The Disappearances of Academia
Issue #60, April 2002
For more years than I should like to state, I have attended the annual Modern Language Association convention.
As junior faculty in the English profession, one without a permanent appointment, there is only one way forward. Send out large numbers of job applications and turn up in late December at the MLA for the few hiring committee interviews that result. The MLA is not the only door into the English profession, but it is the major and orthodox academic route.
So I repeat this now-annual routine, visiting cities like New Orleans, Washington, Chicago, and New York in a post-Christmas trek. The rooms filled with conferees and conference papers seldom interest me. If I want papers on Wharton and James, I'll read them in my office. All I want is to meet with the department hiring committees, talk about my teaching and writing, fill time between meetings with visits to art museums, and leave town as soon as possible.
Walking through hotel hallways or sitting in lobbies, I encounter old friends who are doing the same as me — and a few who have survived into tenure-track positions. Sometimes if we find ourselves with a spare hour, we sit over coffee and gossip about who has managed to get which position. Most of our mutual acquaintances have left the teaching profession, though, forced out by years of unrewarded effort.
A couple years ago I met one of the brightest fellow Americanists walking up College Avenue in Berkeley. It was mid-semester now and, last I knew, he had an appointment at an outstanding liberal arts college in a Philadelphia suburb. "Richard, what are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be on the East Coast teaching?" I asked in genuine surprise. "I could have stayed there another year, but it was only a three-year appointment," he told me. "I just couldn't bear sitting in front of more hiring committees, so I quit. I'm in law school now." Like so many others who wanted to spend their lives teaching, Richard had been forced to leave the profession.
The English profession is a Cyclops, one that like Polyphemus dashes out brains and eats wayfarers. I remain continually astonished at the talent — much greater than my own, I easily recognize — that passes through the ranks of graduate assistants and never obtains a permanent teaching appointment. Some of my peers publish books and brilliant essays and then disappear from English teaching, strewing contemptuous curses behind them.
Two doctoral associates from Berkeley got themselves and their work featured in the New York Times Magazine, weeks before the MLA, with extensive quotes and full-length photos. It was a doctoral student's dream, national recognition of their centrality in an intellectual discourse they substantially invented. But neither received a permanent teaching job, and both left teaching.
A meager handful of survivors obtain tenure. The pre- and post-tenure route is punctuated with the sudden disappearances of teachers who find it all meaningless and poorly paid. There is no profession in the US like humanities teaching for training and then discarding human talent. Apologists claim that this represents a weeding-out process, but such luxury of waste speaks far more to the abundance of resources in the United States. Other countries may treat their university teachers with contempt and pay them miserably, but educational resources are far too scarce to allow European, Asian and other university systems to simply discard teachers. Human wastage has become a naturalized phenomenon in US universities.
Ten years ago, I began doctoral studies in English at Berkeley as part of a group of 32 peers beginning that year. Of those, 18 never finished their doctorate. Of the 14 who finished, eight remain in academic teaching. Twenty-five percent is a survival rate, not a success rate. The story was even worse for the succeeding year's class. That class began with 42 candidates, of whom only 10 completed their doctorates, and of whom only four are English teachers — ten percent, an abysmal survival rate. The original meaning of 'decimation' only refers to a loss of one in ten, not nine in ten. By contrast, the ten-years-out status for PhD's from Berkeley's Department of Political Science is that 56 percent have remained in university teaching positions.
A loneliness of survival arrives, mitigated by the grace of fellow survivor-teachers. I have come to feel like a grizzled prospector in the badlands of academic employment, wandering about like Humphrey Bogart in Lost Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Freedoms of Teaching
Nonetheless, I am more fortunate than most. My family wonders at my stubbornness, especially as I am in my forties and income security is a crucial matter. Still, like other perverse survivors, I cannot conceive of myself as anyone other than an English teacher. There is magic in the moment when I walk to the front of a class, lay open the day's text, and say "Let's begin." Imagine a chorus beginning in your head as you begin to speak words that have been gathering inside you for days, weeks and years. Sometimes, as happened last week when I could not stop myself from leading students through the narrative layers and ethical twists of Confessions of Nat Turner, the words keep tumbling out for an entire class period. Afterwards I remonstrated with myself for speaking too much, for letting my own words flow instead of soliciting words from the students.
As I begin to do the work of teaching, of explicating a text and its ideas, I am as free a human being as exists. My personality undergoes a transformation, a release from its normal confines. Sometimes, in these moments of passion, I notice the eyes of students watching me, realizing that they are seeing a believer. That swift self-reflective moment, watching oneself in the mirror of others' eyes, forces a realization: personal conviction is indispensable to public persuasion. Good teaching is a resistance to intellectual containment, and a flowing freedom of belief emerges at such moments. These are also paradoxically anti-modernist moments, when a belief in literature's power of ethical persuasion asserts itself over market-based utility values. A freedom from market capitalism and its social hierarchies, even a transitory freedom inextricably contingent on capitalism's current force majeur, becomes one of literature's most appealing attractions. From such freedom, a political challenge can emerge. University teaching is a form of political advocacy, and this freedom to think and talk about thoughts is of inestimable value.
