Micro-Utopias and Training PhDs in a Time of Precarity

My colleague Catherine Frieman broke her Twitter sabbatical to recommend a recent article by Yves Rees & Ben Huf called “Training historians in urgent times” in History Australia (2020). The article is really good and if you only have time for so much reading today, do go and read the article rather than my blog post!

The authors provide a fairly standard interpretation of contemporary professional training for scholars in the humanities and the diminishing career opportunities facing new PhDs on the current job market. They offer a useful historical paradigm for understanding current trends over time. If PhD training early on produced “PhD as hero of knowledge” which gave way in the 1950s to a more professionalized vision of the degree, “PhD as expert,” contemporary practices tends to see “PhD as human capital.” This is nowhere more apparent than recent calls to diversify PhD training in the humanities to ensure that students have a wider range of skills appealing to a wider range of employers. In this scenario, the graduate student and degree holder are less distinctive, heroic practitioners of the discipline or experts in both methods and content, and more bundles of transferable skills primed to be monetized by the individual and adapted to existing and future workforce needs.

Of course, It is hard to deny the power of this reading of contemporary graduate training. The harsh realities of the academic job market permeate almost all discussions of PhD training in the humanities with coursework, dissertation topics, dissertation committee arrangements, and pre-degree fieldwork, publishing, and presenting all draw into the powerful gravity of job market preparation. Indeed, these pressures have alternately reinforced the older concept of the PhD as expert in distinctly relevant method and content and subverted this emphasis, by stressing the role of professional relationships and networking in successfully navigating the early career job market (and securing letters of recommendation and invitations to fieldwork projects, academic conferences, and edited publications through which one’s career might advance). If the PhD as expert supported the professionalization of our disciplines, the PhD as human capital has shed light on the limits of this professionalization as professional opportunities become so scarce as to approach randomness and careers increasingly divergent from core aspect of our training. If we’ve learned anything from the COVID situation, it’s that expertise is no longer enough (if it ever was in the past) and who you know remains more important than what you know. In short, academic training is at a crossroads (and this is something that I’ve blogged about before).

Rees and Huf cannot solve these problems, of course, but they do think it is important for historians to recognize that pivoting professional training to adapt to the current economic situation runs the risk of complicity with a regime that in no way supports the larger goals of our discipline. More than that, it risks blunting the potential of history (and the broader humanities) in making an impact on the problems in the contemporary world. And, even more than that, the current PhD-as-human-capital represents a profoundly dehumanizing turn which has real consequences for students who often pursue graduate education not in a quest for a marketable bundle of skills but to advance human knowledge and telling stories that matter.

They system cannot be changed, of course; at least, not all at once and not from within, but there are opportunities for resistance. Rees and Huff recommend, then, creating micro-utopias that suspend — even just for a moment — the pernicious reach of precarity and professional pressures, pecking orders, and procedures. As examples, they suggest cooperative workshops and reading groups, various Open and Free universities which bring together members of the public and academics to engage seriously with a work outside of the typical university setting with its implicit and explicit hierarchies and expectation, and the construction of interdisciplinary spaces where individuals bring different perspectives to pressing problems. The proposed approaches centered around four principles: inclusivity, collegiality, public mindedness, and interdisciplinarity. 

I’d add that their various examples also demonstrated an ambivalence toward the traditional academic hierarchy and models of knowledge making that emphasize credit and deliverables (as so many grants and programs require). In short, the micro-utopias proposed by Rees and Huf shift the emphasis from what a program or project accomplishes and redirects it toward what is happening. 

This to me is a very compelling proposition not only because it resists the temptation to advocate for the complete dismantling of the existing approach to PhD training (however deserved such a dismantling would be) and instead proposes that we make space that not only recognizes the human toll of precarity and professionalization, but also works at the human-scale to subvert it.

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.

Remembering Joel Jonientz

This time of year my thoughts always turn to my late friend Joel Jonientz and his family. He passed away 6 years ago this week. This is the fifth installment (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, I seem to have missed 2019).

On a long walk with the dogs, I thought back to our time together at UND and felt a sense of deep nostalgia. If we’ve learned anything from our current politics, it’s that nostalgia can be pretty toxic. It erodes a faith in progress and often leaves us longing for a past that often exists without consequences. 

At the same time, as a historian, I often find that nostalgia guides me toward formative times in my own life. While I try not to dwell too much on my own experiences, following my sense of nostalgia pushes me to think more critically about how my own memories transform, occlude, or emphasize the larger experience of the community. My recent interest in the archaeology of the suburbs, digital technology, and early 21st century material culture has roots in my own past. I try to remind myself that this past has and had consequences both for myself and for the wider world.

Reflecting with nostalgia on Joel’s time at UND evoke warm memories: sitting in Paul Worley’s backyard smoking some kind of meets, watching Seahawks games with Joel’s family in his crowded TV room, scheming with Tim Pasch, Crystal Alberts, Paul, and Joel to showcase our digital work at public events, and organizing the punk archaeology conference with Mike Wittgraf, Aaron Barth, and Tim. These were good times personally and professionally. They not only gave me a taste of the heady intellectual freedom of tenure, but also introduced me to the potential of small, college town collegiality. 

These memories have nudged me to think about the history of the institution in the 21st century. To be clear, I don’t mean to reduce Joel’s identity, somehow, to just his institutional affiliation or his work at UND. He was a family man, a good friend, and had hobbies, interests, hopes, and dreams that went well beyond his job. 

At the same time, our shared experiences at UND entangle my nostalgic recollections. I’ve sometimes wondered whether the early 21st century at UND was a special time at the institution. This is not to suggest that it wasn’t as fraught with politics, challenges, and disappointments as any other time. Instead, what I remember is that the period from 2004-2015 or so, was that campus had the feeling of hope. This has since been lost.

