The Post-Academic’s Guide to Academic Professionalism

Lots of established academic hand-wringing in these final days of 2013. It’s like, I know that you told all your colleagues you’d “get some writing done” over the break, and instead you’ve been binge-watching Scandal and eating pot pie all day, so now to assuage your impostor syndrome/productivity guilt you have to do something that has to do with The Field, and so why not weigh in on an Internets War between two veritable nonentities, and then tsk-tsk people on their inappropriate tones, and “comfort” them by telling them that it’s OK, they’re just coddled millennials who’ve never been rejected from anything, ever, and this is how the big, bad world works?

Why not do that?

That’s pretty much the same as writing and submitting for publication a monograph whose peer reviewers laud it as a field-changer. Pretty much.

Oh, but here I go again. Would you look at my tone? Would you look at my hissyfitting? Would you just look at me, tsk-tsk-tsk. I’ll never get tenure now.

Both the Tenured Radical and her BFFF Historiann have taken what should be regarded as a trifling kerfuffle as a sort of call to arms about the single most important issue facing higher education today: marginalized contingent scholars hurting tenured people’s feelings.

Oh wait. That’s not the most important issue at all. That is not even a marginally important issue. The lack of importance of that issue is so staggering that I can’t quite see straight when I think about how unimportant it is. What, pray tell, is the result of a tenured person’s fee-fees being hurt? Hurt fee-fees. Period. Maybe—maybe, if I’m lucky—a slight change in how many days’ notice search committees think it’s acceptable to give conference interviewees (and that, by the way, is a positive result).

You know who gets hurt feelings every day? Everyone. You know who gets to go home and cry themselves to sleep on pillows they can afford, in houses they bought with functioning heat, after eating a meal they purchased? People with steady jobs, like professors with tenure.

You know who else gets hurt fee-fees every day? Adjuncts, contingent faculty, fast-food workers, service workers, retail workers, cubicle-farm denizens, and everyone else prostrate to a merciless economy that has no interest whatsoever in easing the job crisis because then corporations might start having to treat their workers better. And yet the hurt feelings of the marginalized and contingent often just get screamed into the air—or, worse yet, they engender the nasty rejoinder that we should “stop complaining,” that perhaps our complainey attitude is what got us into such a situation in the first place (and I’ve already linked it, but if you don’t read this article by Sarah Kendzior right now, you are a worthless schmuck).

My point: on a scale of what’s important to talk about in higher education, the grave injustices against the marginalized (and, o ho ho, the students!) in a contingency-based environment rank about a 9. The feelings of the tenured, and whether or not I mean all tenured people when I decry “lifeboaters” (I don’t!), whether or not I understand that some people are really trying hard to affect change from the inside (I do!)? I hate to tell some of you tenured allies this, but in the larger scheme of things your feelings rank about a 3.

Literally the last thing any marginalized academic should be worried about at any time is hurting the feelings of someone with tenure. That person already has 900 times more privileges (and much more money) than you will ever have. The fact that they also demand you treat them with awed deference should not have an effect on your behavior.

So here, friends, is Rebecca Schuman’s Guide to Acceptable Professional Behavior, Online, In Person, and Everywhere Else. This list has little to nothing to do with the Tenured Radical or anyone else specific, so please stop taking it so fucking personally—this is my personal set of rules, developed in the past eight months after I decided that since I was never going to be an academic, I didn’t need to abide by academia’s insane rules of sycophantic cowardice anymore.

  1. Speak the fuck up. Do it using any voice you damn well please.
  2. Understand that you will almost certainly never be granted entrance to The Club, so stop letting its hierarchy and whims dictate how you feel about yourself, and what you’re “allowed” to say, and how you’re “allowed” to say it.
  3. Recognize that “change from inside” is not going to come fast enough, if at all. Work as tirelessly as possible to enact revolution from the outside instead. Unionize, strike, agitate, speak up, speak out. NEVER SHUT UP.
  4. When someone attempts to shut you up under the guise of calling for “civility,” know that that person means: civility toward me. It means: how dare you step up to someone above you? How dare you? Dare.
  5. Make sure that your tenured allies understand that you have absolutely no reason to fight for the preservation of tenure, even if you nominally believe in its benefits. American Republicans might be stupid enough to fight to preserve huge tax breaks for people richer than they will ever get to be, under the misguided assumption that they, too, will be rich like that someday. American PhDs are not that dumb (or at any rate, they shouldn’t be).
  6. Understand that because of your lack of status, any systemic critique you level will be met with scathing personal attack, especially if you are a woman or a person of color. Your scholarship. Your attitude. Your tone. The fact that you’ve probably never been told “no” before because you’re a spoiled millennial even though you’re 37 years old. Anything you say will simply be ignored (because critiques of the academic system are incontrovertibly correct), and rather than defend an indefensible system, the people whose fee-fees you hurt will come after you personally, because they took your systemic attack personally in the first place, because after so many years in the system, they identify with the system. Be ready for this. Defend yourself in whatever way you see fit. You have nothing to lose, so fear nothing.
  7. It bears repeating: fear nothing. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You won’t get a tenure-track job? You won’t get one anyway. So fear nothing, and START A REVOLUTION.

71 thoughts on “The Post-Academic’s Guide to Academic Professionalism

  1. Thank you for your tone! A breath of fresh air in a sanctimonious world. I’m tenured but have still been treated like shit for not following the party line. But believe me, I totally realize how privileged I am.


  2. “Change from the inside” is what an old friend called “fixing the meat grinder from the inside”.

    And remember those of us who bailed out in our first, second or (in my case) third Ph.D. program outnumber even those of you who are oppressed but credentialled. Count us as allies, not least because we’ve crossed the threshold and (in some cases at least) we’re still intact.


