How to Be a Generous Professor in Precarious Times

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By Douglas Dowland  and Annemarie Pérez

Precarity has become so commonplace in academe that even some of the tenured have adopted its cruel tactics. There is no other way to explain how those who espouse the most progressive of politics in their scholarship simultaneously behave so regressively in private. And sometimes, in public.

The Ronell-Reitman controversy is but the latest, and most public, example. We have heard of dissertation chairs abandoning their former students — refusing to write letters of recommendation with the excuse that, after a few years on the job market, "you’re on your own." And we have witnessed well-established scholars publicly punching down on graduate students and new Ph.D.s for the crime of contributing to the rich discourse of "quit lit."

Ph.D.s write quit lit to convey their frustrations with an academic hiring system that cannot sustain them. The genre has proven popular in recent years because: (a) It discusses something we all see every day in academe and mostly ignore, (b) its audience is perpetually expanding, and (c) it’s a shared, public display of a trait academics have been trained to hide: vulnerability. Too often, academics see an expression of vulnerability as a sign of weakness and as "pointless whining."

But displays of vulnerability always have a point: to expose an injustice, to reveal an insecurity, to show how a personal problem may also be a political one. Witnessing the vulnerability of others in our profession should inspire generosity — particularly from those who possess the authority and stability of tenure. Instead, their responses to quit lit tend to be, at best, unsympathetic ("back in my day" or "the system has always been this way") and at worst, illusory and dishonest ("keep quiet and the system might reward you … eventually").

What quit lit has exposed are the abuses that we take as normal in a profession that is more and more cutthroat. Academe has always been a competitive business, but something has changed: Precarity has turned scholarly rigor into a competition for citation and faculty hiring into an exercise in nihilism.

It is presumed to be "normal" for job applicants to send in application after application with never a word of response. That the number of tenure-track positions is much smaller and the number of qualified applicants much higher than they used to be amplifies the mistreatment. So much so that the job wikis (which offer as much information as they do misinformation and bad feeling) have become a de facto notification system, and search chairs who send formal acknowledgments and "thank you for your application" emails are remembered by job candidates as remarkably kind. Enmity is considered standard operating procedure in graduate training. Receiving scathing and even hostile criticism — when we are most vulnerable intellectually — is somehow seen as judicious and accurate.

While those are not new phenomena in academe, precarity has made those extremes all the more normal. What we find in precarious times is a basic disregard for the least powerful members of the profession at the most vulnerable points of their careers — when they’re moving from the contingency of being a graduate student or a part-time faculty member to a more stable position, and deciding to have a public voice on a contentious issue or seeking reform of an institutional inequality.

The counterclaim is that academe has always been a cruel place. There is some truth in that — with the obvious example being the almost humorous brutality of the infamously vicious "Reviewer 2." But we are not suggesting there is any golden past to which academe could return. Rather, we see the need to imagine a better, more generous future.

For example, while generosity tends to be scarce and precious in peer review, we have seen a few exceptions lately — places where kindness and activism play a role in the reviewing and editing of scholarly work. Some journals are reimagining peer review as a process of intellectual mentorship and collaboration: Hybrid Pedagogy performs open peer review rather than the usual anonymous system, and Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of MALCS pairs promising emerging authors with senior scholars to work together on revisions. Those efforts are good for both authors and disciplines.

In such dire times, what once may have been simple gestures of support and collegiality have become radical unto themselves. Indeed for us, it is the promise of such gestures and the generosity they bestow that reminds us of the good academics can do for each other. If the ideals of higher education as a profession are to survive, it will be through such acts of generosity. Tenured professors — and also tenure-track ones — can lead the way.

What does that generosity look like?

It starts with the individual. In its simplest form, it begins with the acknowledgment of other people’s vulnerability within the academic hierarchy. Going further, generosity grows in the plentitude of microscopic activities we do in everyday academic life:

  • Agreeing to read a paper.
  • Having tea with a student in distress.
  • Steering a committee discussion in a different, more positive way.
  • Buying a coffee or lunch for a graduate student or an adjunct faculty member attending a conference.
  • Finding ways to include and pay adjuncts for service work.

What we cherish about academe is that individuals can be radical unto themselves — that academe still offers some agency through which we can highlight an injustice, bring it to attention, and formulate strategies for its alleviation. These acts of generosity offer their own expression of academic freedom.