When I think about UND in the first decade and a half of the 21st century, I think about the paradox that during the “Great Recession,” my corner of UND — the arts and the humanities — continued to experience growth. There was a saying that North Dakota was “insulated and not isolated” for the economic issues facing most of the country. More than that: the Bakken oil boom gave the state a sense a hope and even the idea that there might a future. 

As someone in the humanities, I remember musing about how the Gulf States recognized that their oil wealth could be invested in higher education and cultural institutions despite the conservative character of their political culture, the austerity of their environment, and the history of colonialism and marginalization. Maybe North Dakota would follow suit?

After all, the university supported our Working Group in Digital and New Media (from the archive: report 1, report 2, and report 4), a new “Arts and Culture” conference that was a fall pendant to the thriving UND Writers Conference, had expanded the reach of UND Arts Collections, encouraged the development of the IPPL, and supported new hires in History, English, and the Arts. This support was paying dividends too with UND faculty and students pushing to collaborate, produce new art, and develop new long term projects. It’s hardly surprising that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota emerged from this period. It was the product of this optimism. 

Of course, I realize that not everything was rosy. My colleagues in the communications program at UND who contributed so much to the creativity and vitality of UND in the 21st century watched their department disappear and had to find new homes at UND, create a new program, and navigate a complicated political landscape. Other programs, of course, showed signs of strain as well as ambitious new faculty members clashed with long-serving colleagues. New faculty, especially those hired during the Great Recession, often brought with them different expectations cultivated in top tier graduate programs than an older generation of faculty leaders. The shuffle to accommodate a wider range of outlooks in campus culture invariably left damaged feelings on both sides.

The steady hemorrhaging of talented early-career faculty was the most obvious manifestation of the tensions on campus. At the same time, it served as a kind of endorsement for the culture UND produced. That early-career faculty could come to UND and continue to be productive, creative, and ambitious suggests that something positive was happening on our campus, even if the outcome, in the end, was for these folks to leave.

At the level of upper administration, the long-standing controversy over UND’s Fighting Sioux logo came to a head with the NCAA and while it was eventually resolved, the financial, political, and emotional costs were steep. At the same time, UND athletics transitioned to Division I suggesting that despite the rifts caused by the logo controversy, there was optimism. 

The revolving door of deans, provosts, and even presidents, likewise offers a two-edged sword. The lack of stability in the administration made it challenging to plan things that required substantial administrative support. In fact, we attempted on several occasions to develop a digital humanities program, but these all foundered at the administrative level. At the same time, the lack of strong positive direction created space for faculty to maneuver and develop their own ways of collaborating, setting goals, and advancing agendas. While this may have left the university a mishmash of irregular and often incompatible curricula, research projects, and programs, the semi-benign neglect of the early 21st century also has created a strong spirit of independence among faculty. 

On a “Zoom call” last night with a group of UND faculty and members of the post-Jonientz diaspora, we joked about an oral history of UND in the 21st century. This is certainly a tempting project. Whether our reflections on this period would end up being idle nostalgia or something more substantive and revealing, is hard to know.

Five Thoughts from the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting

I spent two hectic days in Washington, DC on the weekend attending the AIA/SCS annual meeting. I try to go every other year and despite my griping about having to attend and my general feeling of being an impostor, I still very much view it as “my annual meeting.” In other words, the AIA feels like my disciplinary and institutional home.

 I attended a handful of panels at this years meeting and mostly knew what was going on (which was pretty good for me) and on uneventful flights home, I had six thoughts.

1. Legacy Data. I gave a paper in a panel on legacy data organized by Jon Frey and Fotini Kondyli. To my great surprise, the room was packed with an engaged and enthusiastic audience. The papers walked the intriguing line between the practical and the conceptual demonstrating not only the pressing need to discuss the challenging realities associated with working on legacy data and the potential for work on legacy data to inform the larger methodological and theoretical framework of archaeology. 

I left the panel realizing that most of the challenges that archaeologists encounter when dealing with legacy data are conceptually consistent with the challenges that archaeologists encounter in the field. They involve issues of context, classification, documentation, workflow, and historical and historiographical analysis. Perhaps this is why the panel attracted so much interest. You can read my paper here.

2. The Future of Publishing in the Humanities. I also attended a roundtable discussion on the future of publishing in the humanities with representatives of two presses, a pair of librarians, and a couple hybrid scholars who work between publishing, scholarship, and information science. 

Three things emerged from that discussion. First, the monolithic notion of “publishing a book” or “publishing an article,” belies a very diverse range of processes, possibilities, and publishers who range from very conventional academic presses to smaller “scholar-led” operations. Moreover, even among these groups, there are a range of different approaches and priorities for an author to consider. Second, a significant part of this diversity comes from the challenge of digital practices in both knowledge making and in its dissemination. Libraries, scholars, and publishers are all working hard to figure out how to distribute books across digital channels, preserve digital data, and support opportunities for scholars working not just on the bleeding edge of their fields, but close to the center of our hybrid analog-digital scholars practice. 

Finally, open access is coming and we don’t really understand how it will impact the landscape of scholarly publishing yet. My impression is that most presses do not have sustainable models for open access publishing and they don’t necessarily have models for the large scale dissemination of open access books, data sets, and content. The big change across the entire landscape of academic publishing is still on the horizon.