Yet if we cannot earn our livings by teaching, then we have lost that freedom to profess. That is why this dwindling band returns to the MLA to sit in small hotel rooms and answer questions about themselves, about how we would teach such-and-such course, or about doctoral dissertations that we increasingly disremember. As teachers, the greatest and most utopian gift we bring is a willingness to dance with ideas in public. On days that this dance flows in and about students, when students join in this dance, a teacher can walk out of the classroom glowing and alive with the intensity of the past hour. Unemployment would mean that the dance stops, that liberty disappears, that this particular discussion ends.
The marketplace has become an anonymous beast that steals dreams from fellow believers, that removes teachers from their classrooms, that diminishes the circle of dancers. Teachers — to whom students and parents otherwise attribute power — view themselves as powerless in the face of these mythic market forces. A generation of US university teachers has come to believe that they have no agency, that the combined forces of economics and university administrators imitating just-in-time production techniques have rendered them powerless in face of the all-powerful market. They recite a learned mantra that the English profession is over-crowded, that there are too many English teachers on the academic market. Even politically-conscious teachers fail to question the terms of social organization where there are continual desperate shortages of military personnel, but a claimed over-supply of humanities teachers. Too often such teachers have accepted the situation as historical and unalterable, whereas it is a recent history and can be changed.
American universities live in a landscape cleared of the corpses of teachers-who-might-have-been and teachers-who-will-never-be. To walk across a pleasant campus is to realize how many invisible teachers have disappeared and the unjustifiable intellectual clearances that have taken place. There is a quiet violence, systemic rather than malevolent, that works its way through coerced administrative and committee decisions that determine who has a future and who does not. The effects on the lives of good teachers can be devastating, and these multiply themselves across the lives of those teachers who keep their jobs but witness the trauma of about-to-be-jobless friends.
At a recent meeting in my department, lecturers spoke of their shared mood of depression and concern. Teachers with secure positions were as uneasy as those desperates who could number the months left in their professional futures. Despite bitter opposition, a dean has closed down the Russian department and dismissed its lecturers: anything can happen. Friends and colleagues are about to disappear, victims of an arbitrary termination policy, and more are slated for dismissal next year. The gloominess of the MLA academic labor marketplace has percolated upwards into the ranks of line teachers.
Compounding this dejection, untenured lecturers are discovering the practical meanings of what most of the US labor force already knows about the practicalities of at-will termination. At-will termination, a legal concept invented of whole cloth by obscure New York attorney Horace Gay Wood in 1877, quickly gained conservative judicial favor because of the advantages it provided to industrial capital in its contest with late nineteenth-century labor unrest and unionization. As Wood phrased his anti-labor precept, "With us the rule is inflexible, that a general or indefinite hiring is prima facie a hiring at will, and if the servant seeks to make it out a yearly hiring, the burden is upon him to establish it by proof." This doctrine, basically unknown outside the US, enables workplace disappearances. American universities, which have acquired corporate coloration and practices that ill-suit their educational purposes, have adopted at-will hiring where possible and created new such possibilities where none existed previously. Disappearances, as opposed to resident communities, have gained administrative favor. At-will teachers return the favor with equal disloyalty.
But university teachers will likely remain middle-class even if they lose their jobs. They will not share the working-class life of one Czech philologist friend who was dismissed from his lectureship for opposing the 1968 Soviet invasion and spent the next twenty years shoveling coal in a hospital furnace room. Happily, after graduate students broke down the English department chair's office door to search for their security files and oust the ancien regime during the Velvet Revolution, this friend made a triumphant return to academia and ascended to the chair's position himself (given a need for English professors, that dramatically ousted predecessor landed on his feet as a department chair in another university). But few teachers can have such dramatic re-entries into academic work from forced disappearance into physical labor.
University teachers share the tenuous contingency that is the norm of working-class life, even if they remain distant from that world. Harold Bloom, not someone with whom I am likely to agree on most important questions, nonetheless made a tellingly truthful comment when he observed that, including himself, he could count with one hand's fingers the number of Yale faculty with working-class backgrounds. The English profession is overwhelmingly middle-class; it is far more comfortable talking about working classes than joining them. Perhaps some of that meeting-table depression, then, comes from discovering that university faculty too can be treated like the working classes.
Destruction of good teachers and teaching is a violent cultural act, an offense against the culture of study and learning. Good teachers make themselves through their experience and a desire to teach better than they did last time. When there is no next class, when teachers know that there is no future, then the vandals have done their work. This violence is subtle and overtly courteous, but no less effective for the quietness of its sweep through a university campus.
Joe Lockard is an editor in the Bad Subjects Collective. He teaches English at University of California - Davis, and is one of the newest faculty members in the Department of English at Arizona State University. Joe wishes to thank Joel Schalit for comments. Joe can be reached at email@example.com.