  3. It’s stunning that TR has now extended her digs at you into comments in a thread on civility on Historiann’s blog.


    • Obviously I hurt her feelings a lot. I am sorry about that, but like I said–she’s got tenure. She can handle it. She doesn’t have the right to demand that others be “civil” to her but that she can say whatever demeaning bullshit she wants about them. She can defend herself with as much heart as she wants; she’ll just have to expect that I do the same.


      • Tenured (no longer a) Radical has spent much energy posting a large number of comments supporting your thesis – particularly about identifying with the system.


  4. Any call for civility became a bit disingenuous once TR started in on the histrionics…(hey, can we use that word for yet another fake etymology for ‘hissy fit’?)

    Look, I’m tenured, I know I am privileged and I also know that the whole damn system is doomed. But I wonder (and this is not ad hominem, I am really just trying to figure out what happens next and what I can do) whether the revolutionary language is rhetorically overblown (I am a bit of a defeatist) or whether I’m blind to ways to alter a system that is irreversibly corporatist and historically elitist…


    • I’m (semi)lucky too. I have a decent job for this year. I can pay our bills and let my partner try his hand at his own business as he has been wanting to do for some time, at least for the next few months. But my luck has an expiration date. Currently, yours does not.

      On the small scale, what can you do? Well, for one, you can encourage your dept/division/school not to hire multiple adjuncts/lecturers to teach the equivalent of full-time positions, but rather hire one or two to teach full-time with benefits (crazy concept, right?).

      On the larger scale: accept non-tenured/tt (who have decent proposals, of course) to speak at your school/conference/MLA panel. Sure you’ll probably get a 35.6 (or whatever it is that just barely excludes your panel) and not get to present at the MLA, but if everyone decided that the MLA was actually for what it is supposed to be for (that is, presenting new research and allowing up and coming colleagues to shine in front of their potential employers), then they’d have to start accepting panels with newly-minted grads and ABDs.

      These are just small, personal things that one tenured/TT person at a time can do. I’m sure there are more (and better) ideas out there. I’d love to hear them.


      • I actually have done all of these things (except for the MLA, I am not a member) but I can’t help but think that they merely just help perpetuate the same system in slightly less evil ways.

        I guess what I am desperate for when I read this blogs and others is the end vision at the end of sloganizing about ‘fighting the power’. What are the (better) alternatives?

        After a decade in school and nearly as much on the other end of the classroom, I feel daily not just that I am helping to perpetrate a great fraud on my students but that the system is so ossified and entrenched that it can only get worse.

        The energy and desire of the anti-academic (but still academic) crowd seems exciting and contagious but it also seems just that. And, again, I really don’t mean to undermine or denigrate anyone’s work or mission, but I am truly eager to realize some other path.

        And that path certainly isn’t being marked out by my colleagues…


    • I think the only way you are “perpetuating a great fraud” on your students is if you are blindly parroting the things we were told pre/during grad school (which, from your responses, I would assume that you are not). When we don’t caution undergraduate students who are wide-eyed and innocent that grad school might be difficult and the job market might be bad, we are perpetuating the system. When we tell grad students that “it won’t happen to them” or that “it’s not as bad as you think”, we are perpetuating the system.

      When we can be honest and realistic with ourselves, our colleagues, and our students, then we might be (subtly, to be sure) a part of the change.

      As for the MLA, it is the system I am currently familiar with. I’m sure there are similar (AHA in history for example) organizations within each discipline through which you can work.


      • Perhaps it is the end of the year navel-gazing or the scotch, but I just too often find myself overwhelmed with certainty that there isn’t enough time, lives, or energy to save our educational system. I teach classes with the force of threatened closure if I don’t maintain numbers, so my standards slip each semester that goes by. Students don’t really learn what they are supposed to because they come to my class so far behind and all administrators really care about is the charade of assessment. Have you ever been on a committee that assesses assessment? What a load of shit.

        I guess when it comes down to it, I love teaching but I know that its currency is debased by the corporate university and by an increasingly commercial culture; by an economy that devalues all of us to purchasing machine; by an intellectual culture that prizes fadishness and quotability over true rigor and contemplation; by ossified institutions where the only growth (cancerous as it is) is in administration; and by adolescent naivete that led me to spend some of the best years of my life in pursuit of, well, all of this.

        And, I am one of the ones who made it which turns all of this self-pity into self-loathing.

        I guess I keep reading all of these posts because I want to figure out how to be a good man in a bad state instead of merely someone who does no harm. I keep reading the list of advice in this post and I find the revolutionary rhetoric empty because it is accompanied by no real plan.

        And I only mean that as a soft criticism. I can’t think of how to make things better, truly, either.


  5. “Civility” is such a hilarious word to use in this exchange. There are other titles that this reminds me of, but the one that came to mind most quickly was Daniel Coleman’s “White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada.” So other scholars are problematizing that word, and if scholars deal in words, it would be wise for some to interrogate their own word choices. Or not. Just sayin’.

    Great list! 😀 I like that Tenured Allies are TAs, too. 😛 Like their broke-@$$ Teaching Assistants.


    • At least you’re more aware of the realities of the industry…and I hope you have an expanded, alternative visions for your life beyond the pursuit of a TT job. Most graduate students are stunted by a potent Kool Aid cocktail of fear and belief that the quality of their work and their tenacity will be rewarded….so, anyway, keep your options open, kid.


  6. I find this a very difficult fight to watch. On the one hand, I completely agree (as a tenured person): those of us in positions of privilege really can’t play the offence card, even if something genuinely offends us. On the other hand, even as I understand that “civility” is loaded term, and even as I agree that our adjunct colleagues have little reason to be civil, I do think there’s a difference between strong, clear language, and bracingly articulated positions on the one hand — and catty ad hominems on the other. That’s not a point about academic civility. It’s a point about rhetoric, and about social existence.

    Of course you can yell, of course you can write in a completely un-edited way, of course you can say exactly what you please. That’s your right. But I don’t see how that can be the beginning of a conversation, or a discussion, or a debate, or even a fight. I edit myself all the time — at the grocery store, when talking to colleagues, in the classroom, at the bank, when talking to close friends, when talking to small children, when talking to my partner. Not always saying exactly what you mean is surely just part of normal human social interaction, no?