Here’s what I had planned to say in this panel

3. Survey Archaeology. About 10 years ago, I was up to my eyeballs in articles and papers on the analysis of survey data and, in particular, discussions of survey method. The methodological consequences of “third wave” siteless survey had outstripped, to some extent, our interpretative paradigms for understanding the data that we had produced in historically significant ways. It felt like survey archaeology might be at an impasse. Our desperate need to convince excavators that our work was rigorous, thoughtful, and sophisticated, had pushed us to develop the methodological context for our practices to the detriment of analysis.

This past meeting, it feels like that stage in survey archaeology has finally passed. None of the papers that discussed survey included an apologia nor did they drag the audience through a kind of pseudo-apologetic methodological digression designed to reassure the listen that this wasn’t just a bunch of students picking up random pottery in the countryside. Instead, the papers focused on the potential for survey to inform current debates concerning Romanization, rural land use, connectivity between places, and even seasonal patterns and taskscapes in countryside. Survey archaeology felt very grown up. 

4. Archaeology for the General Reader. This was an 8 am round table of very distinguished scholars who discuss their experiences writing for a general audience and receiving funding from an NEH Public Scholar Program Grant. The participants on the panel were gracious and open about their writing processes and their achievements. They did not waste time arguing for the value of this kind of work. 

At the same time, I struggled to understand how they envisioned a “general reader.” Over the course of the panel I began to realize that the general reader was not really a person, but rather a proxy useful to describe a work that could be marketed to a wide audience. The general reader is actually some who can and will buy these books. In fact, the model for most of the books seemed unapologetically commercial with their emphasis on characters, action, and authority. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not disputing necessarily the viability and even importance of this model of writing and publishing, but it causes me worries. First, it equates the general reader as a book buyer rather than a content consumer, and this seems out of step with the diverse ways in which most of us consumer knowledge across a wide range of media in our daily lives.

Second, this panel assumes that the general reader exists rather than is created by the way in which we market, structure, and distribute our works. While so much important scholarship today is focused on recognizing, creating, and elevating diversity in both the past and the present, this panel seemed to imagine its audience as somehow monolithic. As writers for a non-academic audiences, I was expecting a greater sensitivity toward the kinds of audiences that their works sought to reach and how their writing responded to the needs of groups or sought to produce new communities of readers.   

Most painfully for me was the dismissive attitude toward significant emerging forms of writing like creative non-fiction that seek to challenge how non-fiction works in crucial ways. Creative-non-fiction can encourage the reader to question the authority of the text, can open up new and important spaces to critique how knowledge is made, and push readers out of their emotional and intellectual comfort zones. Even if we limit our view of significant public scholarship to works that have engaged a broad audience, it is impossible to deny the impact of works like Natalie Zemon Davis’s Return of Martin Martin Guerre (1983), Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), and Roxanne Gay’s Hunger (2017) (not to mention Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Undocmented (2016)). That the NEH Public Scholars Program was uninterested in publishing this kind of work seems more than just a missed opportunity. It appears to have conflated the existence of a general reader with the ability of compelling works both to speak to and create  communities. 

To be clear, I have no beef with the authors on the panel and their works —many of which I have read—are both good and, in the right light, compelling, but there is so much more to writing to a broad audiences than this panel presented.  

5. The Value of Conferences. As per usual there was discussion about the value of meetings like the AIA/SCS conference. It was great to see graduate students presenting their work — sometimes for the first time, to engage with mid-career scholars writing at the edge of their comfort zones to a supportive and critical audience, and to celebrate with the community the work and wisdom of senior scholars. It was also nice to see old friends and to meet folks from social media for the first time, face-to-face. I made plans with colleagues and discussed professional opportunities and challenges. 

At the same time, attending the conference was expensive and exhausting. As a scholar at a relatively poorly funded mid- to lower-tier university, it also felt decadent and there was the palpable sense from quite a number of attendees that these kinds of events were unwise and inefficient in the current culture of austerity. If nothing else the optics of events like these were not good because they not only made clear the racial, gender, and class inequalities at the core of our disciplines, but also created a venue for any number of cringe-worthy displays of public and professional power which seems increasingly Byzantine as our fields of study fight for survival in the changing landscape of higher education. I don’t really have an answer for whether the good that comes from these kinds of conferences continues to outweigh the bad, and I obviously realize that this kind of annual event is likely to continue into the future long after it has outlived its usefulness. I think, however, that attending the conference every couple years does push us to reflect on their continued value to our fields.

Finally, there’s this amazing advertisement from the SCS program. I spent a good bit of time admiring book covers in the exhibition hall, but none have created the buzz of this advertisement:

2020SCSProgram 2 3 pdf 2020 01 06 08 23 55

The text on features a quote from Edith Hall: “I’ve never been asked by a reputable journal [TLS] to review such a bad book as Jeffrey Duban’s The Lesbian Lyre.” 

I’ve always considered Edith Hall, the Lester Bangs’ of Classics world, so it’s fitting that the quote from her review of Duban’s book evokes (obliquely) the rock critic’s famous liner notes for the Mekons’ album, The Mekons’ Story:

“The Mekons may now assume their proper place in the highest bowers in the hallowed halls of Rocque (co-leased by Wolfman Jack and Sid Bernstein). THEY ARE BETTER THAN THE BEATLES. They are better than Budgie and REO Speedwagon combined, they gave me $1500 for writing these notes. They come not to bury rock but to gourmandize it. All their Daddies are rich which is why they get to keep putting out this swill.”

I only wish that I had thought of this marketing strategy first.

Alternative Design, Innovation, and Imagination in Higher Education

I did some traveling this month and that always gives me time to sit still and read without being distracted by a million other things. On my last flight, I read David Staley’s Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Higher Education (2019). It was a pretty fun read and despite the book’s ostensible audience of higher ed administrators and leaders, it offers some intriguing and imaginative proposals that could be of use for anyone working at a university today.

