Intervention – The brutal lives of others: Exploitation in the academy

Kean Birchby Kean Birch, York University

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, William Pannapacker – under his pen name Thomas H. Benton – wrote an article titled ‘Graduate school in the humanities: Just don’t go’. In it he warned against undertaking a PhD in light of what he “had learned about the academic labour system from personal observation and experience”. His perspective is obviously coloured by his context in that he works in a North American university and in a humanities discipline, but since I recently moved to Canada his arguments have struck a nerve in terms of what I have read and experienced in my short time here. This is not to imply that these issues are, by any means, limited to the North American continent. Last month, the Times High Education Supplement published an article about the challenges facing junior academics in the UK as growing numbers of people apply for each new academic post.

However, my ruminations here result from reading a lot of rather depressing blogs, articles, etc. over the last month or so, specifically ones focused on the difficulties facing new academics in a fast tightening labour market. It wasn’t necessarily professional interest that has led me to these writings, although there is some connection to an essay forthcoming in Antipode 44(4) on the problems facing new academics in neoliberal universities that I helped to collectively write – note the deliberate split infinitive as a nod to the idea that we need to rethink our writing. Nor was it my own personal situation as I have managed luckily to find a tenure-track position over here – and I stress ‘luckily’ considering all the things I know now about selection committees, university decision-making, immigration requirements, etc. Rather, I stumbled across a number of these writings over a weekend back in late March and found them fascinating and deeply disturbing in equal measure.

What I started to read was less concerned with taking a critical look at the privatisation / marketisation / commodification / neoliberalisation of universities which many of us have explored and discussed in the last few decades. A recent special issue in The Hedgehog Review, for example, focuses on ‘The corporate professor’. One article by Gaye Tuchman called ‘Pressured and measured: Professors at Wannabe U’ seemed particularly relevant to these issues – I also found some resources on her work (see here) and a recent article of hers in Inside Higher Ed about ‘Commodifying the academic self’ that proved insightful reading. Her article reminded me of an interesting piece of software I installed on my computer not-so-long-ago called Publish or Perish. It really is the epitome of a Foucauldian disciplinary device as it enables you to work out your very own H-Index. It’s basically a more sophisticated form of citation counting on Google Scholar – itself a pernicious and addictive activity (or at least I find it so). In the Antipode essay I mentioned above we discuss how to go about subverting such citation-counting. For starters, collective writing moves us away from the claiming of sole authorship; other suggestions include not using direct citations to specific articles, but simply referring to the overall work of individual scholars. There are obviously issues with this that need teasing out (e.g. established scholars may benefit more), but it’s one way to avoid the continual disciplining that impact factors, H-Indexes, citations counting and so on entail, encourage, embody, etc. However, that is an issue you can read about in the essay itself…

Oxford's dreaming spires and ivory towersBack to the issue at hand, and in contrast to the above, what I have been reading were reflections and arguments of different people about the everyday stresses and strains of entering or continuing in the academic labour market when there are fewer and fewer secure, tenure-track jobs and an ever growing number of ‘competitors’ for every permanent position. Whether this has caused or exacerbated the massive decline in the proportion of tenure-track or tenured faculty in the last three decades – from 57% in 1975 to 31% in 2007 according to Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education – is an important question. Whatever the cause, more and more people with PhDs are ending up as temporary (or ‘flexible’ in management-speak parlance) workers exploited by universities and permanent faculty alike. Sometimes what I have read was darkly humorous such as the blog 100 Reasons Not to Go to Graduate School about the pitfalls of graduate life and after. Other times it was more sobering reading as illustrated by an article in The Washington Post called ‘Professor of desperation’.

The basic point that came across to me again and again was that the academic labour market is broken – or, more accurately, it has never worked properly in the first place (at least for a significant and growing proportion of those in it).

