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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I’ve been meaning to talk about this for a while–in fact, my column for Vitae alludes to my own credit card debt. But with Karen “The Professor Is In” Kelsky’s massive, anonymous Google doc of graduate student debt and Kate Bahn’s “On Privilege and the PhD,” I felt it was time to talk about how you can get into debt even when fully funded.

Now, I’m  not going to give you the exact dollar amount of my debt. That’s between me and my credit card companies. But I certainly have it. Here’s how it happened:

Year 1: My stipend is $12,000, my rent $600/month in New York City. My dad helps me pay rent, because he can see that $400/month is not enough to live on. I also have substantial savings from college, mostly because I had a full scholarship that included both tuition and room, and I worked every weekend. Over the first year, my savings dwindle.

Year 2: With my stipend going up to $13,000, there still isn’t room for any financial error. I start working for the Columbia Bartending Agency, which really and truly exists. It’s a great way to make money, but, as I start writing my master’s thesis and TAing, it becomes hard to juggle. I get pressure from both professors and my then-boyfriend to quit bartending (really, the boyfriend, who is rich via his famous mother, wants to dominate my time).

Year 3: I still bartend a little, but it’s hard to keep up with coursework and teaching my own class for the first time. The debts are starting to rack up. Graduate stipend rises to $13,500, but, of course, my rent is going up each year, too. I start attending conferences locally, which isn’t so bad. In the “bad” column, my boyfriend asks me to go on an expensive ski trip with him–his mother’s paying for my ski rental, lessons, and lift ticket. When I get there, it turns out that she is not paying for anything, her present to me is a Nalgene bottle, and I’m out over $1,000. This is not really grad school debt, but I thought I would put it here since it’s the only radically stupid thing I paid for.

Year 4: At the end of Year 3 and beginning of Year 4, I take my comps. I pass with flying colors! However, it’s the last time I get to celebrate: Faculty relationships rapidly deteriorate over the fall semester. By the order of various administrators, people are not talking to each other. I cannot get my dissertation proposal approved, because the people who need to approve it are not allowed in the same room with each other. In January of Year 4, I’m sent on fieldwork with junior faculty approval, having to revoke the paltry amount of funding I did receive, because I lack the paperwork proving I have passed my proposal defense. This is my biggest mistake. It will cost me $20,000. (I finally get a proposal defense date after a giant fracas that involves a professor being forcibly retired. It was BIG DRAMA.)

Year 5: I go to my first national conference, flying from Seattle to Miami. That is not cheap, and, though my flight is funded, the rest of it goes on the credit card. I finish my fieldwork in Seattle and move to San Francisco to conduct more fieldwork and move in with my horrible boyfriend. San Francisco is incredibly expensive; it’s the worst site for fieldwork, ever. After my horrible boyfriend “accidentally” deletes my conference paper, I attend my second national conference. I can’t get funding for this one, because we’re limited to one per year. I do, however, stay with a friend and his wife, which dramatically cuts down on the costs of the conference.

The Year Off: I get stuck in San Francisco for another year, due to a fuck up with funding that was partially my fault and partially due to someone deleting something from my computer (again!). For obvious reasons, I move out of my apartment with the horrible boyfriend. I work all the time, for the worst boss I’ve ever had, and everything sucks. Just as I’m about to go to a conference (even in my year off!), my boss fires me from my $30/hour independent contractor position when she forgets that she gave me permission to go to the conference. It’s either keep my job–flushing the cost of the conference down the toilet–or go and lose my job. I leave, because she is driving me crazy. I end up working at the Gap and a yarn store for six months until I go back to New York. This erases all the progress I’d made on my debt, and adds to it.

Year 6: To make up for the SNAFU that happened the year before, one of the professors in my department makes sure I get a dissertation-writing fellowship, which is $19,000/year. My rent in my sublet is $1,025/month, meaning that I cannot leave my house unless I want to increase my debt. I make real progress, but I do not finish my dissertation by the end of the year. However, the two of the three chapters that I write that year will later win prizes in their conference paper versions. This will not help me get a job, but it’s something. In March, I end up getting evicted when the woman from whom I’m subletting tells the university she’s not returning. In a miraculous turn of events, I end up in the best and cheapest apartment in NYC. However, it requires 1) a broker’s fee and 2) first, last, and security. I borrow money from my dad, who, thankfully, has money to spare and does not want to see me homeless.

