On the Supposedly Rampant Liberalism of Contract-Labour Academia

On the Supposedly Rampant Liberalism of Contract-Labour Academia October 31, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. I struggled a long while with the wounds of leaving my PhD program five years and two dissertation drafts into the process. I had decided I had no other choice after a two-hour meeting with my committee in which I was in tears almost the entire time, unable even to get tissue for 45 minutes (literally, I had snot dribbling down my lips as I was being called angry, hostile, and arrogant), while being accused of the worst personal motives in lieu of clear criticism about the work itself.

And I hate saying what I’m about to say below. I really do–because I was a passionate researcher, even diving into the original Latin and French of certain texts to create clear throughlines for relevant scientific, philosophical, and etymological histories–but I was by no means perfect, and I longed for a properly critical set of mentors to refine what I’d discovered, concluded, and written. As the nebular hypothesis gradually became an incontrovertible theory of stellar evolution over the 19th century, I argued that the cultural crisis around its attendant cosmological implications could be seen in literary representations of “the astronomer” over 60 years of contemporaneous fictions, non-fictions, and homiletic texts. Not good enough, my committee told me: “So what?”

And so on one level I knew that I had simply chosen the wrong school, the wrong committee, the wrong environment in which to develop my literary history of science. I should have gone to a school with a stronger historiography component, and a rich department of science historians. But I had chosen where I went for economic reasons: to be closer to my younger sister, so I could help on weekends with my very young nephews. And I didn’t think, in an age of online databases, that this choice would work out so catastrophically for me–but once it did, I knew there was no hope. The way that grad funding works, there was no hope of transferring my work to another institution. Most provincial stipends for PhDs run out after four years per student, not per program, and so by year five of my PhD, I was already working overtime to pay exorbitant term fees for, essentially, the occasional meeting with my advisor, and access to the school libraries. And I knew students in years six and seven with grad debts of $60,000 Canadian, trying to hold on long enough to be approved for a defense by their own committees.

Other Factors Matter; Economics Matters More

So this is a messy wound for me–because at the same time, I was stigmatized for my atheism in that meeting. I was called arrogant for refusing to write capital-G god in my own commentary when negotiating five different authors’ very different characters of the Christian god. (NB: I absolutely kept capital-G usage in their quotations! But which of those authors’ versions, or which implied sixth version, was I giving partiality to if I used capital-G god myself? It felt like the height of dishonesty to suggest an absolute fixed baseline when dealing with so many people with opposing views of its character.)

I was also in hot water for writing that famous 19th-century philosophers were guided by their emotions when reviewing empirical evidence and deciding on major cosmological stances. One, for instance, was famous for his work on logic’s role in the sciences, and also hugely pluralist (i.e. he believed that the universe was filled with other life, as most Christians confidently did when they first realized how big the cosmos was, and optimistically assumed their creator would not have made so many desolate outer worlds). But then this philosopher’s wife got sick and died, and biographers note that this timeline ties neatly into a massive cosmological shift, with him thereafter insisting that Earth is the only place with life in the cosmos–or else what a mockery would be the divine compact made with mankind through Christ!

A similar desire for the universe not to be evolving and decaying (with all that stellar decay implies about imperfect design) also saw a few Christian writers in the sciences latch triumphantly onto shreds of erroneous early telescopic evidence against the nebular hypothesis… and then prove incredibly reluctant to follow the empirical data when it subsequently turned pro-stellar-evolution. (Literally, there was quite a bit of raging about the dying of the [stellar] light!)

Now, for me, when I did this research, I felt so much for my subjects. You should see the tediously esoteric posts I dumped on my poor social-media friends, while laughing and crying and being moved by these writers during my studies! And why wouldn’t I? I didn’t see what they did as an issue of religion. It wasn’t a matter of haw haw, silly Christians. It was, and remains, an issue of being human. I saw in my 19th-century studies what is true for every single one of us who aspires to be thought of as purely logical, purely driven to our conclusions by reason above all else:

Namely, that we are all passionate creatures–and if, for instance, the love of any of our lives was dying, I think it would be the height of reason for us to want the whole world to stop being so large and messy and mysterious, too. To want the whole of the cosmos to shrink the same way our inner cosmos is collapsing at that most terrible of times.