The most appealing thing about the book is that the Staley allowed himself to imagine 10 different forms of post-secondary education. These ranged from a industry focused liberal arts college to free form “platform college” where faculty and students are combine and disperse on the basis of interest and demand, to decentralized microcolleges that operate with loose coordination to offer almost individual instruction and radical colleges based on play, advanced cybernetic interfaces, and the body. The willingness to speculate and to imagine a future to higher education with only the barest number of institutional constraints and appeals to tradition is refreshing. More than that, it demonstrates that there is a place for “solutions in search of problems” in higher education, although Staley does conclude by saying that he hopes his experiment in imagination will demonstrate that alternatives exist to the increasingly commodified character of contemporary higher education.

At the same time, Staley’s alternative universities do have certain similarities that suggest a particular understanding of the higher education landscape that goes beyond his rather cursory diagnosis of the contemporary “crisis.” For example, nearly all the alternative universities managed to exist with a minimum of administration who tended to serve as coordinators and facilitators rather than leaders. Conversely faculty took center stage and while their work was often subject to the whims of the market (and students), the mentor-student relationship remained fundamental most fo the alternative universities proposed.

Likewise absent from his alternative universities were the onerous burden of assessing learning. In fact, Staley largely accepted that both students and faculty operated in good faith. Students committed to learning and faculty committed to teaching. In some of his scenarios, faculty will be on an island with students either instructing small groups as part of single-teacher micro universities, leading students in immersive experiences abroad in the “Nomad University,” or connecting and dispersing with demand and interest in the “Platform University.” Such free form experimental spaces as the Institute for Advance Play and Future University have outcomes that seem to almost resist formal assessment. A university based on play or the producing models of future society may have rules and expectations (i.e. humans won’t suddenly develop the ability to fly), but these do little to narrow the wide range of potential student outcomes.  

At times, I felt like Staley’s book was a bit naive about the ability of the market to self-regulate both within academia and the relationship between academic institutions and industry. The idea of a “Humanities Think Tank” and “Nomad University” rely on the idea that the private (and public sector) would consistently reach out to scholars in the humanities or in various applied sciences for collaboration. On the one hand, it’s Staley’s fantasy which always involves a certain suspension of disbelief and maybe that’s enough to sanction his exercises. On the other hand, I’m not sure that his more naive approaches to the functioning of the market offer a useful way forward. The idea that students will gravitate toward majors and funding will flow from industry toward innovative institutions ignores the complicated roles that ideology, politics, and tradition plays in shaping the economic and educational landscape. Of course, Staley acknowledges that his exercises in imagining operate at the margins of the possible, but how he defines these limits remains unclear. For example, he does not propose “Mars University” where students study Mars and the role of space on the terrestrial economy over the course of the multiyear curriculum taught during a trip to, from, and on the Red Planet. His selective reading of existing experiments in higher education – with example such as Deep Springs College – rarely explores less successful (or at least sustained) experiments (e.g. Black Mountain College) to understand the real limits to what is possible. This isn’t to suggest that the book isn’t worth reading and thinking about. Perhaps, he designed the fuzzy limits to his imagined solutions to push us to think about the constraints that currently exist within higher education or to encourage us to engage in a kind of “design thinking” that recognizes the interplay between ideas and constraints as the key environment for producing real change.

Lest my review seem too critical, I should emphasize that the book is inspiring. In the spring semester, I’m teaching a class that will focus not so much on a problem or a series of educational outcomes, but on a building on our campus that is scheduled for demolition. I was fretting a good bit about the point of the class, but Staley’s book put me more at ease. I was particularly drawn to the idea of an “Institute for Advanced Play” that Staley based on the idea that “play and the imagination define higher learning.” 

My one-credit course will focus on play and the idea that our bureaucratic, outcome driven education system leaves rather little time for engaging the world thoughtfully, critically, and carefully without a particular goal. To my mind, this might be the best thing about Staley’s book. Even if the problems that it seeks to solve and the limits to Staley’s imaging are fuzzy, the book encourages all of us to think about higher education in radically different ways and to enjoy the silliness of unwarranted provocation and the freedom from consistency, well-defined goals, and tidy outcomes. 

UND has a new President: Writing the History of the Recent Past

Yesterday, the state board of higher education announced a new president for the University of North Dakota. After a session of deliberation, a few white puffs of smoke ascended from the Chancellor’s inner chamber and a herald of the board solemnly announced “Habemus Presidentum.” Andrew Armacost will become UND’s 13th president and the chant of “Armacost virumque cano” was heard across campus.

I sometimes imagine that the new president would come to me and ask my sage advice about how to thrive on our campus. Needless to say, this will not happen, in part, because few people on campus know or care what I think and, in part, because I’m an idiot. That being said, I still found it intriguing to speculate on what the president should know about UND’s campus before his term formally begins in June.

I would undoubtedly urge him to become familiar with the history of the state and the university. Read Elwyn Robinson’s magisterial history of the state of North Dakota, and Kim Porter’s recent update. Read Louis Geiger’s institutional history of the University of North Dakota published in 1958. Read (if I may be so bold) my series of blog posts on the clash between Orin G. Libby and Thomas Kane, the 5th president of UND. Read Robinson’s article on UND’s 7th president, George Starcher and Starcher’s musings on the future of the university from North Dakota Quarterly in 1956. Read Dan Rice’s history of the Clifford Years at UND. Read David Haeselin’s edited volume on 1997 Red River flood and its impact on the community.

