforced. This process and its powerful impact on academic careers means it is an important site of struggle -- venues, standards, gatekeepers, rules. Even when resisted, though, the way in which it regulates and constraints your space for doing the kinds of intellectual work you want to do can be huge.

Moreover, the mandatory participation in the already-existing mechanisms for turning intellectual work into artifacts, circulating them, and having them read means that even work with critical content mostly gets circulated in channels that resemble those which circulate the products coming from mainstream and conventional intellectual work. That is, these channels mostly lead to people who are themselves doing intellectual work in the academy. Depending on the discipline in question, it might feed into people doing intellectual work directly in the service of capital accumulation in industry, or people doing policy development work in government. All of which means that most intellectual work done in the academy is bound into a particular set of pathways that limit the kind of social role it can play. Yes, you can create possibilities beyond these existing pathways, but it is not easy, and it is not generally rewarded by institutions or by powerbrokers within disciplines.

Labour Conditions

Before I conclude this post, I need to say a few words about the larger labour context that is part of the academic career trajectory. The mandatory package of work -- teaching, administrative work, plus the scholarly activity I've been calling "intellectual work" -- is still a pretty sweet deal. I tried and failed to find a Robert Jensen article I read, oh, probably five years ago, in which he quotes an old radical in his eighties or nineties who spent his entire working life doing hard physical labour saying quite pointedly to Jensen that however much he has to complain about as a professor, it's still nothing like digging coal or what have you. And that's true.

However, neoliberalism has hit academic labour just like it is has hit every other kind of labour. The notion of the idyllic, tenured life -- sitting peacefully in your office and thinking the deep thoughts that you will later write down -- is less and less true these days, to the extent that it ever was an accurate image. Increasing numbers of institutions (I think predominantly in the United States) no longer offer tenure at all. Even where tenure per se is not threatened, more and more of the teaching labour is being done by sessional lecturers in casual, underpaid, insecure positions. This means there are fewer and fewer tenured faculty positions. Those who are tenured have seen their teaching and administrative workloads creep upwards over the decades. Far more people graduate with PhDs than there are tenure track positions, which provides a nice big pool of desperate, highly educated people to exploit as sessional lecturers. And the fact is that even if you are one of the few to find a tenure track position, unless you are extremely lucky or an academic superstar, you aren't going to have the kind of control over your work life that you might have imagined when you sent your application for grad school into the graduate studies office.


This post has been about elaborating some of the downsides, trade-offs, and negatives of following a path that involves doing intellectual work in the academy. Many of these reasons have contributed to my decision not to follow that path (though, as I said at the beginning, I may yet end up in graduate school). However, what are the alternatives? If you want to do (vocational, mediated) intellectual work but aren't interested in the constraints and pressures of a university-based career, what other choices do you have? Well, frankly, you don't have a lot, which is why so many people who want to do this kind of work go to grad school. But that is the topic for the next post in this series.


Red Jenny said...

Hi Scott. I want to thank you so much for your post. Lots to think about!

This hits close to home for me, as I am currently reading for comps (or hazing as it might otherwise be known). It is fairly awful, intellectually isolating, physically exhausting, and social relationship threatening. However, in a perverse way I also relish the challenge.

I can also say that between the time when I first attended university (1994) to now, there have been some significant changes, at least in some disciplines (I do Canadian history). It feels like it is happening quietly though, not like the exciting opening up of the 70s. The course I am TAing this year is the Canadian survey course and I am incredibly impressed with how the story of Canada is being presented. Most of my students knew nothing about aboriginal history, immigrant history, etc. Lawyers, politicians, and other influential members of the Canadian ruling classes are likely to take Canadian history. Teaching, to me, is thus incredibly important.

I read somewhere that one of the great tragedies of finance capitalism is that the brightest young minds spend their brainpower on managing hedge funds and becoming CEOs (and basically pushing electronic money around) instead of working on solving the greatest dilemmas of our day. Grad school would at least be preferable to business school!

