Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fear and loathing in academia

In November 2012, I unexpectedly provoked an avalanche of online discussion with a blog post reflecting on the state of academia. I began with a few words on the increasingly hot topic of adjuncts and academic un(der)employment. Talk to someone who is, or has been an adjunct, a part-time faculty member, or a “teaching assistant” and they will regale you with tales of a wondrous existence: full-time schedules for insulting pay, piles of marking, long hours of preparation, no office space, no desk, not even an inbox or parking permit, no privacy and no respect. This is just the tip of the iceberg on adjuncting: "It's drudgery and adjuncts carry about the same status as a Wal-mart greeter or grocery bagger, and the pay is about the same". But if that is just the tip of the iceberg on adjuncts, then adjuncts are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg that is academia.

The adjunct issue is symptomatic of the unfortunate culture of formal academia today. What I chose to write about academia was not just about dire employment prospects and less-than-transparent hiring practices, although these are extremely important issues. Instead, I shared a series of real examples of maltreatment and incompetence: disrespectful hiring practices by lazy, unprofessional recruiters; thoughtless colleagues and distant collaborators; uncaring, abrupt administrators; an out-of-touch department head, and so on. It was not a pretty story, but it was a necessary one.

In sum, my open thoughts on academia (two of the most popular posts on my blog to date), were not simply a rant about joblessness, but a treatise on respect. There are problems with the way academics treat each other; especially, but not exclusively, how they treat powerless adjuncts, part-time and junior staff, or - the lowest of the low - students and job-seekers. Such problems within academia are reparable if enough people demand it. The power-holders can start by adjusting their own behavior. I’m not convinced that they even realize that they’re behaving incorrectly, but they should, which is why I spoke up. This affects us all, including tenured professors, all the way down to newly qualifying grad students peering through the glass and wondering how to get in or why they even want to.

Since my first post got picked up by Ryan at Savage Minds, related discussions on the subjects of academia, anthropology and disciplinary discontent have been taking place around the anthropology web. There are a few competing perspectives, but mostly everyone is on the same page: A lot of things suck in our professional lives and we should really figure out a way to do something about it.

I have also received commiserating messages with admittances of abuses of power and maltreatment from within departments. Some of what I have read has been inspirational while much has been disheartening. Some people offered explanations for our failed system (like the bureaucratization and corporatization of academia), while others put forward deeper concerns (over dominance, power and lack of agency in departments) and a small minority even attempt to offer long- or short-term practical advice to slowly piece together solutions. Most remarks suggest that changes in the university system, bureaucracy, funding and corporate mindset are responsible for a breakdown in communication within institutions. I certainly agree with this, even though it is not the entire story. David Graeber’s comment on Savage Minds addresses this issue:
The invasion of corporate, managerial principles in the university probably served as much political ends as economic ones. I went to an OWS seminar over the summer with Gayatri Spivak and she made one point that really stuck in my head: "even thirty years ago, when we said ‘the university,’ we meant, ‘the faculty.’ Now, when we say ‘the university’, we mean ‘the administration.’"
Thinking back to my time as a student, even as far back as my undergraduate years, almost all the teachers I had were fairly open about their discontent with the way the UK university system had changed over the past 20 or so years.

I had a lecturer who regularly got appreciative standing ovations from audiences of first-year students. This was no small feat. His manner was meticulous, his classes were tough and he left thoughtful feedback on my work. I signed up for everything he taught. His disdain for academia, a palpable mix of exasperation and sadness masked by black humor, was on permanent display. By the time I started my PhD, he had left university life entirely, which was sad for me because he was a really great lecturer and teacher. Asking around, I put together that (at least part of the story) he was fed up with the mess that had become of academia. What a loss to the profession, driven out by bureaucratic nonsense. His absence, which I had originally assumed was because he had simply moved to another job, lingered in my mind and got me thinking for the first time about the conditions that would cause someone to leave an academic career entirely.

The fact that academic departments and central admin talk past each other is nothing new. But there is no doubt that the administrative changes which have been most difficult to stomach have been at the departmental level. We can't shift the blame for these quite so easily.

