I’m Sorry I Volunteered As Tribute

January 22, 2014

Earlier this week, I read this column at the Chronicle, which compared the academic job search to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. On the surface, I should have loved it: I write YA fiction in my spare time,* and, as part of my commitment to that element of my writing life, I read a lot of it–widely, from good to bad, and in between. I love The Hunger Games (well, at least the first two books), and I could see how the brutality of the academic job market made for some darkly humorous parallels.

But, as I read it, I felt deeply annoyed, and then unsettled and somehow angry. It wasn’t, as Rebecca Schuman pointed out, that the column was needlessly anonymous (though it was). It wasn’t that the columnist grossly mischaracterizes the leads of The Hunger Games. Katniss is the least “plucky” YA heroine ever. She’s frequently moody, presents terribly in interviews, and has regular bouts of self-doubt. And, Peeta–well, would you describe someone who becomes a master of camouflage as clueless? Maybe in the movies, but certainly not in the book, where he’s definitely more astute than Katniss about playing for the cameras in the Capitol.

Eventually, I figured out what bothered me. Although the article is a bit of black humor about the market, it misses the real tragedy of both The Hunger Games and the academic job market: that people’s lives are regarded as disposable in both cases.

Now, one of these is fiction, and features real death, while the other is real life, and is possible to recover from. But the parallels are actually more depressing. The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian United States, in which the citizens of the Capitol live off the wealth produced in the twelve Districts. Every year, 24 children–a girl and a boy from each District–are chosen to participate in a fight to the death broadcast on live television. The Games both provide entertainment and ensure that the Districts do not form alliances and rebel against the Capitol.

While it’s a bit heavy-handed, there are moments of real emotion in the novel. One of these is when Katniss (our not-at-all-plucky heroine) mourns Rue, a tribute from District 11, by covering her body with flowers after she’s murdered. For the reader, this moment drives home the brutality of the Games; after all, Rue is only 12. And (spoiler alert) it’s this waste of life that Katniss continues to fight against in books 2 and 3 of the trilogy.

In the Hunger Games column in the Chronicle, “Atlas Odinshoot” hits at the disregard for academic job candidates in his opening paragraphs:

If you’re on the faculty job market, or will be soon, you may find yourself explaining the real possibility of failure to well-meaning family and friends.

Doctoral students are usually type-A overachievers, and so your loved ones have faith that you’ll come out OK because, well, you always have.

But the academic job market is a process that necessitates failure. Your application materials will end up in the slush pile at dozens of departments, regardless of how well suited you are for the position or how carefully you tailor your materials. Outstanding candidates can easily fail to find a position. 

The fact that the academic job market “necessitates failure” is key here. And, not just failure–failure of “outstanding candidates,” people who are the stereotypical best and brightest, who should be able to succeed at anything. Why is such rigorous training provided to so many people to do a job that will be available to so few? Why is this process so wasteful, so brutal, with such a disregard for the humanity of the job applicants? Who benefits from this system? Why are some people with tenure encouraging the expansion of graduate programs, even in the midst of a clear, ongoing, and progressive contraction of the academic job market? Why are outside connections–especially ones that could offer future employment–discouraged during grad school? And why are people who leave–even when they go on to good jobs and to do exceptional things–still considered failures within academia?

These are only a few of the questions that underly the issue of the job market’s necessary failures, but they are hard to ask without teetering from a cutesy, gallows humor comparison of the Hunger Games into a pit of despair about the utter likelihood that you’ve wasted a good decade of your life and you can do nothing to change the structural issues of the academy. (Or, at least that’s how I’m feeling.) The job market, in its brutality, fosters competition and prevents alliances between the underclasses of academia, and when people decide to leave it–really leave it–they are as good as dead to anyone in academia.

Now, some of you may be saying, “Elizabeth, you volunteered as Tribute! You cannot have expected the outcome to go any other way! You knew the market was bad! It was always bad!” This is true, though the market is markedly worse than when I started (yes, those figures are for German, but it works across the humanities). It is also true that the thing I heard most often in grad school was, “There’s always room for people who do good work,” paired with reassurance that I did good–nay, excellent–work. And yet, here I am, as an adjunct. I guess that’s where there’s room for me, eh?

So, yes, I may have volunteered as Tribute. I don’t have to play the game anymore; I can leave, and I will, as soon as I can find a job elsewhere. But that does nothing to change the system, and I have no idea what to do about that.


*I’m not a published YA author. And, no, I do not write Hunger Games fanfic or vampire stories, so you can just take those jokes elsewhere. I’m currently revising a manuscript and will be looking for agents somewhere in mid-2014.



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