On Academic Precarity
I am writing this from a place of mourning. I am writing this from a place of anger.
After four years of working academic precarity, I have left behind a career that I thought embodied my life’s work. Right now, I do hold tremendous regrets.
The specifics of my story illuminate the ways that academic precarity destroys careers, compromises the integrity of higher education and research, and reaps critical resources from those of us committed to this work; as I now stand, I have no idea how I’ll bounce back from what I experienced during my four years as a Visiting Assistant Professor at two R-1 state schools. I’ve moved four times in the past five years and need to reestablish community before I can heal. I need to establish myself and to locate an identity that makes sense to me. There were plenty of good people at these institutions; this piece makes no claims otherwise, nor does it render any specific claims against identifiable people or institutions. This is about me, my voice, and my process in the context of the neoliberal institution of academic precarity. I've let the other stuff go.
Academic precarity is the year-to-year or class-to-class, contingent, underpaid and labor-intensive employment status most Ph.D.s now have to navigate while seeking a protected tenure-track position. After, say, eight years of graduate school, this tacks on another two to four to ten years at a $20-$40,000/year salary. We have crossed over into our thirties and forties in sustained poverty, now separated from our graduate communities and parceled into departments and towns in which we have no belonging or protection. All the while, we must stay on the academic job market, an extremely demanding labor that costs up to 800 unpaid hours a year and expensive attendance at conferences and interviews. These jobs are unprotected, shorter-term, and often require moving to far-flung college towns from year to year. The precariat is charged with developing entire new courses on short notice (I developed two dozen brand new courses in four years, most of which I would only teach once), teaching large classes of students whom they'll never see again, and biting their nails in hopes this will be the year they are going to get chosen.
They are more than thirsty: they have been drawn into the academic shell game long enough and far enough to have, semester by semester, staked their financial, physical, familial and mental health on it. Yet with every passing day, they see that the career they had invested immense loans and a decade of work to build is hostile, empty, and dangerous to the most vulnerable in the Wild West of rapid defunding and administrative power grabs. This is not because they are suckers; this is because higher education is in undeniable crisis. It is imploding, suddenly, leaving us scrambling to understand the circumstances in which our lives are unfolding.
We have been trying to tell you. We see it in sharper focus than anyone. In order to survive, we have had to become anthropologists, understanding the deeper tides and features of contemporary Higher Ed while so many faculty and admins bury their heads in the sand. Our students are suffering terribly. A year or two ago, we were those very students.
Precarity is the phenomenon of being on the edge: one lost contract, one departmental bully, one nasty student evaluation and there is no job, no health insurance for the next school year, which starts in six weeks. Where will you put your kid in school? When will you begin to pay off your student loans and rebuild your credit? Can you switch careers on such short notice, in a different town, with no savings? Jump on a contract--any contract, anywhere, for any pay–until you can sort it out on nights and weekends. Do you retrain to do HR or Admin or tax preparation and forfeit the research you have done, or do you follow the conventional wisdom that if you are tough enough to hang in there, and brilliant enough to shine through, you'll be the one who gets the job and gets to be the professor?
Precarity is a holding zone that entails more overwork, more debt, and the expiration of passionate graduate research for the day-to-day tasks we take on in order to show our department that we are worthy of a good recommendation, even as they treat us as day laborers. Precarity is hope that sustains past the promise of hope and into the immediacy of survival. Precarity is humiliating. Precarity quickly becomes a stigma when we are not-good-enough for too many semesters in a row.
Precarity appears as a wound, sometimes temporary, sometimes disabling, that intellectual predators and sexual harassers and snobs and racists can see a mile away.
I was not going to get the T/T job. I realized that this was happening while it was happening but betrayed this insight by pretending to be a good academic daughter. I had to give the market one final shot, and that meant suspending my disbelief. The sheer cognitive overload of knowing there would be no resolution, while I stood in at the podium and gave my conference talks, made me stutter.