Suffice it to say…

I was wounded, deeply wounded, by being taken for an arrogant, sneering atheist that day, when I had always come to my studies with my humanism on full blast.

And I was wounded by being called angry and hostile by people whose own tones were the only angry and hostile ones in the room–when I was literally crying because I was so exhausted from trying to finish my dissertation in the middle of the night around three jobs, before I ran out of money to keep paying for future terms as a PhD candidate.

But really, my decision to leave came from that last bit most of all: from how small-c conservative academia truly is–no matter how hard our culture works to prop up the myth of unchecked liberalism within it.

The Myth of a Truly Progressive Campus

We hear all the time how academia is too leftist, and “going too far” with its liberal-leaning activism. Look who was just cancelled as a speaker on X campus! Look how these protestors stormed an office to confront a professor over their remarks, calling for their removal in the campus paper! Look how much power these students have! Look how they’re policing Halloween, and boycotting even old-school progressive events like The Vagina Monologues, and calling for safe spaces! Look how I now can’t even say the words I want to say, or suggest the things I want to suggest, without risking a tirade! I can’t touch anybody! No one can take a joke!

And yes, there are some wonderfully progressive things happening on academic campuses–but they don’t usually get included in major press about the State of Academia. Rarely do you see similar media coverage of, say, Indigenous and Peace-and-Conflict Studies programs that take a less confrontational and graded approach to knowledge- and power-sharing. Or how Indigenous Centres host lunches based on volunteer food prep, to create platforms for youth to gather intergenerationally to learn how to honour and respect one another and the world. Or how specific religious groups sometimes make similar collective meeting spaces for the breaking of bread and feeding of vulnerable community. Or how community gardens and other sustainability initiatives are advanced and maintained through campus volunteerism.

Rarely, too, does mainstream media make news out of how many students run fundraisers for global-aid initiatives between classes, or engage directly in democratic activities, or partake in awareness- and resource-boosting events to advocate for the homeless, and victims of domestic assault, and children living in poverty.

Likewise, there are some incredibly stupid campus practices arising under the banner of liberalism. We do have cases of scientific research being expunged from journals because editors are afraid not of what a paper literally says, but rather what someone, somewhere might infer from it in relation to, say, gender discourse. We do have a lousy system in place when trying to confront the restorative-justice needs of sexualized violence on campus. And we do have the difficult matter of how quickly the whole internet can blow up a campus issue in some unsettlingly unnuanced ways. And you will always have student groups with specific demands that might seem petty and pedantic even to others in the same school.

But while all this is true, it’s also not the whole picture.

And the whole picture should give us serious pause before idly agreeing that academia is getting too liberal ever. again.

Let’s Talk About Class Intersectionality, Baby

In my Master’s year, we had a class where professors from the department took turns giving us overviews of major humanities methodologies and general grad-studies issues.

One of those professors told the women to think carefully about whether they wanted to be a mother or an academic.

In 2011.

Later on, when I worked for another professor in the department–an adjunct–I found out she was terrified of her faculty mentor and other members of the department finding out she had a boyfriend. She was worried it would affect her chances of getting tenure; that others would see her as not committed enough if she asserted her needs for a personal life with one bullying senior faculty member in particular (and oh yes, I saw those emails–they were bullying).

Meanwhile, all around me were contract labourers for higher education, quite a few struggling with Herculean home lives on their uncertain schedules. Numbers for contract teachers flitted between 2/3s and 75% of all post-secondary teaching staff. Dwindling job postings across North America routinely saw thousands of applicants, while grad programs continued to expand their numbers because of the government funding universities could solicit for each new arrival.

When I taught at a technical college for a couple terms after walking away from my PhD (positions I took with huge misgivings, but which ultimately kept me afloat while I planned my move to Colombia), I had a shared workspace in a massive room of college teachers, the vast majority contract, whom I would regularly hear talking about struggling to pay the bills, and fears of not getting renewed for the next semester, and what it would mean for their families.

