Academia: Falling Away

Thursday's Child Has Far to Go

I have had three strikingly similar conversations in the last few weeks with colleagues (two at other institutions, one at Swarthmore) about their perception that younger tenure-track faculty at their institutions are wary, disaffected and disconnected not just from the institution they’re working for but from departments, disciplines, and the more abstract professional activities and obligations that compose “academia”. My conversational partners weren’t thinking about a mood limited to the pandemic, but instead about a deeper sense of alienation and malaise that preceded and seemingly survived it.

In each case, while I was wary about the generalization overall, my main response was, “If so, can you blame them”? On the whole, that structure of feeling rests on something real—and the people who might be able to shift it towards a more connected, enthusiastic and trusting posture seem unaware of the problem or are unwilling to make the changes that would encourage an attitudinal shift.

What justifies it? For one, the simple fact that if you’ve been hired into a tenure-track position in an American university or college, unless you are supremely arrogant or unobservant, you know you’ve mostly been lucky. There were likely twenty, thirty, fifty or more people just as well-qualified and capable as you hoping for that position, in a profession whose leaders and governing authorities are steadily eliminating such jobs in favor of poorly-paid, poorly-treated temporary teachers (who are nevertheless expected to have full professional qualifications). In your first three or four years as a tenure-track professor, you may receive even further verification of how seemingly random your employment is by participating in a job search on the other side. You can’t easily embrace a professional future that seems built on discarding and exploiting so many other people as qualified and capable as yourself.

Consider too what you’ve gone through to get that far. You’ve been a doctoral student in a research university, and if you’re in a STEM discipline, you’ve likely been a postdoctoral fellow as well. You’ve worked your ass off to finish a dissertation, helped to run a lab, networked at conventions, negotiated complicated relationships to mentors and teachers. You’ve likely been a teacher for an institution whose leadership is hostile to graduate student unionization. You may have endured administrative projects to eliminate, derogate, sideline or apologize for your discipline. You may have encountered state legislative leaders who regularly interfere with and attack your institution, regardless of its importance to regional and local economies and without any genuine interest in the successes or mission of academia. You’ve already dealt with increasingly aggressive intrusions of for-profit publishing, corporate money and administrative dictates into the core work of scholarship and teaching. You’ve likely had faculty mentors who feel increasingly helpless as local traditions of faculty governance wither and fall away, as fundamental changes in the workings of the university are made without any consultation while administrative hierarchies perpetually widen and lengthen. You have likely dealt with undergraduates who feel increasingly confused and anxious about what awaits them after graduation, who are increasingly cynical about the accelerating credentialism of all of higher education, and who are deeply impatient with the unfinished work of making higher education a welcoming and supportive home for all. You may have had campus police constantly challenge you for your ID because they think you look like someone who doesn’t belong there.

All that and more, none of which helps you arrive in your new position feeling an abiding sense of connection to the professional world of academia or the specific institution you’re now working for. Now that you’ve arrived, you likely have to navigate a deeply opaque landscape of distributed and networked power. You have colleagues who seem friendly but are in fact bad-mouthing you the moment you’re out of hearing. You have colleagues who are guarded who are in fact protecting you fiercely when you’re not there to see it. You have colleagues who are at all times exactly what they seem to be: friendly and supportive or distant and detached. You may meet colleagues who think you’re a student or a spouse, or disdain you not for who you are but for what you teach and research. You sometimes feel bullied. You are other times cast into situations where the only way to defend yourself or the urgently important professional values you still uphold means directly opposing another faculty or staff member who may themselves feel vulnerable and intruded upon by your opposition. You will quickly learn (or may already be practiced in) reattributions of the reasons for your own choices and preferences to exculpatory narratives that also shift blame and hostility to others—or to cope with the same being done to you.

You are unlikely to have a leadership that knows how to speak in clear, knowledgeable and evocative ways about support for the scholarship and teaching that your department or discipline pursues, or has a sense of how to defend your commitments effectively against malicious politically-motivated attacks as well as internal forms of harassment. You may be working for an institution whose finances are increasingly shaky and feel immediately as if you have no confidence in its long-term prospects nor any sense that the leadership will be clear or transparent about its strategic responses to financial challenges. Or maybe you are at a rich institution that is secure in its future but you have little sense nevertheless of how decisions are made about what to do with that wealth. In either case, you may feel deeply unsettled by the ever-tightening, almost strangulating connections between the education you are tasked to provide and the widening of inequality in American life.