Finally, I know a lot of people who one might call conspiracy theorists. They believe that the lone guy outside academia (promoting free energy, or aliens building the pyramids or whatever) knows more than the thousands of specialists in academia. I find myself defending academia and things like rules of evidence. They have an image that universities are where people go to be indoctrinated. Although you make some excellent points about how new and critical ideas can be stifled, it is NOT for the reasons they think. Critical thinking is one skill that consistently gets rewarded. Grad school is about creating new work, and if you bust out a new paradigm you will probably become famous. Of course, you can't simply make something up out of nowhere.

Now, I must go back to my books. I have 98 left (and three months to get through them).

Scott said...

Hi Jenny!

Yes, I've noticed your status updates on FB as I've been writing this (and the posts that precede it)...good luck with your comps! You will certainly deserve to feel proud and satisfied when you're done them!

That's encouraging to hear that the teaching of Canadian history has shifted, at least in some places. I didn't talk much about teaching in this post, but I agree that it is tremendously important and can be a way to reach people with challenging and critical ideas who are likely not going to encounter such things at all, ever, in the everyday course of their lives before or after university.

And, yes, definitely grad school rather than business school! :)

Good point about the tendency towards conspiracy theory among some who do intellectual work (of sorts) outside of academia. The next two (maybe three) posts in this series will talk more about the challenges and drawbacks of trying to do intellectual work in that contexts, so I may talk more about that there. I actually hadn't considered this drawback, specifically, even though I have been thinking off and on in a different context for quite some time about the similarities and differences between (to generalize for a moment) left knowledge production and conspiracy theory knowledge production. The apparent similarities between the two can lead to some quite frustrating circumstances in doing political work in the community, and I think there are reasons for activists with grounded left politics to think through the similarities and differences in the way that the two approaches produce knowledge.

But you are very right that the tendency to be unmoored and to lack the skills to really evaluate knowledge produced by others in ways that is both grounded and critical (as opposed to knee-jerk pseudo-critical that selects knowledge to support a pre-existing conclusion) are dangers of doing intellectual work in an isolated way. In a way, such conspiratorial thinking is very consistent with neoliberal ways of doing things, in that it is very isolated and embraces a kind of individualism that (futilely) seeks to reject rather than critically navigate and build on the inherent interdependence of any enterprise, including intellectual work.

Anyway, again, good luck with your comps. (And I can appreciate why you don't blog so much any more with all of the demands grad school places on your time, but once your work starts appearing in journals and such, I look forward to reading it!)

Scott said...

(Weird things were going on with the commenting mechanism...three copies of my comment above appeared, despite error messages, but I've deleted two of them.)

flit said...

Must be the thing... reading for comps, reading this blog.

I just sent off a 3 question OMG KILL ME NOW set of practice comps... they SUCK... but I TOLD my advisor I was not ready... so there we go ...the worst that can happen is that it is confirmed I was telling the truth.

Anyway... I did not read your entire post - my eyes were already bleeding when I got here... but I will be back.

Scott said...

Hi flit!

Sorry to hear you're going through that right now, and that it doesn't feel like it's going well. It's scant consolation coming from someone who doesn't know you, but generally when people I know feel _that_ badly about something they've written, it's almost invariably better than their initial sense. In any case, stay strong, and good luck!

And if and when your eyes recover, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the post as a whole.

JOHN A. McCURDY: Biographies, Autobiographies, Memoirs, Oral Histories, Organizational Histories said...

Hi Scott,

This is very interesting and a very important issue, the question of intellectual production, and the question of alternatives to the university system. I look forward to reading your further thoughts on this and to contributing some of my own, if I can find the time. One way to explore this might to be to ask whether any society has achieved modernity absent a developed university system? The current state of tertiary education in Africa and its evolution since the dawning of the postcolonial period would make for a good case study. Absent universities, it would seem that religion and guilds provide education.