    There are much bigger issues that I’m trying to come to terms with. The academy has always been an elite institution. How could it not be? Of course I know that in the US in particular, it’s become much, much more inaccessible in the past few years than before 2008. And yes, those of us on the inside haven’t adjusted our thinking sufficiently to the new world many newly minted PhDs now confront. But I still find the clubbiness argument broadly counterfactual. In my ten years of post-PhD life, I genuinely have yet to encounter the networks of nepotism that help intellectual mediocrities get the cushiest jobs. My experience as a candidate and as a member of hiring committees has generally confirmed the idea that the academy is a meritocracy. But of course that doesn’t mean that every deserving scholar, every brilliant teacher, even every researcher with the potential to be a field changer will get a good job — or any job at all. Of course there are rigged searches. Of course there are prejudiced committees. Of course highly qualified and eminently suitable candidates are overlooked all the time. And of course sometimes a weaker candidate is hired as a consequence.

    The real problem, and I realize this hardly needs saying, is not that unqualified candidates get hired too often. It’s that there aren’t anywhere near enough jobs to employ the many highly qualified PhDs on the market. But that doesn’t mean the system is no longer meritocratic. It just means that it’s a brutally selective meritocracy — and the more selective a system, the more arbitrary the selection, and the more unsuccessful candidates who really should have succeeded.


    • Quiet everybody. A White Male Tenured is talking, and he’s here to school us on meritocracy.

      My regular self–every day, with my husband, out and about, with my students–varies in her level of self-editing just like a normal Earth Human. My blog persona, my writer self? Is fearless. Speaks truth to power. Fights. I’m not here to start a civil conversation where hands are wrung and nothing’s done. I’m here to start a fucking riot. One that, to judge from the insane level of lifeboating and meritocracy bulkshit here, desperately needed.


      • I don’t get it. I really don’t.

        I agree the system is fucked. That doesn’t mean I agree that the system is no longer meritocratic. Which means you and I probably disagree on what needs to change. But where exactly did I tell anyone to be quiet? And why do my gender or my ethnicity matter, in this particular instance?

        I also don’t really get the charge of life boating. Care to explain? (I didn’t say, after all, that everyone who gets a job was clearly the best candidate. I didn’t say that lots of very qualified people aren’t left by the wayside all the time. I don’t think the current system works.)


      • Holger,

        You say, in directly adjacent sentences that the system is meritocratic, but that it is so competitive that the selection criteria are increasingly arbitrary.
        How can one have a meritocratic system where the selection criteria are arbitrary?


      • Derek,

        as far as I can see “merit” is still the predominant basis for getting a job — to that extent the system remains meritocratic. I didn’t say the criteria were arbitrary. (Though to some extent, they are. Or at least opaque.) I said the selection was. No matter how high you set the bar, in a market like ours, I think it’s clear there are more candidates who merit a TT job than are hired. (At least generally speaking. It’s still possible, though, for searches to fail to find a suitable candidate — and I don’t think every failed search is clear evidence of a committee’s capriciousness.)

        That doesn’t make the system as a whole unmeritocratic. If lots of evidently undeserving applicants were being hired, we’d have a different situation. But the system still rewards merit. It just has lost its ability to reward merit with anything approaching a reasonable level.

        I recognize that this may seem like sophistry, but I don’t know how one can advocate for systemic change without discussing what exactly the most pressing systemic problems are.


    • I could REGALE you (too lighthearted a term, however) with tales of advisers picking up phones and engaging in “activism” in order to place their pupils into TT jobs. I unfortunately cannot name names (how interesting would that be, huh?), but these were “prestige advisers” whose students not only had considerably inferior language skills vis a vis the other contenders, but shockingly sloppy research (also demonstrable and, even more shockingly, ultimately went on to win a prize–much hush hush on that one, too because if the can of worms were opened, oh boy).

      So, what set these “favored” candidates apart? The “stick in the ass” posturing, the purchase of their Ivy diploma and, just as decisively, the “prestige” of the activist adviser landed these candidates the job (on at least four occasions that I am personally aware of). People can, and are, systemically locked out of certain positions based on the upper middle class mores of the academy (and it’s no coincidence that these candidates were white and among the superb contenders there were folks of color–a liability. And, if you must know, I was told as much, verbatim). I think it’s great that your experience has led to the perception of the academy as a meritocracy– there might be discreet instances of decency in this industry, no doubt, but I am speaking systemically.


      • DM: I can only speak for what I know — and from what I know, the instances you describe as systemic seem to me discreet (just as what I’m describing as systemic appears as discreet instances to you). That said, I think I’d be foolish to claim that gender and ethnicity don’t matter in the academy — I’ve seen plenty of sexism (less overt racism, but I don’t doubt it exists). But to what extent are those problems specific to universities? Do you think academics are more sexist and racist than members of other professions in the US? In other words, isn’t this a bigger social issue?

        The Ivy thing strikes me as a rather different point, and a more complicated one. I do think it matters where a candidate’s degree is from, but not because of the prestige of the institution or the advisor. It can’t be a decisive factor, but it’s part of the picture — and I don’t quite understand why that’s obviously an unequivocally bad thing. I also don’t really understand what you mean by “purchase.” Who exactly gets to “buy” Ivy League PhDs? (Or, to make the point more relevant, since the Ivy box is surely too small: a PhD from a highly regarded program?)


      • bless you really, for your naivete; the jobs are there, they just are not permanent, TT jobs; when 75% of teaching staff is made of adjuncts, what does that tell you? How can students numbers have gone up exponentially since the 1960s, yet there are no jobs?


      • DM–

        The “Ivy League” advantage/privilege is certainly there. But this pedigree doesn’t guarantee a job, or even interviews. The story holds true across the board. Too many PhDs coming out of all programs for too few jobs.