You will hear in your first few years a strange disassociation between almost utopian statements about values and mission on one hand and everyday administrative procedures and forms (managed by both faculty and staff) that seem to have some other unidentifiable or unseen point of reference or origin altogether. These other processes will never be discussable or negotiable, even when they entail considerable amounts of new work. They likely will not even be coherently justified, or if they are, the proferred justification will be empty of substance and wholly unaligned with the amount of work required to complete the procedure responsibly. You will do mandatory trainings or attend voluntary workshops that urgently refuse to be discussed or questioned, that occlude their own purposes. All of this in the name of an institution supposedly dedicated to critical thinking and reflective self-examination. You may, if you are not yet disaffected, enthusiastically join in collective projects of institutional improvement and governance and find that any work you do is almost instantly forgotten or erased. If you are a woman or a person of color or both, you may find you are urgently called upon by students to support them at the same moment that they (often without intention) nullify or disrespect your expertise and qualifications—at the same time you are also called to be the public face of the institution on committees and websites.

Little of your own history or experience of academic institutionality will be easily speakable in the public culture of your institution or legible to some of your older colleagues. It will only be able to serve as a kind of underlying and invisible foundation for more specific discontents expressed, perhaps disproportionately, over a more tangible policy or initiative. At least at some institutions, your older colleagues really did work in a different kind of institutional world when they first arrived—one that was more white and more male, but also one that was more consultative, more open, more confident in its sense of mission, more centered on the faculty, and more committed to tenure. (Perhaps in fact those differences are linked: it may be no accident that as academia diversifies, power becomes more opaque and unaccountable.) They also may have survived a difficult job market to get where they are, but if they haven’t been paying attention since to how the profession has changed, they may not understand the incoming situation of their newest colleagues.

The limits of understanding apply even to those new faculty, disaffected or otherwise. All of what has happened recently to academia, is happening right now, has happened across the American economy. New doctors are entering a profession controlled by insurance agents and for-profit managers with no medical training; their oldest colleagues are retiring from a profession that was controlled by doctors. New lawyers are entering a profession that is glued to newer economies of scale and automation where the autonomy of associates and senior partners alike are rapidly fading. New journalists are in a desert of uncertainties, with no oasis in sight. And so on.

If the clients and customers of the professions have had good reason to grumble in the past about the distance, arrogance or unaccountability of professionals—or the fees and costs they imposed on the rest of the middle-class—they have no reason to feel any happier with the present. Professional institutions and their management are ever more labyrinthine, secretive and unresponsive to the needs of communities, clients and customers. The people responsible for decisions are impossible to locate or speak to even within the institution, let alone from outside of it. (Perhaps in some cases because some decisions are made by no one in particular, which is an old attribute of bureaucracy and not a thing of our own moment.) Costs are going up while the sense of any kind of public mission or widely-agreed-upon public values is vanishing into a vapor of well-meaning abstraction. IPO-seeking Stanford graduates are perpetually trying to find ways to murder whatever remains of the professions in favor of some thinly-developed, over-hyped digital substitute that will shortly melt into a thin algorithmic goo that condemns most people to perpetually dysfunctional servicing of their health, education, well-being and finances.

I honestly still love my job and I hope always for new colleagues where I work and at other institutions to discover that same feeling of connection and affection. Some of them do. Others feel unruffled or unperturbed by all the things I’ve learned to see, and I’m happy for them. I can hardly expect it, however. To change how it feels to look ahead to a lifetime in academia will take conscious and clear-headed recognition of what’s going on by leaders and by everyday academic professionals. It will require conscious disconnection of institutional life from the organizational cultures that have spread like kudzu across all of American life in the last thirty years. I would not call for this if I did not think it was possible. It starts with some form of clear address to—and redress for—alienation and anomie, something that leaders and managers in almost every American business and organization have been told is a mistake. It probably is in the short-term career of any senior faculty member or leader. By the time burn-out and drift leave the entire house in ashes, they will have safely retired or moved on. I have enough affection for and attachment to academia to hope that we can find the courage to rebuild some connections and make some better sense to ourselves and our publics.