Year 7:  This is my last year of funding. I’m told to conference, conference, conference. I do. I go to a conference in Hawai’i. I go to a conference in Seattle. I go to a conference in Montreal. The only cheap conference is in Ithaca, NY. These conferences add up rapidly. Even Montreal, which can theoretically be done on the cheap, costs more than it should: the conference is during the Grand Prix de Montreal, which means that any restaurant within walking distance to the conference hotel was raising their regular prices or using prix fixe deals.

Year 8: While adjuncting, I finally finish a draft, but have a hard time pleasing one member of my committee. Another member of my committee, who sees me struggling, encourages me to really put myself out there on the job market. “You never know how far a good conference paper will take you,” she says cheerily. I believe her, but I should not, because no one goes to grad student panels. I go to conferences in Columbus, Seattle, and San Antonio. I defend the same day that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy; the day my diploma is issued, October 11, 2008, the head of the IMF warns of potential international collapse. Jobs disappear, and I find myself stuck adjuncting.

In the years after graduation, working as an adjunct and VAP has meant that I’ve never gotten ahead of my debt in the way that I’d like. It’s always there. The adjunct pay cycle is not conducive to getting out of debt: even if you save during the semester, the pay is so little that it will not cover expenses during the summer.

I worry that this post will just cause people to call me an idiot (see: My Year Off), or to say that I do not deserve to be in academia if I couldn’t hack it financially. But the reality is, aside from dating a terrible human being for four years and going on an expensive ski trip, I don’t think there’s much else I could have done. I went to the best grad school I could, I got as much funding as I could, and I tried to live frugally. I spent money on things that would directly advance my career, such as research and conferences. And I still have debt, for a career that I’m leaving at the end of this year.

Grad school: it’s just not worth the damage to your bank account.

Yesterday, I had an interview for a job outside academia. It was absolutely normal and wonderfully refreshing–pleasant, even. The questions were about the job, and how my experience and knowledge is relevant to it, and I answered them to the best of my ability. So, if I do not get the job, I have no regrets, because I was treated like a human being.

However, I can’t say that about my academic job interviews. Of the conference and on-campus interviews I’ve done, there’s exactly one that stood out for being a truly humane experience: it was a small liberal arts college in Maine, where everyone was polite and professional, from the start of the day to the finish at dinner. I didn’t get the job, but I still have an incredible amount of respect for every single person there.

Otherwise, it’s been a series of WTF to just plain wrong. There was the time when I was scheduled on the same day as another candidate. After the committee took too long at lunch, I was asked to start my interview an hour late, and, oh, by the way, they’re not taking me to dinner (which meant they’d already decided on the other person). There was the time when a scholar whose work I really admired turned his back on me and refused to shake my hand because he disliked one of my letter writers. I could go on, but I won’t.

Mostly, though, I’ve heard a ton of bizarro questions. Here are six of them that stick out in my mind:

6. “What do you think about specificity?” This was a real question at an R-1 university. Although I’ve done a lot of thinking about specificity, especially when it comes to writing, I had no idea what this person meant. Specificity is good, in any kind of writing: In an article, you want specific details to prove your point. You see this blog post? It has specific questions, all of which I really experienced. But the vague quality of the question made me unsure if I was supposed to answer about research, teaching, or, say, the lunch menu. This person is a wonderful scholar and probably a good colleague, but this was one of those questions that demonstrated how out-of-touch R-1 academia is with the rest of the world.

5. “Why is this music so angry? There’s too much shouting, and it delegitimizes their feminism.” This was from a professor who identifies as feminist, and she was tone policing the music I was talking about in my job talk. You might think that this was a legitimate question, but it’s not. I could have talked more about why the music was so angry (and, in fact, about a third of my job talk was about that), but the second part is key: the declarative statement showed that she didn’t have room to even hear an answer. This is the worst kind of question to get after a job talk, because it means that the person is already a no-vote, and the best you can do is hope your answer makes you seem collegial yet firm.

