Being a “Senior Scholar” and Hope

This weekend, I thought a good bit about my buddy Dimitri Nakassis’s post on how to be a better senior scholar. If you haven’t read it, you probably should.

I also read Felix Ringel’s Back to the Postindustrial Future: An Ethnography of Germany’s Fastest-Shrinking City (2018). Ringel’s studies the city of Hoyerswerda which was a model, prefabricated modern city in the former GDR. After reunification, the city’s mining industry — largely based on lignite “brown” coal — experienced a steep decline and its modernist fabric, particularly the large apartment-style housing blocks, fell out of favor with contemporary tastes and policies that encouraged the construction of single family homes. As a result, there was a massive outmigration of residents and the city’s population fell from over 70,000 in 1990 to around 32,000 today. During this time, much of the modernist “Neustadt” with its prefabricated “Wohnkomplex” apartment blocks have been demolished along with schools, social clubs, and other buildings constructed to serve these residents. The resulting “shrinkage” of both the physical fabric of the city and its population, was the focus of Ringel’s ethnographic work. Throughout the book, he considered how the community surrounded by the destruction of its past, conceived of the future. In particular, he offered a contribution to recent interests in the anthropology of hope which straddles the resurgent interest in both temporality and affect across the humanities and social sciences. 

At the risk of treating Ringel’s complex and provocative observations superficially, I wonder about the role of hope and change in our field plays a role in how we think about being a better senior scholar (especially in the “Time of COVID”). After all, academia as we know it, has entered a period of accelerated change. Like prominent residents of city of Hoyerswerda prior to the Die Wende, those of us lucky to have tenure and, as in Prof. Nakassis’s case, achieve the rank of “Professor,” occupy positions that are unlikely to exist in the same way for the next generation especially in the humanities. Even if a precious few of these coveted positions do remain, they’ll occupy a very different landscape. As a result, the very concept of being a senior professor is changing. As a colleague of mine observed, we’re like dinosaurs talking to cavemen (er, cavepeople?). We may appear more powerful, terrible, and significant than the tiny human mammals emerging from graduate programs, applying for precarious academic positions, contributing the “alt-ac” world, or working both within and outside of academia, but, until we come to terms with our own extinction, it will be very difficult for senior scholars to contribute to the future of the humanities in a substantive or meaningful way.

I can offer only the following quick observations, none of which are my own, that maybe contribute to this conversation. To be clear, this isn’t meant to challenge Dimitri’s post at all, but to take it in a slightly different direction as much designed to create room for hope in our profession as to undermine conventional notions of hierarchy, seniority, and authority in our discipline.

Being a graduate student has changed radically over the last two decades and we need to embrace this. While I was in graduate school, I saw most of my work as provisional and the entire experience — with its freedom and its inevitable inconveniences — as being a step toward the ultimate goal of being a faculty member. While I wasn’t so naive to think that I could land a job at a major research university, I was confident enough that some job in academia would be available for me. Once I was ensconced in a formal academic position and on the tenure-track, the work I did in graduate school could pay real dividends by ensuring that I would have publications accepted, get tenure, earn merit raises, and be competitive for grants, fellowships and other resources necessary to advance my work. In other words, what I did in graduate school gave me hope for the future and, in this context, even the biggest jerk of a senior scholar was a potential future colleague. 

Today, our graduate students cannot, outside of downright delusion, have the same hope. The number of tenured positions continues to disappear, jobs that support and reward research are also in decline, and the entire landscape of academia is beset by contingency, precarity, and instability. Even the most well-meaning senior colleague is no longer a future peer, but a benign dinosaur grazing the treetops hoping to survive the approaching asteroid strike with privilege intact. 

Because a human is unlikely to grow up to be a dinosaur one day, we have to first discard the concept of a senior scholar all together. The very concept implies that there is a way to move from being a graduate student to a junior scholar and ultimately a senior scholar, and to my mind this no longer honestly exists (except for a very small number of people). 

It also means that we have to accept that our graduate students (and PhDs with all kinds of precarious, contingent, “alt-ac,” or non-academic positions) are not some kind of failed or baby dinosaur, they’re our peers. 

This has all sorts of social, economic, professional, and even pedagogical implications for academia. It means that they need to be compensated fairly in large part because they do the same basic work that all faculty do: teach and research.

We also need to recognize that being a graduate student is not a training ground for being a professor, but an end in and of itself. There are, of course, trends in this direction with more graduate students publishing more papers than in the past and being more active at professional meetings. We need to accept that these students aren’t interlopers in this space or best shunted off into panels on graduate student research or committees of “early career scholars,” but embraced as part of the field and capable of offering not only carefully reasoned and compelling arguments, but also fresh perspectives unencumbered by the evolutionary detritus of obsolete adaptations. Dinosaurs gonna dinosaur, after all.

I can’t help think that by expanding the range of individuals we recognize as peers, we also will accept a wider range of work as significant. Rather than the slow percolation of new ideas into our field that follow the capillary action of promotion and tenure, we could embrace ways to bring new ideas into our field more quickly by recognizing the potential of graduate students and early career scholars to contribute new perspectives to even the most longstanding debates. After all, for many graduate students, their access to academic resources and, perhaps more importantly, time will steeply decline after graduation. By recognizing them as peers while they are students, we give them the greatest opportunities to contribute to the field. By expanding who we see and understand as peers, we also ensure that the widest number of people continue to have opportunities to contribute to our field even as their lives and careers depart from the traditional trajectory of dinosaur maturation.    

We also need to find ways to adapt our institutions to allow graduate students, alt-acs, independent scholars, and whatever other term we find ourselves using to normalize our own privilege, into academic work. For example, editorial boards of journals need to change as do who we select as peer reviewers. Publishers and editors need to work to encourage a wider range of academic contributors and different forms of contributions to the academic discourse. The responsible development of open access publishing is part of this, of course, but it will involve thinking very carefully about implementing any model of publishing that requires authors to pay. We need to figure out ways to make more resources available to scholars not affiliated with academic institutions. We need to reconsider the criteria for positions such as “post-docs” that imply linear progress through the from doctoral candidate to post-doctoral scholar. In archaeology, this involves finding ways to incorporate graduate students, recent-PhDs, and other “early career” scholars into leadership positions on research projects and in our field. These individuals are no longer waiting their turn, biding their time, gaining experience; there is no future for most of them outside the present. So let’s give them a chance to lead now. 

We also need to embrace opportunities to bring a range of voices into our classrooms.

I recognize that this is a jumbled mass of ideas, but my larger point is that for our field to preserve a sense of hope, we need to abandoned the ways of the dinosaurs and welcome the wide range of mammalian life into our field. This isn’t just a concession to a changing academic landscape, but also the recognition that we as “senior scholars” are lumbering expressions of professional obsolescence whose views, opinions, arguments, and advice are as relevant to the future of the discipline as a triptocertops (or whatever a dinosaur is called) is to a modern dog. The Canis lupus familiaris may not look as impressive as the FULL PROFESSOR T-REX grazing on hapless lesser dinosaurs in footnotes and conferences, but they are the future.

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