      • There are plenty of jobs, as Marc Bousquet points out. They just suck. If administrations were willing to pay PhDs a living wage, there’d be plenty of good jobs. But they’re not, so there aren’t.


    • You tell us to edit ourselves (which is just more code for “be civil”, which is also code for “shut up”) and then wonder why, in a post about not shutting up, about not being told to simmer down, you get push back? You tell us that the system works, because it’s a meritocracy, but that it is broken, because there aren’t enough jobs for those who deserve them, and you think that that will placate us? Would it have been soothing for you to know that it wasn’t that you weren’t good enough that you’re being offered $2000 a semester to teach the same thing as those “lucky enough” to get the good jobs?

      Here’s why your gender and ethnicity matter: because you’ve never felt the weight of them around your neck. They’ve never mattered to you. They’re why you feel that you can step in to the middle of a revolution and tell the children to settle down. To edit themselves. To speak in hushed voices because someone might be listening. All of us? We’ve hushed to the point that we’re hoarse and it’s time to yell it from the roof tops.

      And just in case you think DM is being facetious, or making things up to make a point: I’ve seen it too. I’ve seen those who get phone calls on their behalf and those who pointedly have not. We knew it was a sham then, but we were soothed with lulling tones of “there there, you’ll get something, you’re deserving, it won’t be like that for you” and “it’s still early, yet, book your ticket to MLA and the jobs will come to you”. We know it’s a sham now, but there’s no lulling us this time.


      • I didn’t tell anyone to shut up, to be civil, or to “speak in hushed voices.” I’m not surprised to be getting “push back.” I didn’t say that the system works. I didn’t say that “you” needed placating. I don’t expect to be soothed. I’ve never used the lines from your last paragraph on any grad student, and I agree that they’re offensive and divorced from reality.

        I was a bit surprised that the push back came in the form of instant ad hominem and a complete misrepresentation of what I had said, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

        As for nepotism: do those phone calls happen? Of course. I’m not even sure they’re a bad thing — whys wouldn’t an advisor make every possible effort to advocate for an exceptional student? Is the genuinely exceptional quality of students always the only reason those phone calls happen? Presumably not. I’m sure quite a few colleagues favour students for the wrong reasons. But even so: that’s not nepotism unless you believe a phone call from any colleague, prominent or otherwise, still gets people jobs. That may have been true 50 years ago. Now? I’ve never seen it happen — and I have got those phone calls. I’ve seen situations where such advocacy has hurt candidates. I bet in some cases it helps. I’m sure there’s anecdotal evidence that on occasion it’s made a decisive difference, and if the candidate didn’t deserve that advocacy, I agree that that is unfortunate. But at least in my field, I’m finding it very difficult to see this as a systemic issue, since I can’t see the pervasive influence of such practices.

        More substantively, if this really is a revolution (if so: where is it taking place?), I don’t think I understand its goals. Do I think it’s OK for tenured faculty to treat adjuncts like second-class citizens? Obviously not. Do I agree that we need to do more to ensure graduate students and adjuncts have access to venues for publication and conferences? Yes, I do. Should tenured colleagues clamour for more lines? Many of us are doing that already, and have for years. The problem isn’t tenure. It isn’t nepotism. It’s not individual tenured professors’ behaviour. The problem is funding. And funding is far outside the control of departments, and only to a limited degree within the control of deans. So yes, I agree that a revolution is in order; but I don’t see what’s to be gained, systemically, by waging war against individual academics and departments (although I AGREE that UCR deserved to be called out for that email. I also agree that MLA interviews ought to be a thing of the past). Nothing will change, because nothing can change, in a significant way, if the revolution doesn’t target provosts and presidents, and more importantly, state and provincial legislatures. But I’m pretty sure you know that perfectly well.


    • If you wish a republic, so order it that the people may have the heart to be virtuous; for there are no political virtues without self-respect, and it is impossible to be self-respecting in the midst of poverty. — Saint-Just


    • “”My experience as a candidate and as a member of hiring committees has generally confirmed the idea that the academy is a meritocracy.”

      Oh, come ON. A meritocracy–even a “brutally selective one”–would have no room for institutions like UC Riverside’s English Department, which stated that it simply expected any serious job seekers to be attending MLA regardless of interview invitations. Who are the people that can do that, while living on tiny graduate student/postdoc stipends, adjuncting, or unemployed? We know who–people who are independently wealthy or have parents/spouses that can foot the bill.

      The dimwitted classicism I have seen in academia is one of the most dispiriting things about it. It turns my stomach to hear so many “progressives” mock the Tea Party and then in the same breath spout libertarian/social Darwinist/self-validating hokum about meritocracy.

      CV merit is not the same as hard work and intelligence–unlike the the other two, it is something that is bought and sold. Almost every one of the sterling achievements on my CV, my “merit”, cost me financially, and dearly. The über-prestigious speaking spot I got at that overseas conference? I paid my own airfare and lodging. The Fulbright I won? Paid so little I had to dig into my savings. The top flight publication? I paid image licensing fees out of my own pocket. My smarts and work ethic would have allowed me to accomplish exactly none of this on their own.

      (And DON’T EVEN talk to me about “there are grants for that stuff”–there shouldn’t HAVE to be, because disciplines should automatically invest in young scholars who have ALREADY PROVEN THEIR WORTH by winning important conference invitations or publication acceptances. This travel grant bs just creates another tiered system of scholars: those who have to spend hours on applications begging for $150 reimbursements and those who don’t. After applying for–and winning–an opportunity, no one should have to apply again to actually seize it.)


  7. *That* *TR* *Woman*…!!! Her comments on the Historiann’s blog….!!!
    Obviously, she wants you to go down this road:

    Talking about Bildungsbürger Privilege, do never forget to mention the laughable assumption to be able to “see through” other people’s motives because of
    – your years spoilt in therapy yourself
    – your being a professional analyst yourself

    Doesn’t she know that this “Analyze Thyself” shit is just the 1980s version of the 1930s “Bildung des Geites” nonsense? The same Bildungsbürger insecruity and shamed packed as fake ‘intellectual superiority’?

