Friday, November 28, 2014

Job Security and Lack Thereof

To me it seems that we often ignore solutions to institutional indifference or hostility that involve breaking away rather than moving in.

If I am already a playing member of some institution--dea
con in a church, shareholder in a business, official in a government, tenured faculty in a university--then it makes sense to push for reform, as an insider, where I see it as useful or helpful ("the right thing to do"). I can campaign from a position of relative strength as an insider, using social and political capital that I already have to fix problems I see. As an outsider, I don't have that capital, the capital for reform. I cannot make a meaningful dent on insider culture, really, except insofar as I avoid participating in it where I find it obnoxious.

If I am a shareholder in a business, then I have a meaningful voice when it comes to decisions that business makes. If I am not, if I am merely one of several million faceless consumers (passive beneficiaries of business I don't make), then my most meaningful decision is often simply to take my investment elsewhere. If I were tenured faculty, then my outlook on academic culture would be different than it is. I would advocate more for political solutions involving existing powers. As matters stand, my advice is that nobody should bet too much on the success of an academic career (with "too much" loosely defined as "debt sufficient to procure a middle-class life like that of my parents, who owned homes and had pensions and vacations and whatnot"). I am open to publishing work in alternative venues (e.g. using Amazon to self-publish rather than submitting to journals or academic presses). I am open to distance learning, with or without the umbrella of institutional support. I am open to the reality that many of us do many different things over the course of variegated lives: there is no such thing, not even in my relatively small coterie of academic friends, as "the academic lifestyle" or even "the academic career" that moves predictably from grad school to tenure. If a student asks me about making a career in academia, you had better believe I will mention all of this stuff. I will mention that it is wise to have back-up plans, and a working partner, and reasonable expectations of the rewards available. It does not make sense to care more for institutions than they can care for you. Feel free to make professional inroads into business outside the tenure track, for strait is that gate, and narrow the way, and few there be that find it.

My own situation is not wholly without hope, though I appear to be headed down an employment rabbit-hole that swallows some people whole (adjuncting as a career).  I am hoping that having really low expectations and being frugal will help us as we come closer to death of natural causes. I really like the tiny house movement, myself, and will never have a mortgage if I can help it. Maybe we can move into a shed or an RV (or a yurt!) when the kids grow up and move out. We definitely won't be paying their college tuition, if they go to college (which I am not going to push as a necessity, not least because there is no way in hell we could afford it).

Healthcare is a problem that persists, thanks in large part to the really stupid system we Americans have jerry-rigged in which the only way to see a doctor is to pay some bureaucrat (with a private or public company of dubious value to anybody except career bureaucrats). But for now my wife has benefits, even if I don't, and we are young enough to aim for good health as a long-term option. I suppose I may have to invoke sudden death if I get a really nasty disease that nobody can pay to cure--but honestly, those diseases are often death sentences even with the best care that money can buy. My great-grandfather fell on a pitchfork (the blunt end, not the tines) while working in a barn-loft. He spent a few weeks in agony, and then was dead. He was not even 30 years old. Life happens. Sometimes all we get to do is clean up the mess, bury the dead, mourn, and move on. It isn't Obama's fault (or Boehner's).

Cars are an expensive nuisance, as are computers, but so far we have been fortunate with used machines and good deals. I think there is hope that we may make it all the way to death without needing more than a serviceable jalopy and a few relatively cheap machines that are not phones that can handle word-processing and other activities our employers require. Beyond that, all we need are clothes and food--and time to spend together.

At some point, which I seem to reach sooner than many, I would rather forgo extra income and spend another hour with my family. I know that my academic employers do not value me as a human being: I don't expect them to do so. They have a need for services that I happen to be able to provide, for the moment--impersonal services that they can afford to hire for a relatively small sum. I know that they care more about the services than about me. That is the way of institutions, which necessarily value data over anecdotes, process over people. Seeing this truth as I do, I make a point of limiting my exposure to the institution. I want a relatively low ceiling on the amount of distress that the university is capable of causing in my life. When the dean hauls me into her office, swears at me, and tells me that I am a loser who should go fuck himself and die, I would prefer to smile, tear up my performance review, and walk out--rather than sweat and weep and wail and gnash my teeth. It is easier to be impervious to ill fortune that we expect, I think--so I make a point of expecting indifference and occasional hostility from the university, seeing that it often rewards my colleagues with such things (and I am not magically different or special or superhuman).