Between my mostly enjoyable time as an undergrad and returning from my PhD fieldwork, things in my department had changed dramatically. Power was, and continues to be, increasingly concentrated in the hands of newly appointed administrative staff. Traits of the business model in academia that can be put down to the “corporatization” of universities irreversibly altered the dynamic of departmental relations in a matter of months. The environment became toxic to the extent that I hardly wanted to spend any time in my own building during office hours. I wasn’t the only one.

I luckily had the support of advisors who had known me for years and who were able to intervene in desperate times against the draconian admins. I pity newcomers with less of a support system in place. It is easy to overlook that research students before submission feel vulnerable and we were each, on various occasions, made to feel worthless by an administrator who appeared to be controlling an excessive proportion of departmental life. Eventually, I openly announced to other department members that I no longer wanted to have to personally deal with this person. To my surprise, even the other admin staff members were relieved to hear someone else say it. Yet, as far as I’m aware, nothing was ever done about it.

The easiest solution offered in response to complaints of intimidation is for those who feel abused at work to simply go up the hierarchy detailed in their handbooks and complain about the abuser to someone in a position of authority. This seems obvious, but there are a number of reasons why most students and junior faculty do not see this as an option.

1. They believe that it will affect their progress/status as a student or member of staff, from passing their PhD viva/defense to achieving tenure or keeping their job at all.

2. They would have to go on working or studying in a department where they have reset their loyalties and those of others, after which point they fear being outcast as "weak" or seen as a troublemaker to be openly or passive-aggressively excluded.

 3. They think that no one will listen.

4. It takes more time and energy than one has, given the workloads heaved on the bottom-feeders of a department like adjuncts and grad students, to take complaints fully up the ranks all the way to Chancellors or Presidents, putting their dedication to their work in jeopardy along the way.

5. In the end, no one actually listens.

In short, many academics, especially students, adjuncts and part-timers, find that it is easier to be bullied than it is to stop it, especially when it is not uncommon for complaints to higher-ups to be summarily ignored or brushed under the carpet. The fight is exhausting. Living with fear and anxiety in the workplace takes its toll, pace Forbes’ proclamation that academic life is a picnic. Conversely, it only takes something as simple as genuinely caring and interested colleagues aware of the potential hardships and challenges facing others in their immediate vicinity to lighten the daily grind of academic life and to expose or halt problems before they become endemic.

Because academia relies on such a hierarchical system, people are affected in different ways, separated by static categories and self-interest. Too often we suffer alone, hiding behind office doors churning out publications, cursing the process that we mindlessly reproduce. By the time I finished my doctorate, almost all of the senior staff that had openly expressed dismay at indiscriminate administrative changes or had otherwise been generally supportive and compassionate people in the department had retired or left. Those somewhere in between benefited from the system, kept quiet to avoid making waves, or perhaps even remain blissfully ignorant amidst their own career trajectories of how difficult it is for other members of the department.

How can anthropologists, of all people, remain so out of touch and disinterested in other peoples' hardships outside of the field? Do our own lessons on the global human experience offer us no input into life in the academy? I find this hard to believe. Making change from within the system is not nearly as difficult as we make it out to be. And it is really not that hard to be respectful, engaged, open and honest, which would prove an adequate starting point towards curing what ails us.

Francine Barone
Research Associate, University of Kent.

This essay is a modified version of content originally posted on Analog/Digital.

1 comment:

Robert Thornton, Anthropologist said...

I think you are mistaking ‘hierarchy’ for a division within universities between people who think, and those who don’t. Also, it is not ‘bullying’, but actually a form of parasitism. Academics are easy to “parasitise” because they are not motivated by the same thing (money, status, office-holding) as those who have parasitised the universities all over the world. This is a pervasive problem; It masquerades as ‘business’, or as ‘administration’ but is simply a form of parasitism of the academic project by those who see it as an easy way to coast. There is no risk to being a university ‘administrator’, they make no investment that they are not handsomely compensated for, and they provide no forward movement or vision. They are just there, and supported by the academics, who think they are being efficiently managed, or who know they are not, but can’t figure out why not.
In short, the intersts of ‘admin’ or ‘management’ at universities are radically different from the interests of students, scholars, and academics. this is not ‘hierarchy’, but rather a form of mis-recognised exploitation.