Another Brick in the (Ivory) Wall by Natalie Weaver

I have recently read a couple of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the challenge of working in academia.  One article lamented the paucity of tenure line positions and the great disappointment some ex-academics feel when they finally give up searching for that elusive job, which is actually non-existent.  Another article reported on the sham interview experience, in which a national search is conducted, but the whole thing is a ruse since an internal candidate already has the position.  Hopeful candidates put their families and lives on hold as they bide months of time while thinking, completely ignorant of the reality of situation, that they may be in line for a new position.  They get letters of reference, prepare for interviews, buy suits, arrange childcare, manage time away from whatever they would otherwise be doing to make an interview, and then endure the emotional trial of waiting.

They never had a chance.  They never even knew they never had a chance.  As one who has been in this situation, I can vouch that such pretenses of fairness and transparency are not equal opportunities for employment but dishonestly motivated, targeted opportunities for exploitation.

Academia, friends, worries me enormously.  And, I’m not at all sure what we are doing.  As a former board member of a large theology society, I had the privilege of working with new members, many of whom were degree-seekers, finishing up courses, exams, and research projects.  Each person’s work could arguably be, to a greater or lesser degree, sufficiently interesting to some population of readers, but the lot, en masse, would inevitably strike me as, well, struggling in the very least to be relevant.  What schools could or would support these newly minted degrees?  What academic programs would these new scholars populate, and who in turn would be their students?

I ask this of myself when we bring on graduate students in my own institution, for whom each course typically represents thousands of dollars of debt. What school of ethics can justify taking years of a person’s life, creating conditions in which the person will be financially compromised for decades, and preparing students for work that may well not even exist?  What is more, this risky situation is compounded by the fact that these very students would typically not be in school if they already had situations that were satisfying and economically viable.  I have begun to believe that the American system of higher education is more effective in producing a persistent population of payers on federal education loans than it is in producing a skilled labor force or economically improved conditions for persons earning college and graduate degrees.

My analogy is a simple one.  One summer I worked in a retail store.  Part of the condition for hire was that each employee was given a store credit card. We had to use the store card if we wanted the benefit of our modest employee discount on any purchases.  I worked there for a couple of months, and I earned a few hundred dollars total. That was twenty years ago, but  I still have the credit card.  College degrees are akin to my experience in retail.  They happen twenty years ago, but the loan payback continues.  It is functionally another kind of tax, and a very deep one at that, on those whose need drives the borrowing in the first place.

The fundamental issue I struggle with is the integrity of this work, and I do not have an answer, even for myself.  I love learning, writing, researching, constructing new ideas, preserving the old ones, and all the other true intellectual-spiritual-relational tasks of academia.  However, the sicknesses within the system, its failed democratization of access, the overtax on the financially needy, the disingenuous preparation for jobs that do not exist – all this causes a profound consternation in me.  I am reminded of Mary Daly’s self-disclosures in Outercourse, in which she describes the tensions she found in the experience of arriving as an academic only to find that one is also a pawn or a cog who now must preserve the system in order to preserve the self that the system produced.  And, of course, that is for the lucky ones who make it into the ivory tower walls in the first place.

Over the past few years, I have awoken from dogmatic slumbers just to find I was still dreaming.  As Church became something else to me, as family and marriage have become something else to me, so too has my work  in the academy become to me something other than what I thought I was doing and for which I prepared professionally.  As I navigate these murky waters as well, I am convinced that more adequate discussion of the costs as well as benefits to potential students should be paramount in program admissions.  For those seeking graduate degrees, integral to the degree process should be career preparation and/or transparency about the real limits of the job market.  It is no longer adequate to moan about the errors in the system. To be the proverbial change we seek, I believe, a critical process  is needed of:

1)    Seeing
2)    Naming
3)    Assessing
4)    Grieving (if needed)
5)    Revaluing
6)    Acting

As I enter stages 4-6 in all my various walks, I celebrate challenge and struggle.  I know I won’t make it through everything smoothly, but I am grateful for the courage and wisdom to start seeing, speaking, and thinking.  I find I can crawl and cry and walk and talk, all at the same time!


Natalie Kertes Weaver, Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books includeMarriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013)Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).  Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin.  Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology.  Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan.  For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.

