As usual I’ve been spending a (good) portion of my Sunday working, and one of my tasks for the weekend is to write this post. After soliciting suggestions from friends and colleagues (thank you!) and thinking about that humorous little video that made the rounds last week I’ve decided to weigh in on making fun of the profession.
I’m not the first to do this, nor is it the first time I’ve done so. The first time I was given an opportunity to think about the ups and downs (to put it mildly) of the profession was on a panel hosted by the Professional Concerns Committee at ACCUTE this spring. Likewise, many of the commenters here have been thinking gamely about the pros and cons of “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” and the responses have been varied. The reason I’m wading in again though has directly to do with a conversation I had with a graduate student friend of mine last week. “After I finished watching that video and laughing I felt kind of ill,” she admitted.
Before I get there though, let me recap in case you’ve been living under a wi-fi-free rock or don’t feel like spending four minutes of your life watching this: xtranormal.com is a site where you can type in dialogue and make your own film. In this particular little gem a young woman (blonde, with vaguely hipster glasses) comes in and speaks to a female Dean about getting a letter of reference for graduate school. What follows is a hilarious–if uncomfortable–exchange. The student blithely asks for references because she has “brilliant thoughts about death in literature” while the Dean attempts (with increasing acerbity) to alert the student to the, ahem, difficulties of attaining a permanent job in the profession.
Ok, it IS funny. And often bang-on. But there are several things that give me cause for concern. I’m going to skip over the fact that this is a conversation between two women (unpaid emotional work?), the fact that it conflates the position of a (female) Dean with the office-sharing, salary-realities of an adjunct, and instead think about dissing the profession versus restructuring the profession. And yes, this is both blue-sky thinking (defiantly so, as it is cold and rainy in Halifax today), and devastatingly earnest. That’s just how I roll.
While I am reluctant to advocate honing business-like skills such as PR (possibly because I desire to live a life of the mind? Sigh.) one of the dangers of simply trotting out the admittedly myriads of inequities and labour abuses that can and do happen in this profession is that they become the central focus. I wasn’t a cheerleader, but it seems that there is something in celebrating what we do well. I teach in an English department. Among many, many other crucial skills, we do a heck of a job teaching students about critical thinking. How might we productively celebrate (ok, and advertise) what it is that our specific disciplines do well? I realize that I’m focussing on the Humanities and Social Sciences here, but I’m sure this can be shifted to be a useful thought exercise across disciplinary lines.
Here’s another issue: I noticed that the people who were predominantly most reluctant to laugh at this video were not the folks on the Dean’s side of the desk. They were folks like me (contract workers) or graduate students or undergraduates. What kind of message are we sending to ourselves and to the future if we don’t also start thinking about how to repackage–and I mean fundamentally repackage–what we do (or at least how we explain what we do, because I hold to the belief that there is much that is being done very well indeed).
And so back, obliquely, to the conversation that I had with my graduate student friend, who was concerned that there was no point and felt ill after watching the video.
Why did she feel sick? Because she’s in the profession–or at least trying to be–and so am I. We’re both pretty acutely aware of how difficult it is to get a permanent job, and I at least am viscerally aware of what that job looks like if you ever get to the other side of the desk (however temporarily) so my question is this: How might we think and act positively about the game without getting inextricably mired in its increasingly corporate structure?
For starters, give yourself a pat on the back for reading this blog: we’re engaging in community building here.
Here’s another thought, what about (more) co-op programmes in the Humanities?
Perhaps a commons for the exchange of pedagogical strategies?