Saying what I really think.

I am envious of my dear friend Unamerican. She has found, through what most likely was a not-straightforward process, a spot within academia that reconciles multiple interests and fits within her moral view of the herself and the world. I am jealous while also simultaneously disagreeing with her and being happy for her. Let me focus on the disagreement part for the moment.

Let me back up a bit and start with what I thought/hoped for when I joined academia. I thought: (a) that by joining academia, I’m participating in a parallel world that is set-apart and away and above the industrialist system, giving me the role of overseer, evaluator, and educator. I thought that an academic job, where I might contribute to understanding alternative forms of firm governance and corporate wrongdoing, was a simultaneously more worthy and more interesting task. (b) I also thought/hoped that this more critical view of our existing system would be my contribution as a teacher. (c) and finally, I thought that my presence (as a brown woman teaching a business course) helped overturn implicitly held notions about who does what type of work.

And in the past 12 years within western academia, it is true that some of these did hold. It is true, for instance, that as a researcher, I have had the opportunity to study the industrial system as an outsider. However, what is also true is that there is almost no demand/interest in such work, and the bar for publishing/getting a job/tenure in such areas is impossibly high, which tends to happen when there is too little demand for a particular type of work. I cannot, in good conscience, encourage PhD students who are interested in this field. The reasons for this dearth become painfully obvious as soon as you walk into an MBA classroom. This is a place populated by keen middle-aged men (and a handful of women) who have shelled approximately 50K in the hopes that an MBA will give them a boost in the career-race. They want courses on leadership and motivation and negotiation skills and technology strategy. They don’t want to hear about how the industrial system is organized and which types of arrangements are most likely to lead to corporate wrongdoing, and you can’t teach something people don’t want to learn. No demand for a particular type of teaching -> less interest in that field of research (on average, 3 people read the articles published in top-journals in this field) -> a greater and greater reliance on contribution to core theory to justify research -> high bar for publication/tenure -> a handful of white men survive and dominate the field -> activism consists of these few getting together once every couple of years and bemoaning their irrelevance.

So at least in my little bit of the universe, there is no connection between academia and social relevance.


2 thoughts on “Saying what I really think.

  1. Ah dear friend, you have found all the holes in my argument. And the reason I didn’t dare to claim that everyone can find an activist path in academia but just limited by explanation to how I see it working in my particular circumstances. Tenure (specifically trying to get it) is a big issue. At my teaching-intensive job, publication in a top journal simply isn’t necessary. Actually the obsession with top quality journals and publication for both tenure and getting a job in the first place is one of the most problematically stratifying things happening in sociology. The flip side is that I sometimes am painfully aware of my utter lack of status in my professional community – and wonder if perhaps they are right, and I am just a hack teaching crazy ideas to my students that no “real” sociologist would endorse. And all of this means that I need to find the time to do this kind of activism and militant research after I finish the grading and prepping for my 4 different courses every semester. Basically it seems you get more freedom with your time as long as you are safely controlled by the tenure/publication hamster wheel, or you get less free time with your job. On top of that, I feel my path on the teaching-centered tenure track is pretty secure among my almost exclusively white students and colleagues in a way that would likely not feel so secure if I were not also white. Do you feel like the possibilities for you would change if you were to look for a 4/4 teaching undergrads in a liberal arts rather than business environment?

  2. hmm…good question. But perhaps complicated by visa issues (“teaching” schools don’t tend to sponsor visas/green cards etc.). A fairer question (i.e. free of the visa issue) might be how things would change if I were looking at teaching/research schools in my home country, and what that would mean in terms of prestige within academia…btw, I really love that you raise this issue of prestige/salary – I read an article titled the “academic caste system” – it will be great to hear more on your thoughts on prestige/salary and the tradeoffs involved).

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