Academic Unfreedom

primeA thread is brewing on the internet from academics who have either left or considered leaving when the rainbow turned out not to be enough. (I deleted the examples from colleagues in this post 10 seconds after writing them for fear their stories would be recognized and the untenured among them would pay the price … )

Academic unfreedom is something we all like to chalk up to someone being “unsuited” for academe or for the department in which they work. Yet, I think if each of us thinks about it, we know at least one person who has done nothing wrong except show up excited and wanting to do the diverse and important work they were hired to do.

read the thread for more:

Related to this thread but not part of it:

You should also know that this environment is not one exclusive to white heterosexual males with tenure on one side and everyone else on the other.

“Because the actual structure of the academy goes unquestioned—from tenure processes to grading systems to academic hierarchies—even progressives get trapped in the academy’s meritocratic myth, which either makes them insane or turns them into fascists. All the collective action we support outside the academy seems to disappear inside it—as we slave away in our offices in order to make sure everyone knows how busy and hardworking we are.

Andrea Smith, “Social-Justice Activism in the Academic Industrial Complex”  Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 23.2 (2007): 144-145. (kiita/112 years old)

The nature of unfreedom warps many of us, leaving us walking wounded or closet henchmen. Like a Fanonian cunundrum we recreate the oppressions we claim to be liberating ourselves from by simply replacing the positions but not the system.

Every time I read these threads, I think: somewhere it has to stop. But unfreedom breeds slave mentality (part of that is the identification as master or slave); being envious or broken is only different in the ways that both buy in to the system of enslavement. Mastery means believing that you an innately deserving; and while, most will never use that language, read certain academic blogs or talk to many of them about the process and you will see what I mean. My refusal to buy into the “deserving model” has always left everyone wondering how I got to this side of tenure precisely b/c the process is meant to make you internalize unfreedom as normal and right.

What that makes me and my friends, w/ tenure or reaching for it, I don’t yet know.

18 thoughts on “Academic Unfreedom

  1. Thank you for visiting my blog. I wil be continuing to work on the topic of academic unfreedom from the POV of an outsider who has seen a lot but is free to say what she pleases.

  2. There’s an untenured one, I recently had a blog post about him and linked to him, but I think you’re not doing it because he’s untenured / hasn’t left yet / etc., so I won’t repeat. But it’s a white man and I think he’s straight. Reasons for leaving or seriously considering it are essentially money and quality of life. He cannot always afford to visit family for Christmas, even, and there is zero social life where he is. I always find it odd one should be expected to dedicate oneself to this kind of deprivation just because one has certain intellectual interests.

  3. hey cero. I did see that itemized "on the market" list that was depressing . . . but I am leaving him out b/c of a lack of tenure and b/c I am not sure social isolation is the same as unfreedom. Or is it?

  4. No, it’s not. He’s hung in this far because his dept. is nice, etc. So while his situation is bad, it might be greatly alleviated by a spouse with a job: 2 incomes and someone you like to hang out with. And he has the confidence to say "this life isn’t meeting my needs, in the big picture" whereas if he were also dealing with harassment, undermining, etc. and had not been raised to think that wanting to get certain needs met was reasonable, it would be yet worse. All of which doesn’t mean I don’t think his situation sounds horrid – I do, which is why I posted about it. I do think his economic situation does tend to unfreedom, though. He’s only 35 so went to graduate school when it was expensive, and he has heavy student loan debt and his family has no money. Mine are middle class with big savings. When I made tenure my limping car, which was 13 years old then and had over 200K miles on it, died permanently. In my financial position then I could not have bought anything but another deathmobile. My parents said tenure + birthday + Christmas = reliable car, and that’s the car I drive now. Having it means I can jump to New Orleans, Houston, Austin, any time at all. This is a major difference between my situation and that guy’s. Also, real estate was cheap here when I arrived and I bought a nice house on the FHA, cheaper than renting an apt. It’s imperfect and I can’t afford to fix everything but once when rain poured in the same parents paid half the cost of refelting the roof. More re money: I had an aunt pay for college, so I didn’t work, and although she did not support more than a meager lifestyle, it was still like being rich. I considered myself to have been, and therefore to be ultra-privileged until one day in graduate school when people in my program revealed their trust funds … I had had no idea at all how many of them had trust funds. When you consider my aunt’s funding + those peoples’ trust funds + my occasional subsidies from parents now, you see how my field (same one as that guy’s) is for the rich, really – you have to have your own money to be in it and live on your own. There’s this other blogger, also a lit person I suspect, the bitter and the sweet she’s called, her whole, entire salary goes to pay debt and her husband’s pays for current living.Ramble ramble – I should get back to my manuscript. But while you’re aggregating – I have more morose stuff on my alternate site, Oct. 4, 5, 7, – my letting hair down site at this point.

