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:
4) Grieving (if needed)
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, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage 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.