On an unnerving number of occasions, I heard crying over the cubicle walls.

Nor is any of this mere personal anecdote. The horror stories of overworked underpaid grad students and adjuncts constitute a whole genre of online essay-writing and book-publishing. The sprawl of administrative roles in conjunction with these hits to teacher stability is also a background fact of the industry.

Which is… precisely why I find it so baffling that we’ve so readily bought into the belief that either the academic precariat or the managerial monolith is radicalizing the Yutes. Everyone not tenured in this system is struggling upwards, through appeasement and hoop-jumping and overtaxing ourselves with secondary work so we can keep paying the buy-in necessary to keep trying to reach the next academic rung.

Just what kind of liberalism does anyone imagine such an education system will effect?

Small-c Conservative Pressures under Liberal Banners

“O Captain! My Captain!” cry the students at the end of Dead Poets Society, in farewell salute to the film’s iconic rebel of a schoolteacher, who over the course of the film told them to tear up one stodgy version of authority and hearken instead to his impassioned version of… well, authority, too.

If you sincerely believe that students are being radicalized by post-secondary education, I invite you to visit any post-secondary instructor during office hours after a major assignment has been graded and handed back. I invite you to listen to the students in anguish over their B+s, and the teaching-team leads advising TAs to use Fs sparingly because each F a TA gives out usually means a student going over the TA’s head to the instructor–or worse, launching a formal appeal at term’s end.

It’s not ideal, but the TAs I worked with were told that it’s easier on the human component of our system to nudge as many students up to a pass as possible. Few of us were paid enough for the headaches involved, so we were reduced to “getting by”. And that’s what everyone was doing, more or less: Students struggled to move as quickly as possible through a system they were told they had to use to have any socioeconomic success in life–even if it meant incurring huge debts in the process. And TAs and class instructors and adjunct professors struggled to stay and move up in the system as quickly as possible, because… what else were they supposed to do with their skill sets?

And, yes, struggling in that system means a lot of virtue signalling. It means a lot of professors and class instructors and TAs learning quickly what is kosher and what is verboten under the parameters of a given department’s take on cultural activism.

But here’s the kicker: When a staff member is uncomfortable with how careful they have to be in word and action, and how they navigate any more nuanced views on a given hot-button issue, they then tend to associate their discomfort with the content of the activism, instead of with the small-c conservative pressures that actually make dissent so perilous. It’s not “I am deeply replaceable by design–and that’s a problem!” It’s “This particular call for social-justice by students is going to cost me my job!”

How amazing a distraction is that?

Imagining a Truly Progressive Academic Future

Meanwhile, if you really wanted to see an academic world espouse liberal values, you’d need a post-secondary system where economic instability no longer plays such a dominant role in student and staff outcomes. There would have to be more paths to job security without ridiculous commitment tests or tears in shared offices. There would have to be more funding for the fewer number of grad students schools took in, so that those who did get in wouldn’t need to worry as much about burnout from resource-scarcity. And there would have to be no point-of-service costs for undergraduate education, such that students fresh to adulthood, told they have to go to university if they want any chance at a good life, would have no mounting debt load hanging over them while handling the consequences of academic failure when it happens.

Simply put, we know we make poorer choices when we’re economically unstable. We know, too, that we cling to what’s trending–even as we resent clinging to what’s trending–when the alternative is a major hit to our livelihoods. There’s a reason, after all, that suicide attempts are strongly correlated with financial debt: our whole identity becomes wrapped up in our earning potential, our quantifiable value to society. And while that’s true across the board, for many sectors of the current economy, none is quite like academia in its blatant contradictions. In the very halls that espouse liberal values–the backbone of an enlightened society! a meritocracy! the great equalizer!–ever so many of academia’s participants go hungry, go homeless, get depressed and ultimately despair for the future.

