Monday, April 01, 2013

This conference hangover might be terminal

I spent last weekend in Toronto at the conference that's finally owning the name many of us have long applied to it--but now I'm back, and I'm crashing hard.

The post-conference hangover (which is not to be confused with an actual hangover, though that also goes with the territory) is a well-known occupational hazard; to judge by my Facebook and Twitter feeds, lots of my fellow conferees are also suffering. I myself spent most of last night in tears for no reason, and it was only in the light of day that I recognized the symptoms. It's hard to jump back into workaday life after a weekend away, and it's particularly hard after three or four days of constant intellectual and social stimulation; I'm always a bit glum and my world seems pokey and disappointing for a couple of days after I return from a conference.

This time, though, I'm not just crashing from a conference high; I'm also processing the conference lows. As the association president said at her luncheon address, the SAA is, for many scholars, their "hometown": the place where they feel most at ease, most fully understood, and most warmly welcomed. It's a lovely description of why professional conferences matter, but it implies (as she went on to say) that the other places we spend our working lives are not as welcoming.

Here's some of what I heard about those other places, in the course of the conference:

-Two of my friends were denied tenure in jaw-droppingly egregious ways;

-Another is in a department that may be dissolved;

-Three more are at institutions that are imploding (one of which may actually go under);

-Other friends and acquaintances spent yet another year fruitlessly searching for tenure-track jobs;

-Still others--like me--have perfectly nice jobs that involve major personal and domestic sacrifices.

Sure, I've heard such stories for years. And everyone I know who's actually left the profession has found happy, fulfilling work (in many cases, they're happier than those who hung on). But in a year in which I achieved both tenure and a book contract, such stories feel paradoxically more personal. This is really my profession now. And it's not getting better.

When I was in grad school and on the market, I was angry about the shape of the profession--but though it felt like my problem (I was one of the exploited, one of those who might never get a tenure-track job), it wasn't really: the crisis was the responsibility of my seniors, who, if they hadn't created it, were at least ignoring and perpetuating it.

I remember asking my union organizer why the faculty were so opposed to unionization, or why they seemed to believe--in the absence of all evidence--that everyone who worked hard and kept her head down would get a job. She said that maybe it was too hard for the faculty to acknowledge that the system was broken, that it wasn't a real meritocracy, and that they themselves didn't have the power to help or protect us.

That explanation struck me with the force of real truth, and it still does now that I'm one of them. We own this shitty system. We didn't break it, but we bought it.

So while I'm sure my conference stupor will lift in a day or two, I hope it's replaced by something less like paralysis and more like outrage.


Comrade Physioprof said...

Is this shitte for realz?

Flavia said...


I don't know all the details of the new work (and I'm not any kind of expert on Shakespeare's biography), but the fact that he was a hard-nosed businessman--and not just in the playhouse--is very well-known. The article overstates the degree to which this side of his life is a shock or surprise.

Comrade Physioprof said...

I thought the tax dodger part was pretty fucken funny. Like he was a literate Mitt Romney of the olden tymes!

Anastasia said...

Thank you for this post. I have really bitter feelings about this and most discussions about it among the tenured just flat anger me. This, though, I really appreciate.

Susan said...

It was good to see you, Flavia. I think the issue for many of us is survivor's guilt -- and I speak as one who spent many years without tenure in a non-traditional institution. While our egos would like to think that we "deserve" our jobs, looking at those who take other directions is a great reminder of the luck that puts you in the right place, where you flourish, rather than a place where you will be abused. That survivor's guilt is complicated by a feeling of powerlessness. I can choose to hire or not hire adjuncts, but I don't establish our institutional budget, and I can't create tenure lines. So we are complicit -- it is indeed our system -- but we don't see where we can change it. (And to be clear, I don't think we're totally powerless, but swamped as we are by the pressures of excellence without money, it's hard to think creatively about responses beyond outrage.)

I've been in the profession for 30 years now, and I've known it was broken all that time.

And CPP, that story about Shakespeare and money was a bit dramatic, but essentially true for the historians who have studied him and know the period.

Canuck Down South said...

From what I heard in the customs lineup yesterday, the conference hangover was our own little shibboleth--the immigration officers just glanced at us, went "Shakespeare conference?" and let us through. Mine was chatty--he wanted to hear all about the conference, actually.

I came in by a different entry, but it sounds like they could identify us upon arrival, too, which makes me wonder what they saw that marked us as "one of the tribe." This was my first SAA--I certainly enjoyed it!

Flavia said...


I appreciate that. I worry about sounding patronizing--or merely showily hand-wringing--on this subject.


I didn't mean to sound as if I were blaming everyone senior to me, or saying they were/are all unaware of the problem. I just mean that I think I recognize and relate to some of the reasons that those whom I found obstructionist or unconcerned about the crisis in the academy might have behaved the way they did. Some of them were, I think, genuinely in denial and genuinely did harm--but as you say, it's tough for all of us to accept how very little we're doing (especially when we're doing all we believe we can do).

