Roadblocks Force New Paths

Limitless opportunity creates incapacitating uncertainty.

The academic job market has bottomed out due to the Great Recession, but it has been faltering for years as universities, like other industries, turn toward part-time contract workers. Recent PhDs, primed for a lifetime of learning and knowledge production within the institution of academia, have diminishing opportunities to put those degrees to use in economically sustainable ways. Resisting giving up on the dream, we work in flexible, part-time, low paying teaching gigs with few (or no) benefits as we did throughout graduate school. This problem is old news, but there is still a great deal of denial among graduate students and faculty alike. To face reality means accepting that many of us are on a path toward a life sequestered by student loan debt, working below our skill levels and intellectual capacities, and failing to realize the identities we have crafted for ourselves as intellectuals.

I will always be a sociologist at heart. And I believe the sociological imagination can help us grad students and recent PhDs to understand and act on our situation. Our anxiety and depression, relationship conflicts, guilt, and self-doubt is not just a personal issue, it is a manifestation of a social problem that is rooted in the institutional structures of higher education. These structures are impersonal. No one person, from above or below, is going to stop them from operating as they do. These structures are not a problem in and of themselves. The problem comes because these structures, and our assumed paths to careers, are shifting beneath our feet. Recent PhDs and graduate students need to adapt new strategies for success and survival. This is difficult because we believe in the existing system, we trust our advisers who have achieved success there, and we know no other system.

What are these shifting structures? First, the funding structures of higher education are changing. Public money has waned as colleges and universities have grown. Academic institutions have been compelled to turn toward private and market-based strategies for survival. The primary strategy has been that of growth. The growth model has benefits – it has democratized access to higher education, which is no longer for the white, male, and rich. Growth has also created a wider consumer market whose tuition can offset diminished public resources. But the strategy of growth also has costs.

One cost has been to students themselves, as 60% of undergraduate students take out loans in their own name to fund their educations. Another has been the outsourcing and downsizing of faculty. About 45% of all faculty are part-time, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. In English, it reports, fewer than 50% of graduating PhDs can expect to land tenure track jobs in their first year on the market. Temporary teachers are a permanent part of institutions. Meanwhile, administrative support is scaled back and tasks are heaped upon small bodies of teaching and research faculty.

Academic institutions appear to be one of the few industries weathering the present economic storm, even helping their communities to stay out of the recession. But if this industry rests on consumers who buy with debt and on temporary workers without institutional ties or support, it is not sustainable.

The second structure affecting higher education is that research and knowledge production are facing a rapid reevaluation because of interactive media technologies. The angry professor who yells at her student for citing Wikipedia is doing more than trying to teach academic research skills, she is rallying against the devaluation of her own knowledge, which she has worked for decades to build. Academic knowledge is slow knowledge. It builds its own data and experiments and carefully frames information by hand within existing sets of specialized knowledge. Academic knowledge takes years to compose and it’s comprehension requires sustained, trained attention. Slow knowledge is outpaced in the economy of attention by faster, popular, collaborative, fragmented approaches to information. We see evidence of this not only when students instantly check our lectures against a Wikipedia entry on the topic, but also in the decline of the academic publishing industry, which is still treated as the foundation of professional evaluation in academia.

Free knowledge is ideal for consumers and can further democratize access to learning. But like growth models, it is not sustainable. Academic knowledge and open information parallel the battle between blogs and newspapers. Interactive media organizes and arranges information, but it rarely generates it from scratch. This is because generating knowledge (or “content”) takes time and resources that most individuals do not have on their own.

In the 1980s, GI Joe used to tell me that “knowing is only half the battle.” Now that we graduate students know we are subject to economic, institutional and technological forces beyond our immediate control, we have two choices – act on this knowledge, or give up. Continuing to fight for that tenure track dream may work for some, but most of us will beat our heads on the wall until its a bloody pulp. That wall ain’t moving.

In my teaching, I try to push students beyond the binary of “thank god its not my fault, the world sucks” — or — “that structural problem doesn’t exist, I’ll keep working harder.” I try to inspire them to engage in practical action that navigates structural constraints. Constraints inhibit us, but they also provide a foundation for action if we know how to read them relative to our own situations. We need to consider what assets we have, who is with us, and how to put those assets and relationships to work for us.

Assets: Graduate students have high level skills in knowledge production and dissemination. If we haven’t yet succumbed to a nervous breakdown, we also have near pathological levels of commitment to the expansion of our own and others knowledge.

Networks: There are lots of graduate students (and PhDs unhappy with their jobs) who share a common experience and worldview. When wired together, as most of us are via social media, we compose a powerful block of diverse specialized knowledge. Among a few of my close friends in the humanities and social sciences I know a robot builder, a programmer mapping music communities, an ethnographer of on-line anti-human trafficking activism, and an analyst of downward economic mobility.

Conditions: Knowledge wants to be free. At the same time, knowledge, culture and information industries are some of the only things making money. In 2008, the GDP grew by just over 1% and information and communication industries accounted for 30% of that growth. We also see that those involved in knowledge culture and information industries are taking a different approach to capitalism, what Bill Gates refers to as Creative Capitalism. The idea is that market logic (which is likely not going away anytime soon) can be used toward social ends. We also see that knowledge is increasingly produced and disseminated outside of traditional firms or in smaller networked organizations lead by individual entrepreneurs.

What are our new paths? All I see is bramble in the bushes, but at the same time I feel a sense of excitement about what we could build together.