    Doesn’t she no that the current crisis has exposed those strategies as completely futile? That it is over? Finished? Demised?

    Thanks for your call to arms. I am doubtful about revolution, but we can indeed start not to talk nonsense anymore. And speak up.


  8. There’s no good place to add this, I realize, not least because I’m watching the whole thing from the graveyard myself. That and probably nobody wants a good thoughtful book recommendation quite at the moment.

    And yet, and yet: I’m startled at how close your talk from within of “the profession” matches Abbott’s account in The System of Professions. Like in field guide sort of way: I’m seeing exactly the turf wars he describes being played out, the dynamics of schism, the end-of-life troubles of professions, the dynamics of credentialling, all that stuff he spells out in his treatment of the history of medicine and psychology.

    I bet if you read it about now, you’d spend the day nodding periodically, is all. And maybe getting angrier, but you all deserve to get angrier. For it’s not clear to me on the sidelines that you have decided as a group whether you’re fighting over turf and inequity, or have begin to consider the creation of a way of working that is new and useful in its own right.


  9. Minorities and women are given a wider berth to be disagreeable (in the best possible sense) because anyone who points that out runs the risk be being labeled a racist or sexist which can be the end of an academic career.
    On a more general point, the hiring of academics is very much a class based process. Same people year after year who went to Ivy League schools on Mommy’s and Daddy’s money and then perpetuate the system. This extends to minorities too. At my school, they may as well be white since, except for race issues, they toe the line as their elitist backgrounds have prepared them to do. The class thing is the most important determinant of a hierarchical and fundamentally anti intellectual profession. For more see: classbias blog. ,


    • “The class thing is the most important determinant of a fundamentally hierarchical and anti intellectual profession.”

      This comment is exactly the kind of problematic elision and obfuscation of racism intersecting with class of which TressieMc writes, here:

      When I first read this comment and a couple others–mind you, by Whites not on the receiving end of any racism, much less anti-Black racism–I sighed that same old weary sigh and asked myself, “Why this false race trumps class argument, again? I was to annoyed to answer, but now that TressieMc has jumped in, I will also:

      (1) The entire ‘civility’ demand is racialized and linked to discourses of civilization v. savagery/barbarism, deeply (and historically) connected to ideas of racial hierarchy and ‘uncontrollable’ (non-White populations) to be subdued and colonized. As others have already pointed out, how these discourses of (un)controllability are deployed is very race/gender- (and color-) specific. As such, this issue of civility puts this comment and post in conversation with this Lewis Gordon article on race and tenure ( and the Professor Is In apology which referenced it (, with the latter apology recursively returning us to Tressie’s article. As
      many a character would have said on The Wire: It’s all connected. (And, “the game is real”.)

      (2) On the ‘real-ness’ of ‘the game’, or, the differential consequences of speaking out for differently raced/colored/gendered bodies: While I generally agree with Rebecca’s rally to speak out because many won’t have much to lose, I have to disagree that all ‘on the outside’ of the academy/the lifeboat of tenure have little to lose. And this very much is because race cannot be reduced to class, and, as Stuart Hall wrote, for Black people especially race IS the modality in which class is lived. We’ll-educated, middle-class-and-above Black people are still seen as violence-prone, criminally-inclined, ‘threatening’, potentially-dangerous, ‘uncontrollable’ n*ggers (let us not forgot how Henry Louis Gates, Jr. being a Harvard professor did not keep his neighbor from thinking Gates was breaking into his own home; and Professor Gates is light-skinned, things get worse the darker one becomes). Speaking from experience, and precisely because race cannot be reduced to class and because the commenter above is correct in saying that being publicly known as a racist and sexist can kill a career, I add the following about the consequences of speaking up and critiquing the (academic) status quo when dark-skinned, Black, and female: for some of us speaking up equals revenge by being labeled an uncontrollable and uncivilized animal who needs to be put in a cage in order to be silenced and controlled; it means being seen, literally, as a racist poster which went up in Berkeley’s Anthropology department made clear, being seen as like a gorilla who needs to be ‘spoken for’; it means being targeted by the chair of your department for ‘death by cop’, while carrying your infant son (“carrying a baby in a tummy pack”) because you are seen as a “loud/argumentative” “very dark-skinned South African”; it means being vindictively and sociopathically threatened with being thrown in jail for telling the truth about how a White male colleague publicly cyberbullied you on a university listserve, because the White male doesn’t want to have to admit his documented sexist and racist abuse/behavior as it would indeed diminish his job academic prospects, and so he instead smears you as a violent gun-carrying Black ghetto criminal (i.e. completely uncivil and uncivilized, as well as a violent subhuman animal), with the full support of professors in the department who don’t want to admit that this public cyberbullying happened because it ‘makes the department look bad’, even though you are an Ivy grad from an entirely-white small town in New England. For some of us the consequences for speaking out about academic inequality and abuse are life-damaging if not literally life-threatening (i.e. being targeted for police brutalizations that can easy result in death, such as what happened to Amadou Diallo), because this is the reality of being seen–and especially framed–as an uncivil(ized) and ‘uncontrollable’ Black Threat.

      So no, hierarchy in the academy does not ‘really just reduce to class’, and to be able to think so is an incredible display in blindness to White/racial privilege. In line with the blindness to White (and male) privilege which allows some to persist in believing and arguing that the academy is really a meritocracy. When privilege is protecting you, you can imagine the world to be many things that it actually is not.


      • Yes Bad Attitude, you are 100% CORRECT and I have been meaning to set Mr. Class Bias straight, but the last week has been difficult and I’ve been trying to stay off the Internet.

