Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The tenured blogger says: detachment, then action

In yoga, I'm learning detachment. By "detachment," I mean, "not over identifying with external circumstance." And when I say "I'm learning," I mean, "I've been alternately resisting and fatally struggling" with this notion. Usually, I fail. For example, when my house was effectively expropriated by condo developers I over-attached and cried daily for months: my whole life was ruined, I thought. I conflated my whole identity and well-being with a piece of property. Not detachment. A long time ago, when one of my students plagiarized a paper, I had a crisis of the soul regarding my own teaching and the purpose of it all. Not detachment.

When I started my job--hired ABD, the dream scenario--I had survivor guilt and imposter syndrome all wrapped up together, binding me up on unhappy overattachment. Why me? And what happens when they find out I'm a fraud? This kind of neurosis, partly instilled by the lottery-style of the job market and the nevertheless strict ideology framing this market as somehow a meritocracy, leads to nothing good. In this scenario, I have to "pretend" to be a real academic, while assuaging my guilt at my tremendous good fortune by trying to find a way to make myself deserve it. Perhaps by thinking I'm special, somehow, and thus "deserve" this job that others didn't get. Perhaps by rigidly adhering to and even advocating the perpetuation of the system that ultimately placed me on "top." Perhaps by keeping others down so that I can stay on "top." This is all so wrong.

I suspect many of us, myself included, have tended to over-attach to the job: my whole identity and well-being has long been wrapped up in the role of being an academic. When I got this job, to be honest, one of the things I congratulated myself on was never having to worry about my self-identity on this front again. Thank god, I thought, I really am a professor. Phew. Might've had a total breakdown otherwise. Yikes. I've been thinking about that time as I sort out my feelings about sharing tales of post-ac and alt-ac life with my grad students, or reading all the internet chatter on the job market or lack of it. Detachment would be healthier, and I'm trying to cultivate it. And detachment would help me work to a more equitable, more ethical academy, to boot.

Here's what I've come to. I'm not special. I'm good at what I do, but generally no better than many others would be. It's the job I wanted, and I love it, but I don't love all of it, and not all the time, and that's okay, too. If Waterloo shut down tomorrow, there are other things I could do, and other ways I could be happy and fulfilled. It's good to remember that.

Similarly, if my graduate students leave the academy to do other things, this shouldn't threaten my own sense of self: and it doesn't. I can help them launch into their new orbits, and learn something new about another area of human effort. They can probably teach me about ingenuity and self-knowledge. The world outside the ivory tower is a fine place, and people with PhDs can do important and interesting work there.

If the internet decries the inequity of academic labour that sees a shrinking minority of relatively coddled tenured faculty supported by exploited masses of adjuncts, I don't have to take this as a personal attack on my daily life: and I don't. But I need to acknowledge the platform that my undeniable structural privilege affords me and use it to narrow that divide between the haves and have nots, even when the results of these efforts might make my own life a little less cushy. I could, for example, figure out what proportion of my own department's teaching is done by adjuncts, how many and who, and is this managed ethically, and how might I help start that conversation?

If movements are afoot to make graduate training more humane and more practical, I don't need to dig in my heels to entrench further the same system that spit me out, in order so that I can feel like we're still going to sort "winners" from "losers" in the way that let me win: so I don't. I can learn to recognize that the current game is one ruled by chance as much as skill, and that my "winning" in life oughtn't to be predicated on so many others losing.

The tenured, I am trying to say, can be allies in building a more equitable, more ethical academy. But we will have to detach from our neuroses and our over-identifications. The contingent and the others who didn't "win" the game that the tenured did had to learn, however violent the impetus, to detach and think of themselves in new ways. Many of you, dear readers, have done this and I have learned so much from your writing and your thinking and your actions. It's time that the tenured take on this process, not of examining the ways the institution has undermined us or let us down, but in the ways that by "succeeding" within it we have become blinded to our own privilege, and still struggle emotionally and psychologically to make ourselves feel like we deserve these privileges so many others don't have.

The tenured have to listen all those others: the contractually limited, the graduate students, the alumni off the track and out of the academy, the alt academics and the para academics and the post academics. We have to rethink how we do the things we do in the ways we've always done, and if those ways are serving the populations and the markets we actually serve and actually work in. 

Do you know, Melissa's "I Quit" letter from last week is by far and away our most-viewed post of the last month? It's got more page views than the number 2 and number 3 most popular posts put together. Margrit's questioning of the structural conditions under which we labour, and Danielle's piece on how to reframe academic skills into a narrative understandable beyond the ivory tower is in our all-time top ten list. As is a post celebrating a tribute to Erin, written on her departure from one contractually limited assistant professorship to another, by a student whose life she touched.

There's a hunger for these stories of contingency, of change, a hunger to share in the pragmatic and affective dimensions of what it means to be (mostly) junior academics in a rapidly changing institutions--or, increasingly, beside or outside it. The tenured and the tenure-track have to step up now, too. In many ways we are psychologically damaged by this system, too: survivor guilt, imposter syndrome, six years up and out, intensification of expectations on teaching and research fronts, and less support in service work.

Of our five regular contributors, I'm the only one on the tenure track. Our blogger demographics thus are looking a little more like the profession as a whole, for better or for worse. And this is the place that I want to be, listening and learning, detaching in order to get some clarity, some capacity to act. For change. I couldn't ask for better company, better colleagues.

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