  5. I’ll check it out when I get back from NM. As to economics, as I said, I found his itemized list stressful and heartbreaking. I think my comments all over the internet, including here, about the class issues of academe show pretty clearly that I am in this guy’s corner. I didn’t even have a car at my first job b/c I couldn’t afford to get my car there and it wasn’t worth enough to sell it and buy a new one. I lived in a frozen new England think tank and the nearest grocery store was 2 miles away: I walked for the first month b/c it did not occur to anyone that I might not have transportation. I lived in a hovel that had someone else’s hair on the walls (yes the walls) and the bathroom when I moved in, and while heat was included it was also controlled so that the apartment was 400 degrees twice a day and ice box cold the rest. And I did not get home to see my parents either, I remember all the tear filled phone calls back and forth about missed birthdays and holidays and the first two summers spent by myself in a completely emptied out town where half the shops were closed until September. My parents took out a second mortgage so I could pay my loan bills, rent, and groceries which were 5xs higher out there than where I’d come from. It was miserable and then you add in the racism, regionalism, ableism, and elitism, and it was unbearable despite all of the really brilliant and fun colleagues I had there. The straw was when my little sister was in a horrible accident and I could not afford to get home. Now I watch most of my students who are on assistance and many losing their homes right now, and I think about what it means to teach mostly brown, black, and internationals students in identity studies disciplines slated for huge budget cuts if not complete dismantling and wonder what kind of lives I am preparing them for. But what I meant to be tracking here was social unfreedom, the lack of intellectual and political possibilities, and while the unspoken class issues of academe certainly lend to unfreedom since collegiality requires participation in social events you may not be able to afford (fancy dinners, wine, or even the proper attire) I’m not sure that if we did away with economic difference and middle class normativity that unfreedom would also be dismantled; I think it would remain in tact because it operates on a series of interlocking issues of "us" and "not us." The chronicle article is one example that seriously questions the ides of the milieu itself, implying that all things being held equal, there would still be petty and destructive forces destroying some people’s careers and advancing others for no other reason than "us" "not us." I want to isolate what that is and change it, particularly since I’ve been around long enough to see it start nesting within ranks of marginalized faculty and mentorship programs.

  6. "I’m not sure that if we did away with economic difference and middle class normativity that unfreedom would also be dismantled; I think it would remain in tact because it operates on a series of interlocking issues of "us" and "not us." The chronicle article is one example that seriously questions the ides of the milieu itself, implying that all things being held equal, there would still be petty and destructive forces destroying some people’s careers and advancing others for no other reason than "us" "not us." I want to isolate what that is and change it, particularly since I’ve been around long enough to see it start nesting within ranks of marginalized faculty and mentorship programs."Yes!!!NM – I’m envious. New England – MY GOD that sounds awful. (And note: I’ve never had a good feeling about the place, money or not … and we just hired someone from there who was raring to get out, to HERE, to escape racism … !)