        I’ll echo you that the only AND I MEAN ONLY people who make the ‘class’ argument are white. I was surprised, once again, that Tressie has it out for me (and completely denied doing so when I confronted her about it, forcing me to grovel so that I didn’t look like the bad guy), since I agree with everything she says (even about how much I suck, and am blinded by my own privilege, which I try AT ALL TIMES to check, sometimes with more success than others). I really hope that someday she sees that we’re on the same side. The reason I don’t write about race as much as I should is that as a white person, I don’t want to speak for people of color, I don’t want to coopt any struggles. I never meant to racialize the struggles of contingent faculty by using the language of marginalization–the fact is that contingent faculty ARE marginalized, and contingent faculty who happen to be minorities and women are marginalized from the marginalization. I want very badly to be part of that conversation, but I also don’t want to overstep my bounds. And what I said to Tressie on Twitter stands: me feeling “misunderstood” about my allyship is not a real problem. Racism is a real problem. Fighting racism is the solution. If you have to yell at some big-mouthed white lady (i.e. me) to do it, then so be it.

        I think the analogy that Karen Kelsky made was structurally true: when tenured people say “you saying I’m a bad ally is worse than what’s happening to you!” it’s the same structure as “you calling me a racist is worse than racism.” BUT it’s not as important, not by a long shot. If Karen had just said, “but racism is a 10 and academic bullshit is a 2 or 1,” I think that would have been AOK. Thoughts?


      • I can add nothing to this except to say “hear hear” and thank you for articulating so well all the things that just came out ragey when I read these arguments.


      • I think that the point that Kelsky was trying to make–and as you, ‘Bad Attitude,’ point out–is that we have nuanced critiques of privilege that we can call upon to bring to light the way that tenured and other kinds of academic privilege operate. And Rebecca, I think your point is salient as well- that racism trumps academic bullshit, but that nonetheless, recognizing how structural privilege is embedded in the dying academy is perhaps the only way to argue back against the myth of meritocracy. This is what was so maddening to me about Holger Syme’s comments upthread- that the academy is fundamentally still a meritocracy because people who get jobs earn them on merit. I am a beginning tt asst prof. I worked my ass off to get this job, including, on the way, adjuncting, VAPing and lecturing, with nary an Ivy or near-Ivy on my CV. However, the objective and subjective (fit) “merits” of any of us who end up with tt offers is not sufficient evidence for a systemic “meritocracy”. The notion of meritocracy also carries with it the idea that those who are not rewarded with insider privilege (tt jobs) are less meritorious than those who are. An implied corollary from the perspective, for example, of a search committee, would be that while My Department cannot offer you a tt position, you are so great that surely another one will, or the PhD adviser’s exhortations that if you just commit yourself and work hard, you too will become a Professor. (This was part of the logic of the UCR committee’s expectation that serious candidates would already be attending the MLA). As Kelsky points out about tenured lifers, “They cast moral judgments on those who do not share their status based on their presumed individual failings rather than systemic disadvantage”. I think the “moral judgments” is perhaps the most salient point here. It speaks to the history of “civility” that Bad Attitude so eloquently summarizes, and to why other kinds of identity privilege intersect so profoundly with tenured privilege. The moral compass is set from the inside, and anyone who challenges it is deemed de facto unworthy.


      • To make my position in the above comment clear: 1) I do not think the academy is a functioning meritocracy 2) I do think that all kinds of identity privilege inflect our interpretation of “merit” and “fit” in the hiring process (see civility, pedigree, etc.) and 3) I think that there are all kinds of things that those on the inside of the tenure system can do to be allies. Even those of us who are most junior. Examples are:
        -serving as supportive advocates for alt-ac careers among our grad students;
        -advocating for simple ways that contingent faculty are included in university business from the most basic- having profiles on departmental web pages and their research highlighted in things like departmental newsletters, etc., to invitations to meetings where departmental business is discussed to the larger issue of advocating for FT labor contracts and union protection;
        -including contributions from contingent faculty in conference panels, publications, etc.

        These area few of the things that might be within the power of all levels of the minority tenure class (tenured and tt) to advocate for the majority contingent faculty. Sorry if this repeats points made elsewhere in the comments!


      • Thanks for the respectful comment, and the genuine respect, Rebecca. Especially given the abusive response here ( to pointing out the same issue of ‘civility” as tone-policing with a freighted racist history. The nastiness of the White male moderator on this site, when asked to ‘discuss white privilege’, speaks volumes about White/male privilege and abuse in the academy, and why it will continue and must be called out and challenged.


  10. I am getting the impression, perhaps erroneously, that you actually agree with the Tenured Radical’s position: eliminate tenure, put everyone on long contracts, and unionize (even in states where that would be virtually impossible).

    I disagree for a number of reasons, none of which has to do with “lifeboating.”

    What about agitating for the expansion of tenure track lines? I can explain cogently why this is the better route both academically and from a labor point of view.

    About the liberal professions in a class society, well, yes, there is a lot to say. Ask me about law school sometime and also the form of adjuncting that plagues unemployed JDs.


    • Tenure will get rid of itself no matter what anyone does–I do agree with TR, however, that what we should be fighting for is unionization and good benefits and a salary for everyone (if that’s what she believes). However, I do nominally agree with the benefits of tenure and its purpose, so I’m not going to call for burning it down. I’m also not, however, going to fight to get one more tenure line per department, when what really matters is getting a living wage for the 25 adjuncts who work there instead.


      • My department doesn’t have adjuncts, everyone is FT, and we are not a rich school. Look around, there are lots of departments like mine. You are setting the bar far too low.


  11. This came to mind today…hmm…any connection with the academy? Oh, I don’t know…it’s the life of the mind, we should not be be so materialistic by wanting three meals, a home and respect. I should adapt my thinking, really, because thrill of the “intellect” is nourishment enough. The university people making a steady salary say so and, gosh, they’re on the TT so they are bound to be smarter and better than me.