4. “How do you see the role of this new hire in your department’s growth?” OK, this is something I asked, and I hope it’s not really a terrible question. I have no idea why it caused the following to happen: One of the committee members slammed his hands down on the table and shouted, “I don’t see us hiring an ethnomusicologist!” He then got up and left, slamming the door behind him. I had fifteen minutes left to ask the rest of the committee questions, but no one would say anything. Worse, no one apologized for his behavior; instead, they acted like it was normal. Dear committee members at that school, if you happen to read this: that’s not professional.

3. “The kids are going into finals. Could you cut your teaching presentation from an hour to, say, 25 minutes?” This was asked as I was getting ready to teach and the students were filing into the classroom. If I had been asked to prepare an alternate 25-minute lesson, this would have been fine. If I’d have been given a day’s notice, this would have been fine. Hell, if I’d have been given a half hour, maybe. But this was just impossible, not to mention incredibly dismissive of the work that I’d put into my sample class.

2. “Can you give me a compelling reason why we should hire an adjunct, when we are trying to raise the profile of the department?” I was adjuncting at a state school, teaching courses for someone who was (no joke) no longer allowed in the country because the university had messed up his green card. Despite the bad karma involved in such a position, I applied when it came open and became the inside candidate; however, the dean had issues with adjuncts in the department, regardless of pedigree or degree obtained (almost universally, the music adjuncts had PhDs, while the tenure-track faculty did not). The school ended up passing on me and a former adjunct who had two well regarded books on excellent presses. They hired someone ABD, because, you know, potential.

1. “So, do you have any kids?” Normally, I’d be happy to talk with people about my plans to have children. But the only reason people ask a woman that in an interview in academia is to suss out whether she’ll be taking leave in the next few years, and/or whether she’s a “serious scholar.” This is also not legal. Yet it’s happened at almost every interview I’ve ever been on.

This past week, Ani Di Franco became relevant for the first time since the late 1990s in possibly the worst way. Her “Righteous Retreat” was going to be held at Nottoway Plantation, a resort between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that also happened to be a former slave plantation. An internet fracas ensued, as people rightfully criticized the location. Di Franco issued the worst apology I’ve ever read (The Toast’s parody was spot on). In it, she called the criticism about the choice of location “high velocity bitterness,” generally took a smug tone about being a progressive white woman whose choices should not be judged, and compared a music school for impoverished kids in the Cabildo in New Orleans (another slavery site) with a resort catering to rich white people.*

Perhaps the thing that’s most troubling to me is that last bit. I’ve been to the Cabildo, and it’s nothing like going to a plantation. It’s been part of the Louisiana State Museum since 1908; that’s over a century of functioning as a public entity, complete with educational programs and a permanent exhibition that places slavery in context. Just as importantly, as Ani acknowledges, the work that educators do within the Cabildo–like the Roots of Music group she cites–transform the historical building into a space that benefits people rather than actively, intentionally harms them.  

I’ve also been to Nottoway, twice, a long time ago. Back in the 1980s, I went on a lot of plantation tours throughout south Louisiana. At the time, I didn’t have a choice: most of the tours were school field trips with my classmates from my predominantly white Catholic school. At the time, I didn’t think about these houses as being built by slaves or that these houses’ existence was a product of the system of slavery: I was a young white kid born in NJ but growing up in LA, and, to me, the plantations were just beautiful houses with unique architecture. 

And then, when I was in middle school, my older cousin went on a tour with my family to Nottoway Plantation. 

“Don’t you think it’s weird,” she said, “that no one’s mentioned slaves at all?”

She was right. They hadn’t. It had been “servants” throughout the entire tour: servants selected the cypress beams that were resistant to termites; servants worked in the plantation’s sugar cane fields; servants took care of the family; servants took the “whistler’s walk”* from the outdoor kitchens to the family’s dining room. 