Never underestimate an individual’s ability to change the academic scene through an act of generosity. And — to those who think that cruelty is the norm — we would say: Never underestimate how an individual’s generosity can spur a larger response that benefits us all.

For example, one of us witnessed the collective effort of a department to convert a contingent teaching position into a permanent one. The process of building consensus began with two tenured professors who had observed the adjunct’s excellent teaching. They proceeded to go door-to-door, meeting with every colleague in the department to gain support for the idea. With everyone on board, the entire department then worked together to deliver a consistent message to the administration: "We need this person." In the meantime, the department avoided promising the adjunct that the conversion could actually be accomplished. And when it was, we celebrated it as a victory not just for the individual but for the department.

Generosity may start with a person, but like any radical movement, it slowly builds. It unifies people, and those unified people stand together in a group that grows as the proposal goes up the ladder. At every rung there is the possibility of failure.

And in moments of potential failure, our generosity must be more profound, and our solidarity must become even stronger.

Another example: One of us witnessed the collective effort of a department to cover the cost of a student’s applications to graduate school. This time, the process of building consensus began with an overheard conversation: A first-generation college student who is an exceptional poet wanted to pursue an M.F.A., but confided to a friend that the cost of applications would wipe out her food budget for the remainder of the semester.

A tenured professor who heard the conversation asked "What can we do?" and the process of going office-to-office began. We (the student’s advocates) asked the financial-aid office about scholarships, and the dean’s office about opportunity awards. When the university could not offer help formally, we did informally: Our department’s faculty collectively abstained from the coffee shop across the street for a week and instead put the money that would be spent there toward the student’s application fees. There was no guarantee the student would be admitted, but, to our delight and pride, she was accepted to a prominent creative-writing program on a full scholarship.

This sort of one-time emergency funding can even become formalized in the best sense. At one of our universities, faculty and staff members collectively fund a program that gives emergency money to students in the midst of unexpected crises that otherwise might cause them to drop out. One of our students used the fund last semester after a car accident and was able to stay in his classes and graduate. Through these small, seemingly individual acts of generosity, we create opportunities for our colleagues to demonstrate solidarity.

What can be learned from examples like these?

That individual acts of generosity matter. You’ve helped a person: That’s radical. You’ve modeled generosity in a place where it might have been alien: That’s radical. And you’ve bent, just a little, the arc of injustice that has come to haunt our profession: That’s radical.

Things in academe have gotten bad. And given the current political climate, it is likely they will get worse. We need to work every day to overcome the embarrassed discomfort that makes us less likely to engage intellectually and personally with each other. As times worsen, we must reject the idea that having tenure, or being in the tenure stream, carries with it the right to be cruel. We must resist precarity’s tendency toward malevolence.

How can each of us be generous in precarious times?

  • Remember that no one person is an entire movement, but one person can begin a movement.
  • Refuse to perpetuate the "normal" abuses of the past. There is no excuse for cruelty in public or in private. Don’t punch down.
  • Never. Abandon. Anyone. Keep writing the letters of recommendation. Keep trying to bring more full-time, tenure-track faculty members into the fold. If we are safely in the lifeboat, we have a moral obligation to pull everyone out of the water.
  • Look for ways that adjunct instructors can be involved in the life of departments and institutions, and consistently demand that they be paid for their time and work.
  • Work with contingent faculty members to see what new solidarities can be created to keep our profession alive.
  • See the radicalism of generosity as a way of keeping our allies — and ourselves — alive in precarious times.
  • Build generosity into practice. Bring others into it — like that recalcitrant colleague down the hall. Approach your whole department, or your dean. Design assignments and meetings that encourage students and colleagues to be generous toward each other.

When precarity wants us to feel isolated, alone, and in perpetual competition with each other, there is a radicalism in being generous with each other, through coalition building, collaboration, and solidarity. Generosity is not impossible in today’s precarious times. It can be embedded in the small acts we perform every day and in the behaviors we model across the profession.

A generous academe benefits us all — even those who argue that true altruism doesn’t exist and that we are professionally compelled to act in our own self-interest. Generous acts are often performed silently and may go unrewarded, but the benefits are there for everyone when we make our classrooms, departments, and campuses better places to be. This is what we need of academe’s radicals — to be open and generous in ways, public and private, that will show the future of higher education in these precarious times.

Douglas Dowland is an associate professor of English at Ohio Northern University. He can be found on Twitter @profdgd . Annemarie Pérez is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at California State University-Dominguez Hills. She can be found on Twitter @anneperez .

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