Passion Is Overrated

December 2, 2013

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about academia being a “passion” or a “calling” or a “vocation.” If you’re not passionate enough, that explains why you haven’t succeeded; if you have enough, you will.

I’ve got a numbers of problems with this:

First, “passion” is yet another thing that places structural conditions back on the individual. You didn’t succeed? Well, you just didn’t have the passion. It’s another form of the “good work” trap of academia, where anything can and will be used against you. Not enough passion? You don’t get the job. Or the raise. Or whatever. It’s not correlated with skill, or job performance.

Second, “passion” discourses are used in typically feminized occupations, like teaching, nursing, and social work. No one calls being a surgeon a “passion,” but being a nurse somehow is. Engineering isn’t a field that people express passion for, but teaching science at the elementary and high school level is; the latter is also a relatively low-paying job that people somehow think is easy. Increasingly, academia is a feminized occupation. Not coincidentally, it’s become a low-paying one.*

Finally, “passion” discourses also operate in highly competitive, artistically based professions–like music, fiction writing, and acting–where only a few people will succeed out of massive applicant pools, and where chance plays a huge part in success. Most of the time, the labor of these professions isn’t considered real work, because so many people would just love to be doing the same thing, but for them it’s just a hobby. Plus, the labor of the artist is hard to measure, so a lot of people dismiss it altogether.**

Academia, however, is not an artistic endeavor, but it’s increasingly being treated like one, mostly because success in academia is so arbitrary and so stratified. I recently read a comment on a website where an academic talked about an amazing musician who became gastroenterologist because he could play piano at night, but could not practice medicine as a hobby. The commenter equated the passion of teaching the humanities with the passion of being a classical musician, but not with the advanced academic training and skill of the gastroenterologist. As a classically trained flutist and PhD ethnomusicologist, I find this application of passion discourses particularly troubling.

College professors are not providing a performance of some sort of ephemeral essence of humanity whose value is determined by taste culture and habitus. Rather, they’re providing a service–teaching–based on their expert knowledge and original research. This service includes planning syllabi and lessons, lecturing, grading papers, advising, and more. They are more like the gastroenterologist than the musician: they use their knowledge to provide labor to others, in defined spaces of time, whether in a classroom or in a doctor’s office. In fact, most professional musicians would likely be very confused and at least a little insulted that their performance was equated with teaching, which they likely do as a day job on top of their performance.

And, yes, I know that R-1 people are paid primarily for their research, which is a bit on the ephemeral side; their worth is determined by the taste culture of academia; and they are sometimes treated like artists. But this is part of the problem: when this elite, R-1 view of academia is applied to the entirety of the university-level teaching profession, it obscures the amount of real labor that most academics do within the university system. It is part of the devaluing of teaching as labor of worth to the university.

So, what I’m getting at is this: labor matters, more than passion. Work in the classroom, even if you are a passionate teacher, is still labor; it has value regardless of whether you construct it as a “passion” or a “calling,” or if you name it for what it is. The fact is, if you construct labor as “passion,” you’re doing yourself a disservice. You are saying that your labor is something you’d do for free–and people are more than willing to take you up on that.


*This section is a bit shorter than it was originally. Wednesday’s blog post will be about academia as a pink-collar job.

**Again, I could write a whole other post about this topic.


2 Responses to “Passion Is Overrated”

  1. excellent post! passion as it relates to academe is a pet peeve of mine – was just writing about it myself. As you say, passion gets associated with feminized jobs to justify low pay for women (women don’t need to work for money, they work as a hobby). I have been especially upset lately hearing graduate students use their passion for their studies to dismiss and even belittle warnings about the academic job market. craziness.

  2. MasterofWhat said

    I noticed this kind of sutle–& necessery–brainwashing retheric while I was doing my MA… Happy to say that that is over. We tend to forget that we can & are conditioned by external forces all the time.

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