It was a jolt to 12-year-old me. Suddenly, I felt a lot less comfortable in the beautiful (but, no joke, completely white) ballroom where we were standing. It wasn’t just a house we were touring. It was a place where black people had been exploited, abused, and even killed just so that white people could live in luxury.

Now, this was 25 years ago, and a lot has changed at Nottoway. The website now acknowledges up front that slavery was a part of plantation life, and that John Randolph, the plantation owner who built the house, had a long history of slave ownership (including the 20 slaves who were part of his wife’s dowry). On its history page, the plantation’s current owners describe life for the slaves, from field hands to household workers. But it repeats the idea that John Randolph was an especially nice owner, though it’s sure to point out that he had economic reasons for being relatively less terrible than other slave owners.

Although the plantation no longer hides its past as a site of slavery, it isn’t a transformative space, either. It’s a resort that replicates the kind of luxury the Randolph family enjoyed in the antebellum era. You can stay in the Randolph family’s bedrooms, which are filled with period-specific antiques. You can stay in the overseer’s cottage–yes, the overseer’s cottage–also with some fine antiques. Or the carriage house or the “cottages,” which are designed like modern hotel rooms. The “cottages” are on the site where slave cabins once stood. In them, you can enjoy all the amenities of a first-class resort. You know, just like those slaves did back then. 

Staying in a plantation owner’s or overseer’s house with period-centric antiques isn’t transformative; rather, it glorifies a system of owning other human beings by replicating the conditions afforded to the upper classes at the time. Nor do tidy “cottages” with modern amenities represent the kind of conditions slaves lived in. Rather, they mask the horrors that made places like Nottoway possible.

It’s not transformation. It’s erasure. And no one should be comfortable with that. 

 

 

*As I was writing this, Ani DiFranco apologized again. It’s better, but still not great. Additionally, many of her fans continue to think it’s A-OK to stay at a plantation. 

**Strangely, our tour guide didn’t omit a definition of a “whistler’s walk”: To insure that no one stole food or spit in it, slaves had to whistle as they walked from the outdoor kitchens to the plantation house. 

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.

 

Beyoncé.

December 16, 2013

Oh, hey, this used to be a blog about music. In light of that, here are my reactions to Beyoncé, which came out on Friday (as if you hadn’t already figured that out):

Immediate reaction:

On Beyoncé’s feminism: Yes, Beyoncé’s feminism is rife with consumerism. No, it’s not perfect, academic feminism. But, you know, IDGAF. You know why? Because I’ve spent the past ten years looking at the intersection of feminism and consumer culture, and the thing that I’ve found time and again is that black women are held to different, much higher standards than white women. [In fact, this forms a core part of the argument in the academic book I will one day publish about ’90s feminism and pop music.] But this moving standard is bullshit. Pop music always has ties to consumerism, and if you get hung up on that particular point of analysis, you will end up in a pit of Adorno, or, worse yet, mired in authenticity frameworks. That crap (i.e., the discourse of authenticity, whether feminist or as a pop musician) does not interest me, because, in general, it serves to push black women artists (and sometimes white women artists) to the margins: no one is so authentic as someone who is broke, obscure, and, preferably, dead.

I would much rather a living, imperfect feminism than dead, obscure purity that never reaches beyond academe or music critic circles, TYVM. Beyoncé specifically uses the word “feminist,” which should count for something in a world of women who run away from the term. She employs female musicians on tour, and they kill it. She sings from a specific, black, female, adult, sexual, whole-person subjectivity. On “Flawless,” she even drops a speech from Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche right into the song. Yes, the song’s got issues–“Bow down, bitches” is maybe the kind of competition that Chimamanda is talking about–but its video has Beyoncé giving a nudge and a wink to her own “I woke up like this” advice. I’d rather have this complicated version of feminism reaching out into the world than a ton of the fluff presented as feminist in Bust. So, sure, analyze the imperfections, talk about the implications of consumerism, and wish for better (like a Jay Z who doesn’t think that his reference to Ike Turner on “Drunk in Love” is totally hilarious). But don’t forget that there’s a huge cultural shift in having a black feminist as one of the biggest stars around.*

