Farewell to Academia, Farewell to Exploitation

Let me get some things out there from the start. This is not going to be a “leaving academia” essays where the author parts on happy terms from academic life. This post is not going to have much nice to say about academia. Some people will accuse me of being bitter, and they’re absolutely right. After two decades in higher education, I think I have every right to be bitter. If you believe that my bitterness negates any point I have to make about academia—that I’m just lashing out because I couldn’t cut it—then stop reading now. This post is not for you.

I also want to make it clear that even though I’m going to talk about my own experiences, in no way am I unique in any of these. Many, many people have had experiences like mine; many have had much worse. I can’t tell their stories; I can only tell my own. So again, if you don’t want to read my thoughts about academia and my departure from it, or if you think that it’s just too self-centered for me to articulate some of these things, then stop reading.

For anyone not put off by my confrontational disclaimers, the rest of this post will explain why I have chosen to leave academia.

Graduate School: I Should’ve Seen It Coming

In my graduate program at the University of Chicago, the professors chose favorites amongst the graduate students very early on, and then made sure that those students succeeded, regardless of actual performance. I was routinely passed over for teaching assignments (which are exploitative work, to be sure, but also a way to pay one’s bills) in favor of fellow students who had performed less well than I did on qualifying exams or coursework. I had the misfortune of having allied myself with one of the department’s less engaged professors, so I had no one advocating for me in the department. Without a benefactor, I was relegated to a second-class status from the beginning.

(I reiterate that I’m not suggesting that I’m any better than those in favor of whom I was passed over. Rather, I am arguing that decisions like those are arbitrary, cannot be questioned, and are the product only of  the whims of the people who wield power in the department. I was explicitly told by successive department heads that if I met certain benchmarks, I would get financial assistance or teaching work. I met those benchmarks and was passed over in favor of people who had fallen short of them. Those people are no better or worse than I am as a scholar and teacher—but the profs in the department were either blatantly playing favorites or monumental fools to so obviously disregard their own “rules.”)

One of my most vivid memories of graduate school is the first day I arrived on campus. I turned up at the department just to find out if there were any orientation activities or anything. I was informed by a well-meaning administrator that the rest of the new cohort was in an orientation meeting with the director of graduate studies just then, and why wasn’t I there? Well, I hadn’t been informed about that meeting, or any other orientation activities (such as that day’s placement tests). Other new students, I later learned, had received welcoming messages and information from the department; I had received no such information. I walked into the meeting 20 minutes late and feeling deeply humiliated that my first impression on my new colleagues and professors was so negative, that I appeared so completely disinterested in school that I couldn’t even be bothered to show up for the opening activities.

(That same director of graduate studies, incidentally, would sexually harass me not long after, scarring me deeply—although I didn’t realize how deep was the emotional wound, and how profound its impact on my development as a scholar, until years later.)

A Permanent Underclass

After a time, I realized that I was never going to improve my standing in the U of C music department, no matter how hard I worked. I turned my attention to finding enough teaching to pay my bills (thus buying in early in my career to the self-defeating notion of using adjuncting—which is to say, being exploited—as a springboard to eventual career success) and to writing my dissertation. I finished my dissertation while teaching 4 or 5 courses at at time, telling myself that I was good enough to get a job on my merits and I would show those bums at the U of C.

That obviously didn’t happen, and one of the most frustrating things about the position I’m in now is that my choosing to leave academia might serve as proof that all those self-important profs were right about me from the beginning, that I’m not good enough to make it in this business.

I know this is not true; I know that I was good at academic work, just like so many countless others who have left. But academia is a tautology: people who thrive have bought into the ideology of merit, and their success proves that the ideology is true. There is almost no room for anyone who wants to challenge that ideology from within; and anyone who challenges it from the outside is easily dismissed as just not good enough to hack it.

What I realized far too late is that academia needs its permanent underclass in order to continue to function. If you get a tenure-track job, chances are you will do very well for yourself in academia. But only about 30% of faculty in the United States are tenured or on a tenure track. The vast majority of people who teach college are adjunct instructors, visiting professors, and lecturers. These people do the bulk of the teaching labor in academia—far more than their tenure-track counterparts—and for their hard work they get paid substantially less, often without benefits and job security from year to year (or even semester to semester).

