Tuesday, April 20, 2004

We happy few



Via Rana, who followed up on a post by wolfangel, there's some discussion on several of the recent First Person columns in the Chronicle. First, to the happy zoologists, best of luck. Apparently, this duo found jobs in the same general field their first year out and at the same institution! Woohoo!

But seriously. it's nice they found jobs, but I have to agree with most of the comments. They were extraordinarily lucky, and it's hugely annoying that they seem not to realize just how exceptional their circumstances are.

We received a wide range of e-mail responses to our first two essays about our job search. Some readers were encouraging, but the truth is, most were condescending and caustic. Some readers, put off by our optimism, seemed almost eager to see us fail. Such metaphorical face-slapping was eerily reminiscent of our experience applying jointly to graduate schools, when we were told by certain faculty members that our chances of both getting accepted to a doctoral program in the same department were slim to none.
To all of those skeptics, we say: Call us lucky. Call us charmed. Call us assistant professors.

This from a person who claimed:
The only bleak moment came when I was informed that other candidates were being interviewed for the position I had applied for. My spirits were crushed, but only briefly.

Perhaps the fact that people were caustic, condescending, and metaphorically slapping them in the faces was because most of us actually realize that competition is tough. Generally very tough. It turns out that ABD wife was happy to take any of several positions for which she was qualified. How often does that happen? Don't get me wrong -- if this couple are happy, then I'm ecstatic for them. My irritation isn't out of misplaced envy -- I'm always happy to hear that someone got a job, unless they're completely useless. I correspond regularly with colleagues against whom I have competed and may compete again in future -- we congratulate and commiserate with each other as appropriate. What gets me is that these folks are so seemingly clueless about the entire process, and are nevertheless so damned smug. Meanwhile, the Invisible Adjunct has left the profession.

Speaking of adjuncts, my own point of outrage in the last Chronicle comes from the latest Jill Carroll column. It's not that her advice on joining unions is wrong per se, it's just that it's not right.
Why am I not certain? Because I would have to assess whether a union would hurt my situation. Possible employer retaliation is always a concern when dealing with unionization. The labor movement in this country is replete with stories of employers who simply opt to hire nonunion employees when they feel their arms twisted by unions. While a university probably wouldn't or couldn't just immediately fire all of its unionized adjuncts, it might eventually phase them out and replace them with nonunion adjuncts.

Well, duh. That's always the argument against organized labor, though. I work on a union campus, which has its own special atmosphere. All one union, yet the adjuncts treat the full-timers as enemies. Still, when I mentioned a strike once, everybody else said, "Oh, no -- we can't do that, it's against the law." The reality is, if you aren't under contract, you aren't on strike. Adjuncts could make a point (at least here) by refusing to sign contracts. The adjuncts wouldn't be fired -- but there would probably be plenty of people to take their places, unless the union were at least state-wide. Isn't it funny that grad students who are TAs can strike, yet MA and PhD adjuncts can't?

At any rate, Carroll walks a fine line between defending the rights and reputations of adjuncts and their qualifications and bending over for the institutional Man, promoting the idea that adjuncts can be happy and productive with their lot, if they just shift their expectations or work a bit harder. Adjuncts should be happy that they have metaphorical shoes, because there are a lot of PhDs who go around barefoot. While it's a good thing that she's carved out a niche that she's comfortable with, it cannot justify a system that is so patently unjust and which, in the long run, really will damage higher education as a whole. What Carroll's attitude demonstrates most clearly is that a large number of academics are no better off than Wal-Mart workers when it comes to job security fear as a motivating factor. What is sadder to me is that the Wal-Mart workers seem more able to make their own circumstances known, while we academics, with all of our skills, generally bury our heads in the sand.

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