U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Occupy Academia (and More Mundane Concerns)


The growing Occupy Wall Street movement heartens me. I’m not quite as optimistic as some about its likely impact, and am thus probably aligned with Zizek’s pessimism: “The only thing I’m afraid of is that we will someday just go home and then we will meet once a year drinking beer and nostalgically remembering what a nice time we had here.” Nonetheless, I’m heartened to see people taking to the streets in large numbers, finally, over the obvious injustices endemic to our plutocracy.

Ideally, the Occupy Wall Street movement would simultaneously expand into an Occupy Academia movement. This makes sense on a number of levels. Rule by Wall Street has ravaged the public sector, including higher education. Universities operate more like corporations, as made crystal clear by Marc Bousquet in his must-read, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. And, finally, a good chunk of the OWS protestors are graduate students and tenuously employed academics whose very existence is evidence of the tight causal connections between Wall Street misrule and an insecure academic labor market.

Thinking in bold political fashion about how to transform academia is much more interesting to me than discussing the depressing details of the so-called academic labor market and other mundane professional concerns. I hope I am not alone in thinking that this blog, our conference, and S-USIH did not come into being in order to make U.S. intellectual history more professional. I despise the hyper-professional turn academia seems to have taken as a symptom of a larger crisis. Rather, we sought to create space for discussion of U.S. intellectual history, from an academic perspective, to be sure, but not solely on the hyper-professional terms of academia.

And yet, the sad state of the job market is something that smart and well-meaning people seeking gainful academic employment must pay attention to, on its own awful terms no less. Thus, it is also something that an academic society like ours must turn its attention to. In short, my ideas on how we need to “occupy academia” is my roundabout way of qualifying, rationalizing, and apologizing for the need to discuss what might seem like more mundane concerns, although they are anything but mundane to those seeking jobs.

In this light, I pose this question to those of you on the market: How is it this year? Any better or worse than the past few, which have been described as the worst since the early 1970s, if not worse than that? My cursory examination of the listings at H-Net and AHA lead me to think it’s fairly sparse in most areas. I only count two jobs specifically directed at U.S. intellectual historians, one for an intellectual/cultural historian, and one for an intellectual/religious historian. So how else do you all sell yourselves? For now, cultural and social history, focused on gender, race, and ethnicity, and sometimes religion, seem paramount in the discipline, as they have for decades. I assume those of you who consider yourselves intellectual historians also, then, consider yourselves cultural historians of a sort, for reasons necessarily professional? (Not to discount good epistemological reasons!)

How do we create what Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital” for our sub-discipline of U.S. intellectual history? Perhaps S-USIH might act as a beachhead in this endeavor. At our second conference, Thomas Bender speculated that intellectual history might be the wave of the future, based on the enthusiasm for it shown by an increasing number of grad students and junior scholars, on display at our conference, among other places. If so, we might expect intellectual history positions to be explicitly listed with more frequency at some point in the not-too-distant future. If so, how much lag time should we expect? I offer up this post as a discussion board for these issues.

Now, back to fighting the plutocracy!

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thank you posting this. You are right on target. Although I am deeply interested in American religious history, it seems odd to me that there seem to be so many more jobs in that field (there are seven or so) this year than in U.S. intellectual history. I don’t think that intellectual history is any less important than religious history.

  2. The postings are indeed sparse or thin. I count 20 thus far that apply fairly directly to me—meaning that they fit me in relation to topics beyond just intellectual-cultural history. I happen to have substantial experience in public, environmental, and world history (though my actual graduate training is thin in all three). But there are limits to how much one should or can stretch their ancillary fields to fit a posting. I only push those three areas if the circumstances feel right (clearly this is a highly judgmental call on my part in relation to each post).

    My other working areas brings me to an observation about this market that is different from prior years: the postings are jumbled mix of juxtaposed specialties. In other words, it’s paradoxical: it’s not a market for specialties like intellectual history, but it is a market for unique, super-duper specialized people. You see lots of posts that say—and I paraphrase—“U.S. history, open specialization, but we prefer candidates with the ability to teach gender, working-class history, U.S. surveys, Western civilization, China, and graduate courses in literary theory.” I exaggerate, but my point stands that there are several weird mixes being pushed together in postings.

    It’s like we are returning to postings that would’ve existed in the mid-to-late nineteenth century before specialization took over. The economy appears to be pushing departments to economize in ways that don’t fit the way universities train their graduate students. – TL

  3. Tim: Good point about the need to economize. I’ll copy an actual add that’s even more exaggerated than your exaggeration:

    “The Department of Religion and Culture and the interdisciplinary doctoral program ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought) at Virginia Tech invite applications for a tenure-track assistant professor position in Cultural Theory to begin August 10, 2012. Applicants must hold a doctoral degree in cultural studies or a closely related humanities or social sciences discipline, have a strong theoretical and interdisciplinary background, and show a commitment to the missions of both the Department of Religion and Culture (www.rc.vt.edu) and ASPECT (www.aspect.vt.edu). Preference will be given to applicants whose main body of research is in one of the following fields: media studies, visual studies, or popular culture. Moreover, the successful candidate should be able to contribute to the department’s proposed MA in Material Culture and Public Humanities. Additionally, an interest in one of the following areas is desirable: the global south, minority communities, or post secularism.”