  7. I’m going to expound on this on my own site when I get a chance this week: Robert Reich wrote a blog post last week arguing against the myth that overspending and consumption are to blame for the economic downturn, partly because it’s very convenient to blame average people for their moral failures rather than analyze structural economic problems. It occurs to me that most of us in academia — and I’m still counting myself as one — must believe that not finishing the PhD, not getting the job or a job, and not getting tenure are evidence of moral failure. I see even the most socially critical graduate students and colleagues switch gears to this kind of thinking. To judging not just themselves but one another. I’m interested in not just the external constraints that are connoted by the term "academic unfreedom" but the moral gaps that we fall into, willingly or not, to stay in the game. I’m also thinking about how social critique is built into the academia by the presence of women of color — especially queer women of color and feminist women of color and anti-colonialist women of color. But even with these traditions, how much will graduate students, junior faculty and tenured faculty ever consider leaving academia as part of the critique. Forgive my muddled thinking — I’m still working this out.I imagine that our spirits, if not our bodies, crossed paths over the weekend. I was very underground during the conference but engaged in many, many conversations related to this post.

  8. Cero – you hired from someone looking to get out of New England? (just clarifying) So as not to babble again, I can imagine exactly what that person meant. It is hard to work in an inhospitable workplace but far worse when the environment is equally so. My grads have running jokes about how they are going to end up curled up in the bottom of a wine bottle in some middle of nowhere place pontificating about brownness on command.Kiita – I’m telling you we have propably met and charlemos without even knowing it. NM is definitely a place for such conversations. And I don’t think you’re muddled at all. You are off to a fascinating start. Sounds like a paper or a panel. And I too see the hypercritical buy in and how it works to solidify unfreedom. Even when there is a point of recognition amongst critical community members, the milieu encourages distance and rejection. And leaving is never a respected choice b/c it calls into question why others, experiencing similar things, stayed.

  9. Hire someone looking to get out of N.E. – sure did! And ze has described it that way. Also, ze says, and I’ve heard it before, the solitude – nobody talks to anybody.On the moral failure thing – sure, people think that. If you question anything they think you haven’t understood the basics. This is all because they want to believe everything is all right. All you need to know are the basics and then you’re fine, if you’re not fine you didn’t know the basics, etc.

  10. P.S. Just found an old post draft that started: "Normally I am terribly embarrassed about not liking to be a professor, not being more successful as one as a result of that, not having, not having … not having been able to do as I was supposed to do, having other interests, other desires, other needs." I’ll never write the post at this point but it is telling for this thread – on the way people do the best they can so you don’t leave. The ideology of it all and so on. It’s a club you’re supposed to be so glad to be in that you wouldn’t leave even if miserable. !

  11. Reading that sentences about the basics made me think of that movie Gaslight. My gf once compared her race for tenure to courting an abuser or an addiction for which you would spend a life time in AA. "Hello my name is Prof BW and I am an academic. It has been exactly 1 day since my last fix."I think if we all looked through the posts we started but did not finish, we would find some of the clearest windows to the academic soul.

  12. "compared her race for tenure to courting an abuser or an addiction for which you would spend a life time in AA"Yes. And gaslight and "the basics," yes indeed. Very interesting.

  13. The pingback to this just showed up on my site and it was very interesting. Being on sabbatical makes me think I love my job again. I realized this morning it will all be over soon and I need to keep a critical eye – otherwise, when I go and start hanging out in my Building again, I won’t protect myself well enough.

    Anyway, Susurro, I am trying to figure out Denise Ferreira da Silva’s book, Toward a global idea of race (U of MN P 2007). She is a sociologist. To the extent that I can understand it while being unsure of the reading of Descartes in it and not being either as postmodern or as postcolonial as she, it is epoch making … the conclusions explain a lot although they are depressing. I think we should have a study group on it.

    • that is very odd, this post is ancient, as you can see . . .

      I had the book recommended to me by a sociologist whose work on race I respect immensely. I have the intro from her but not the book. A study group is an intriguing idea. I’m down for a blog around on it.

  14. Also: a discussion forum at a conference, with her as answerer of questions re book, and nobody allowed to grandstand — if you haven’t read the book, you can’t pull the people who have off point.

    • I’ve always loved it when there is a tacit understanding in a discussion that you have to have engaged the actual text (not its critics, derivatives, abridged versions, or some other “reading around the text” to participate. It really does raise the bar and stop some of the grandstanding. 🙂

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