My family care about me as the university does not and cannot, even if it were to offer me tenure. I would be willing to care more about its future, and so its institutional decisions in the present, if I had a real stake in them (such as the prospect of tenure would raise), but even then I would not love it as my family. And I would not expect it to love me this way. As an adjunct, my principal loyalty is to students, and to the integrity of my work (as a teacher and a really independent scholar, free to read and write and publish what I want on my own schedule, without giving a damn for whatever intellectual fad is currently hot with tenured faculty whose collective attitude towards me is largely one of indifference or disgust). I value those professional people I know personally--the friends I have made at work--and I endeavor to be worth something to them as another human being, no matter where they may be professionally. I like many academics, including some with tenure, and naturally I hope that they like me back. But this is hardly the same thing as liking the university. I like teaching, if you want to know the truth, and thinking and writing, so for the present I put up with the university. I don't really like it, and I know better than to expect it to like me.

In brief, when buying something really expensive (a house, professional training that lasts a decade or costs decades of work to pay off), consider the worst-case scenario rather than the best. If the worst is more than you can bear, then don't buy it (no matter how nice the best looks). I would advise the aspiring grad student to look elsewhere if she cannot bear vows of material poverty and intellectual humiliation--for such is the lot of many academics (probably all of them, at one time or another).

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Hope and Change

I do not have hope that the oligarchs who run Washington will decide to burn bridges with their masters on Wall Street--to save me, or people like me (small statistics who don't matter, until we become part of a large mob demanding Coke or Pepsi).

I do not have hope that it makes a great difference whether the oligarchs identify as Democrat or Republican.

I do not believe that America is the hope of the world.  (If it is, then I suspect that is at least as much a curse as a blessing.  We might legitimately hope to kill or bankrupt the world, given our past, but how can we hope to replace its hopes with our own?  How is this not the worst kind of arrogance, even supposing--as some do not--that we are in some sense envied by the entire world?)

I do have hope that individual people can make a positive difference in the communities where they reside.  I believe in doing good that we can see and respect, among people we know (or might know--as people rather than "constituents" or "customers").  I believe in the community I reside in.  I believe in my neighbors, my friends, my family.  I might even believe in local politicians.  But that is the limit of my belief.  I cannot believe in what I cannot know (America), in ideals pretending to serve a population or populations so vast that they become incoherent to the point of being practically meaningless.  "We the People" of the USA are 300 million souls, give or take, scattered over a geography and ecology (political, economic, religious, social) so vast and diverse as to be utterly incapable of sharing much besides ignorance and hostility--in my considered judgement (that anyone is welcome to question, to dispute, to reject, etc.).

Too often, when stewardship of others is invoked--by Left or Right--it is in a context of somebody else doing something for me, in my place, without my having to lift a finger or take any responsibility.  I am asked to punish people I never met, to give money to people I never met, to hope against hope that people who don't know me from Adam know better than I how to reward and punish.  I am supposed to cede moral agency to "representatives" who act in my name, waging war and granting charity for reasons I am never supposed to learn.  All I am required to do is listen attentively to the latest commercials, put my hand on my heart when the music plays, and burst into tears as I affirm with emotional conviction that Coke or Pepsi, Democrats or Republicans, is certain to save the world.  I find this vision of my activity as a citizen of a free republic rather confining--since I have no love for Coke or Pepsi, no private inclination to prefer either as I make my diet of water, coffee, tea, and milk.  It would be easy to brand me as somebody with no hope--a desperate cynic with no commitment to the ideals that made this country great, blah blah--but what does this really mean?  I was born in the United States.  I have lived the greater part of my life here.  I pay taxes.  I even vote--though I confess my motivation is not hope for change that my sober judgement views as impossible.  I work (for money when I can, for the comfort and security of those I care about when monetary employment is lacking).  I observe the laws as carefully and conscientiously as I can.  I am polite.

I don't expect people to live like me, to like me, to "join my cause" and make it into the kind of nationwide farce that is Coke, Pepsi, the Democratic Party, or the GOP.  Whatever hope I have for humanity existing in relative peace comes from my trust that individuals like me tend to love their family and friends, and the community around them--without losing sight of the reality that this love is fragile and historically inclined to become hateful (when the interests of my family bring me into conflict with yours).  I can give you space to make a family that is not mine, but I cannot bear it when we must all become part of the same gigantic, dysfunctional family.  "One nation" of 300 million people is a disaster, from my perspective, when we must all have the same moral values--the same diet, the same healthcare, the same marriages, the same education, the same careers, the same uncritical devotion to factional politics that makes us pawns.