The Precarity of Academic Work, The Work of Academic Precarity

Ethan and I were sitting on the gaudy red carpet of the Marriott, waiting for a panel to begin. “I just used to be so confident,” he blurted out, as if he had been containing it for years. We were talking about the academic job market. The previous evening, we had hung out with another graduate student who had given us some advice on navigating the conference we were all in town for, the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Network, network, network, we were told. Introduce yourself to important people. Ask questions at every panel. Go to all of the department parties. You never know who will be reading your job application, and maybe they will remember your name.

Ethan’s statement was heartbreaking. He is one of the smartest and hardest-working people I know. If anyone deserves to be confident, it’s him. And if he wasn’t confident, then would I ever be? It’s easy to chalk Ethan’s insecurity up to the precarity of academic work. As we all know by now, the bubble has burst, there are no jobs, and we have wasted our lives. But Ethan wasn’t on the job market. Like me, he was in the early years of a doctoral program, the ones that are supposed to be spent conceptualizing a decent dissertation project. Instead, I want to suggest, Ethan’s anxieties stemmed from the work of academic precarity—the conversation that is taboo when it comes to articles or panels but inundates every other corner of academia. Hardly a week goes by without an epic Twitter thread, a renunciatory blog post, or a crushing statistic. It is not a conversation that needs to happen. It is a conversation that is always already happening and that has made us exhausted, desperate, and grasping for rationality. In this post, I am not seeking to contribute to the conversation about the precarity of academic work; rather, I want to focus on what I am calling the work of academic precarity, by which I mean the manifold ways that the concept circulates and the affective conditions it creates.

This is not a demand to stop talking about academic precarity. But it is a request to be more attentive to how we do so. To that end, let me begin with a potentially controversial statement: all forms of precarity are not the same. No one would deny that anthropology departments are producing more PhDs than jobs and that departments increasingly rely on graduate student and contingent labor. Yet on their way to earning those PhDs, anthropologists do pick up incredibly valuable skills, which can include qualitative, quantitative, and archival research methods; grant writing; professional writing; administrative organization; leadership and collaboration; and of course, teaching and mentoring. Perusing PhD placements on department websites shows the array of jobs that anthropologists end up in beyond the professoriate, such as: museum curators; university administrators and researchers; elementary and high-school teachers; NGO, think tank, and corporate directors and researchers; founders of NGOs, research institutes, and private companies; book and journal editors; professional translators; and more. So of course, under neoliberalism, all of our lives are precarious. But we are not exposed to precarity in the way that my slum-dweller informants in Pakistan are. We have or are on the path to obtaining advanced degrees from some of the most prestigious research universities in the world. We are enormously privileged, and the absolute least we can do is acknowledge that.

To be clear, I am not embracing or even accepting the end of academic work. Some of us will go on to tenure-track jobs, and from those positions hopefully we will do our part to resist exploitative labor conditions. But for those of us who leave the academy, our work as anthropologists will not stop there. We should not mistake the growing presence of anthropologists beyond the academy as the death of our discipline. What might just kill our discipline, however, is the growing neurosis experienced by early-career scholars in relation to academic precarity. Collecting every possible CV line, strategizing every single relationship, maximizing our ends and minimizing our means—nothing reflects the neoliberalizing of anthropology more obviously than this. Speaking as a graduate student, I would argue that it is our affective relationship to academic precarity that is most immediately eroding our training as well as the quality of our work. Thus, differentiating the wrenching uncertainty of finding a job on the tenure track from other, more productive forms of uncertainty could reconfigure our ties to the university as well as our relationships to anthropology itself. Rather than clinging to a life of the mind that has never been as pure as we make it out to be, our time might be better served by conceptualizing the practice of anthropology otherwise and elsewhere.

This reorientation might also open up the discipline to whose voices it desperately needs, namely people of color. I am all too aware that, as a person of color who grew up in a working-class neighborhood, the likelihood of me pursuing a PhD in anthropology was incredibly low. My father was born into an upper-class family in Pakistan but, due to his participation in the Marxist student movements of the 1960s, found himself blacklisted from the country’s universities. Therefore, his father sent him to American University in Beirut, Lebanon to earn an undergraduate degree in agricultural sciences. There, he joined the basketball team, which happened to be led by a visiting coach from the University of Arkansas. My father followed his coach back to Arkansas, where he continued his education, earning a PhD in 1972. He found employment with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an institution that is now known for its discriminatory practices at that time. To the surprise of no one who knew him, my father raised his voice and again found himself blacklisted. He would never regain employment and the stress of this situation soon led my parents to divorce, with my mother leaving her own PhD program to teach at a community college in Arizona.

My story is unique, but certainly not exceptional. Most of the people of color I have befriended throughout my life have similar ones: parents crushed by colonial and postcolonial states who dedicated themselves to ensuring that the lives of their children would be better. It took all of a decade for my father to accept my choice to go to graduate school in the social sciences. Many of us do not make it this far. And that is a problem, because these voices are precisely the ones that are needed to move the discipline forward: to enrich representations of marginalized people, to turn the anthropological gaze back upon the West, to teach American students, and to bring anthropology beyond the academy. But when we allow the work of academic precarity to dominate our thinking, we throw yet another obstacle in the way of those who might become the anthropologists we need. The last people who are going to be willing to earn less than a living wage without promise of a better future will be those whose parents fought tooth and nail to escape such precarity.

In addition to mainstreaming the conversation about academic precarity in American anthropology, we would also do well to acknowledge those who have brought the insights of our discipline to new contexts. We can both criticize the neoliberal restructuring of our universities and remain invested in our discipline—and the many places it can be found. Indeed, for the reasons above, I would argue that we have an obligation to do just this.