I have a lot of specific things to say about broken verbal promises, slippery contracts that come weeks later than promised and in very different form, and the domination, dehumanization, and retaliation I witnessed on the part of some of my colleagues. An office coated in black mold that spread to my precious books, and to my lungs. The administrator pointed to the black mold, when I showed him, and said: “That isn't black mold.” The black mold remained, and it festered. Another office that I couldn't enter for ten months, located as it was at the epicenter of my institutional anxiety. Touches, strange hugs, prying looks at the conferences. Rumors, jealousy, isolation. Retaliation. Threats.
And, I often feel, the worst of all: the theft of my original work by men who knew that I would be stuck in limbo long enough for them to spoon lovingly-wrought phrases and theories and keywords out of my dissertation and into their manuscripts, to dial up the artists with whom I had collaborated with for years to inject them into their own projects, or the pilfered syllabus and grant proposal that rendered my own contribution to my department immaterial. The theft of my labor when I was chosen by my senior colleagues to pour dozens or hundreds of hours into the panel, conference, or issue “because it was good for my CV.” I consider this time stolen from my kid.
What was my recourse? I was on the market. Again. And I should have been grateful for the opportunity to shine, again. All I needed to do was push through in time to get my work out there. It would speak for itself. It would have spoken for itself. But I didn’t get the jobs: not the ones I was promised outright as a verbal component of my hire, nor the ones the list of merits on my CV told me I deserved.
It all sounds very dramatic, but any of us who have experienced life in academic precarity know how often academics yell at each other in the workplace. We know this because we are, after graduate students and staff, the most likely to get yelled at. We are just visiting; our mentors are back in our grad institutions, a bit too far away to protect us. We are dying not to be known as the troublemaker, and our competitors and abusers know it. Many of our students know it. How were they to call me Dr. Neff if my dean addressed all correspondence to Ms. Neff, as they did with all women contingent faculty?
I asked that dean with all due respect to call me Dr. Neff. Their next piece of correspondence called me Ms. Neff. I was on my own. Who was I? What was my name, my title? What did I deserve? What did I need to earn? At the close of my first year in the academic precariat, I shuffled across the stage with my baby in my arms to receive the diploma for the Ph.D. I had earned ten months earlier. The anticlimax was almost physically painful. I tacked it with thumbtacks to the wall of my moldy office. Was I even proud?
Perhaps, even more than ever, the precariat is without the kind of subjectivity that the academic mentor-mentee model is meant to provide. Your are no longer the extension of the body of your mentor; you have ben disjointed—your mentor does not work here. You are not yet with a position of your own; you do not yet have your own voice and choice. No one will know about the brush of a hand at a conference if you need that hand’s goodwill on the job market. When you get your grad advisor on the phone, you are focused on prepping for the job market, not on listing the sins of your current department. You have to feed your family; pay your rent; maintain your relationship. When you excel on your teaching evals, or with your publications as contingent faculty, you are seen as a competitor. You cannot be a leader in a community in which you have no position; no faculty vote; no office. Who do you think you are? They will tell you: "It's a marathon, not a race." "You are trying too hard." "Just some friendly advice."
I had hoped that those years, the first four years of my son’s life, the years between my ages of 36 and 40, would have been among my best. Instead, I spent them in social isolation, under crushing stress, and spending up to 800 unpaid hours a year, in addition to my full-time, underpaid job, on a job market that is rigged to tax everyone but the elite, occasionally the ruthless, and less often, but with some gorgeous sparks of joy—the immensely lucky. The underpay meant I had to turn to crowd-funding every time my car blew a tire. At 38 years, old, working full time, with a. Ph.D.. I was told I had made bad choices. If not for those, I would be a professor.
In so many ways, I’m ready to talk; to name names. The things my grad students told me. I’ve left academia and am so angry for them. When I spoke out with vague references to witnessing or experiencing sexual harassment on social media, I was told that I burned bridges. My academic friends who wished not to burn bridges of their own by supporting my story, which pointed obliquely to certain colleges and departments, retreated from my timeline. I’ll never say enough to risk having lawyers sent after me; I have to take care of my kid. All the same, I seem to be eternally paying some kind of settlement that I don't really understand. I am settling for silence. I am allowing burnout to settle into my bones.
