The Prospects of Precarity
If you happen to be a graduate student in the humanities today, the bad news is difficult to escape. There are no jobs, everyone tells us. An excess of PhDs has created a buyer’s market in which most of us will have trouble rising above the ranks of exploited adjunct instructors—if we’re lucky enough to reach that far. According to the furthest-seeing analysts, economic and political realities have conspired against us. Our prospects of finding gainful employment as tenure-track professors are considerably dimmer than they might have been for generations past, and this makes graduate school an increasingly fruitless endeavor.
That’s the story everyone knows, and many of us are depressed by it because we really wanted those jobs. We wanted all the perks our professors enjoy, the nice homes, cars, and families that tenure seems to promise, or at least make possible. Deep down, we wanted to secure comfortable positions within one of the upper regions of that great monolith, the American middle class, and now those positions appear to be vanishing. Consequently, we feel at a loss. The future, from our present vantage point, looks increasingly under-furnished, under-nourished, and underpaid.
But perhaps we’re looking at our prospects too narrowly. Perhaps what we really suffer from is a failure of imagination. If we no longer assume that graduate school ought to be about finding ways to replicate the lives our most successful professors live (including being part of the tenure system), then our depression over the current job market and our future job prospects becomes both a distraction and another instance of woe-is-me grad-student self-indulgence.
What we need is a different mental horizon—a more nuanced picture of who we are and what we’re good for. Then maybe we can start thinking constructively again. After all, the structural features of our academic era are not likely to change. We have no basis feeling entitled to the bounties of a different time and place, and when we act like we do we confirm the worst suspicions of those well-meaning people who are always asking us how much longer till we graduate. We’ve all suffered enough under the yoke of unrealistic expectations; remaining beholden to a broken, unworkable model of academic opportunity and reward can only result in more self-pity and depression. So, for the sake of what dignity we still have left, let’s all join hands and move on. Toward something else.
Given the current national climate of political and economic strife, it seems like good advice to remember what humanists have always done and construe our plight in broader terms than many of us are inclined to. We live at a fascinating juncture. Because we find ourselves inside one of this society’s formerly prized institutional footholds at a transitional moment, we have a novel opportunity to redefine our purpose and our prospects according to a new model and vision—perhaps ones more in keeping with whatever is happening all around us in this country and in the world. What this new model and vision are, and what they can be, should take time for us to figure out. But the first step is clear: by radically reconsidering our vantage point in a faltering American society, we can start seizing on the unique perspective our position as grad students affords us as sources of insight and agents of change.
This might well mean reevaluating our work, our interests, and our motivations for doing the kind of work we do. Every kind of reform should be on the table, and we should defer to no fear of lost prestige. If we’re willing to diagnose our present position accurately, and to follow it through to its conclusion, we should be willing to face the prospect of continued marginalization and to accept this prospect in solidarity with other contemporary marginalized groups, most of whom are in considerably worse shape than we are.
Of course none of this will come naturally or easily. The fact that it’s difficult for most of us (myself included) to imagine futures without the cushy academic jobs and lifestyles our professors enjoy speaks to our privileged backgrounds and our aspirations for a level of affluence that may no longer be within our reach. But maybe in letting this privilege and its accompanying aspirations go, we’ll relieve some of the pressure we’ve been under. Maybe then we’ll finally feel like we can breathe.
Given our personal histories and the historic circumstances we now find ourselves in, do we really need to resemble our affluent parents and professors twenty years from now? What new ideas and actual contributions might come from a class position of willed precarity? From the deliberate cultivation of habits of thought and action that promise anything but intellectual insulation and material complacency?
Against a shallow clinging to privilege, we owe it to ourselves to ask these questions and find out where they lead.
I’m obviously a little late to the game here, just coming from USIH. So, first, hello again, digitally this time.
Now, I think the phrase you use here to describe your prospectus is compelling: a “class position of willed precarity.” Good, of course, but also telling. Willed precarity, after all, is nothing new: the red Anglo-Catholic slum priests of the turn of the last century occupied such a position, as did (and do) the various Catholic Workers, evangelical missionaries, salting union organizers, radical communards, and many others, I’m sure, who are more peripheral to my own areas of interest. No doubt this willed precarity is also part of what Macintyre had in mind when he called for a “new, and doubtless very different, St. Benedict.”
Of course what I’m getting at here is something which your piece demands, but doesn’t (by its nature) flesh out: the necessity of communal solidarity to any exercise of willed precarity. Of course, the whole point of forced precarity is to undermine easily accessible forms of solidarity, simple camaraderie first among them. This is at play in the university as much as anywhere else: a large precarious workforce (adjuncts and TAs) is kept in line with both the stick (overproduction of graduate students) and the carrot (the tenure track – and, especially at smaller colleges, adjuncts sometimes do move into the tenure track. The inside hire isn’t entirely a myth).
Again, I realize that you’re making a kind of moral assessment here, but I’ve got to wonder how that morality becomes practical. What specific practices or projects might we undertake? (I don’t mean here to try something like the Vollker Rule criticism of OWS, but to ask for examples, no matter how radical). Do we try to seize the university, 1968-style? To create more Saxifrage-style institutions? To cast ourselves to the wind, bearing some post-capitalist evangel to spread while working as farmers, motorcycle mechanics, or financiers? All of these? Or something else entirely? And how do we maintain the necessary solidarity in the meantime? It is, after all, hard work.
You raise a great point, Adam, and I like your formulation: “the necessity of communal solidarity to any exercise of willed precarity.”
I think the morality embedded here becomes practical in manifold ways. To my mind, we ought to start by thinking on a very small scale. This blog, for instance, was initiated as a communal effort to extend the purview of what intellectual historians do, and how they should write. This is not to say that any of the three contributors has forsaken the university or the rigors of professional history writing. But we have chosen to broaden our identities as scholars and writers in the spirit of something like willed precarity. In terms of concrete solidarity, the benefits are self-evident.
I don’t think we (any of us) ought to try to seize the university, 1968-style, nor do I see any of the other extremities of that decade as very viable models. I wrote this piece after participating in a discussion with Anthony Grafton and other graduate students about the hiring crisis in the humanities, and I was very struck by one point he (Grafton) made in particular: “the issue is not how we can escape the market. We can’t. The issue is how we can preserve our integrity within the market.”
If we take this premise as given, as I think we should, the possible extrapolations and experiments that issue from it are endless. Depending on how deeply we identify our professional goals with ordinary life, every moment, every social interaction, every piece of writing becomes an opportunity to manifest what it is we’re trying to get people to see. And therein lies the possibility of piecemeal change.
So, in answer to your question, I think the morality of willed precarity is practical all the time. What varies is our willingness to practice it responsibly.
[…] term. *Mike has a post at Longing for the Real that’s related to all this, from the angle of the aspiring but thwarted academic. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Categories: Culture, […]