For Complaining: Three Anecdotes and an Argument

20131216_163138By Jacob Remes
William Lyon Mackenzie King Research Fellow, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University Assistant Professor of Public Affairs and History, SUNY Empire State College

I have a friend who is a star.  At a conference panel recently, half of the people in the standing-room-only room left after she was done, and those who stayed directed all their questions to her at the end.  Her first book has become a textbook and a landmark on graduate student exam reading lists.  Not only that, but she and her partner are both tenured in at a research intensive university ranked in the top 60 national universities by US News.  In short she seems like she’s won the game.  She has the job most of us imagine, or are trained to imagine, that we want.  Her ideas are well known, recognized as important, and spreading.  Her book sells.

And yet every time I see my friend, she complains.  She and her partner, it turns out, find the college town in which they live uncongenial in nearly every way.  They are desperate to leave, but so far they can find no school that will give both of them a job.  I see her a few times a year at conferences, and each time it seems as if her desperation has grown.  Even in her success, she is like a graduate student worrying over the job market, always on the prowl for a new possibility.

And I have to admit, it rankles me.  She won, I think, and yet she still complains. I would trade places with her in a heartbeat, I think.  And yet surely she is right to complain.  Sure, from the outside it looks like she has what we want, but as her friend I know better; she wants something else, something more.  She wants, like we all do—and this, unlike the R1 job, is not just something we are trained into wanting—to live in a city she likes, where she and her partner can have the friends, the political commitments, the consumer choices, that they want.  Surely that is not too much to ask.

What I think about my friend, surely others think about me.  After a year’s post-doc, I took the one tenure-track job that was offered to me.  It was in New York City at a mission-driven, non-traditional college with a very high tenure rate.  My friends looked at me with envy:  not only had I escaped years of adjunct purgatory, but I had done so with a job in the mecca of American academics.  Too bad my own partner also took the one tenure-track job she was offered—fourteen timezones away in Tokyo.  Too bad the teaching load is so heavy.  Too bad I am called on to teach far outside of my field, and rarely in it.

And so my complaints—the unsustainable workload, the absence of research support, the lack of historian colleagues, the constant, industrial pressure to generate more tuition money—I fear are heard with the same frustration with which I hear the complaints of my star friend.  Doesn’t he realize he won? they must ask.  How I wish I lived and worked in Brooklyn, they must think.  I would trade places with him in a heartbeat, I’m sure they say.

And yet surely my complaints, too, are legitimate.  The workload is too heavy.  The furlough days—that is, the pay cut—the supposedly Democratic governor forced on us is outrageous.  Living 6800 miles from my partner is too far.  And just as my friend doesn’t much like living in a small college town, I find New York to be a tough place to live.  So sue me.

I temporarily escaped my job in New York this academic year to be a fellow at Harvard.  (I know, right?  This time I’m not complaining.)  When I got here, I quickly became friends with a junior professor starting her second year.  She too, like all of us, had complaints about her job.  Is she miserable? No, she doesn’t seem to be.  Is she looking to escape?  Nope.  But neither is her job perfect—and again, this is a person who seems to have won the most coveted prize of all.  And so she feels bad publicly complaining.  That’s especially true in forums like Twitter, where so much discussion of the academic job market is—rightly—dominated by adjuncts, the marginally employed, and folks who have been pushed out of the academic labour market.  And yet when this friend told me her problems, her complaints, it helped me.  If folks teaching at Harvard had the same problems I did when I was at Empire State, perhaps there was hope for me yet.  Talking together about our problems in the classroom, with colleagues, with our books, with our careers—we have helped each other find common solutions and felt less alone in our common problems.

Three quarters of college and university teachers in the United States are neither tenured nor tenure track.  This is a crisis for those contingent workers, for their students, for institutions of higher education, and for the society that relies on those institutions to educate its citizens.  It makes sense that three quarters, or more, of the discussion of academic labour should be about this crisis.  It is also sensible that those of us who are relatively lucky not complain too vociferously in the presence of our less lucky friends and colleagues.  But nor should we pretend that all is hunky dory, that once you have grasped the brass ring of a tenure-track job that you have won all there is to win.  Those of us lucky enough—and I emphasize that this is an arbitrary game of luck, not a meritocratic game of skill—to have gotten tenure-track jobs should feel free to complain, and we should complain.  Complaining is too important and too valuable.

Complaining is the first step to making things better for us personally.  Sharing complaints helps us understand that we are not alone, and it helps us find solutions.  My first year as an assistant professor, it was immensely helpful to hear from a friend about her difficulties her first year—and how they got better with practice.  It made me feel like the problem was not my job, but the learning curve I was on. It made me see a light at the end of the tunnel, and that it need not be illuminated by resignation.  Sure enough, my job did get better the second year, as I got better at it.  Had I not complained, and had my friend not shared her complaints, I would never have gotten that insight, and my first year would have been that much harder.

Complaining is also how we start to create pressure toward making systemic fixes.  If tenure-track faculty just take whatever is given to them—on the basis that there are always more, less lucky people happy to take the job, because it is better than adjuncting—then all academic jobs will just keep getting worse and worse.  It is through the relationships we build through complaining that we can work toward building structures and organizations—including both reinvigorated organs of shared governance and unions—through which we can resolve our complaints and recognize when they are structural rather than merely individual.  It’s also a way that we break through taboos and secrets—how little we make, how much we work—and recognize an individual concern for a common concern. Complaining and organizing is the only way to fight against the downward pressure on our entire profession.

Most of all, though, complaining is a way we remember that what we are doing is a job, and just a job.  It is through the pretense that academic labour isn’t labour at all but a vocation or a mission that our employers exploit us.  It is crazy that we work in an industry that expects us to give up everything—our savings, our choice over where we live, cohabitation with our partners—just to keep working.  It is crazy that we work in an industry where our training (primarily research) prepares so inadequately for the task (teaching) that occupies the vast majority of our workday.  It is crazy that any of us continue to believe that the academic job market is a meritocracy, when it is clearly a rigged game of arbitrary chance.  None of these things get any better or less crazy when you’re on the tenure track.  A full-time job with security is a better job than a contingent and part time gig, but it’s still a job.  The more that we remember the insanities of our industry—and demand that they change—the better our industry will become.

If the core definition of free labour is the right to quit, academic employers try to limit our freedom not through coercion but through shame.  To quit the academic workplace is, we are told, to fail and to lose.  But leaving a job or changing a career is not failure, even when it is forced by circumstance.  Continuing to complain even when we are in positions of relative privilege serves to remind us of that.  Remembering that being a professor is a job, and like all jobs worthy of complaint, helps those academic workers who are pushed out of the industry by unemployment or who choose to leave for any of myriad legitimate reasons.  This is not a prize for which we should be quietly grateful, we say when we complain publicly. This is a job.

Thanks to Jill Powers and Aaron Bady for their advice, even that which I ignored.

  1. I will note that Peter Mancall’s retort is always that other people have to work for a living, though. Status, job security, time in career, and the rest matter tremendously, and what job doesn’t require some inconveniences?

  2. Annelies said:

    I think there is a fuzzy line between complaining for the purpose of doing something about the situation and complaining as a crutch for enabling the situation to continue and not taking the initiative to do anything about it. In my experience, the latter is more common, because the way academia is structured, you really can’t speak up unless you do decide to leave (for good and commit career suicide) or until you become a full professor. So, I get the need to commiserate and have less isolation–but only in moderation. Too much of it can spiral into a negative and destructive cycle.

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