Friday, November 30, 2007

Just a Job

Picking up on the premodern vs. modern theme of yesterday's post, Grad School Friend (who is on the tenure track at a research university) sent me a note about how his department received the news that he was seeing someone who lived in another time zone:

After the faculty became aware of her
existence, as my girlfriend from out of town, the department chair had a
talk with me about how this news has negatively affected my position in
the department. I was instructed to tell people that "I love it here; I
would never leave;" etc. My solution, to make him happy, was to let him
spread a counter-rumor, that [she] was attempting to get a job [there].
And then I dropped it for non-discussion on the matter, which has been
hard. [She] has gotten to the point of making excuses to avoid my
colleagues. I see this as the same issue: The "modern" side pushes me
to treat this entirely as a job and nothing more, but the "pre-modern"
side expects me to treat this as my life.

Amazing. And deeply, deeply sick. (The department, not Grad School Friend.)

The premodern/modern mashup of higher education leads to some really bizarre behavior. Respect gender equality rigorously in your pronoun use, but make sure you have a stay-at-home wife to prepare your tenure file. (Dr. Crazy rightly went to town on this one.) Hire for merit, but not too much merit, because that brings flight risk. Train people in graduate school to perform cutting-edge research, then hire them to teach basic Intro classes. In the case of the Ivies, proudly proclaim both your 'diversity' and your rejection rate, and pretend not to notice the contradiction. In the case of the big Midwestern schools, treat football as a secular religion while farming out your intro classes to adjuncts. Ratchet up the tenure requirements for younger hires, but give those new hires hell if they dare to look elsewhere, or even to date people from elsewhere.

This is sick, people.

Using the 'premodern vs. modern' lens at least gives me a sense of why certain things that just seem beyond reasonable dispute to me get some people all worked up. For example, the notion that academic jobs are just jobs. They are. They're good jobs, sometimes, and they can be very satisfying, sometimes, but they're jobs. There's an employer-employee relationship. An employee who wants to find another employer should have every right to try, and to try without judgment or sanction. An employee who wants to switch to another industry shouldn't be judged a washout or a failure. (And for goodness' sake, in what industry does the worst worker get promoted? Could we please call a halt to the 'all administrators are failed professors' canard?) An employee who wants to move geographically to be with a significant other isn't being 'disloyal' or showing a lack of dedication – he's making a perfectly valid life choice. And the idea that the employee owns his job – one popular definition of tenure – is facially preposterous. Can I sell my job to the highest bidder on ebay? Can I trade it? Can my kids inherit it? Is there a job market in the same sense in which there's a house market? Can something I own lay me off for 'fiscal exigency'? If not – and, not – then I don't own my job.

In any other industry, those positions would be so obvious as to be banal. In higher ed, they're subversive.

If you hold to the premodern understandings, then my friend has betrayed his department. How dare he find love outside of Third Tier City? Who does he think he is? What right does he have to leave, after all the time we've invested in him?

If you hold to the modern understandings, the questions themselves are absurd.

The folks who study generations are finding that workers – I'll use that word, and include myself in the category – under forty are less 'loyal' to employers than their parents were. It's often presented as “those silly kids, here's how to manage them,” which strikes me as backwards. To my mind, a lack of 'loyalty' reflects a clearsighted recognition of the objective reality that the world has changed. The combination of feminism and 'assortative mating' means that younger academics face the dreaded 'two-body' problem much more frequently than their forebears did, and in a rougher market. You can blame them for that and tell them to lower their sights, or you can recognize that the world has changed and they're simply adapting to it as best they can. Hell, if you really want to be useful, you could try to find ways to ameliorate some of those issues.

But that takes imagination. Indignation is easier, and offers the cheap thrill of a sense of superiority.

Asking highly intelligent, educated, ambitious, hardworking, three-dimensional people to forget all of the social and economic changes of the past forty years and know their place is nuts. My friend shouldn't have his 'standing in the department' jeopardized because he dared to find love outside the city limits. It's a job. It's just a job, like any other. That's all it is. There's more to life, and he's not a traitor for noticing.