“I feel the earth move under my feet…”

12 10 2011

I’ve been an Apple user since the late 1970s, so there’s no question that the death of Steve Job last week made me very sad. I already spend some time in survey class talking about the Apple II. Now I’ll probably talk more about Jobs specifically now that he’s past into history.

That said, I can’t help but sympathize with those people who think that some of the Jobs salutes might have gone a bit too far. Perhaps the best example I’ve seen of this way of thinking comes from Gin and Tacos. The topic is Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech (which MfD also covers here), with this being the key quote:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

I agree. It would be great if everyone could have a rewarding job, but as Harry Braverman explained so long ago, work is inherently alienating if you’re not doing it for yourself. It takes an enormous amount of talent and luck to be able to what you love and even if you have the first you might not have the second. “Don’t settle” seems like particularly impractical advice if you’re an academic in the humanities. Jobs’ sentiment is the kind of thing that keeps people working in contingent jobs that won’t pay the rent, let alone the mortgage, for years on end with no financial reward.

Please don’t confuse what I’m saying here with the ridiculous myth of an academic meritocracy. Just about every contingent faculty member that I’ve ever known is fully capable of doing my job. Whether they could do it better or not is irrelevant. The average administrator would gladly replace them with me just as long as they were willing to do it for less. It’s unlikely that anyone would try to swap me out for them directly since a frontal assault on tenure would be difficult to win. Instead, adjunctification has been a gradual ongoing process through which tenure track people who retire aren’t replaced, and the savings go to non-academic university expenses. [That’s why Frank Donoghue called his most excellent book on this subject The Last Professors.]

The tragedy is that so many people who enter graduate school expect that if they do a good job in their studies there will be a good tenure-track job waiting for them because things used to be that way in the past. Unfortunately, their advisors often reinforce this belief because they haven’t noticed that the earth has moved, the world has changed. Your merits as a scholar and a teacher are irrelevant when the supply of tenure-track jobs has shrunk well below the supply of qualified Ph.D.s capable of filling them. Too many good people will go wanting, and if they follow Jobs’ advice they’ll stay wanting for a very long time.

I hate to pile one bummer upon another, but when the earth moves it moves under we on the tenure track too. You may have seen Florida Governor Rick Scott’s idiotic pronouncement yesterday that his state doesn’t need any more anthropology majors, but did you notice that he’s already been acting upon it? This is from a Florida paper via Mother Jones:

Scott said Monday that he hopes to shift more funding to science, technology, engineering and math departments, the so-called “STEM” disciplines. The big losers: Programs like psychology and anthropology and potentially schools like New College in Sarasota that emphasize a liberal arts curriculum.

“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.”

So don’t get complacent Mr., Mrs. or Ms. tenured liberal arts professor. Your little slice of the dwindling pie is going to be pulled out from under you if you don’t get involved in university governance and make a case for your own worth. You may have made it to the top of the ladder by not settling, but the same concerted attack on higher education that produced your contingent colleagues is coming after your entire department next. If the earth moves that much, even those of us with tenure will fall into the gaping hole it produces.




4 responses

12 10 2011

“…when the earth moves it moves under we on the tenure track too.”

moves under we? and you’re an academic, right? God help us, I hope you’re not in literature.

12 10 2011
Jonathan Rees


Try here.

16 10 2011
Creative destruction is still destruction. « More or Less Bunk

[…] economic predicament. As the Church Lady used to say, “Isn’t that convenient?” The earth has moved, the world has changed and Beck wants us to blame the institutions that prepare people for the […]

4 02 2013
“It was the MOOCs! They done it!” « More or Less Bunk

[…] since this blog has taken a technological turn, I’ve been arguing that the transformation is going to be gradual, not […]

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