The Duck of Minerva

Jobs and Vocations

5 June 2009

I started this as a reply to Peter’s post in the Comments thread, but a) it rapidly got too long and b) from analysis of the site traffic I know that many of our readers don’t read comments, just top-level posts. So here is my final word on the subject for the time being — final because it’s also my final Duck post until September, since I have to get this book written this summer and so am taking a step back from blogging over here until it’s done. I am under no illusions that my reply ends the conversation, of course.

Peter’s post is an impassioned and trenchant analysis of what Weber would call the “external” conditions of the academic vocation — the institutional and organizational features of the contemporary academy, and their characteristic patterns and implications. He’s quite right that the actually-existing academy is getting to be a tougher and tougher place to exercise an academic vocation, and he’s equally right that it’s largely a matter of luck that some people get to approximate the external conditions of that vocation while others, equally talented and called, do not. Maybe that’s always been the case, although I think that luck has more to do with it now for two reasons:

1) there are simply more PhDs around, reducing the chances of anyone in particular landing a decent job (not an elite job, but a decent job — the elite jobs remain in the hands of the elite students of the elite faculty-members at the elite institutions, same as it ever was). Once you get out of the top 20 or so institutions, places that you’re not going to get serious consideration at unless you were a star at anotehr top 20 institution, you’re competing with more people for a job, and that increases the contingency of any matches that occur: maybe some hiring committees are impresed by the prestige of your doctoral institution, maybe some like your publication record, maybe some are in your extended network of professional contacts. Sure, you can game that system a little bit by attending a prestigious doctoral institution, but that only gets you so far.

2) academia itself is in such a state of flux, with jobs being redefined and modified all the time, that simply having a tenure-track job available which gives you the ability to both teach students and engage in scholarly research is a highly contingent affair. I know of at least one case of someone on the job market this year who was for all intents and purposes offered a job — nice job, decent institution — only to have the offer dissolve as the state legislature directed the university in question to freeze hiring, even though the hiring decision had already been made. Short-term fluctuations because of the financial crisis, sure, but also indicative of a broader effort (especially among state universities) to call the university to account in terms of its immediate contribution to narrower political and social considerations.

And I hasten to emphasize that it’s luck, not simply privilege. I was lucky to find a couple of very good advisers and mentors as an undergraduate student at Michigan State University (not an elite institution — certainly no more of an elite institution than Ohio State, where Peter did his undergraduate studies). I was lucky to be at Columbia during a time when there was still space to do the kind of critical constructivist scholarship that I do. My family aren’t academics either; I had no idea how to play the game until I was smack in the middle of it, and I still don’t play it well — witness my distinct lack of single-authored articles in top-ranked US IR and polisci journals, and my distinct lack of a job at an elite institution. I often feel like I stumbled into what I have, and I’m extraordinarily grateful that I can get this close to exercising my vocation — indeed, I understand part of my obligation because I’ve been lucky to involve publicly, and vocally, pointing out when things are going awry.

And things are most definitely going awry. Peter quite rightly observes:

But, the contemporary reality is the institutional forms in which one can realize Patrick’s vocation are disappearing. If you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, then yes, this profession is for you. Expect significant suffering along the way. Be prepared to accept conditions you otherwise would find untenable to realize your dream. Realize that other portions of your life will suffer to fulfill this one deeply felt need.

Yes, they are disappearing, but they don’t have to. Not if people who understand the distinctiveness of the academic vocation stand up and hold the line, and honestly tell undergraduate students that education is not about training them for jobs but about giving them space to become who they are, and honestly tell graduate students that teaching is letting learn and research is enacted philosophy manifested as social-scientific methodology (and not, say, policy analysis or technocratic problem-solving), and honestly tell state legislatures and central administrators that there is no conceivable way that anyone can do these things unless they have reasonable workloads and decent wages — and honestly tell everyone that the value of academia is in its long-term contribution to our existence as human beings, both as a storehouse of traditions with which we bring students into encounter and as a speculative space within which we combine and revision elements of those traditions to equip them for the future. Step one in this process, I think, is to have a clear idea of what it is that we academics are supposed to be doing, and what we are not supposed to be doing. The academy serves society best by being itself, and not by being a sub-department of some other mundane social or political or God forbid economic sector.

But even in the absence of broad-based reform and revitalization, I would still argue that the academy remains the only place where one can — to slightly mis-quote Peter — engage in “the practices of teaching, mentoring, researching, and mastering a certain domain of knowledge.” Peter said “or,” not “and,” and that makes all the difference; he’s right if the vocation is defined as a disparate set of activities that can be differentially combined, but he’s wrong if the vocation is all of these practices together. For me it is all of these things together, and until the good folks over at Baseball Prospectus start offering seminars where we can engage philosophical notions and literary works and thorny, unresolvable questions of ethics and theology, only the academy — with all its imperfections — makes sense for someone like me. It’s not that the vocation is an essential way of being, but that the vocation involves simulating an essential way of being, approximating it, reproducing it, striving for it. That regulative idea, that utopian ideal, gives meaning to the disparate activities that make up the academic life; without it, various pieces of academic practice can be split off from one another, leaving us with (for instance) the terrible conceit of scholarship without teaching that presumes that it has answered questions rather than provoked thinking, and the equally terrible conceit of “teaching” without scholarship that falls all too easily into the transmission of supposed truths without opening space for thinking. Teaching keeps schoalrship honest, and schoalrship keeps teaching honest; one needs to be engaged in both in order to do a good job — an appropriate job — at either.

Try doing that outside of academia. Unless you’re independently wealthy and charismatic enough to attract students, you’ll likely fail. Or you could try the ministry, but that brings me back to the basic parallel I started off with: the academic vocation is like the ministerial vocation. It is closer to religion than to the mundane, secular way that people choose jobs or are told to choose jobs. It is not to be entered into lightly, and I do not recommend it to everyone, even everyone who is intellectually capable of doing it. I only recommend it to people who can’t not do it. Everyone else should take Peter’s grim picture as a reason not to go down this road, but for people with this calling, you have no alternative that will actually make you happy and content except to do this. If enough of us who understand the vocation are working in the job, hopefully we can change some of those external conditions over time — and in the meantime, there are students who need our teaching and a whole world of “experts” who need their putative intellectual authority kicked out from underneath them.

[I am now crawling into an ivory cave and writing about the philosophy of science for the rest of the summer. See you all in September, and may the Force be with you. The congregation responds, “Amen, Amen,” or “Live long and prosper” or even “So say we all” — we are, you see, a very ecumenical kind of church.]