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As I consider the prospect of leaving academe (or, “leaping from the ivory tower” to borrow WorstProfessorEver’s felicitous phrase), and get to know more people who are already out on the ledge, I find myself wondering, “How in the world did we get here? How did we find ourselves in jobs that are so far from our original goal?”
While in graduate school, I had many conversations about the future and, no matter how drunk I became, I never said, “I’d like to teach at a mediocre school. I want to be thrilled when 1/3 of my students do the reading. I want to teach broad surveys to students with no interest in the humanities, who I’ll never see again. I want my research to wither and die for lack of funding.” And I’m damn sure that when my friend Hoboken Jones (pseud.) finished his doctorate at Ivy U, his career plans did not include “Come in second in multiple job searches, and spend years on end adjuncting for lousy pay.” How, then, do really smart (or at least well-educated) people find themselves stuck in lousy jobs and careers when other options are available?
The answer lies in two myths that prevail in most graduate programs. For their entire graduate careers students are told, and tell each other, that getting a tenure-track job is the alpha and omega of their studies. What is more, students come to believe that landing on the tenure track leads inevitably to professional fulfilment. This message is problematic on a number of fronts. Most obviously, the ongoing collapse of the job market places success beyond the reach of many scholars. But the “tenure track = success” message also omits the fact that – to be frank – many tenure-track jobs are not all that great. Whether it’s the workload, working conditions, or location, many of those who land tenure-track positions find academe lacking in important ways.
To be clear, I do not believe that graduate advisors knowingly set up their students for disappointment. But I do think that professors at Berkeley, Chicago and Yale have no earthly idea what life is like at chronically underfunded, third- and fourth-tier universities. They’ve never taught students who are unprepared for college. They don’t know that the pay at many schools is too low to support a family. They have never had to pay for conference registration out of their own pockets. But how could they know these things? Graduate advisors are among the lucky ones, “The lottery winners, those with light teaching loads, sabbaticals, and research support.” They travel through life blissfully ignorant of how the other eight-tenths live; and if I were in one of these good jobs, I would not even consider leaving. I don’t have a particularly good solution to this problem. Simply informing graduate faculty and students of this reality will do no good. If the demonstrable horror of the job market does not dissuade a graduate student, complaints from a few malcontents on the tenure track are unlikely to make any difference. Every student is convinced that she will be the one to grab the brass ring.
The second myth that sustains miserable faculty is that with enough hard work, a good scholar can publish his way out of an undesirable job. While this may have been true ten, fifteen or twenty years ago, in today’s world the “starter job” is no more real than Bigfoot. No matter how good your CV, if there are no jobs, there are no jobs. But myths are more comforting than reality. The myth of “writing your way out” allows us to continue believing that while the academic hiring process is cruel and capricious, academe as a whole remains a meritocracy. Good scholars can find good jobs.
The perpetuation of the “write your way out” myth is pernicious and demonstrably at odds with reality, but survives because it serves a number of powerful interests. Most obviously, it comforts young faculty when they discover that their library has not purchased any books in their field since 1975. “No problem,” I told myself four years ago. “I won’t be here long.” Second, it comforts graduate advisors. If their students wind up with a 4-4 teaching load and no research support, it’s because their work is substandard, not because academe rewards excellent scholars with mediocre jobs. While no advisor wishes unhappiness on her protégés, it’s much easier to stomach an underperforming student than to admit that you are sending all your students into unsatisfying careers.
Finally, this myth allows schools to treat their faculty badly. For as long as junior scholars continue to believe that one more grant, article, or monograph will allow them to move up the academic ladder, they will tolerate lousy conditions for low pay. If the day ever comes that masses of junior faculty realize that their current job is as good as it gets, universities will have a problem. But to any administrator who might read this and consider raising salaries, renovating classrooms, and increasing the library’s budget, don’t worry. Even if your faculty start fleeing in droves, there are plenty more where they came from. The myth is that durable.