By Beth U.

A friend who is applying for tenure track teaching positions just emailed me Patrick Iber’s article “(Probably) Refusing to Quit” posted on Inside Higher Ed last spring. Iber details his struggle to obtain a tenure track position in the midst of the death of his mother and the birth of his children. At one point Iber tweeted: “Here’s me: Ph.D. UChicago, with distinction, 2011. Stanford postdoc 11-13. Harvard book contract. Four years on job market. Not one offer.” Iber’s accomplishments as a tenure track job applicant are more than what professors once needed to attain tenure. His narrative, like many others, speaks to both the crisis of self that academic hiring practices can induce, as well as the toll they can take on everyday life. Iber agonizes about his choice to pursue an academic career and the sacrifices he asks from his family as, year after year, a tenure track position does not materialize. Iber accepts a contingent lectureship and confesses, “I could perhaps hang on for another round: after all, I’m in for 9 years, what difference is 10? But I know also that each time I apply, I lose a little bit of something I’m afraid I’ll never recover. Depression has been the predictable price of failure in the past few years […]”

I feel for Iber; I also appreciate him vocalizing this admixture of grief and hope. There is an unspoken rule when you participate in the academic “job market”: keep mum. In anthropology-speak, it is taboo to publically share your anguish/anger/despair/fear. To write about these or other feelings is not only to declare your own failure, but also to unleash a pollution that might harm you in the future.  Which is why there has been a fluorescence of these narratives in recent years: we cannot resist the temptation to transgress. In order to have a purification rite—in order to cleanse oneself of the misery of a “failed” job search for example—one must first break the rule of silence, “for what makes a rule a rule is that built into it is the desire to transgress it.”[i] And when tenure track job applicants do transgress, they join many other “failed” applicants who are trying to find their way home.

Iber’s piece reveals the academic job offer as more than a product of “merit” (or prestige) but a result of conditions both arbitrary and complicated. It speaks to how neoliberal values encourage us to personalize conditions that are largely structural and out of our control. Tenure track applicants cannot conjure up jobs where they don’t exist, yet feelings of failure saturate Iber’s narrative. I also see a specter behind Iber’s words, an assumption that not landing a tenure track job is less fair to those with prestigious credentials. A myth persists that if you attend prestigious schools and publish in the best journals the dreaded temporary position won’t happen to you. In other words, do everything right and with the right name behind you, and you will be given your rightful due. In turn, if you “fail” to attain a tenure track position, it is because you have somehow failed to do one or more of these things, not that the system failed you. This is why it shocks some people to hear stories about qualified and prestigious candidates who are unable to secure permanent positions.

Academics and post-academics who speak up about the realities of contingency and casualization join a legacy of rebel rousers.  Scholars of color along with feminist, post-colonial, and working-class scholars have challenged the mythology of what constitutes knowledge and how we go about pursuing it (and who this “we” even gets to be).  One of my former students once likened academia to a gated community; much like a real gated community, the criteria for admission was and still can be troubling. We need to bring attention to the fact that academia is failing its laborers, even those with all the right goods.

But we also need to connect narratives of academic “failure” to the structures that produce them. Economic marginalization via contingent positions is not new but epidemic. Likewise, contingency has been more likely to impact “underrepresented” scholars—those of us who are working class, people of color, women, or people with a lot of familial and other obligations. And academia is far from unique in this regard. Contingent, part-time, and unprotected labor is now de rigueur in our neoliberal epoch, in what Sarah Kendzior aptly calls the “post employment economy.”

People end up where they do on the academic employment spectrum for a combination of reasons including connections, chance, merit, the over-saturated market, other life choices, or because of assumptions of prestige. Securing a tenure track position may mean that the applicant’s research kicks ass; but so does the research of many applicants who get overlooked for a variety of ridiculous reasons – like having too much teaching experience, being more than three years away from receipt of a Ph.D., or being a contingent faculty member for too many years. These conditions are often a result of the economy and academic structure itself, not a result of the applicant’s choice. This is also why applicants like Iber feel a time bomb ticking. Each year that an applicant is unable to secure a tenure track job can make their application appear “stale” to search committees– a perverse and counterintuitive perspective considering that with every year of work applicants gain valuable teaching and other professional experience.

The process of passing over job candidates who have contingent positions also ignores the fact that not everyone can move absolutely anywhere in the country to secure a position, even a temporary one. Some applicants move with great sacrifice and pain. It is a difficult and sometimes impossible decision for those who are taking care of elderly or sick family members, relying on family for childcare, or who are activist or applied researchers with long-standing connections to immediate communities.

It makes sense, of course, for academic applicants to go for the tenure track gold. And I hope that folks who apply for tenure track jobs this year obtain positions at institutions where they will be thoroughly compensated for their qualifications. But for many applicants, the tenure track pursuit brings only fool’s gold. For this reason, it behooves all of us—inside and outside the academy, tentatively connected to academic life or in active refutation of it—to bring visibility to its historic and ongoing inequalities at the same time that we refute explanations of contingency that rest on personal failure.  As Sarah Kendzior reminds us, “Success is meaningless when the system that sustained it–the higher education system–is no longer sustainable.  When it falls, everyone falls.  Success is not a pathway out of social responsibility.”

[i] Taussig, Michael (2004) My Cocaine Museum.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pp. 253.

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