Beyoncé, the album, is kind of a glorious mess. The songs are sprawling, sometimes the rhyme schemes are completely off, and the ego just wafts off it at times, but, oh, how ambitious it is! Actually, I’m not that upset that it’s ego-driven: pretty much all popular music is, when you get down to it, and some of my favorite albums are sprawling messes. It’s a rare thing to see a black woman behind an ego-driven project. And, as far as ego-driven projects of the year go, it’s pretty damned good. Unlike Lady Gaga’s Artpop, Beyoncé works much of the time. There are definitely times when it doesn’t make sense lyrically, like when “Jealous” had me wondering why she cooked food naked, but then was waiting for Jay Z half-naked. First, why are you cooking naked? What if you burn yourself in a sensitive place, Bey? And why did you put on a few clothes afterward? Musically, some songs–like “Haunted”–feel like three in one. But “Pretty Hurts,” “Blow,” and “No Angel” are already getting incessantly stuck in my head after only a few listens, and the Frank Ocean collaboration “Superpower,” with its timpani rolls and arpeggiated doo-wop harmonies, is really growing on me.

In a world of Mileys, it’s SO refreshing to hear an adult woman talking about sexuality. Seriously, I’m not sure Miley Cyrus has ever had sex. There’s something way too, “Hey, y’all, I’m having SEX!” about her presentation that makes me think she’s the living incarnation of a teenage boy lying about his list of conquests in a bad ’80s movie. Throughout the album, Beyoncé sounds pretty sure of herself sexually, even when she’s insecure about other things. “Blow” is pretty much everyone’s go-to example of this. Even though Pharrell is the co-writer and JT and Timbaland are co-producers of “Blow,” the song never strays from a strong sense of the sexuality of a grown woman. More than that, “Blow” is quite possibly the catchiest song on the album: it fuses Beyonce’s flexible voice and subjectivity to JT’s love for Michael Jackson and Pharrell’s preternatural ability to create hooks. The song makes me want to high-five Beyoncé for talking about oral sex and almost forgive Pharrell for the monstrosity that is “Blurred Lines.” Almost.

Also, it’s a married woman and a mother talking in these songs. Beyonce has never shied away from the autobiographical “I” in her work. Though all pop music (including that influenced by hip-hop) is about persona rather than the person, let’s not forget that even Bey’s public-facing persona is a rare one in pop music: she’s a black married woman in her 30s, with a kid, talking about having sex with her husband. She also talks about how she’s “not been the same since the baby” (“Mine”). Whether or not this is really about Beyoncé as a real human being rather than a persona doesn’t matter–no one talks about that in pop music. And she’s one of the most successful pop stars around.

On the other hand, I cannot get the image of Jay Z and Beyoncé doin’ it out of my head. It’s one of those things, like when your friends tell you that they’re “trying” to have a baby and give each other a knowing look and pat on the hand, or, on the fertility message boards, where people refer to having sex as “baby dancing.” Blargh. I know they’re doing it, they are both attractive people, and I’m sure it’s good, given that they are still together after a decade. But, uh, do I have to hear about them having drunk sex in their kitchen, or the fact that their wild times fucked up Jay Z’s Warhol? I’m cringing, both because I imagine their kitchen is much nicer than mine and I ache for that Warhol, and because “Drunk in Love” is simply not a very good song. (For a much better song about Bey and Jay doin’ it, listen to “Partition.” It has a very sexy groove and lyrics that are just as explicit but somehow–inexplicably, ineffably–better.)

Damn, Beyonce has a flexible voice. Yeah, this is not news, but this album exploits her voice in so many ways. The amount of falsetto and head voice on this album is pretty incredible. “Blow” moves smoothly up and down her range. “No Angel” exploits her falsetto in a way reminiscent of Prince’s “Kiss”: Beyoncé nearly squeaks out of existence in her highest ranges, airy and ephemeral; you get the sense if she actually used chest voice, this whole delicate indie, synth-pop affair of a song would be blasted out of existence. On the flip side, “Haunted” features a growly, low range Beyoncé who just may have been spending a little too much time with her pal Lady Gaga (that “Solomon or Salamander” lyric in particular). Either way, Beyoncé moves beyond the boundaries of big-voiced diva pop/R&B.

