A humanist, thinking like a social scientist

December 30, 2013

I’m an ethnomusicologist. My entire field’s uselessness has been the butt of a joke on 30 Rock, so you don’t need to tell me that going into graduate studies was a lost cause–believe me, I know. Ethnomusicology, though, gives me an interesting perspective from which to observe the dissolution of the academy.

Ethnomusicology is the bastard child of musicology and anthropology; depending on where you do your graduate studies, it’s either more humanistic or more social science-y. I’m a product of the anthro-facing squad at Columbia, where theory and methodology from anthropology were so strictly applied to the study of music in culture that the department has actually placed ethnomusicologists in anthro departments, which is pretty much unheard of (though the opposite is fairly frequent). So, though I work as a “musicologist” right now, teaching music history in a humanities department, I spent most of my time in grad school among social scientists.

One of those people is anthropologist Sherry B. Ortner, who taught the single most useful course I took in grad school, “The Anthropology of the Subject.” (Full disclosure: Sherry was on my dissertation committee and is married to my advisor.) The course basically focused on the twin issues of structure and agency. Somehow, despite the tendency in the world for people to dichotomize this as the “structure vs. agency” problem, Prof. Ortner brought nuance to everything she taught in that class, whether it was Bourdieu or Geertz or Althusser. I got out of that class a thorough understanding of agency as always enmeshed in forces beyond the subject. Your decisions and your actions may be your own, but you always make them within institutional and cultural frameworks.

Which brings me to the real point of this blog post: people in the humanities who refuse to acknowledge that the employment structure of the academy has changed over the past forty years, or that there is any sort of internalized ideology–a structuring structure–that shapes people’s choices within the academy. These are the people that Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka) has called “lifeboaters.” They are the people who have a strong belief in the meritocracy because, you know, it worked for them. They are the people who blame contingency on the overproduction of grad students. They are the people who say, “It’s always been hard to get a job in the academy.”

It’s that last one that’s exceptionally deceptive. Yes, it has always been hard to get a job in the academy. But that does not mean that it has not been growing more and more difficult, or that there are quantifiable structural changes in academic employment. In pretty much every chart that the AAUP and the US Department of Education have produced, the decline of tenured and tenure-track positions is incredibly obvious by the dramatic downward slope on the x-y axis. Here’s one from Alexandre Afonso’s blog post about stratification in the academy, “How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang.”

When you mention this to a lifeboater, as I did to Steven D. Krause on Twitter, they tend to put their hands over their ears, close their eyes, and shout, “Lalalalalalala! Facts and figures mean nothing! They are not discipline specific! You are naive! Lalalalalala!”

I’m saying, in response, that I’m not naive. I don’t think that anyone who is pointing out the damaging effects of the march toward contingency is naive; rather, we’re the ones who see that the structure of the academy has changed so drastically that, as Rebecca Schuman has pointed out repeatedly in her posts and on Twitter, failure has become the norm. That’s not naivete. That’s dismay and anger in acknowledgment that there is real, growing stratification in the academy.

This bring me to the other point about people’s choices within structuring structures: All of us supposedly naive people crafted our careers within institutions that shaped our expectations, if not our actions. As early as my first year of undergrad, I was presented with the idea that academe was somehow the best place for any smart person. In fact, I was talked out of pursuing a career in journalism by several of my professors–writing for normal people just wasn’t the best use of my intelligence.

Though they did say getting a job in the academy would be hard, they said that I could do things to mitigate the risk: get into an Ivy (check), work with distinguished people (check), and present at conferences and publish (check). And, in grad school, I continued to hear, “There’s always a place for people who do good work!” and “I’m sure you’ll get a job if you just hang in there for one more year” and even, “You should be glad you didn’t get that job–your work is too good for a school like that.”

I don’t blame these people, nor do I think they meant me harm. In fact, I like most them a lot on the personal level. But I understand that they, too, are part of a system that is invested in continually bringing in a cheap source of labor (grad students), and which allows just enough people to rise up through the ranks to let the discourse of “good work”/”it’s always been hard to get a job” function. I’m not sure I would have made these choices if anyone had said, “Hey, Elizabeth, you remember how you discarded the idea of being a concert flutist after you learned how much your flute teacher earned? Well, no one’s telling you, but that’s what an adjunct makes, and you’ll even have to compete for that.” Then again, I may have ignored this person, as he or she would have been a lonely voice of rationality among the crowd of academics who were constantly reinforcing the idea that the only form of success in the world was a tenure-track job.

So, I also understand lifeboaters. They, too, are the products of this system, but they got what they wanted. It’s just a shame that they refuse to see the structure changing around them–because, in this move toward contingency, no one is really safe.



One Response to “A humanist, thinking like a social scientist”

  1. Jeana Jorgensen said

    Well said! (says the folklorist to the ethnomusicologist)

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