Games Universities Play



Many of my friends on social media are writers and academics, so it’s no surprise that my feed is full of stories about the University of Akron Press closure. Others are writing in more detail about this latest decision on the part of university administrators to cut funding for the arts—in this case, a press that has published a lot of very fine poetry over the years. The three people who were employed by the press will lose their jobs, and the many poets and readers who depended on the work done at this well-respected press will be, simply, out of luck.

I cannot muster the energy to be outraged, to be angry. I have been watching higher education lose its way for 25 years. I have been personally ground down by the shift in higher education to the use of contingent faculty, gradually losing my sense of self-worth as I was paid from 1/5 all the way up to 2/3 of what tenure track faculty members in my field were paid.

No, I never thought I would get rich being a poet. In fact, I dropped out of law school—giving up a full scholarship that included even textbooks—to be a poet. I knew the choices I was making. In part, I dropped out because one of my law professors said to me, “The law isn’t a job. If you’re going to do this 60-80 hours per week, you should love it.” I didn’t love it. I loved poetry, which I knew would not pay me enough to live on. And then I discovered another love: teaching. That’s when I mustered the courage to drop out. Likely no one but me would ever care about my poetry, but teaching was a useful skill.

Until it wasn’t. Or at least, teaching—particularly in the humanities, though spreading to all disciplines now—became a skill that American society decided was not valuable. It felt as though, because more and more of us coming up through graduate school actually loved teaching, Someone Higher Up decided it must not truly be “labor.” It felt as though Someone actually said, “You know, these schmucks are stupid enough that they will teach for a pittance, and they’ll still feel lucky to have a ‘job’ in higher education.” It felt as though the very humanity we cultivated through reading, writing, and guiding other minds towards their own insights was used against us. We cared more about people than numbers, more about intellectual growth than economic growth. And because of that, we were seen as rubes, and treated that way.

That attitude is not, of course, new in American culture. America has long loved its robber-barons, has bought into the myth of meritocracy that chides the poor for being poor in a “land of opportunity.” What is new is this part: that higher education would reflect this attitude so transparently in its economic choices.

Universities used to be places where the geeks who actually cared about learning belonged. Even research universities privileged the acquisition of knowledge and understanding over whatever “practical” uses such knowledge might be put to. Sure, a philosophy professor’s clothes might be shabbier than a business professor’s—but they’d both be professors, not “adjuncts,” not “instructors.”

I keep dreaming of an organization that pays intellectuals fairly for their work, that provides them with time and freedom to think and learn and research and write. In this organization, a person could choose the number of hours to do paid work, and the pay would be at the same rate per hour, with benefits. So someone who wanted to work 40 hours a week could make that choice; someone who wanted to work 20 hours a week could also make that choice, and earn half as much, rather than some fraction far down the scale. People could choose projects to work on, teaming up with others who had complementary skills. Young people could work with mentors, learning and contributing their unique perspectives to the projects. Perhaps the culmination of a project might be a book (print/digital/multimedia–they’re all books), or a group of books, that brought the information to the attention of other intellectuals and the population at large. In my dream organization, some of those books would be aimed at “regular” people, people who wouldn’t need a specialized vocabulary to understand the ideas. Some of those books would make connections between seemingly esoteric ideas and people’s real lives. Some of those books would influence public thought and policy, furthering equality and environmental stewardship and, yes, even personal happiness, peace, and fulfillment. book-2869_1280

I used to think this kind of organization was called a university. I think now I might call it a think tank. I want to start one—a liberal think tank, as you might guess, of which there are considerably fewer than conservative think tanks. But even if I were to succeed in this dream, I would still miss the idea of a publicly-funded think tank, a place where both liberals and conservatives were welcome, where the people doing the work knew they were using the people’s money and therefore obligated, to some extent, to the public good.

If we can’t have universities doing that good work anymore, however, I guess I’m calling for a revolution. Intellectuals, artists, thinkers, idealists—don’t base your self-worth on what established institutions want to pay you. We need to create and sustain our own communities, structures, and organizations. We need to reclaim the belief that what we do—poetry and philosophy and history and sociology and music and sculpture—matters. It’s the 21st century, and it’s always time for a step forward in the evolution of understanding.



12 replies »

  1. Mmhmmmm. I will say, the school that I teach at (in India) gives me plenty of time and freedom to work. The pay is not much by American standards, but it puts me in the upper middle class in India. The students are very interesting (and bring unique challenges that prevent me from sliding into a comfortable set of pedagogical assumptions).

    Maybe the future of Humanties scholars lies, in part, outside of the West? As you seem to imply, it looks like the future of Humanities workers in the US lies outside of the University. Even the tenured track faculty members’ days appear more and more numbered. If on the other hand, we can find a way to support ourselves outside of the university, we will have snatched a very big and potentially liberating victory out of the jaws of defeat though.

    Teaching at a university involves a LOT of busy work that isn’t directly related to either writing or teaching. Despite the fact that universities now house giant bodies of administrators and pay them enormously outsized pay packages, professors end up having to shoulder a big administrative burden. This is a double-edged sword (shared governance is an EXTREMELY important reality at the university). However, what could scholars achieve if they didn’t have to constantly goal tend against an administrative class that has very very different priorities, and a completely different understanding of the function and purpose of higher ed?

    • Very smart and thoughtful comment, Jimmy. Yes, I think we need to truly start thinking of ourselves as part of a global culture. And it’s also very interesting that many countries & cultures outside the U.S. do value teaching and teachers. I also believe that my complaints about the university are linked to bigger issues in American society, especially the concentration of wealth at the very top and the shrinking of the middle class. Everyone feels anxious about being able to support themselves, and yet many of the people who would benefit from a program like the New Deal are violently against the very policies that would help them. Where’s our FDR? Wouldn’t that be better than revolution?

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