Categories: Academy, Education, Ethics, General, Justice

Tags: , ,

9 replies

  1. Thanks for this Natalie. The use and abuse of adjuncts if verging on criminal behavior. I myself found 6 classes a year plus research at a top university too much and then in my next job had 8 classes and still was doing my research and writing and finally I said it was too much and quit a job with tenure and full professor. But at least I had full-time salaries and benefits, full fellowships for my grad education, and no student loans. Adjuncts may juggle even more classes than I had at different institutions with no job security and lower pay. Sigggghhhhh

    Add to this that because of the situation, graduate students are told not to do feminist or other cutting edge work, not to identify with other than one of the main patriarchal religions, etc., if they want to get a job and so forth.

    I have begun to see even my undergraduate education which I was once so proud of as a kind of brain-washing into thinking that I was stupid but could become smart if I read and started to think like elite white male intellectuals! Pardon me while I vomit. And don’t even ask me about how much more narrow and conventional my graduate education was.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Great assessment of what’s happening in higher education, Natalie. It’s both sad and brutal, however, as Bob Dylan sang decades ago, “the times they are a changin’.” Change is always disruptive and change is not always “for the best” (whatever that means). Navigating that inevitable change is essential, though, and for that we need wisdom. I look forward to your future posts.


  3. I am reminded of Mary Daly’s self-disclosures in Outercourse, in which she describes the tensions she found in the experience of arriving as an academic only to find that one is also a pawn or a cog who now must preserve the system in order to preserve the self that the system produced. —

    These words really rang true to me Natalie. My last position, teaching in a community college in New York City, was my most painful encounter with that system that dehumanized both teachers and students. I ended up leaving, but it is also important, I think, to stay in the struggle to change that system. Thank you for being part of that process.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very good examination of a critical situation. Brava! I once flew to Newt Gingrich country for a job interview at “his” institute of “higher” “learning.” Yes, the quote marks are ironic. I didn’t get the job.

    I think you’re right that the whole system of higher education–both graduate students and faculty, tenured or not–is a really big scam just to put and keep people in debt. How can we fix it?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Natalie, you are so right about the costs of higher education versus the availability of jobs. I too went heavily in debt while getting 2 master’s degrees, but fortunately I have a decent pension so I’m doing OK. I really feel sorry for those who are trying to become professors because they have to go so far into debt as they prepare for jobs that aren’t there, or that pay poorly. It does seem like a racket.


  6. Your analysis is powerful, Natalie. Thinking about the economics of higher educations and that it is “functionally another kind of tax” rings true and deeply disturbs. I am challenged by your words as someone within the system – I take seriously your diagnosis that the U.S. system of higher education “is more effective in producing a persistent population of payers on federal education loans.” Is it possible for my classroom to be a sight of struggle against this? How might I use my work in the classroom actively counteract this? These are the questions you leave me with.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent article! I also faced the limits of working in academia and was bitterly disappointed and so glad to leave after 15 years. I did not have tenure, but I still have loans. Our educational system is a sick as the rest of the culture.

    Your words “one is also a pawn or a cog who now must preserve the system in order to preserve the self that the system produced” describe what I personally endured.

    Thank you for this relevant article.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Such an interesting article.

    I cam late to the academic scene, returning to school as a welfare mother in my early 30s. I was fortunate in that 30 years ago there were still scholarships and reasonably priced loans, and that as an older “continuing education student” there were resources available to me.

    One of the things that I so loved about my education, which for my associate’s degree was at a community college, and for the second 2 years of my bachelor’s degree and for my master’s degree was at a women’s college, was how it opened up the world to me in whole new ways. I felt that the way it expanded my thinking and view of the world, and how it taught me to think, was well worth the effort. I don’t think I would be interested in this blog or feel able to comment on it if not for my education.

    Having said all that, i decided during my gradate education that academia was too tied up in intellectualism and what felt like mental masturbation, and decided that I did not want to teach in academia as I had previously thought. I do teach now, but classes on herbs and plants, and not in a traditional academic setting.

    What I see happening now is that higher education seems to have become one more way for end-stage capitalism to process “human capital” and continue to garner the income that keeps it alive. I don’t know what the answers are, certainly, but I am glad you have brought up the subject, and I will be thinking on it.


  9. I recall a professor in undergrad describing grad school as an experience of being “paid to learn.” It took me a few years into my own graduate work to realize that the economic trade-off of a very meager stipend paled in comparison to the compensation of a full-time job in the private sector. I am likely personalizing the experience too fully, but I felt a sense of betrayal by the blind eye most of my professors seemed to turn toward some of the job prospects and earnings potential in academica. I know there are data suggesting each “level” of education leads to substantially higher lifetime earnings, but there must be at least significant variance depending upon the career track one peruses.


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