These books will give our new president a basic understanding of the history of the university and the state which will put him at an advantage of over many less informed members of the faculty and the community who will nevertheless dredge up some half-remembered historical precedent to justify their feeling of outrage and entitlement. At the same time, these works will give Armacost a good sense for the community’s historical imaginary. Robinson’s memorable “Themes of North Dakota History” continue to be evoked in the public media and used to justify all kinds of political and institutional positions. The high esteem that many hold for Tom Clifford not only explains why he is the only UND president to have a book length treatment of his term, but also why funding has been set aside for a monumental chryselephantine statue in his honor that always rotates to face the sun.

The most challenging aspect of understanding the history of the university is that so far, no one has taken on the challenge of writing a history of the “Three K Era: Kupchella, Kelley, and Kennedy” on our campus. I have to admit that I’m pretty tempted. 

It’s interesting to trace a trajectory from Starcher, who I see as responsible for creating the institutional structure, expectations, and character of the University of North Dakota throughout the late-20th century and Kelley and, to a lesser extent, Kennedy who worked to transform the institution into its 21st century form. I could imagine a little volume that focuses on a series of significant events and structural changes.

1. High Water Mark for the University. There’s little doubt that UND experienced its high water mark in terms of enrollments during Robert Kelley’s presidency and tuition dollars and stable state appropriations allowed the university to grow and start to anticipate changes to higher education taking place around the U.S. The relatively insulation of North Dakota and UND from the “Great Recession” may have created a false sense of calm on campus and the Bakken Oil boom encouraged faculty and administrators to think big.

2. Research. While Starcher should perhaps be credited with imagining UND as a research university, under Kelley and against the backdrop of Bakken boom, it seems like UND started to believe that it could achieve a R1 Carnegie classification. While the rhetoric of this being an aspirational goal for campus certainly accelerated under Kennedy’s presidency, the investment in the Medical School (including its new building) and in STEM fields crucial to generating the kind of grant funded research necessary advance UND through the Carnegie ranks.

3. The Kupchella Faculty. When I first arrived on campus, faculty hired under Tom Clifford and Kendall Baker held many of the informal leadership positions on campus. In many ways, they represented institutional memory and set the expectations for both faculty and campus life more broadly. They also set the terms of campus debates. As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, the Kupchella faculty will emerge as senior figures on campus. This is all the more significant because of the declining number of tenure track hires in the later years of Kelley’s and Kennedy’s presidency. In other words, the Kupchella faculty may well represent the last group of tenured faculty on campus.

4. The Arrival of Austerity. Part of the challenge of writing about Kelley, in particular, is that the last years of his presidency were overshadowed by a series of serious budget cuts which began in 2016. While much of the hard, bloody work of cutting the budget took place during Ed Schafer’s term as acting president in 2016 and under Mark Kennedy, the cuts themselves served as a referendum on Kelley’s vision of the university. Efforts in 2014 to implement a prioritization program and a strategic planning initiative that would create a sense of a direction for the campus gave way to across the board cuts to both academic and support divisions. The emergence of an incentive based model for funding seemingly indicated the planning and prioritization might best be left to “a market” defined by student enrollments, faculty research, and a certain amount of administrative vision. It goes without saying that the confusing set of statements made both through policy and decisions particularly under Kennedy’s presidency shook the campus to its core. Some of this must reflect on the indecisiveness of Kelley’s final years at UND as well as the hamfisted nature of Kennedy’s public statements.

5. Logos, Marketing, and Sports. For many alumni and community members, the most significant event in the institution’s history was the retirement of the Fighting Sioux mascot in 2012 and the rebranding of UND Athletics as the Fighting Hawks in 2015 both alienated a certain number of UND supporters and inspired a new wave of campus marketing looking to take the introduction of the new logo as a chance to begin a comprehensive rebrand of the tired campus graphic identity. 

The new logo was probably less important, historically, then the move in 2008 to Division 1 in all sports. This led to both upgrades to UND facilities (including the opening of the Betty Engelstad Center in 2008) and the UND Athletics High Performance center in 2017. The canceling of baseball, swimming, and, more controversially, women’s hockey in 2016 revealed that the move the Division 1 athletics was not without casualties.     

6. Campus Construction. The presidencies of the 3 Ks has certainly shaped UND’s campus in fundamental ways. The opening of the Ralph Engelstad arena in 2001, Clifford Hall and various structures on the western edge of campus, and major upgrades to the Law School, the College of Education, the Medical School and the College of Engineering and Mines reshaped many parts of campus. The new building for the UND Alumni Association and Foundation and new dormitories have likewise suggested a new, more contemporary design language on campus. Today, major expansions to the College of Business and Public Affairs, a new Student Union buildings, and a renovated library continue the work to bring campus up to standards. This is all driven by a new campus plan and, sadly, the removal of several of the early 20th century buildings on campus. 

7. Student Life. This is an area where my understanding of what goes on across campus falls the most short. I recognize that important social events – like riotous Springfest – have been suppressed by the city and the UND administration. I also know that there have been efforts to cultivate a greater sense of school spirit over the last five years, but I’m not sure how successful this work has been. The influence of Greek life, the changing landscape of student housing, and the smaller, but generally better prepared student body would form key parts to any narrative on the last 20 years of UND history.

8. Digital Futures. Finally, over the last 15 years, the prospects of a more digitally savvy, more online, and more innovative campus have lingered in the air and taken various administrative forms. This represents both an effort of UND to develop new revenue streams (with new, often private partners) and to reach students raised as “digital natives.” I suspect that this will have a major impact on the university of the future. 

