The Brightest Will Rise, and Other Errors

From the Series: Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A Forum

Photo by Tim Sackton, licensed under CC BY SA.

As always, the best questions make for the best thinking and writing. The four incisive questions that David Platzer and Anne Allison pose concern whether tenure-stream faculty in anthropology departments are acting ethically in planning for the size and nature of their graduate programs. Are they admitting too many students, given how many of them will fail on the academic job market? Should they solve that problem by reorienting their thinking and their teaching programs toward a wider range of post-PhD jobs? How are graduate students dealing with this disjuncture between their own and their professors’ expectations that they will become professors? Is something already emerging that is a more functional, ethical response to this disjuncture between expectation and reality on the academic job market?

One further question that needs fleshing out is why and how this disjuncture has emerged and stayed in painful place for so many years. That is, what incentive structures have helped to sustain it or even made it worse? Without thinking through this question, our answers to the first four may be for naught.

The incentive structures to which I am referring are well known, but often ignored as faculty members move through the annual cycle of graduate admissions. They include the burgeoning size of undergraduate programs and the resulting large classes, which require graduate-student assistance to run. They include the search for status in a national context that rewards large programs over small and faculty research over the teaching that might have allowed instructors to provide more attention (and do more grading) in the past. It includes the growing inequality between the highest- and lowest-paid members of the university, with administrators and athletic coaches at the top with mid- and high-six-figure salaries, then “star professors,” the rest of the tenure stream, and finally the adjuncts and cafeteria workers who sometimes cannot survive on what they are paid. Resistance has begun, with graduate students now organizing themselves to gain recognition of the problem not just with pay but with how they are sometimes treated—less as workers than as consumers of education and training.

Platzer and Allison ask what happens when the acquisition of a scarce good, a tenure-track job, remains the normative expectation in our academic communities. As with life under capitalism more generally, the result is fear, stigma, anxiety, and self-blame in many and an elevated sense of self-worth and importance in a few. The only thing I would add to Platzer and Allison’s analysis is that the academia-specific version of the emotional toll capitalism takes can be even more severe and shame-inducing, given the continued if tacit belief in IQ and the hyperindividualism of the humanities and social sciences in particular. These habits of thought suggest that one will sink or swim on one’s own merits, and that those merits are, in many ways, preordained by one’s IQ. Letters of recommendation for the job market reflect this in their focus on the more or less brilliant essence of the applicant and the ideas he or she expresses. Graduate programs, it is assumed, will sift and sort; the brightest will rise and take the tenure-track jobs (not those with the most cultural or racial or gender capital, not the most assertive, not the people with the fewest obligations, given or taken, to the world outside their graduate studies). This is so, even as we all know how important social skills are for getting through the hurdles of the finalist’s dinner with the search committee.

One of the recent PhDs interviewed for Platzer and Allison’s essay raised the additional problem of the impact of the scramble for jobs on the nature of intellectual inquiry itself, as the logic of the niche takes over. This tendency implies that acquiring expertise within a very small ambit will allow one to dominate that arena even as it makes it more and more difficult for anyone to understand anyone else within our field except through conversation about a few canonical theorists or the hot article of the year. Such developments accelerate the growth of an already existing agonism in academia.

The most salubrious thing that can come from the conversation this forum will hopefully begin is an attention to the larger world of institutions and movements that are attempting to use anthropological knowledge in more ways that extend beyond our classrooms. Let’s begin to design graduate courses and identify career pathways for the current and future graduate students to whom we owe that effort. Simultaneously, let’s talk about how our universities need to change in their most basic political-economic structures so that the money that now goes into administrators’ and star professors’ salaries get distributed across an expanding and reasonably paid professoriate, teaching smaller classes more intensively. The question is not just whether anthropology will survive in a corporatized, scientized university, but whether liberal education and the teaching at its core can themselves survive.