On its face, the stark division within the labor force doesn’t seem sustainable. Why would highly educated people continue to work for so hard for so little alongside colleagues who do less work and yet have so much?

The answer lies in the pervasive ideology of scholarly merit and brilliance. There is very rarely an opportunity for social mobility within the academic labor classes. Once shunted onto the contingent track, scholars hardly ever find their way into the upper echelons of the tenure track. How can they? How does one produce the scholarship necessary to achieve academic success when one is teaching full time, often at several schools, without research funding, and barely making ends meet? It does happen occasionally, but it is virtually impossible. Once you are in the lower class of the academic labor force, your working conditions are designed to ensure that you stay there.

Merit: The Destructive Ideology

I use the word “designed” quite deliberately here, because the class stratification in academia is not a bug, but rather a feature of the neoliberal university. The system relies on abundant cheap labor that can be exploited for the benefit of those few at the top (and yes, I’m including most tenure-line professorships in that elite class).

The ideology of merit—of working hard and earning your place in the field—is deeply ingrained in academia and internalized by its participants. And it’s quite harmful. I believe that it is deeply dehumanizing, personally and socially destructive, and counter to all of the ideals of higher education.

The merit ideology is the foundation for the forking of the labor force into haves and have-nots. The system needs its substantial underclass of adjuncts, temporary instructors, and so on. But who in their right mind would pursue an academic career if they understood that, regardless of how hard they work or how good their scholarship, they were most likely to be consigned early and permanently to the academic underclass? The belief in merit, the fundamental faith that you can earn your way into the elite, is what keeps that marginalized group of scholars in place.

Until very recently, I bought into this belief system. I did the underpaid adjunct teaching, I developed my own research with whatever time I could find, I attended conferences and networked and presented my research to colleagues. During the years when I was adjuncting and then teaching as a visiting professor, I participated in the academic job market every year. I paid Interfolio $887.85 to maintain my portfolio and recommendation letters, and to send them to potential employers. I applied for more than 100 jobs. I carried six figures of student debt acquired earning my Ph.D., hoping that one day I would have a solid, permanent job and would be able to get myself financially upright.

(There’s quite a lot to say about the para-academic institutions that are themselves exploitative: Interfolio, for instance, which cashes in on the volumes of applications that candidates submit, and consulting services like the Professor Is In, those vultures of human misery that profit from the anxieties and insecurities of vulnerable academic job-seekers.)

There was no time at which I felt like a valuable member of the community of scholars of which I so wanted to be a part. (How many people at conferences said to me, “So you’re not a real ethnomusicologist“—and how many more thought it to themselves?) My marginality kept hitting me in the face, and, believing that my merit and hard work as a scholar would save me, I refused to quit. Quitting would have been giving in to the forces that were apparently pushing me out. Little did I realize that those forces wanted me to stay, to continue being cheap, exploited grist for the academic mill. 

Academia is a system built on exploitation of a substantial underclass. It is not unique in American society in this regard, but because of its lofty ideals, its structural exploitation and ingrained class system is even more intolerable and egregious than in most areas. I refuse to participate in it any longer. I have no idea what is next for me. As I look for a new career, I am confronted by employers who want industry experience that is almost impossible to obtain from within academia. I deal with interviewers for entry-level positions who passive-aggressively ask, “Some people would say that with your Ph.D., you’re overqualified for this job. How do you respond to that?” (A question which, I’ve learned, as no correct answer because it reveals that the asker has already made up their mind about you.)

I regret that I won’t be able to work with students anymore, because I had some really stimulating, challenging, and rewarding encounters with very bright students over the years. I regret that I haven’t been able to publish most of my research and to properly thank all the people in the classical recording industry that helped me. (I do have a new blog, though, where I’m telling some of my research stories, and I hope you’ll check it out!) I regret that I didn’t take advantage of some opportunities I had earlier in my career, and I regret that I may be disappointing the mentors who have been supportive beyond belief. I have a lot of regrets about my now-ended academic career.

But at least I won’t be exploited by academia anymore.

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