  4. @Andrew: That’s quite some ad! I wonder if a more honest version would add at the bottom:

    “…or else the committee will have to actually resolve its internal disagreements over the sort of person we want to hire.”

  5. @Andrew, I responded to your comment on the other thread.

    I would only add here that Frank Donoghue’s chapter on competition in academia (from _The Last Professors_) is especially perceptive, if utterly awful.

    Current / graduating PhD students are caught in a kind of inflationary spiral of credentialing in order to compete for a dwindling number of jobs. We completely internalize our own success or failure, true believers in the market ideology that our fate is in our own hands.

    As Donoghue points out, the entire academic economy is based on prestige — turning intellectual capital into real dollars. What you are asking for in this post seems to be ideas about how S-USIH can become more integrated into that prestige economy.

    But what’s the alternative?

  6. Alpers above reminds me of job interview story-couple years ago was up for a CC job and the interviewers, of course, hated one another and wanted, each one, a separate speciality. I thought I had handled it reasonably well, though one of my interrogators told me I was too “high theory” for their (did he want to say “stupid”? But, then, he didn’t want me to harm them? Don’t know: a mix of contempt and paternal protectionism he had), when, toward the end I was asked whether or not I could act as a role model and/or mentor for LGBT students of for the sizeable community of Tibetan and Nepali students who were enrolled: I said, more or less, sure, but can’t recall how I presented my credentials for such a mission. I also decided that there was considerable dignity in being an adjunct and that I would better spend my time agitating for them than seeking out so-called “real” jobs.

  7. To parry off of Tim’s point that as I conducted my high school teaching job search this past summer (that was ultimately successful) I noticed several schools were looking for someone who could teach both English and History classes. While the two subjects can be closely related, it does require a double major to achieve a teaching endorsement for both subjects. I kept thinking to myself how many new graduates were qualified for these positions. It really seems that budget issues at the lower academic levels are driving who gets hired more than quality of education.

    I come from an anthropology background which itself is a holistic discipline. I think one of my strengths is my non-specialization and cross discipline knowledge (jack of all trades, master of none). But I have a question for the S-USIH members, how important (if at all) do you think specialization should be for high school teachers? I would think that hyper specialization would not be a good fit, but how specialized should the high schools classes be?

  8. Rhett,

    First let me say congratulations on attaining a teaching position, not an easy thing to do in today’s climate. Regarding your comments on English being connected with History positions, I believe we will continue to see more of this not simply due to budget constraints, but more so because of the importance being placed on literacy across all academic subjects. Take the Common Core Standards for one, which many states are beginning to adopt – as of right now all of the Social Science standards are language arts and literacy-oriented. Also, mandated programs such as RtI (Response to Intervention) focus almost entirely on reading. Schools are required to provide support for those students in need but little funding is actually being provided for the necessary programs. This is causing many schools, the one I teach at included, to look for candidates who have some background or experience with literacy strategies. On a side note, I do not see this changing either – in fifteen years of teaching I have noticed a general decline in the reading and writing abilities of my students. Considering the amount of time they spend on media devices and techno-gizmos, they have less time and desire to read now more than ever. (Excuse my brief luddite rant.)

    Regarding your specialization question, as the chair of a high school Social Science department, we constantly look to fill openings with someone who has an advanced degree and an area of specialty. As of right now we have a psychology, government studies, anthropology, and general history teacher all with master’s degrees in their teaching areas. I think this is a strength of our department. That being said, I think we are unique in seeking out candidates with advanced degrees as many schools will shy away considering their cost compared with lesser experienced teachers. Though I find the value in being a generalist, I think having teachers with specific knowledge sets and skills in a particular area can be very beneficial for a department and school.

  9. Let’s build on Andrew’s last paragraph and LD’s subsequent question/ironic note (i.e. “What you are asking for in this post seems to be ideas about how S-USIH can become more integrated into that prestige economy. But what’s the alternative?”)

    In my view, building cultural capital for USIH adherents is not something that can be an active focus. You build capital by promoting scholarly endeavors that resonate with both scholarly and popular audiences. These endeavors occupy a space (i.e. relevance) that some historians abjure. Good work creates cultural capital.

    So, there are no quick fixes. If USIH somehow makes a difference in future job markets, it’ll be because our conferences, articles, and publications seep out into the scholarly air, becoming touchstones for understanding our contemporary scene—helping folks navigate and understand the “contagion of metaphors” that dominates our cultural and intellectual life. – TL

  10. Certainly S-USIH can’t be a fix–quick or not–to the fundamental problems of the academic (or larger) economies…though I suppose we could strive at least not to be an active part of the problem (though I’m not even sure what that means anymore).