  12. Unmentioned in all of this are what, to my mind, should be the real targets of any “revolution”:

    1) Burgeoning administration.

    In the two decades from 1985 to 2005, student enrolment in the US rose by 56 per cent, faculty numbers increased by 50 per cent, degree-granting institutions expanded by 50 per cent, degrees granted grew by 47 per cent, administrators rocketed by 85 per cent and their attendant staff by a whopping 240 per cent.

    As with many parasites, it’s them or us. And they would like nothing better than to see internecine battles among academics over the scraps left by the system they have created. All talk of “lifeboaters” seems to me misdirected, in this context.

    2) The pernicious influence of US News & World Report. Student-faculty ratios (which figure in the rankings) include adjuncts in the “faculty” component. Hiring lots of them (the cheaper the better) is a way of gaming this metric, a fact that is not lost on many administrators. Meanwhile, other metrics (e.g., faculty salaries) include only tenured or TT faculty, providing an incentive to increase the distance between haves and have-nots.

    This is what you should be fighting, instead of railing about the putative injustice of tenure.


    • I don’t disagree with you, those are all things that people should be (and are) angry about. However, those are things that those of us on the outside have very little, if any control over. Which is why we get so angry when those inside the system tell us to quiet down, because we are trying to point out the problems inherent in the system and they want to cover their eyes and ears and just hope they can save their own asses/tenure-line.

      I’ll fight for those things but first I need to fight for a job, hunger games style at the MLA next week.


      • TR’s embarrassing antics aside, how loud exactly is this supposed chorus of TT faculty members telling non-tenured colleagues to shut up? I would have thought the problems John lists and the trend towards casual labour in the academy have been the subject of a long list of “inside” critiques over the past years. Personally, I know very few colleagues who think the status quo is justifiable or desirable, and I know many who have publicly spoken out on the subject. I also know that there are many senior colleagues who are aloof enough to ignore the current situation and delude themselves that nothing has changed since they were on the market decades ago. And that is indeed a problem. And I’m sure there are some who don’t take issue with handing over undergraduate instruction to adjuncts and PhD students if that means a reduced load and more time to do “their own work.” It’s a complex system full of people with a range of opinions. But I find it very difficult to square the idea that the majority of TT faculty think the status quo is just dandy — or that the majority of TT faculty are just scared that their precious tenure will disappear if those pesky contract instructors don’t shut up — with what I have seen and heard over the past ten years as a TT faculty member.


    • I think you’re headed in the right direction here, John, though even the growing numbers of administration (which in many places include some very useful alt-ac and academic support jobs — e.g. various posts in libraries, digital humanities, online teaching platform/classroom tech support, etc.) probably bear closer examination (another issue is the growth in mandated assessment, and the need for people to deal with those requirements). Still, it’s pretty sure that administration is where the money is actually going, and that’s at least part of the problem (the other part is the pretty much universal de-funding of state universities by state legislatures). The other, larger, connected problem is the devaluing of the craft of teaching, and anybody who practices it. Personally, I’m willing to make common cause with anybody who supports fair compensation for good teaching, and all the activities (including time for prep, reflection, and, yes, a modest research program of one’s own) that support it.


  13. That is a fight that tenured folks need to pick up as well…but they are too comfortable to do so. Rebecca and others are railing but, if those in the system really want to be an ally, they’re going to have to shake some trees, too. Those hollering from the outside can’t knock the walls without inside allies willing to suffer discomfort (this ain’t Jericho, folks).

    Granted…the higher ups have gotten way out of control. Again, it’s up to tenured folks (especially full & emeriti profs), deans, provosts to pick up the fight against these outrages. Otherwise, I hate to say it, you’re complicit.

    And beyond…


    • Here’s a worthwhile link:

      Where and how is pressure best applied? On US News and using social media. That magazine basically lives on its College Rankings these days. And the fact that use of adjuncts is invisible in (and, indeed, encouraged by) the rankings methodology means that the rankings aren’t telling students and parents something that they want to know.

      By saying this I am not saying that adjuncts are worse (or better) teachers. I am saying that, were there to be a concerted campaign via twitter, Facebook, blogs and Rebecca’s columns to insist that US News calculate student-faculty ratios using only tenured or tenure-track faculty in the denominator and also provide a negative metric for percent of courses taught by adjuncts and TAs, it would do a lot more (with less effort) to move things in the right direction.

      And I think we should also all agree that lobbying for the elimination of tenure is suicide. That is an entirely neo-liberal solution, one that takes capitalist economics (which the university predates, by the way) as the exact and proper way of allocating resources in all domains. It would result in some form of justice since more faculty would share the current fate of adjuncts. But that’s hardly a recipe for improving anyone’s position.


      • Another small (or perhaps not so small) change would be to (re)institute an expectation that all administrators will be qualified to teach in a traditional discipline (not higher ed administration), and will do so regularly (at least yearly) at the gen ed/intro level (advanced undergrad/grad classes optional). Alt-ac folks would have no problem fulfilling this requirement (in fact, many of them would probably be happy to get the opportunity to teach as part of a full-time compensation package, rather than having to go the adjunct route to teach at all), nor would administrators with solid grounding in a traditional discipline (sociology, economics, even more practical disciplines such as business, accounting, etc.). This would also have the positive effect of keeping administrators in touch with what goes on in the classroom, and with a “home” department, and of increasing the number of intro/gen ed sections taught by full-time employees of the university. Administrative work assignments would, of course, have to be adjusted to allow for the time teaching takes (and perhaps re-adjusted once administrators realize how much time reaching *really* takes — a plus, in my mind, and possible bridge across the administrator/faculty gap), but we’re all supposed to be doing more with less, right?

        The other obvious change: tie administrative and faculty salaries to each other in some proportional way (and, while we’re at it, admit that most faculty — including adjuncts — are expected to work, if not full-time, then at least a substantial part of the time, during the summer “break”).