To me, it is increasingly evident that universities run on the backs of insecure, temporary and contracted faculty, staff and students – both in North America and in the UK where I worked until last year. And here is the rub, permanent faculty like myself depend on this continuing situation because without temporary staffing it would be impossible to put on basic courses or programmes, to cover sabbaticals, or to teach ever-expanding class sizes. There are also others who point out how universities and permanent faculty are increasingly tied up with this exploitation of an insecure ‘adjunct’ workforce, including this website dedicated to collating information on adjunct pay – The Adjunct Project – and a more recent article by William Pannapacker in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here, Pannapacker talks of the ‘big lie’ behind graduate school and claims:

Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon ‘the life of the mind’. That’s why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility.

What comes across from this brief trawl of the internet, is that the two-tier (or three-tier if we include graduate student labour) structure of university teaching is deeply problematic, structurally embedded and performatively embodied all in one. What worries me most is that I can’t seem to think of any practical solution to this dilemma short of cutting the number of graduate students until all the recently minted PhDs have jobs, or to push for an expansion of tenure-track faculty.

This leads me to the question of how are we supposed to ensure that everyone who wants a secure academic job can get one? As one colleague said to me recently, it may simply be that we have an ethical responsibility to ensure that we do not take on too many PhD students since there is a risk that we simply flood the academic labour market – what counts as ‘too many’ is an another question entirely. A more down-to-earth, yet short-term solution is provided by people like Karen Kelsky who gave up her tenured position and now provides career advice on her website The Professor Is In. The fact that she can make a living from providing this service, and that her website, Facebook page and Twitter account have so many likes and followers, indicates the need for this kind of practical and often brutally blunt and honest advice. She is not alone either, as this article by Carolyn Steele in the Canadian higher education magazine University Affairs illustrates. These kinds of practicalities point to the responsibility of graduate supervisors to be better mentors to their students than perhaps they have been in the past. In thinking about my responsibility as a teacher, I have come to the conclusion that any PhD student who wants an academic career basically has to be set on a particular career pathway from year one of their doctoral programme; it’s no good waiting until the end to start providing advice. Unfortunately, it would now appear that new tenure-track hires are expected to have two or three peer-reviewed articles under their belt, a modicum of networking or organizational ability (e.g. running a conference panel or two), a range of teaching experience (e.g. tutorials and lectures), even examples of applying for research grants, and so on. All those things, however, will not ensure an interview; it is also necessary to have a clear and well-pitched CV, cover letter, teaching portfolio or whatever has been requested.

All in all, these practical suggestions do nothing to counter the continuing exploitation of temporary faculty and may even perpetuate it. Whether and how we resolve this issue will likely determine our professional lives over the next 30 or 40 years. Hence why we’d better start thinking about it now.

Kean is currently writing a book tentatively titled We Have Never Been Neoliberal, but which he may rechristen Manifesto for a Doomed Youth. It will be published by Zero Books.


  1. Ian

    Would you say, from you experience, that it is better in Canada than either in the UK or the US? One thing that keeps me from getting clinically depressed finishing a PhD in English this year (in the UK) is the idea of the EU. Whatever a PhD in English Lit is worth in the UK, surely it might be worth more in English departments in non-English speaking countries. Not sure how it works in practice, but would be overjoyed to teach in Germany or Scandinavia.

  2. Kean

    Hi Ian,
    I think that the North American situation is more transparent than the UK situation (for example, universities seem to have a clearer structure that delineates between permanent and temporary teaching staff – although that is my experience in Canada so is probably different in the USA). What led to my intervention was that it became more evident to me over here that universities are totally dependent (and I mean ‘totally’) upon a much more insecure and temporary workforce than the UK (e.g. adjunct faculty, PhD student TAs, etc.) and that this dependence is institutionalised in North America (e.g. PhD students have to TA to get funding). That said, the UK is still dependent on the same ‘flexibilisation’ and is likely to become more dependent as the recent reforms sink in. I’m not sure the situation in the EU is any better, with a few exceptions like Scandinavia and the Netherlands. I’ve heard horror stories about the career progression in many European countries that has nothing to do with current trends; it rather reflects institutional histories in those countries.
    Not sure I’m being very optimistic or encouraging with this comment, but then I guess the intervention wasn’t either!