In any event, I’m unlikely to find the time, funding, or energy to write this volume, but it is fun to imagine and it seems like naming of a new president offers an opportune time to reflect in a historically informed way. At the same time, there seems to be a bit of a renaissance in scholarship on higher education and this would form a useful backdrop to any recent history of an institution. I might even imagine a book like this generating a little buzz on campus and in the community particularly if I started it with a series of public fora and conversations designed to understand what the larger community saw as key moments over the last 30 years. More than that, this would be fun. 

Sneak Peek: Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays

Next week, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is really excited to publish Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays.

As a bit of an appetizer, we’re making the introduction to the book available this morning as a download.

Failing Gloriously and Other Essays documents Shawn Graham’s odyssey through the digital humanities and digital archaeology against the backdrop of the 21st-century university. At turns hilarious, depressing, and inspiring, Graham’s book presents a contemporary take on the academic memoir, but rather than celebrating the victories, he reflects on the failures and considers their impact on his intellectual and professional development. These aren’t heroic tales of overcoming odds or paeans to failure as evidence for a macho willingness to take risks. They’re honest lessons laced with a genuine humility that encourages us to think about making it safer for ourselves and others to fail.

A foreword from Eric Kansa and an afterword by Neha Gupta engage the lessons of Failing Gloriously and consider the role of failure in digital archaeology, the humanities, and social sciences.

If you want to read more about this book, check out Quinn Dombrowski’s Review on the Stanford Digital Humanities blog.

“I intend to keep a copy on my office bookshelf, and a second under my desk, in order to promptly replace the bookshelf copy when it’s been given away to a grad student, staff, or faculty colleague who happens to come by. If you’re a digital humanities “veteran”, you’ll laugh and cry and shudder alongside Graham’s tales of failure. If you’re a grad student or newer to digital humanities, Failing Gloriously and Other Essays provides a rare, honest, inside look into many facets of doing digital humanities. … There is much more work that needs to be done, on many fronts, to encourage, support, and reduce the personal risk associated with thoughtful analyses of failure, for everyone […] Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays is one step towards that better future.”

If this sounds interesting to you, go and download the introduction to the book now!

Generous Thinking

This weekend, I read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good (Johns Hopkins 2019). The book calls for scholars to think more generously as individuals, as a community, with the public, and through our institutions. The first pages of the book spoke immediately to me (and some of my growing concerns about how I act as a scholar in the 21st century). Fitzpatrick describes a seminar where a group of graduate students were asked what they thought about a text. The class responded by a period of boisterous critique and criticism. Alarmed, perhaps, at the class’s eagerness to tear the text apart, she stopped the conversation by asking the students, instead, to articulate the author’s argument. There was silence.

Anyone who has taught graduate seminars (or, indeed, participated in them) recognizes these moments and this mildly Socratic process. The assumption that almost any article or book that we read in seminar is flawed, outdated, or problematic encourages a kind of hair trigger response to any perceived shortcoming in a publication. This behavior allows us to show off our critical chops and finding weakness in even the most carefully argued texts, indulges the modern love of irony (this article may see brilliant and perfect, but BEHOLD!), and conditions the kind of hyper-critical attitudes that have created such beloved characters as “Reviewer #2” and infused scholarly conversations with a kind of pugilistic (or perhaps more charitably “agonistic”) approach to knowledge making.

To be clear, I’m as guilty as anyone of this tendency. In fact, my graduate seminars often centered more around tearing each other’s work down to the foundational assumptions than offering constructive critique. I’m still working on finding a more constructive, collaborative, and collegial professional voice particularly as a peer reviewer

Part of the issue, as Fitzpatrick notes, is the idea that competition provides a key way in the establishing of professional truth and academic expertise. The connections between having the ability to discern or establish truth and professional status as an expert starts in graduate school, continues on the job market, is central to winning competitive grants, gaining advancement and attaining recognition. In other words, the academic world encourages a view of truth and status that is dependent — to a very real extent— on other people being wrong as much as someone being right. 

This way of thinking has often created barriers between our professional discourse and the general public. The technical character of academic language which so often appears as jargon to the uninitiated has served as a way to distinguish the precision and accuracy of truth claims, to limit our audience, and to fend off challenges from less proficient scholars. More than that, it has encouraged academics to see public outreach not as creative work, knowledge making, or truth building, but as a lesser form of intellectual labor. While I do feel that the burden of outreach falls unevenly on scholars in the humanities (and some of this is tied to a deep skepticism that the truths produced in the humanities establish real expertise), Fitzpatrick does demonstrate the clear link between how we work as scholars and our ability (and willingness and attitudes toward) engaging with a wider public.

I was particularly taken by Fitzpatrick’s careful consideration of the role of empathy and, more broadly, care, in our work as scholars, readers, and writers. Avoiding the seemingly ubiquitous calls for a kind of banal (and frankly unproductive, mostly condescending, and often colonialist) empathy, Fitzpatrick encouraged scholars to recognize that empathy is a process, a struggle, and always necessarily incomplete. The slow, painful, and always incomplete work of empathizing forms the basis for new forms of compassion and scholarly care. This undermines Ricoeur’s famous “hermeneutics of suspicion” both in how we read texts, but also in how we engage with our larger community. We suspend our overdeveloped sense of modern irony and attempt to understand others for who they are rather than to suss out what they’re hiding.    

As importantly, she demonstrates that this does not involve a kind of facile naïveté or the an overdetermined sense of the authenticity of “the other.” Nor does it require us to suspend our critical skills or rationalize injustice. It does, however, require us to listen rather than just to hear. By listening, we demonstrate that we care and instead of rushing to undermine or counter views that we assume to be different from our own, we create a space for genuine communication, reflection, and dialogue. This seems like good advice to me.