I know how bad it can get. I almost killed myself during my PhD program. I spent three months in an out-patient program, and three more at a day-hospital, while still going about my PhD studies and working at three different job sites. I passed my second comps exam that year. I moved from PhD student to PhD candidate. I was in pain for years, in short, before that final meeting gave me the final nudge I needed to realize that this process was never going to pay out for me. That my sunk costs were sunk.

Which is perhaps why I find it especially agonizing to see this bit of cognitive dissonance continue to play out in our culture. Academia is not liberalized–even if it does claim to march under the banner of liberal values. It is an institution, instead, overwhelmingly run like a business rather than as a state resource to improve the public good. And so while individual incidents of “radical” student, staff, and internet-jury action might often seem like a sign that social-justice initiatives have gone too far; that campuses are too liberal, too leftist, too activist… the exact opposite is more often true.

Small-c conservative action, rather–the kind that has us making decisions based on appeasing our superiors and afraid of losing what little stability we have–is what keeps so many in academia on such a perilous ledge.

So when people fall off that ledge, or even when they wobble upon it, we have to stop blaming whatever final nudge led to their collapse–because there will always be nudges, whatever is most recently trending in the way of campus concerns.

What should alarm us far more is that the ledge exists at all.


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  • Jim Jones

    The serious problem here (to me) is that I wonder who the audience is for such studies. Even a popular work on the subject doesn’t look like much of a money maker, no matter how enlightening. This seems more like a field of study that is a hobby.

    I would be interested in a really informative bible translation, one that didn’t cut corners and make assumptions. I don’t trust any of the ones done so far, as I keep finding out bad stuff about them. More than a few words in the bible, critical words, have meanings no one knows now.

    But that’s just me.

  • Anne Fenwick

    More than a few words in the bible, critical words, have meanings no one knows now.

    But… that seems like a seriously small-audience academic topic. I mean, yes, it’s true and all, and also, it’s virtually impossible to reconstruct the exact connotations attached to words that do have translations. On the other hand, the range of possible meanings is quite limited. It’s not like the Bible is referring to something utterly unimagined and we just didn’t figure it out yet. Or do you think it might be?

  • Anne Fenwick

    Your PhD experience sounds completely horrible and also rather as though you were the subject of improper discrimination for your worldview. In fact, it sounds so bad it’s a bit hard to know what to say.

    Still, in the spirit of the post as a whole: I’m old enough to remember entirely grant-funded graduate education in the UK. It’s a system that does create its own pressures. it’s extremely selective, it makes a privilege of higher education, and for better or for worse, students are the servants of society (embodied in the state) rather than customers or consumers of a product. Before my time, it was sometimes felt, by those students who had been rich enough to walk away and still become successful, that only this action had guaranteed their freedom. It does seem, however (coming back to my time), that academics felt they had more freedom. The story goes that they had less workload and more freedom to pursue ideas that didn’t seem to have applications of immediate relevance to some interest group or other. It must be added that they were very frequently of upper middle class families, and while they might live quite simply, they were secure and comfortable, from a mixture of stable incomes and probably supplements from other sources. They could afford to be eccentric, which is a bit different from liberal or progressive, but might overlap with it. I really don’t know what the solution is for our societies today.

  • Jim Jones

    All current translations are so imperfect and frustrating to read. And yet If I learned ancient Greek and Hebrew, I still wouldn’t know what it all said.

    But that’s just me.

    ISTM that the OP played in a pool with kids who didn’t like him and refused to play nice. And the outcome was as expected in such cases. With me, either I can do calculus on the complex plane (I can’t) or I can solve 3 body problems (failed that too). So I switched to Computer Science and scraped through. Plans change.

  • Steven Watson

    You and me both. But that is the thing about any area of study in the Abrahamic religions and cultures: it is assumptions all the way down. The assumptions remain even as their supporting “evidence” is junked, and not just junked by outlier scholarship; the likes of Bart Ehrman have all but destroyed the basis for their own work but it still hangs like a castle in the air above a beach. It is not so much it was built on sand but it now has no foundations and no lower storeys. Read widely; bat ideas about on blogs like Vridar; and make your own mind up. I’ve given up on finding scholarship in this area that is even “Just good enough to pass”.