Sometimes I think: if those moments of clarity, of holding the institutions accountable, is an indictment of my own character, then let those burning bridges light my escape route.
But then I look in the mirror and see the academic bad girl, the one who used to work at Denny’s and party in the Lower Haight and cocktail waitress in a half-shirt. Who was I to think I belonged? I brought this on myself.
Sometimes I dwell in these thoughts, and when I do, it is very, very painful. I brought this on myself. I wasn’t fit for this; I wasn't polished enough; I'm unprofessional; I'm not smart enough to walk the walk. What is my share in the blame? The seeds of unworthiness that drove my perfectionism in research, teaching, speaking, writing, also poisoned me in the academy. I flirted back with the senior scholar. I brought this on myself. I made bad choices. I wasn't cut out for this. I failed.
But I can find a hopeful thread in all this, and it’s worth sharing here. Back before all of this started, I took my spirited cocktail waitress behind to the edges of the resurgent union movement in East St. Louis, and I helped to organize. I learned about solidarity and the deep humility it takes to build it, and I learned about scabbing and how scabs don't see themselves as scabs, and I learned the union songs at the union hall and “You can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union.” “You can't scare me” was my takeaway when it comes to facing labor issues, because labor issues are moral issues and as such demand a moral answer. My union training allows me to see the academic picket line in sharp focus, even when others don’t recognize it in the first place. Where are the imaginary picket lines that divide our community into activists or scabs, management or labor? Which side are you on?
These are labor issues. Academic precarity, and the sexual harassment and intellectual theft, and the yelling, and the moldy offices, and the all lives matters, and the shitty Rate my Professor comments—all the formations and nodes and microagressions and racisms that bubble up within it—are classic and predictable features of an institution that exploits its laborers. The precariat, as it is entangled with the graduate community and the most vulnerable tenure-track faculty, is at the seam of this exploitation. We are the first to go. We are spent like last year’s gaskets. They don't need us to stick around for graduation to get those numbers up; our teaching labor is more expensive than the graduate students’, and we get sassier with admin; they haven’t spent anything to onboard us, and we don't make anybody but ourselves look bad when we quit. We are dangerous. We are expendable. We are not the good daughters anymore; we are a liability.
I want to offer these insights, if that’s what they are—or at least this collection of raw experiences and affects—in hopes that anyone listening to this, who is caught in the trap of academic precarity, and who doesn't have the immense and rare resources it takes to roll the dice on the academic job market again, will make the choice to leave academia. If you are thinking of getting out, my advice to you, for what it's worth, is: get out. Even if you get that tenure track job, it’s not the thing you thought it was going to be. When you are getting paid this little, you might be able to wiggle the freedom to walk away, and there are plenty of us here who are ready to help you.
At some point, I realized that I couldn't do worse than academic precarity. I’ve left, and I’m rebuilding my life, and it’s kind of a mess, and I’m mad and have lots of blame, but I sleep at night. My best mentors and models want for me to have this freedom, and I've taken it.
And finally, I want to take a moment to talk about the sisterhood of the flipside. It is the best sisterhood I’ve ever had, the two or four or seven of us over tacos and margaritas in SE Portland, a city we’ve each chosen for different reasons, some of us single moms with our kids in tow (yes, you can bring your kids with you to these evening meetings), talking about Shabazz Palaces or Blondie or talking about Stuart Hall, or all off the above, laughing, processing, venting, plotting. But, unlike our years in precariat, we never spend an entire night rehashing the horrible thing the department chair said. He has no power over us anymore. He’s not even in the picture.
Are you a post academic female identified person looking for peer support? Join the Athenas, an online slack group (not initiated by me, but I'm a proud member!) for women and female identified people who are figuring out life outside of the academy. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in joining.