But this isn’t just a book telling us how to use our academic training to create dialogue, expand understanding, and make room for other voices. Fitzpatrick also urges us to turn this kind of collaborative, caring, and generous spirit on ourselves and academic institutions. The subtitle of Fitzpatrick’s book is “the university and the public good,” and she argues that by embracing more generous thinking as individuals we can push our institutions to return to their mission of providing the public good. If the historical practices of academic competition have merged with capitalist and market ideologies that see truth and knowledge making as a zero sum game with winners and loser both on the epistemological and professional level, a more generous and empathetic approach might shift the center of scholarly work from the individual to the collective and the community. As a result, attention to the health of the larger community both within and outside the academy, a willingness to listen, and a spirit of care creates new spaces for new and good.     

Applying these perspectives on the public good requires that we work to change our institutions as well as our disciplinary and individual practices. By recognizing the university and our scholarly work as part of a larger public and its myriad and variously define communities, we push back against the prevailing view of higher education as an individual good and begin to construct arguments and establish practices that demonstrate how higher education is public work that leads to public good. This is particularly important in an era where funding to higher education is increasingly articulated by unsympathetic legislatures as a luxury or as a subsidy directed to support the personal advancement of a small percentage of the population (i.e. faculty and students).

Fitzpatrick notes that it is difficult to map out in concrete terms the changes necessarily to transform institutions, particularly at the scale of higher education in the U.S. This doesn’t really detract from the impact of the book, however. It’s clear enough that change has to happen at the level of the individual who, if we buy Fitzpatrick’s argument, can make a difference by modeling generosity in their personal practices and encouraging others to think generously as well. 

Short Writing: A Book Cover, a Class Description, and a Random Thought

This week, I’m grinding away on a conference paper that I have to give next week. I’m also trying to wrap up a few odds and ends as the end of the semester and the holiday conference season approaches. These little odds and ends, tend to be short writing projects mostly (aside from the usual administrative trivia that goes along with publishing, editing North Dakota Quarterly, serving as my department’s director of graduate studies, and being a generally good doobie around campus.

Here are two short writing projects and some editorializing:

First, I’m trying to teach a little 1-credit class on Montgomery Hall. The course will be called Making Montgomery Hall. Here’s the blurb:

Making Montgomery Hall is a 1-credit class focusing on the now-abandoned building on the UND Campus. This will be the last class held in one of the oldest standing buildings on campus before it is demolished next year.

This class will support a wide range of engagements with the building from archival work, to the study of archaeology, material culture, campus history, and architecture. The class will also encourage students to consider opportunities for creative approaches to an abandoned building on campus. The goal of the class is to think together about how we remember, preserve, and mark campus history while simultaneously celebrating innovation, progress, and change.

NOTE: Because we have to get special access to this building, we do not have a scheduled meeting time. Once students enroll in the class, we’ll work out a meeting time or times that work for everyone.

Second, I’m putting the final touches on Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays which is due to drop on December 1. One the hardest things to do (and one of the things that I never feel very good about) is writing the back cover description of the book. I think this one is pretty decent:

Please, you gotta help me. I’ve nuked the university.

Failing Gloriously and Other Essays documents Shawn Graham’s odyssey through the digital humanities and digital archaeology against the backdrop of the 21st-century university. At turns hilarious, depressing, and inspiring, Graham’s book presents a contemporary take on the academic memoir, but rather than celebrating the victories, he reflects on the failures and considers their impact on his intellectual and professional development. These aren’t heroic tales of overcoming odds or paeans to failure as evidence for a macho willingness to take risks. They’re honest lessons laced with a genuine humility that encourages us to think about making it safer for ourselves and others to fail.

A foreword from Eric Kansa and an afterword by Neha Gupta engage the lessons of Failing Gloriously and consider the role of failure in digital archaeology, the humanities, and social sciences.

Here’s the cover:

Failing Gloriously Cover Draft 2 01

Finally, I’ve been thinking a bit about some of the recent vogue for “short work week” movements and the persistent buzz about work-life balance. A recent report from Microsoft Japan suggested that a four-day week improved productivity by 40%. While not doubting Microsoft’s research based on anything substantial, I often wonder how much the miracle of the short work week rests on the years of long work weeks that helped employees discover the efficiencies, processes, and practices that made shorter work weeks possible. In other words, short work weeks are great for employees who focus on well-established processes (which make measuring productivity meaningful) and perhaps those who do work in a highly modular way. They probably are not as ideal for folks whose work is more episodic, unpredictable, and irregular.    

Labor and Contradiction in Graduate Education

Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking a good bit about both academic labor and graduate education. Some of this has been prompted by our own efforts to revise our graduate program over the year or so and my role as our department’s director of graduate studies. Some of this has come from my time on the University of North Dakota’s graduate committee. And some of it, as always, has come from conversations across social media platforms and over email with friends and peers.

Finally, my graduate advisor, Tim Gregory, retired this last year and last weekend there was a nice event held in his honor at Ohio State. I’ve begun to wonder how his style of graduate education and professionalism would hold up in the modern university. Tim personified the “always on” graduate advisor and archaeological fieldwork together for close to a decade complicated the traditional advisor-student relationship. On the whole, he was a good advisor and mentor who not only gave me opportunities, but also held me accountable. His style was idiosyncratic, but the outcomes of his work and priorities were not. He wanted his students to be successful.

I’ve started to think more and more about how changes in the academic economy over time, but particularly in the last 15 years, has exposed contradictions within graduate education in the humanities. The biggest reality facing our students and our curriculum is that there are far fewer traditional tenure-track academic jobs these days particularly in history. In the place of highly stable, tenure-track positions, higher education has witnessed the rapid growth of contingent faculty labor, and the disparity between the traditional stability, reasonable pay, and benefits of tenure track positions and the precarity of contingent faculty who often string together a series or one or two class contracts to make a living, typically without benefits or year-to-year stability, has thrown into high relief the potential for exploitation in the academic market. This has prompted more than simply criticisms of the use of contingent positions within academic market, but also supported renewed scrutiny of labor practices among graduate students and the tenure track.

