Should I Stay or Should I Go?
From the Series: Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A Forum
Academics often police the boundaries between academia and the corporate world, showing a preference for those who choose the academic route with a million small gestures. When my brother-in-law chose to go to graduate school in math, he joined his older brother’s department. Meanwhile his college friends were busy forming a tech start-up, and asked him to be one of the founders. When he said yes to his friends, his professors had the tact not to condemn the decision to him directly. But they kept telling his older brother what a tragic decision it was, that it was sad that someone so promising was “dropping out.” My brother-in-law was simply choosing a different career path, but his teachers saw him as failing. Mathematicians may be worse than anthropologists in this regard, but we still have to watch ourselves. We offer similar signals, often without realizing it—many of our departments list where their PhDs have gotten jobs, but only academic jobs. These issues are salient for the academic system as a whole, but we as anthropologists are especially well-situated to develop socially astute solutions.
After reading Anne Allison and David Platzer’s essay, I wonder if some gestures of status and exclusion have become too costly for anthropologists as a community under current capitalist conditions. I am concerned that the ways in which the university reproduces itself are damaging for people who move beyond it for their financial well-being or just for a different, no less satisfying kind of job. I think of all the anthropologists I know who now work in corporations and who refuse to show up at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) because they are tired of having their career decisions dismissed instead of celebrated. In purely instrumental terms, these are people who could have helped recent PhDs to get jobs, but who now no longer participate in the anthropological community in ways that make them easily accessible to new graduates.
Having recently studied hiring in corporate America (see Gershon 2017), maintaining warm ties with anthropologists in nonacademic jobs seems more important to me than ever before. Corporate hiring differs from academic hiring in at least one important way. When scholars hire, they get to evaluate concrete evidence of how the candidate will perform the work they are being hired to do. Job candidates submit writing samples, give job talks, and sometimes teach a class session. Not so in corporate hiring, where candidates are typically being evaluated on their resumes or interview answers. Most corporate jobs don’t require an employee to reduce a complex work history into a one- or two-page set of bullet points in the course of a typical work week, and yet that is the skill for which the hiring process selects. Since moments in which the applicant is actually doing the work he or she will be hired to do are rare, the best the employer can hope for is a report of how the potential employee has done a task in the past.
Let’s face it, resumes, LinkedIn profiles, interview answers—all are standardized genres that do not reliably signal the kind of information that an employer wants to know: how well will this person do the job, and how well will he or she get along with others in the workplace? With too many applicants for most jobs, employers increasingly rely on insights about what a job candidate might be like from people they happen to know who also happen to have worked with the job candidate in some capacity. Just knowing someone casually doesn’t help; an informal recommender’s ability to speak to who the applicant is as a worker is invaluable. This is why career counselors so strongly recommend networking: workplace ties often help people find their next jobs. To help anthropologists cross easily between academia and other types of jobs, anthropologists should welcome and sustain relationships with those who already have done so.
At the 2017 AAA meetings, I was asked to speak to one of the Association of Political and Legal Anthropology’s mentoring workshops, and someone asked the panel: “Can you get a job in academia if you have had to get a job outside academia to make a living for a few years while hoping for a tenure-track position?” My first response was: those of us on search committees aren’t jerks, we understand how difficult it is to get a job these days (and perhaps since the origins of the discipline). I also acknowledged that you need to show you are actively interested in remaining part of the intellectual community of anthropologists by publishing regularly and attending a conference or two every year.
But I still worry that we are not welcoming enough of people who are straddling the boundary. We are part of a “jackpot economy,” as Andrew Ross (2009, 10) puts it, and we know that only a very lucky few will get a tenure-track job. What do many of the people who hope to get a tenure track job, and who haven’t decided to quit trying yet, do? They adjunct. Some get visiting teaching positions or postdocs. And the ones who stay in these unsettled jobs do so in part (but not only) because of the fear that if they get a better paying job that isn’t part of the academy, they have taken themselves out of the running for the job they desperately want. How, we might ask, do departments and individual faculty members help to sustain this perception and, in the process, encourage adjuncts to work for less pay? If we were not encouraging a surplus supply of labor by sustaining the jackpot economy through a myriad of small decisions, universities would have to pay adjuncts more. They would not be able to find people who would teach for less than a flourishing wage (a living wage is too low a bar).
Tenure-stream faculty are often in the middle between university administrators and adjunct instructors, not setting the salary paid for a course or two but hiring the people who will teach them. How might tenure-stream faculty collude with adjuncts to raise their pay and help them get better benefits? There are many structural reasons why the jackpot economy may be here to stay, but anthropologists do have control over how they manage their relationships within this context and can work in small ways to encourage each other in whatever jobs they have.
Gershon, Ilana. 2017. Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ross, Andrew. 2009. Nice Work if You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times. New York: New York University Press.