The Advantages of Rage

by Rebecca Schuman

Even though I am the unequivocal victor in yesterday’s Radical Feminist Cat Fight (and innumerable thanks to the members of the Schu-Live Crew for descending upon those comments while I was stuck in LA traffic for five hours), I spent a lot of last night tossing and turning, full of yet more piss and vinegar about what is as of yet the most tone-deaf, privilege-dripping, extra-lifeboat-tastic defense of the academic hiring status quo, which is indefensible. The primary points of Potter’s tsk-tsking from “on high” (she pulled rank multiple times in her increasingly defeated comments) were:

1) It has Always Been Like This in academic hiring, and if you don’t like it, you don’t deserve to join the club–after all, railroad workers and high-school principals regularly pay $1000 out of pocket to travel to a strange city for a single 20-minute interview (except they totally don’t), and do you think you’re better than the working class, to which Claire Potter of New York City most certainly does not belong, you disgusting plebs? Also, here are some blatant lies about how “cheap” it really is to travel to MLA. (Current Southwest fares from San Francisco to Chicago start at $300; she recommends people consider taking the train instead, which would cost as much and take four days, but hey).

2) An epic set of concern-trolly “concerns” about what expressing such a “hissy fit” in public really accomplishes.

What our disagreement really comes down to is a category dispute.

She believes that academic hiring is a noble, fair and just process, where “good people get jobs,” and if a search committee gives candidates five days’ notice about a conference interview, they must have a very good reason for doing so, and their side of the story deserves to be heard before anyone lets loose on them.

I believe that academic hiring is a needlessly cruel exercise in gatekeeping by a bunch of self-professed Marxists whose own hiring practices favor the wealthy and well-connected; I believe that there can be no good reason on the planet for giving candidates five days’ notice whilst your own lavish, all-expenses-paid conference-attendance plans go completely unchallenged.

So, in her belief system, someone railing against an academic search committee without first contacting them to get their reasons is unfair–and, further, it doesn’t help anyone get that job, which of course is the ultimate goal.

But in my belief system, someone railing against such a search committee constitutes speaking truth to power. I also know that unless UCR kills that search (which they might, because the UCs are notoriously fickle about who is good enough to join their ranks, and one or more “bigwigs” in each department have been known to go full-on nuclear on everyone else’s favorite candidate just to fuck with people), someone will get that job, just as they were always going to. That someone will almost certainly be either an Ivy eminence’s favored pet, or a well-established Assistant Professor already on the tenure track somewhere comparable (who also has the “correct” pedigree, by which I mean Ivy). Nothing I say or do was ever going to get in the way of that.

In Claire Potter’s belief system, she is better than most of you.

Now, the next two paragraphs are going to look like an ad hominem attack, but I don’t mean them that way; really, I don’t. But I’d like to discuss Claire Potter’s scholarly bona fides a bit, simply as an example case of why the current market is insane.

This morning, I looked at Claire Potter’s CV, and in 1991, when she was hired onto the tenure track, it appears she did not have a single publication (or, if she did have publications, they were minor, so she took them off her CV; her 1987 dissertation fellowship is on there, though!). For comparison, on my fourth year on the job market, I had three articles in print (two in  high-profile journals in German), and a book under contract (see below for how that turned out). Claire Potter’s one and only single-authored monograph of her entire career came out in 1998, seven years after she started at Wesleyan. I repeat: Claire Potter has not written or published a single-authored monograph in over fifteen years, and her only other book is an edited volume at a respectable-but-just-OK press.

I do not mean this as an attack. I mean this as a statement of fact: If Claire Potter went on today’s job market for an Assistant Professor job without her fame, but with her 1991 CV, she would be  summarily ignored. If Claire Potter in 1996 tried to go up for tenure today with no book in print, she’d get denied. Make no mistake: I am not calling Claire Potter a bad scholar. I think her productivity level is great, and I’m sure her work, which I haven’t read, is also great–but the fact is that her level of accomplishment, good as it is, would simply not distinguish her in today’s insanely, manically overprofessionalized field.

So, now, to some conclusions:

In my belief system, I know that what drives the abhorrent behavior of many senior academics is crippling insecurity and fear. Impostor Syndrome sets in your first year of graduate school, and continues well beyond the piece of the grave, where as your corpse is lowered in, your ghost wonders: Is my graveyard cohort prestigious enough? 

Senior academics today know, either blatantly (if they’re Peter Higgs!) or deep in their souls, that almost none of them would be hired in today’s market (largely because, as one of my Twerple pointed out astutely, their jobs wouldn’t even exist). They are terrified that we will find this out, and so they  defend themselves with the tools they learned coming up in academia: belittling, shaming, and abuse. They must stomp in the only direction they are allowed: down. They must do so as hard as they can.

But in Claire Potter’s belief system, senior academics are protectors of a precious field, gatekeepers of sacred knowledge-making against a tide of unqualified hoi polloi. Until now, that hoi polloi had the decency and dignity to remain cowering in the shadows. As Lee Skallerup Bessette pointed out to me yesterday, in the past few years, something has changed. Something has emboldened the academically marginalized to begin to break out of the belief system of the people that marginalized them, to both notice and call notice to behavior that should be unacceptable, and yet has gone un-protested for years.

In short: the purpose of my rage, Claire Potter, is to break myself out of your belief system, which I believe to be both erroneous and exploitative. The purpose of my rage is to speak truth to power, and I didn’t know the (for now) “powerful” got to make the rules about what emotions people get to feel or express when they are speaking truth to power.

And the results? More than I could ever imagine. For one thing, my friend Noel Jackson started an Indiegogo campaign to subsidize UCR interview candidates, so that they don’t have to tell Deborah Willis, “Oh, I’m not going to MLA because I can’t afford it,” which is basically saying, “Please don’t hire me, I’m an Untouchable.” It has, of 7:39 a.m. Pacific time, raised $340 already (and I hope it will continue to raise money–perhaps Claire Potter and the UCR English department will contribute; obviously they should).

For another: the previously invincible, that all-important search committee every aspiring academic is petrified to offend, has been called out for bullshit, loudly and in public. They were forced to admit publicly that they couldn’t get their shit together and that they fucked up. They were forced to say they accept Skype interviews, and thus reveal how unnecessary their trip to MLA is (MAYDAY: PREENING IN DANGER!). They will think very, very carefully about ever pulling some similar bullshit again, and so will everyone else.

This isn’t about getting people jobs. Anyone who’s been on this market knows that failure on it is the norm. This is about holding people accountable to basic human decency, so that a heartbreaking process does not also have to be needlessly debasing.

And, finally, my rage–and others’ rage–accomplishes the simple fact of reclaiming just a sliver of human agency in a powerless process. I get emails from frazzled, marginalized scholars nearly every day, thanking me for running my mouth off on their behalf. If you’re one such scholar, I’m doing this for you. If you’re one such scholar and you don’t appreciate my tone, there’s an easy solution: SPEAK THE FUCK UP. Stop being a chickenshit. Stop letting the belief system of a dwindling despotic minority control your own belief system. You are a worthy human being whose voice deserves to be heard, and who is allowed to demonstrate human emotion. If you don’t like the way I’m representing you–REPRESENT YOURSELF. (Just make sure you do it with appropriate deference to established faculty, or you might get righteously tsked too.)