Greater attention to labor in academia has also contributed to ongoing efforts to advance the larger professionalization project in the humanities. In particular, these efforts have sought to protect contingent faculty, early career scholars, and graduate students from the power imbalances that characterize their relationship with tenured faculty. The professionalization process has also sought to identify and root out long-standing discrimination against individuals on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class. These are good and important processes that will create a better and ideally fairer academic culture.

They have also produced some intriguing tensions in conventional academic rhetoric and practices that have troubled me as we’ve sought to revise our curriculum and as I have reflected on my own trajectory through academic life.

In history, we often say with all good intentions that we learn as much from our students as they learn from us. I would contend that this is even more true in graduate level courses. In fact, the seminar, which remains the basic form of graduate level instruction in the humanities, embodies this maxim by encouraging faculty and students to engage with sources together. Recent efforts to encourage faculty-student research draws on the spirit of the seminar and recognizes that by working alongside one another both the student and the faculty mentor will learn from each other and advance knowledge. In theory, this is all good and loosely parallels my experience working with graduate students both in the classroom and in the field.

At the same time, the idea that faculty can learn and benefit from work with students reveals how deeply we have internalized exploitative practices in higher education. The difference, of course, between a faculty member learning something from a graduate student and a graduate student learning something from faculty is that faculty can monetize their learning by publishing articles or even books which are, in turn, rewarded by their institutions. Of course, ethical faculty will share credit with their students depending on their contribution. In some cases it is appropriate to co-author a paper and, in others, it may be enough simply to recognize their contribution in an acknowledgements. Either way, there remains a significant difference between how the two parties can monetize this work and this knowledge.

In the old days, we might defend the seminar by saying that we’re preparing students for professional positions in academia where they would be free to monetize the knowledge that we co-created in seminar to their benefit.  With fewer faculty positions available and even fewer tenure-track positions that allow scholars to monetize their research, the future promise of the rewards of a student’s intellectual labor seems less likely.

I’m not proposing that we discard the seminar or that learning for the sake of learning isn’t a noble and to some extent, inevitable product of graduate education. What I’m trying to say is that the current labor situation in academia recasts in a new, and not entirely flattering light, the commonplace saying that both faculty and students learn in seminar. Even if all learning is equal, the opportunity to monetize this learning is not.

The vagaries of the current job market do more than complicate our rhetoric, however. Most graduate faculty in the humanities would claim that our primary responsibility is to prepare our students for the academic job market. This involves all manner of academic, intellectual, practical, and professional mentoring. It presupposes not only the existence of a market, but that we understand how it works. In general, there is an assumption that while the market it competitive, professionalization processes have ensured that the market is increasingly fair. The best students still have a chance to get good jobs.

I’m skeptical of this logic. As the market has contracted, the potential for a good student to get a good job has become increasingly random. The calls for graduate programs also to prepare our students for any number of “alt-ac” jobs is an obvious response to the scarcity of academic jobs and the vagaries of the market. Of course, the argument that preparing our students for alt-ac jobs itself is predicated on the murky logic that existing graduate programs both impart transferable skills that make PhDs appealing for a wide range of jobs, while at the same time programs could offer more opportunities for students looking to prepare for jobs outside the academic job market. Encouraging a history student to take a few GIS classes that might complement their existing coursework is one thing. Nudging a student toward a class in marketing or graphic design is another. It remains hard to discern how far preparing for an alt-ac career might compromise the very curriculum that made graduate students appealing candidates for non-academic positions from the start.

More than that, the position of faculty as successful models for an academic career is part of the graduate education process. Successful faculty attract students who want to study both with these individuals as experts, but also want to understand how to achieve a similar success. Part of this is the long-tail of older views of academic work that modeled graduate education on craft production with graduate faculty represented “masters” and graduate students “apprentices.” While this model has happily fallen to the side in the name of more professional views of faculty-student relationship, the disjunction between our experiences as faculty on the job market and our ability to prepare our students has caused increasing anxiety.

On the one hand, our position as tenured faculty represents extraordinary privilege. It is grounded in a moment of time in higher education where jobs existed and, at least in our idealized narrative, those who prepared best for those jobs could earn them. Even the most optimistic observer of the modern academic job market cannot make the same argument. This exacerbates a tension between the contemporary situation and our claims as faculty both to our positions in the academy and to our ability to prepare students for professional success. In other words, the power differential between faculty and graduate students is not only based on differences in our accomplishments as professionals, but also on a certain incommensurability of experiences.

Acknowledging this incommensurability reveals profound difficulties in creating a consistent perspective on academic labor. While it remains essential that tenured faculty advocate for change both at our institutions and in our fields, we also have to come to accept that our past experiences are unlikely – for now – to reflect those of our students and many of our peers. This isn’t to say that many of us didn’t work hard to get to where we are and that we haven’t overcome obstacles and triumphed on our pursuits through the sheer power of our will.

Instead, our awareness of our privileged place in the history of the academy should complicate any claims that the earned character of our positions grant us authority and instead push us to accept that our view of academia is one informed by our own remarkable situation. How this shapes our demands to be compensated for our labor (and, by extension, our privilege) will vary depending on the circumstances and the larger goal of our demands. For now, there will always be a tension, at least to my mind, between our right to earn a living, our responsibility to our students, colleagues, institutions and fields, and the incommensurability between our experiences and those of many of our peers.