For some reason, “Flawless” will not play on my computer or iPod, and it’s killing me. WTF is this about, iTunes? The video works, but I would like to hear the damned song when I’m ignoring people on the subway.

*I don’t want this to be read as a “white feminist think-piece”; rather, it’s a white feminist annoyed by other white feminists who design feminist litmus tests that are impossible for black women to pass. A lot of black women have been pointed this out long before me, and I want to acknowledge that. Mikki Kendall’s recent column in the Guardian and Christina Coleman’s post on the Global Grind are both great instances examining the double-standards of feminism.

Adjunct Work-Life Balance

December 12, 2013

I’ve been invisible on this blog for the last two weeks because I have the same problem that many adjuncts share: during certain times of the semester, the work becomes nearly impossible to wrangle into a normal-human schedule. Add to this a wedding in the family and some freelance stuff, and my planned blog posts are all saved as incomplete fragments to be finished at a later time.

But it’s made me realize that I do want to talk about work-life balance, because, like a lot of academic folk, it’s the latter of these that I’ve often sacrificed. Despite every study in the world saying that taking breaks is good for the mind and body, the tendency in academia is to ignore everything telling you to rest: ignore the clock, ignore your body, ignore the fact that you’ve gotten one sentence written in the past hour. You must keep working at all costs. The reality is, this leads to terrible work and missed deadlines. And I’ve written before about how pervasive and pernicious the idea of work is in academia.

However, even that strung-out dystopia is an idealized vision of academic “work.” That “work” is code for research, and as an adjunct, you will long for those days when you could procrastinate while still calling it work, when you stayed up late staring at the cursor on the computer screen, waiting for greatness to come out. 

No, adjunct work is not like that. It’s a grind, and it’s far from the pampered grad-student life I once led.* Nor is it the “Oh, but I’m on so many committees” privileged life of the assistant professor. (I will take all of your committee work if you give me a reasonable salary, how’s about that?)

Here are three realities about my adjunct work life:

1) I often hold longer office hours than many tenure-track and tenured faculty. Why do I do this, when I don’t get paid? Well, you know, despite everything, I believe in being a good teacher. As an adjunct, I teach high-enrollment introductory classes. This means that I a) have more students in general, b) have more freshmen, and c) have more students who’ve been dropped into a music course with no knowledge of the subject. All of these factors together mean that I have more students with questions, fears, and panic attacks than someone who only sees self-assured upperclass students in advanced courses. This semester, all but four of my students are first-semester freshmen. I’ve never been on campus this much, not even the year that I was full time.

2) My grading is on a tight deadline at more than one institution, and juggling these deadlines takes skill and planning. I know, I know: everyone has to grade papers. But as an adjunct, it’s both about how much grading as well as how you time that grading. I’m giving exams on Friday, Monday, and Tuesday. The university where I’m giving the exam on Friday afternoon requires that I turn in grades within 48 hours of giving the exam; weekends are not exempted from this time. Ergo, I will have no weekend. I then have to somehow grade the exam I’m giving on Monday night from 7-10 p.m. before I give another one on Tuesday at 1:30. I’m not sure I can do this, honestly. 

3) In order to pay bills, I also do freelance editing. It’s another thing on the schedule. This makes for even more difficult juggling of work and life, but I have to get paid somehow. My freelance work is not in academia and often comes up last minute. I got offered a freelance editing job this week that was on a tight deadline and would give me about $800 for two days of work. Considering $800 is a little less than what I earn for a month’s worth of work for one course, I took the job. 

This week, I faced a perfect storm of time-management disasters: After grading essays all day Sunday, I spent Monday in six hours of meetings with students, plus teaching a final class session, Tuesday and Wednesday I did my editing, and today I’m finally catching up on student emails and writing this blog. Oh, and I also caught a cold. 