  14. I hesitate to wade into the fray here, since I realize this is a bit off topic, but I’m worried that the assumptions about the advantages of an Ivy-league Ph.D. being bandied about here (on this post and other comment threads) might lead someone to choose an Ivy department over one that is, in fact, more supportive of its graduate students, and that offers better preparation for the current job market. As someone who attended Ivy-League institutions for both undergrad and grad school (in the ’80s/early ’90s), who holds a Ph.D. from an Ivy, and knows a number of other Ivy Ph.D.s who are not, despite being talented teachers and researchers (and, in several cases, including my own, holders of fellowships meant to supply the predicted faculty shortage of the early ’90s), on the tenure track, I’d offer the following observations:

    First, I’m sure that some people who hold Ph.D.s from Ivies do, indeed, benefit from the sort of networking (Old Boy, Old Girl, or otherwise) that is mentioned here. If all the stars align (good personality and disciplinary fit with advisor, advisor at a point in hir career when mentoring grad students is a high priority, available jobs in places where the advisor has connections, etc., etc.) I don’t doubt that the Ivy connections can provide an additional boost over candidates who are similarly situated, but at a less prestigious school.

    However, don’t underestimate the extent to which Ivy-league faculty can be out of touch, overly impressed with their own institutions, too preoccupied by their own career arcs to pay attention to their grad students, or all of the above. My own experience was of not-so-benign neglect, exacerbated by the comings and goings of “star” (and rising-star) faculty, a number of whom spent less time at my grad institution than I did. It’s hard to form a relationship with an advisor in those conditions, and, although there’s a certain amount of movement at all institutions, it’s a particularly common phenomenon in the Ivies, where both the faculty and the institutions have a tendency to spend a lot of time looking over each others’ fences at grass that they’re convinced is just a shade greener.

    Because funding is good (a definite plus), Ivy league Ph.D. programs tend to be comparatively short, and to involve less teaching than those at flagship state universities. This is, of course, both a plus and a minus: it’s good to be able to focus on one’s research, and to come out of grad school relatively quickly and relatively debt-free (and those two are often connected, since funding tends to dwindle as time goes on), but it’s not good to come out of grad school relatively unprepared for the great majority of available jobs in comparison to other recent Ph.D.s. I’ve seen people have considerable difficulty getting jobs (though perhaps not first- or even second-round interviews) for this reason; I’ve also seen them get jobs and then fail to get tenure (which is at least as bad an experience as not getting a tenure-track job in the first place).

    I suspect this has improved somewhat, but, at least in my day, it was clear that Ivy League departments expected their grad students to figure out a lot of things, from teaching to conventions of professional practice, more or less on their own. This was partly the result of laziness on the faculty’s part, and partly the result of hubris (assuming institutional prestige would make up for any deficits).

    Of course, in choosing a grad department, one should always look more closely at the individual department than the larger institution (and also at individual faculty members, always keeping in mind that at least some members of any department will undoubtedly move, retire, die, or otherwise disappear in the 5-10 years it takes to complete a degree), but, all other things being equal, I’d suggest looking for a department that offers strong financial support, genuine pedagogical training as well as strong guidance through the dissertation process and support for conferencing/publication during the degree process, and a time to degree somewhere in the middle of the average range for the discipline. From what I’ve seen, a highly-ranked program at a flagship state university may be more likely to offer all of the above — and thus, the best chance at an academic job, which is still very, very far from a guarantee — than an Ivy.


    • Am not an Ivy grad but this sounds accurate to me. Of Ivy grads I know, one never got a TT, another quit a TT & changed professions, another was denied tenure and has since adjuncted for years, and another can’t get a job interview at the MLA. In some ways, the crush of disappointment–after all the inflated expectations–could be worse.


  15. Complaining about someone’s ‘tone’ (‘civility’, ‘mind your language’ etc) rather than their content is a classic remark of the petit-bourgeouise who merely wants the servants to ‘mind their Ps and Qs’. I always make a point of never complying and insisting they first address the content of the complaint.


  16. Just a point of clarity, and then I will once again step out of this: Rebecca has not hurt my feelings, nor upset me at all. I wouldn’t still be in blogging if it were possible to get my feelings hurt because someone (or any of the commenters here, for that matter) doesn’t like what I write about or how I do it. People have differences, and argue them strongly: that’s fine. Happy new year all.


  17. I appreciate the points by John R. Churl and Contingent Cassandra, above, and to those who say TR cold not get hired today, point out that she is in a new job, was hired last year. So, so much for saying she’s unemployable. I also think it is naive (and presumptuous) of people to say TR would have already been nonrenewed at Wesleyan if there had not been a tenure system there. Presumptuous: you’d really have to be in field and at that institution to judge.

    That’s not to say I don’t find TR, Historiann, and also Ms. Mentor (at CHE), and a number of other pontificators, including some here, to be quite officious at times. Or a lot of the time, to be more precise. Still, accurate facts are valuable.

    I am guessing the difference between me and some people here is that I would not take an adjunct job and they would, and I was never promised a tenure track job and they were. I think an adjunct strike, walkout, etc. would be a great thing. Just don’t do it, or do it for a maximum amount of time and in a place you like. It serves no one that you suffer in this way.

    Meanwhile, my university is looking at an adjustment to adjunct pay rates before they look at making up the pay cuts of the last 6 years to the FTEs. It’s interesting. Of course, these are the worst paid people so their situation is the most urgent. I’d be more interested in converting them to FTEs, though. Even at the currently reduced pay, it’s still a better deal.


  18. One thing I really wish tenured profs would remember, also, is that the convention of absurd deference applies only within the discipline. If you are a tenured prof in an unrelated discipline, I am entitled to treat you as a social equal (which includes snubbing you if you act like a dirty old man/sexist jerk), even though I am a grad student. Also, if you USED to be a tenured prof, but now work outside the academy, I can treat you as a social equal because we are both human beings. Thx.


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