collaboration · community · empowerment · reform

Imagining structural solutions

Do you know what day it is today? It’s the day the hallowed MLA Job Information List (JIL) descends upon us, enabling the birth of many a hope, a dream, and/or a plan. For people happily not acquainted with the JIL, allow me to inform you: it is *the* list of academic jobs in the field of languages and literatures, open across US and Canada, but increasingly also in Europe and Asia. The UK and Australia, and some of Asia, run on a slightly different academic-job recruitment schedule. In brief, for many PhDs and ABDs in English and other language/literature fields, the publication of the JIL initiates the bulk of the academic-job application process and its attendant emotional and material labour.

The ugly truth that has emerged in the past years points to the numeric inadequacy of the list, which I’m holding up here as a symbol of the job market. For the first time ever this year, the JIL will be accessible free of charge, rather than by subscription. However important this gesture, it cannot mask the simple fact that there are not enough jobs. Many conversations around the internet, twitter, facebook, departmental water cooler, etc. revolve around the absence of sufficient and appropriate employment for higher degree humanities graduates. A significant amount of media commentary also rose in response to the generalized attack on the humanities, especially in its higher education form. In addition, the advice industry and academic coaching has bloomed, while many PhDs and ABDs are urged to orient themselves toward #AltAc and #PostAc careers. Congratulations to Hook & Eye’s own Melissa Dalgleish for acting on that advice and succeeding!

There is thus no shortage of band-aid solutions to what we should recognize as a structural problem. It is NOT the fault of the individual PhD or ABD that s/he has not secured a permanent job. It is NOT up to the individual candidate with a #HigherEd degree to prove to industry and other #PostAc venues that s/he has all the skills to perform in a given position and then some. We should recognize and excise the blame-game rhetoric out of our conversations, especially in the malicious reactions to bona fide attempts to open up discussions of this systemic issue.

Instead, we should look for both ways to advocate for the people we train and their invaluable skills. I’m sure when we put our smart, creative, and experienced heads together, we can come up with many reasons why higher education in the humanities is valuable. The question is, how do we propagate our message? Many of us happily shared a variety of articles extolling the virtues of employees majoring in humanities disciplines. Shouldn’t we do more of that work ourselves? In an organized, collaborative way? Dare I dream: in an institutional way?

Shouldn’t we, with our magisterial critical thinking skills, expose the structural issues, and respond with structural solutions? You see, the reason I put up the Chomsky quote up there is that this disciplinary technique works across the entire education system: students are incurring record amounts of debt, while faculties are being defunded and told to fundraise, and departments are being obliterated. The seemingly generalized defunding of higher education has been hitting the humanities and social sciences disproportionately, and many people are doing a tremendous amount of work fighting and responding to those attacks. That work exerts a huge emotional toll, and takes a lot of time and personal resources. People who do put up that fight on behalf of the larger community may become depleted, burnt out, and sometimes bitter for lack of more wide-spread support. The reason for that lack of support is also simple: neoliberalism has inculcated the belief of the possibility of individual exceptionalism–“if I work hard enough, and play by the rules best, I’m sure one of those jobs/grants/positions will be mine! Mine, I tell you! Mine!”–so we keep our heads in our research, or ever growing teaching necessary to make a decent living or a poverty wage
September is the craziest time of the academic year in Canada and the US, and it’s exactly this sensation of being transported at supersonic speed toward a wall of bricks you know you cannot avoid that gave me pause. I know so many academics who teach and practice thinking against the grain. I know so many academics who are dedicated to finding better, more equitable, more ethical ways to live on and share the planet with others. This is important work. So, how do we extract ourselves from the daily grind and from the desperation of our disciplines’ dismal fiscal situations for long enough to begin a conversation about structural solutions that are applicable now?