However, I did do two things this week to fight for a scrap of my personal life amid the relentless march toward the end of the semester. First, on Sunday, I delayed our return to the city from Long Island so that Ryan and I could have brunch with his family. He knew I had a lot of grading to do, but I knew that we don’t get to see his cousins often enough. Family is important to both of us, and I’ll be damned if I sacrifice any more of it to academia.

Second, on Tuesday, Ryan had passes to see CHVRCHES at the world’s tiniest venue as guests of the band. I had my deadlines, and I thought hard about trekking downtown to Chelsea from our very-far-uptown Inwood apartment, where I was cozy in flannel and doing my work. But then I realized that the experience of going to see the band was worth whatever repercussions might ripple through my schedule. And I got to meet the band, who were lovely, and I had some free beers.

Whether I end up leaving academia permanently or getting a job within it in some miraculous turn of events, claiming this space is important to me. I’ve already given up enough for, and I don’t want to become a statistic of another woman who’s given up everything to dedicate her life to academia. 

*By pampered, I mean: “Teaching one class and taking three classes per semester and getting paid only a few thousand less than I do now for teaching three classes per semester.”

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.

Thanksgiving Post

November 27, 2013

Our regularly scheduled critique of the academy will resume on Monday. Unless something crazy happens or I just decide to throw up a bunch o’ GIFs, there will be no Friday blog post. I’ve got the day off from teaching, and so I’m going to use it to visit with friends and hang out.

For now, a few things for which I’m thankful:

  • My husband, Ryan, who is a force of positivity in my world. It mostly sounds like a cliche when I talk about how awesome he is, but, really, he’s the best: smart, supportive, funny, and creative and grounded at the same time. Oh, and he does all the dishes. Gotta love a man who does the dishes.
  • My parents and sister, who are always there for me, even in hard times and career crises.
  • My husband’s family, who have welcomed me with open arms, even though I’m an academic weirdo and none of them really get that.
  • My friends, near and far, inside and outside academia, who have always listened to me without judging.
  • Academic/Adjunct Twitter: I spend far too much time on Twitter, but it’s a great way to feel like part of a community. Unlike Facebook, which is just a depressing k-hole of baby pictures and news about books and tenure, Twitter is a vibrant public space. I’ve known that about Twitter for a long time–I’ve been on it since 2008–but in the past month, adjunct Twitter really opened up for me. Folks like @pankisseskafka, @professorF74, @kelly_j_baker, @EstherRawson, and @FromPhDtoLife, among many others, are all antidotes to the loneliness of the adjunct cubicle. And that has made a world of difference in how I think about my next steps in my post-ac career.
  • Health insurance. As last week’s blog posts on whooping cough and infertility attest, good health insurance is important. I know that a lot of people don’t have it–and, until last year, I was one of those people. From 2008-2009, I was uninsured. From 2009-2012, we had low-cost, high-deductible insurance. Now, we have comprehensive coverage. It’s a world of difference.
  • Enough students have registered in my classes for next semester, so they’re guaranteed to run. I’m still looking for other work, but some income is better than no income.
  • And, finally, thank you to the people who are reading this blog. I’m quite astounded by the number of people who started reading it in the past month, and I hope that at least some of you will stick around.

In my last year of grad school, a tenured professor gave me some sage advice: “It’s okay to teach one or two adjunct classes. But it’s almost impossible to get out of adjuncting once you’re in that track.”

She’s right, though I don’t see how I could have avoided the adjunct track in my own career. I had the things that most grad students need: papers at major conferences in my field, two paper prizes from my home society, and publications. However, I defended my dissertation on September 15, 2008. It was exactly the day that Wall Street crashed, and over the next few months, about half the job searches dropped from the wiki. I watched my hopes disappear, but I kept working, teaching four classes each semester, and two over the summer. I had rent and bills to pay, I was engaged, and neither my fiance nor I had trust funds or well paying jobs. And so I got on to the adjunct track, and I’ve been stuck there ever since.

Once you’re on the adjunct track, these things keep you there:

1) You’re not eligible for most research funds. This means that any research you conduct comes right out of your own pocket. So: no fieldwork. No trips to archives that are not accessible by subway in your own town. Buying new recording equipment (as I had to do that year) goes on your credit card. Oh, and if you need a new computer, forget it. It’s not happening. The laptop I’m typing on is from 2008, and I’m not getting a new one any time soon.