    We are at one of those frustrating times when the past paradigm has gone Pfft! and a new, more accurate model has yet to be made; and that is mainly because 90% of the “scholarship” is running on fumes, zombie processes, and denial. The other 10% still haven’t got to grips with the consequences enough to move on and make something new. The most important bit in the NT is when JC remarks about removing the beam from your own eye. Some of these loons have whole forests growing in theirs!

    I don’t want to hijack the OP but what are your top dodgy assumptions?

  • Steven Watson

    This happens in England too; my psychologist wasn’t able to proceed with his doctorate because his subject topic went against the grain of the current groupthink. You’d think Psychology, of all fields, might have a clue about that sort of bias!
    You can’t stray too far from the herd: you’ll probably find, if there is any truth to what you are arguing, it’ll be a commonplace in twenty years. I know that is no satisfaction; but you probably have to wait for the stick-in-the-muds to die. 🙂

  • Anne, I’m very grateful to you for providing this historical perspective from another era and context. I’m a firm believer in resisting ahistoricity, but many contexts lie far beyond my direct purview–so I deeply appreciate the context provided by others with more direct experience in other ways of structuring the same system.

    Absolutely, classism is differently reinforced but still present in older post-secondary models that seem superficially freer, so what we’re looking for is a system that can ease some of classism’s pressures better than either the present or the past models.

    In other words, we know what doesn’t work–but that still leaves us with a great chasm going forward. I do believe that eliminating point-of-service payment would help significantly, because right now that model encourages administrators to think of students as clients (with consequences across the board, for post-secondary staff and students alike), but clearly there are ways for secondary costs to continue to create class divides in education outcomes even if we do move to grant-based funding.

    Either way, then, we’re a long way from where we need to be. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Hijack away, Steven! I am well and truly thankful when any of these essays sparks conversations wherein I can learn something new in turn. Fire away, Jim Jones!

  • For me, looking at histories of science helps us understand better ways to engage in science education today. By looking at historical examples of where new data ran afoul of entrenched mythologies (to the delay of scientific and social progress on whole), we can get a better lock on the ways in which better terminology/storytelling might more efficiently transition contemporary audiences (with equally entrenched cultural traditions) into quicker acceptance of today’s most pressing scientific advances. This would be relevant to folks working in the fields of environmental advocacy, genetic modification, space exploration, disease prevention, and probably even immigration reform,

    Hope you find that intensive and comprehensive Bible study text you’re looking for!

  • You sound something like me. I started in music (too much work) then switched to electrical engineering. Took me three tries to get through 3rd semester calculus with a D. I failed circuits and fields. Finally wound up in computer science which I found to be fun and easy. Better yet, the engineering majors whom I was certain were smarter than I was seemed to think it hard, so I knew I’d found the right place. (CS was in the school of engineering at my university.) That was back in the very early 80s when there were lots of women in CS.

  • I never attempted anything beyond a bachelor’s degree, so I can’t really imagine doing that kind of research and subsequently defending theses and dissertations. I listen to “Talk Nerdy” with Cara Santa Maria every week and get a glimpse into that world, but often her guests are academics who really care about their students. They do have stories of their own bad experiences occasionally. But your advisors — how in the world? And the piling on! Clearly they knew nothing about you. It almost sounds like you were at a fundamentalist Bible college.

  • guerillasurgeon

    Okay this is the net Nanny in action I suspect that my comment below is going to disappear into the aether. So I’ll repeat it and try to get rid of the naughty words. If only it weren’t so long. Didn’t work. I’ll try dividing it into smaller lots so I can try and pick out the naughty words.
    Universities all round the world these days seem to be funded on a “arses on seats/people who pass” system. My MPhil supervisor told me years ago that I was entitled to somewhat less than 40 minutes of his time per fortnight, particularly given that I was part-time. Nice chap, but somewhat overworked, which eventually impacted on my grade as I had to wait somewhere around about three months for feedback on my draft copy. And although they were reasonably good about making up for it eventually, telling me to take my time – life got in the way and the end result was hurried. But apart from pressure to pass marginal students I haven’t seen much in the way of grade inflation. At least not on a personal level, and I have copies of my various assignments going back to around 1967 – not sure why I kept the things. But when I look at my older ones I’m almost embarrassed by them – even the B+s :). Of course having 50 years of life experience now is a great help in the social sciences it seems to me. So actually getting a B+ now is a minor embarrassment.