It's wrong to act as though the system is functional--or as though one's own power and patronage can protect others. But I understand better why even those who recognize the jobs crisis might still act as though they and theirs were exempt.

Susan said...

Maybe the way to think about this is that the system is minimally functional (I.e. it worked for me), so some people have a vested interest in thinking it works. I have this conversation repeatedly with colleagues who don't believe me when I say we have to change grad education. But, if they think they succeeded because they are so brilliant, then it's hard to criticize the system.

And then there is the struggle to make something minimally functional work....which also undermines revolutionary energy.

moria said...

This is equal measures depressing ("it's not getting better"... oof) and affirming. Affirming to the degree that I've begun to believe that the problem among senior academics is not a sense of helplessness but rather a kind of survival-myopia, a mechanism for coping with helplessness by resisting its acknowledgement. I keep hearing things like 'Everything will work out for you!' and thinking, why on EARTH do you think that?!. Because these are well-intentioned, kind, generous, empathetic people, and I don't think they would say these things to me unless they really did think that. But there is no reason to – none. They think I'm smart and capable, which is nice, and they express this by affirming their faith that 'everything will work out,' because they must refuse to see the probability that it won't, or that if it does, it is likely to 'work out' at tremendous cost to my well-being. They have to protect themselves from several things: {1} the acknowledgement that the system that has bestowed security on them is at the same time devastating the lives of others no less worthy than they, including their friends and students, {2} the idea that theirs is not the only path that can be taken, the idea that they could have spared themselves their own agonies by taking another path, that if they acknowledge that there are other paths to take then they will have to find some justification for having taken theirs, {3} the idea that the friends and students whom they so esteem, whose success they so sincerely wish for, cannot survive on merit alone – that their esteem for the merit of their friends and students is meaningless. My advisor, for example, who in many respects is a level-headed lady and has few illusions about this work or the institutions that condition it, was genuinely baffled that I did not win a non-service fellowship for next year. Sweet of her – it's a sign of her esteem, after all – but how can someone so keen be also so na├»ve? How can she still be baffled, and even in her bafflement still be telling me that 'it will all work out,' even as she presently watches her own students suffer through resultless year after year on the job market?

And that's not even to mention the unsettlingly eerie fact that no one around here ever talks about the people who've (deliberately, successfully, happily) taken paths other than the path of tenure-track professorship. If one didn't know them personally, one would think they'd disappeared. It makes me wonder: are my mentors so keenly set against allowing me to speak of leaving the profession because if I did leave, they would be left with the choice between convincing themselves I'd disappeared and facing the fact that theirs is not the only path available?

We tell ourselves so many lies about this profession in order to survive in it. The lies grow stronger, it seems, with achievement. Not malice, as you say, but myopia.

My point, if I have one, is that as depressing as this is, I'm glad to read you being openly depressed about it. Refusing myopia, resisting the lies that can be so comforting. Being honest. Thank you.

Flavia said...


Yes, "minimally functional" is a good term. And as behaviorism teaches us, it's the irregular, unpredictable rewards that an animal will die before it stops seeking.

You're also really right about the tension between trying to make something that is minimally functional at least somewhat better (which is often all we can see a way to do) and revolutionary action.


Yes, that's exactly what I meant--especially your points #1 and #3. My union organizer's remark had that effect on me, allowing me to recognize that even loving, generous, hopeful people can be (maybe even need to be) in a certain amount of denial in order to BE loving and generous and hopeful about the profession, their students, and their own worklives.

Sorry I missed you at SAA! But you must have been doing your drinking elsewhere.

Comrade Physioprof said...

I came in by a different entry, but it sounds like they could identify us upon arrival, too, which makes me wonder what they saw that marked us as "one of the tribe."

I bet it was the puffy octogonal velvet hats!

And to contribute something substantive to this discussion: In the natural sciences, we go through the same thing. There are many fewer of us as we ascend the academic hierarchy, and so it is inescapable to wonder why those who ascend do and why those who fail to don't.

My experience is that it is a combination of talent, persistence, willingness to work hard, luck (the random kind), good fortune (being in the right place at the right time), pedigree, social skills, and cunning (in no particular order and with no claims as to relative importance).

Psycgirl said...

Thank you for giving me the phrase "conference hangover" to explain my experience. And I am glad to hear this is a common experience!

Susan said...

Flavia, what is really interesting in this to me is the sense that you and Moria have of the senior faculty in denial. When I went to grad school in the late 70s, that was definitely not the case - maybe because my profs had come up in the boom of the 60s and early 70s, and then watched in horror as the market collapsed. They all wanted us to think about alternatives. Those people are all retired now, and those of us who are senior have survived in the crisis system. So (as a group) we have normalized it.

Anonymous said...

I find the conversation interesting. My undergraduate institution (regional state school with aspirations to be thought of as an R1) contained lots of profs who were very practical about the crapshoot that was academia; I went in with my eyes open.

My graduate institution (a huge private institution with a national rep) contained profs that seemed to some extent in denial about the real state of the field.