2) You have no protection for your research. I’ve stopped conducting ethnographic research with private individuals for this reason. I just don’t think it’s ethical. On the other hand, I have continued oral history based research with public figures who are used to being interviewed. Even that, sometimes, makes me uneasy. But the further I get from ethnography, the less legible I am as an ethnomusicologist.

3) You’re not eligible for travel funds. Two years ago, a tenured professor complained to me that her university only gave out $1,000 in travel reimbursements for conferences per year, so she didn’t go to more than one. “I refuse to go into debt for conferences,” she said, defiantly. Well, sure, that sucks, but the choices that adjuncts have to make are much starker: can I go to ONE conference this year? If I do, how do I manage to keep up appearances? It’s hard to meet with people for meals that are outside your budget for the weekend, or drinks you can’t afford. And, sometimes that’s the type of networking you have to do when you’ve got a degree but are still on the job market–people think you surely must have some money. Even when you don’t.

4) You’re going into debt, so you teach more classes. Now you have even less time to work on your research. You might have a few more classes on your CV, but it’s nothing compared to the benefit of a publication or two. But can you afford, in a real financial sense, to gamble that those publications will make a difference?

5) If you take any time for research or writing, you will not only be broke, but you may lose your job.  If you take off a semester or two as an adjunct, you can be replaced. Only rarely does it work out that you’ll be back in the classroom at the same institution. Even if it does work out, you’re more likely to be viewed as a backup now than as someone they hire every semester.

6)  You are not eligible for research funding or paid leave. I’ve been really depressed lately looking at Facebook, where it seems like every day someone from my program is announcing their book is done. I would love to be at that stage, but I have two-and-a-half chapters of my not-dissertation-related book written. But I haven’t had free summers, due to teaching, or any sort of paid leave. Most “outside funding” requires a home institution, and, if it doesn’t, it usually requires a promise from an institution to sponsor you for the next year. And it’s almost impossible for an adjunct to get that funding because:

7) People evaluate your work differently. Your work as an adjunct has to be twice as good to overcome the adjunct bias. But even when it’s excellent, people still remain suspicious. Why did you choose to publish in this journal, not that one? Are the journals you publish in good enough? Do you have the same number of publications as someone in a tenure-track position? Your CV is thrown out in the first cut. Meanwhile, the ABD from your program who hasn’t published a damned thing is interviewed for the job/gets the postdoc/gets outside funding. Why? They still have potential. You don’t.

8) Search committees don’t want adjuncts. I once interviewed for a job at a school where I adjuncted. The interview process was hellish: I was given a half-day interview after another candidate, whom they took to lunch. My interview was pushed back by a half an hour, and, when it came to my teaching demo, I was asked to condense my 50-minute presentation into 25 minutes. Then, they canceled my dinner, making it clear that I wasn’t being hired. Now, all of this bad behavior could be excused by sheer incompetence if it were not for the interview with the dean, in which he told me, “We’re really hesitant to hire an adjunct at all. I know you have excellent teaching evaluations, but if you adjunct here, we’re not going to hire you.”

9) People think there’s something wrong with you. We all can talk about bad colleagues and academic infighting, but when that is the standard of behavior and you still can’t get a job? Well, there must be something wrong with you. This piece is satire, but it reveals a very real attitude toward adjuncts: Adjunct jobs are more plentiful, but they are not good jobs and I believe anyone under 35 who is an adjunct has a psychological problem, an inferiority complex, or is just terrified to move out of a miserable but comfortable rut. You don’t have the courage of my friend Gary, who is now comfortably enjoying a prosperous and fun retirement after a successful career at various corporations in varied industries.

10) Because of all of the above, your entire career is a game of catch-up. You can’t earn half of the accolades that your tenure-track friends do, because you aren’t eligible for them. With every year past earning your degree, the distance between you and them becomes greater. By the time you reach five years out–where I am now–you realize that it’s an impossible gap to overcome.

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