Exploitation

Phil Ford

I’m in a sour mood. I’ve been in serious pain from my leg (no idea what it is, trying to find out) and it’s getting me down. So I’m going to whinge about academic employment. Not *my* academic employment, mind you: I have nothing (aside from my leg) to complain about. I am (a) massively lucky to have a job teaching music history at all, given the long odds against academic employment and the seriously long odds of academic employment in a field as small and marginal as musicology, and (b) inconceivably lucky to have gotten one at a place like IU. I am confronted with just how lucky I am every time I talk to a friend who has gotten a job at an exploitative college where the administration strip-mines the talent and energy of its grossly underpaid faculty, knowing that if Struggling Young Ph.D. no. 1 gets burned out, they can just bring in Struggling Young Ph.D. no. 2, or 3, or 4, or 5, or 6 . . . . hell, bring in a whole busload of un(der)employed Ph.D.’s, any of whom will be grateful for their new exploitative job, who will think that this is their big chance, who even now, as I write this, will be excitedly telling Moms/Dads/spouses/buddies can you believe it, I got a job! It’s a big teaching load, I know, but I’m gonna make it! That’s nice, says Administration. You go ahead and think that. Innocent youthful exuberance will keep them going a good long time. And when youthful exuberance turns to resentment, then rage, then a job in the service industry, no problem — bring in the next sucker valued young scholar.

Aside from a certain bit of wonderful news, Terminaldegree has been an increasingly depressing read this year, as the sheer in-the-bone weariness has settled in from teaching a 4/4 load and doing administrative work and student hand-holding, all in service of a college that is cynically counting on the endless massed ranks of young docs to create the pressure necessary to pull stunts like this one. And doubtless telling the parents and alums that the Heritage of Tradition continues on its noble path with the work of fine young musicians like Terminal.

Those of you who are thinking about applying for graduate school in musicology might want to think about this.

And what makes this so infuriating to me is that the scholar’s vocation is (sorry to sound so maudlin about it) the highest sort of calling. The university is, or should be, exactly what the college public-relations flacks say it is—a great and noble institution held in trust between teachers and students, between one generation of scholars and the next. Thank god there are institutions that are actually like this, like my own, for example. But being employed at a place like IU, which treats scholars like scholars and not like chattel, gives one something like survivor’s guilt. Why was I lucky and not my friend?

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Exploitation

  1. Aiko says:

    Odd perhaps, but I’m glad to hear you say this. I’m a musicology student who has felt guilty in the past because I have absolutely no intention of pursuing a job in academia after I graduate. The degree is purely for my own enjoyment and the invaluable teaching experience that goes along with my TA position. It’s good to know that my instincts were correct on this one…

  2. Bob says:

    Hey Phil, I was pretty disturbed by the testimony from Terminaldegree. I’m fighting my natural tendency to wax universal: what practically should be done, short-term and long-term, to address and redress the problem? There’s a group called the Coalition on the Academic Workforce that is talking about these kinds of problems, which are happening across the spectrum of the humanities. I think it would be helpful to say no to this kind of thing in a strategic way. I’d be interested in identifying the best means to divert the stream, which (sadly) appears to be coursing the entirely wrong direction, if your posting is any indication.

  3. Navel Gazer says:

    My sympathies about the leg! I have a back problem right now, but I do know what’s causing it (third trimester).
    One of the jobs I interviewed for this year was a 4/4 load, with 4-5 preps a year, no research requirements (it’s not a TT position), small class sizes and no service requirements. It’s not my choice for the long term, but for the short term (see third trimester) it’s pretty good. The faculty and deans were very, very clear about how much work it would be, how they were careful to keep the preps low, and how I should think of it as a step to a research job. In my head, I kept on thinking about all my friends (some ABD) with 4/4 loads, plus ensembles, plus advising, with 7-8 preps a year. It’s dire out there. (University-wide classes are capped at 20 or 25 which definitely brought TerminalDegree to mind.)
    I’m glad you mentioned prospective graduate students. Once I started looking for jobs, I was often surprised when someone recommended musicology graduate school to a student. There was so little mention of student loans, employment prospects, and quality of life.

  4. Phil Ford says:

    The thing is, there *are* colleges that demand a heavy teaching load and are totally cool about it. They say, in effect, this is a teaching job, we won’t tenure you on the basis of research, and there it is. That’s a perfectly decent kind of job, and an honorable scholarly life. (It was my Dad’s life.) What steams me are jobs where the administration has it both ways, demanding heavy teaching and heavy everything else, or when they keep piling on more and more work without pay — raising the class enrollment caps, for example. (This rips students off, too.) I have a friend who teaches in the Cal State system who is perfectly happy with his 4/4 job, because (a) he likes being solely a teacher just fine, and (b) his department doesn’t exploit him.
    I will say, though, that I would take the stepping-stone argument with a big grain of salt. A job with a heavy teaching load may be a fine job on its own terms, but it can be quicksand: once you’re in, you can’t leave. If you don’t have time to keep doing scholarship, you won’t have anything to show the research-oriented schools you might want to apply for in a couple of years. I know a couple of people who have made the transition from one kind of institution to another, but it’s hard, and all the harder once you have kids.

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