Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Academia and its Discontents

This troubling New York Times article has been making the rounds lately among my predominantly humanities graduate student crowd.

None of us got into academia to get rich, but we all thought that we'd at least have a job.  We slogged through seemingly endless years of study, classes and essays.  We struggled through exams, comps, vivas...all to demonstrate to the powers that be that we are worthy.  And throughout the sleepless nights spent hunched over books or illuminated by the glow of a computer screen, fuelled by a concoction of espresso, ephedrine, and Red Bull, there was, at the very far end of the tunnel a dim, barely visible light towards which we slowly inched our way: Tenure.  

You see, academia is not unlike fraternities on a much larger, long-term, and more sadistic scale.  Academia's hazing rituals can last well over a decade, and include such perversities as marking towering piles of papers written by barely-literate first years or producing reams of research from which one's supervisor will pluck a single fact, figure or sentence to be used in his/her forthcoming publication (acknowledgement not guaranteed).  One does this while earning barely more than the minimum wage, burdened with tuition fees and past student debt, and subsisting almost entirely on ramen noodles.  Why you ask?  Because once we get past all that, once we get in, we're in for life.

Tenure is the ultimate in job security.  Barring gross misconduct (and even then), the tenured professor can not be fired.  The logic behind this, historically, has been that once an academic has established his/her credentials and abilities, he/she should be free to pursue research without fear of harassment from the institution.  Such an arrangement would have spared Socrates a rather nasty bout of hemlock poisoning.  And so, the US Supreme Court notwithstanding, academia remains one of the very last bastions of the job security afforded by what is essentially a life appointment. 

And now the NYT is telling me that it's all for naught?!  Am I to understand that my two undergraduate degrees and two Master's degrees (in lieu of any practical life skills, I prefer to obtain degrees in pairs) aren't worth the paper they're printed on?  That the nearly 1/4 of my life thus far spent in institutions of higher education engaging in all the aformentioned inane and perverse hoop-jumping has been wasted?  That my months of agonizing over writing the perfect doctoral research proposal would have been better spent in some sort of "gainful employment"?  Nay I say to that!  

Look, NYT, I know you're on the brink of bankruptcy, but just because you're going down doesn't mean you have to take us all down with you.  Sure, there's nothing you'd like more than for a mass exodus of disheartened graduate students to read your article, give up and drop out, thus flooding the job market and providing you with a source of cheap labour which you - having done your research so well into grad student habits - know you can abuse without hearing a peep of complaint (grad students prefer to voice their complaints in innocuous twitter tweets).  I'm on to you, but I won't play your game.  If I don't find a job after completing my PhD, I'll just do another one.  Degrees come best in pairs anyway. 


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