  • guerillasurgeon

    Okay that worked let’s try the second half.

    “And you will always have student groups with specific demands that might seem petty and pedantic even to others in the same school.”

    Yes, and unfortunately those are the very specific demands that conservatives will publicise in an effort to demean student activism and optimism/naïveté. But the very people that criticise them were often at university during a time when little was demanded of students beyond end of year exams – it was supposed to be a time when they made their mistakes and eventually found their feet. With the demise of free or cheap public education in many developed countries students no longer have this luxury, and it amazes me how much activism there actually is considering.
    Not to mention – well I am mentioning it of course – that many tertiary institutions these days are turning to the employment of adjuncts. Part-time, poorly paid, insecure in their work. That can’t have a good effect on learning, or educators’ morale. I wonder if the people with tenure tend to be the more conservative?
    I can’t imagine an experience like your PhD interrogation though. Was it in a particularly conservative part of Canada? Because even in the old days, while there was misogyny and arrogance in the upper echelons of academia, they were usually reasonably helpful rather than aggressive. As I remember the worst it got was that good old prof T offered a glass of sherry to his male masters students but not to the females when they came to his office in the afternoon. A very civilised custom if it had been equally applied, although the sherry wasn’t the best. Probably thought it was wasted on students. The worst example I remember was a history professor who later became a libertarian politician who made a very sexist remark to me when I was in his office borrowing his thesis. No surprises there.

  • Perhaps prof. T was worried that offering alcohol to female students in his office alone might come off worse?

  • Oddly enough, the most aggressive of the three was… not actually that spiritual, compared to the other two. But they did a great deal to enhance and exacerbate the criticism of another party present. Meanwhile the third… echoed in the oddest way, because it was tacitly understood by everyone else in the room that this third had lied for a long while about reading my dissertation, which meant they took more of a supportive role in the piling on, rather than a direct one. It was… all about power more than anything. Religion just happened to be the content of the pile-on, but I think it could easily have been a host of other things–which is why I’m always reluctant to talk about the atheist stigma here; it feels very secondary to another, more common theme of hierarchical bullying afoot in academia. Thanks for sharing, Lerk (and for that listening rec!)!

  • SecMilChap

    Your willingness and ability to communicate the devastating emotional damage done to you after all your hard work is impressive. It reminds me of one of Garrison Keillor’s essays, in which he pointed out that, if you hurt a writer, you’ve given the writer material useful in making a living as a writer. Not all of us can be as successful in the “Marketplace Of Ideas” as Isaac Asimov or Sir Terry Pratchett, but we can do satisfying work. Sometimes we even are paid for it. Well Done! I hope this useful essay leads to further revenue via Patreon.

  • Positivist

    UGH. I haven’t finished reading your post yet but I must comment! I feel sick about what happened to you! I am in academia and can vouch that it is a highly problematic institution. I have a wide range of grad students with a wide range of abilities, but what matters to me as their supervisor/committee member is that the student can defend their ideas, not that I must agree with them. Even if the student wants to go out on some crazy/unique limb, that’s fine with me, as long as they can defend their stance using ideas previously supported in the extant literature. It sounds like this did not happen for you. People like you are exactly what PhD programs need and should be comprised of. It’s an utter shame!

    K, back to reading.

  • guerillasurgeon

    It was about 1967 I think. Maybe as late as 1970. But I don’t think anyone thought about that sort of thing in those days. Certainly not to the extent that they do today. I don’t think he even bothered to leave the door open.