When Precarity is Too Much and Academia is Not Enough

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol 4 (2)
Jorie Lagerwey, University College Dublin

At the Console-ing Passions Conference in June 2016, a plenary session titled New Directions brought together five so-called “emerging scholars” to share our experiences of scholarly transition from graduate students to full time, full fledged academics. In preparation for the panel discussion, we panelists were asked to consider a set of questions including “What challenges and opportunities did you face arriving at your current position, and what advice would you give your younger self?” In thinking about those questions, I found myself thinking not of professional or research transitions, but personal ones. In the contemporary post-crash university job market characterized by constantly rising student fees and consistent cuts in public funding, the transition from student to teacher is fraught. The decisions we make during that transition are of course practical career decisions. But the emotional toll of those decisions and indeed the emotional state in which we make those decisions isn’t often part of the conversation. So as I was considering my answers to the questions Console-ing Passions asked us, I came to one piece of advice I wish someone had given me so straightforwardly: Give yourself a concrete deadline. Decide how much of the pain of precarity you can handle. And then quit.

If you’re a young academic, you’ve read innumerable horror stories of adjunct life, in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Chronicle. You’ve heard them from your friends, from the colleagues who graduated in the cohort above you, and of course you’ve lived them yourself. Those stories, like this Teaching Dossier, tend to focus on changes in institutional structures and cultural understanding of the university’s role in public life. They offer strategies and policy alternatives, ways to organize, and potential pathways from adjunct or contingent work to regularized contracts with living wages and benefits, or even that unicorn dream—a tenure track post. That is extremely valuable work that makes visible the exploitation and frequently invisible labor, including affective labor supporting students and communities, that all low-level academics do. I support any organizing effort that wins contingent faculty better working conditions and any policy initiative that reinstates and increases public funding for higher education.

But precarity is painful. The unpleasant truth is that the structural damage done to universities by neoliberalism generally and economic crisis specifically, is not easily undone, and you might not “make it” before that change is achieved. The emotional and financial toll of contemporary academia is immense and will have lifelong consequences. Despite the (I would argue) indisputable public goods of educating young people in critical media literacy, creative problem solving, writing and research skills, and the sharing of critical cultural analysis both publicly and among a community of scholars, sometimes the tolls taken by precarity are too much, and the fulfillment academia can provide just isn’t enough.

My story of working precariously is in no way unique. I share it nonetheless for two reasons: to encourage a support network for those who decide to quit, and to illustrate that “making it” is not a triumph narrative. I hope that by making this discussion personal, I can disrupt the comforting meritocratic rhetoric that enough love of the discipline will provide enough grit to “succeed;” that with persistence, the strongest intellectual work will thrive in the end. That discourse is meant to reassure, but it can also reinforce the feelings of failure, embarrassment, and lack of self-worth that go hand in hand with not achieving the dominant goal of a traditional, secure, well-benefitted tenure track job, an end goal that that simply doesn’t exist in the form it did a generation ago.

I finally have all the markers of academic success: a fairly secure job, the possibility of promotion in the future, plenty of publications including (finally) my first book, invitations to speak at conferences, and a strong international community of fellow scholars. I also get to live in a big, proper city (Dublin). Everyone has different needs in a home town and almost no academic gets to choose where they live, but for me, the geographical stress of moving around the US and indeed eventually abroad, became a deal breaker. I loved working at Notre Dame, for example, the students were incredible, and it was among the best teaching environments I’ve ever experienced. Moving from Los Angeles to a small midwestern town, however, wasn’t a cultural shift I was able to cope with. So my new adopted home town—a capital city—for me, is an essential component of my version of academic success.

But as I said, this isn’t a narrative of perseverance or overcoming. Contemporary academic “success” does not automatically include comfortable entry into the middle class. I have a very low salary imposed by post-crash austerity conditions that are mirrored in public funding cuts on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea. I have no health insurance, which is admittedly less dire in Ireland than it would be in the United States, but living without that protection is more troublesome given how often I travel to the US where I am very very careful never to require medical attention. I have no savings. Having lived in the ludicrous real estate market of LA during graduate school, I long ago gave up the idea that I would ever own my own home, but no savings means no safety net in the event of life’s inevitable major and minor emergencies. Like so many who earned multiple degrees in America, I have enormous student debt. And of course, I was forced to emigrate to find work (ironically to a country where that narrative is all too common) and I live 3,000 to 6,000 miles away from the different parts of my family. That is my picture of academic success.

Before that success came years of precarity working as a visiting, adjunct, or contract lecturer/assistant professor in various places. I spent about seven years of anxiety, humiliation, panic, desperation, occasional bouts of rage, and basic, constant exhaustion. I was burned out, run down, and essentially hopeless. And that emotional state never relented for the whole time I was working precariously. Echoing the highly gendered “time panic” usually associated with women’s cultural requirements for partnering and bearing children, I felt trapped in this career by my age (I earned my PhD at thirty) and the idea that I could not choose a different job because it was too late to start from scratch. I felt trapped also because I’d spent so much time and such hard work getting this degree, and that time felt wasted. I felt trapped by the cycle of the school calendar that makes looking for other jobs so difficult; and trapped by the bank balance that always told me I had just enough money to pay my rent, but nothing to support myself if I had to be unemployed for months at a time. And finally, in those seven years, I moved to three new cities in two countries; each time further away from my family and my support network. And once I moved to Ireland, I couldn’t afford to move home, even if I had wanted to.

So the end of my story is a picture of success in which the emotional reward of stability is strong enough to outweigh the financial consequences of this career. In fact, I’d describe myself as very happy. I’m left only with the sort of nagging worry about what’s going to happen when I retire with no savings, and the assumption that sometime in the hopefully distant future some family need will call me back to the US, abandoning my career anyway.

My wish is that a mentor had so plainly laid out that picture of success. My wish is that someone had said very clearly to me, quitting is not failure. When 300 people apply for the job you’ve applied for, more than one of them is qualified. None of this is your fault. I wish someone had said to me, give yourself a firm, concrete time frame. If you can handle one year of the emotional and financial drain of precarity, do it. If you can take two years, absolutely, go for it. You have worked extraordinarily hard to get here. But don’t let your time working contingently stretch. Seven years, for me, was too much, and the vaunted halls of academe are not worth those sacrifices.

While we work together to renegotiate or reimagine paths from graduate study into stable, fairly compensated and non-exploitative university work, we need also to reimagine definitions of academic success. Those definitions need to be realistic about what success means within the academy we have, not couched in fantasies of the academy we deserve. And most importantly, new definitions of success need to take away the shame, stigma, and sense of failure that so often accompany the choice to seek geographic, emotional, and financial stability elsewhere. We need to support the option to quit.


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