Why Bother? Thoughts from an “Old” PhD
I didn’t want to write this piece. In fact, I should be doing about 100 other things rather than writing this (like grading). But sometimes there are things that I need to write about, and really, it’s for my benefit first, yours (the reader’s) second. I also swore I was going to be more optimistic this semester, after a summer that was less than uplifting (at least on the pages of this blog). But I also can’t help but think about all of the people in a similar situation to mine who are probably having very similar reactions to the blatant discrimination again “old” PhDs.
And, as it has been pointed out repeatedly, you could be 65 and received your PhD last year (or be ABD), so when I say “old,” it just means that my PhD is apparently old and out-of-date. I suppose I could have gone further into debt by paying tuition for the past five years (although it wouldn’t have changed the content of the PhD, just the award date), but that’s another red flag for search committees. I suppose I could have also been less productive, less engaged as a scholar, less willing to challenge myself by learning new things, but that’s not who I am (and runs completely contrary to all of the professional advice I’ve received directly and indirectly. Plus, doesn’t it show that I’m “energetic”?).
I think many, many long-time (heck, even short-time) adjuncts and non-tt faculty’s hearts sank when we read, in plain language, what we had long suspected and feared (reading the comments on this blog didn’t help, either): we are not what departments are looking for. We have priced ourselves out of a job (or aged ourselves out of a job. Or we’ve past our “sell by” date. Whatever.). There is a sick irony to being the lowest-paid people on campus and then being told we don’t qualify for a job because we’re too “expensive.” This is the paradox of higher education today. And sometimes I think I am the only one who hasn’t caught on, why I rarely see anyone my age at conferences: they either can’t afford it or just got out all together.
The subsequent move from outrage to hand-wringing to resignation, all within two days, is astounding, even for higher education. Seriously, the collective shoulder-shrug and justification from many people, after the knee-jerk revulsion, is telling to me (as is the stunning silence from any national organization who claims to represent me in all of my various roles), and in some ways I’m glad it happened at the beginning of the hiring cycle, before even the first MLA Job Information List was published; this isn’t an isolated incident, and now that one school has found a way to legally codify their biases, I’m sure we can expect to see more of it. We need to know and deserve to know the truth about our chances, which weren’t all that good to begin with, but at least now we know that, in many cases (and perhaps most cases) it truly is hopeless. And we can either accept that and move on, or we can continue to hope that, against the overwhelming odds, we’ll find somewhere that we “fit.”
I think that this is important information because applying for job is expensive, both in time and money, for us. It’s been said before, but it needs to be repeated: the stress, time, and very real monetary costs of applying for a job is real and costly to a person’s mental well-being and productivity in their current job. And it’s increasingly looking like all of that time and money is a waste. And maybe this is the kick in the ass butt many of us need (and I’m including myself in this) to just give up and get the [beep] out, once and for all.
Call me naïve (and I know many of you have and will continue to do in the future), but one of the things that keeps me in higher education (and that keeps me blogging and doing my research) is that I truly believed I could make a difference, that I could help change things by being the change (yeah, I said it). And I don’t give up easily. Certainly I have my dark moment of despair, but I have yet to give up on a fight I think I can win, or at least contribute meaningfully to a victory.
I don’t think I can win this battle anymore. I think we have all lost the war.
I want to believe that this galvanizes us to finally really fight back, but the reactions I read and see online don’t give me much hope that this is going to happen. This is the reality of higher education today, and we just need to accept it. If this is the reality, then I want no part of it. And that, more than anything, is what makes me sad: we’ve lost. It’s not that I’ll never find a tenure-track position and all of the benefits that come along with it; it’s that if I can’t, who can? I have no illusions about my ability as an academic (or a writer) but I am like so many other aspiring academics out there without tenure-track jobs and “old” PhDs: hard-working, productive, dedicated, but not a ground-breaking superstar. We’ve hustled, we’ve honed, we’ve produced, we’ve taught, we’ve networked, we’ve adapted, we’ve done everything that has been asked of us. And now we’ve been told that that still isn’t enough. Or it’s too much.
It’s all too much.
*Addendum: A former student reached out to me yesterday to interview me for a class project on interesting women on campus. He googled me and was impressed by my blogging, use of social media, etc. Today (after I had written a draft of this post), he came to my office for the interview. We talked about how I have changed as an academic and teacher, how social media has changed higher education, etc. Then, he closed out the interview with the questions: Why do you fight and what is your weapon of choice.
My weapon is my words. But why I fight? Today, the question was almost too much for me to handle. To tell him that today I almost gave up fighting? Why do I fight? I fight because I believe in higher education. I firmly believe that it can be a force for good and a transformative experience. I think we have lost our way, and I think we can do better.
We need to do better.