    But to pick up on a discussion from an earlier thread: one of the other things we face in our still book-dominated field (and, like Andrew, I don’t think that’s an entirely bad thing) is the crisis of academic publishing. And here, potentially at least, the publishing programs of organizations like S-USIH might help.

    It’s certainly possible to imagine an e-book publishing program that preserves the most valuable technologies of old-fashioned academic book publishing (e.g. peer review and editorial oversight) while discarding the most dysfunctional aspects of it (e.g. the eonomics of actually printing books). And there’s no reason, in principle, that an organization like S-USIH couldn’t produce such volumes. The trick, of course, would be: 1) financing the peer reviewers (who, for books, come cheap but by no means free); 2) jerry rigging some substitute for the editorial staff (who are paid professionals at traditional presses); and 3) somehow building the cultural capital necessary for people to take the e-book publication program seriously.

    (Please note: I’m not actually suggesting we can or should do this. Certainly not now…and probably not at any point in the future. But even very small professional organizations like ours can, at least, imagine making meaningful interventions into the world of academic publishing, while we can’t very meaningfully affect the overall structure of the job market.)

  11. I volunteer to be on the editorial staff. Because you need an uncredentialed pseudonymous graduate student to give your press street cred, and I need one more project to put between me and my dissertation.

    Seriously, though, the state / fate of academic presses is part of our problem. They are now expected to be profitable, which means that scholarship that isn’t “marketable” won’t get published.

    This is a good idea, Ben. And Tim — you are starting to grow on me.

  12. Great discussion that I’m returning to. To return to LD’s concluding point from his first comment, about how academia works by the terms of a prestige economy, which is disgusting and yet, the terms in which we must engage it: this is precisely why I struck such an overly ambivalent tone in the blog post, why I introduced a post about the job market for intellectual historians by linking the financial and academic plutocracies. I don’t feel comfortable with discussions about how to improve our position by such hyper-professional methods. And yet, we must. One of the benefits of thinking we can perhaps do something along these lines as a society is that it invokes solidarity: we’re working towards the ends of U.S. intellectual historians, rather than towards our own individual ends.

    But all that said, I have to agree with Tim that we should focus on good work: quality conferences, an interesting blog, and top-notch scholarship. I think this also applies to how individuals approach the job market: forget about trying predict what will be trendy on focus on doing a good job on a topic that you find important.

    Thanks also to Rhett and Robert for giving us the perspective of high school teachers. From my vantage point, I can imagine the advantages of a secondary social sciences teacher being a specialist in one discipline. But more likely I think being a generalist would serve one better in that context. I’m more of a generalist by heart. What I like most about intellectual history is that it allows me to think, read, and write generally, even if my disciplinary training is specific to history. So I would advise that all high school social science teachers study intellectual history!

  13. Here’s a post by my friend Michael Kramer (who’s also a USIH friend—attended USIH 3.0), wherein he reflects on issues related to this post (e.g. the neoliberal university). – TL

  14. Rhett and Bob, I too am on the hunt for a secondary Social Science teaching position. Due to my inability to land a job teaching, I have returned to school while searching so as to “improve” my marketability. I have been concerned about the prospect of a Masters Degree actually backfiring and making me a less attractive option to potential employers due to higher starting pay grade. In the business model of education, administrators are and must produce the desired product in the most economically efficient way. It just makes sense…. my hope is that the “desired product” will be considered to mean a student who has been given the best possible education, rather than a student who simply meets minimum requirements (IE standardized tests). In this way, an advanced degree will help me produce the best possible product where a lesser trained and experienced teacher candidate may only meet the minimum requirements. So, in my opinion, it really comes down to what we as a society expect out of our schools. If we merely establish minimum requirements and leave it at that, then I think my advanced degree will mean squat in the competitive market. However, if we expect more from our schools, and want each and every student to strive for excellence with no ceiling (some minimum requirements being implied here, but not the primary aim) then advanced degrees should be valued and sought by administrators.

    -Brad Marcy

  15. To get back to Andrew’s original contemplation about what an Occupy Academia movement would look like (thank you, Andrew, it’s a wonderful thing to ponder), I’d love to hear some answers to that question. It is not a prima facie concept just because we have concrete examples on Wall Street and around the nation (notwithstanding the apparent consensus among most journalists that the movement’s goals are, um, less than concrete).

    Does an Occupy Academia movement involve students, faculty AND staff? Just students? Where does it happen? Does it involve camping out on campus? Occupying administrative buildings? Camp-outs in front of Sallie Mae and federal student loan offices? Does it involve more teaching (ie, teach-ins) or less (ie, boycotting classes)? I’m not trying to rehash questions from 1968 or 1970 but rather to imagine how we should connect to this important moment.

    If one of the problems with a prestige economy is that it isolates workers and hampers collective action (to have prestige I must be better than the guy next to me), then asking us to discuss the ins and outs of the state of the professional market seems like the opposite of what an Occupy Academy movement would look like.

    I understand Andrew’s point – “the sad state of the job market is something that smart and well-meaning people seeking gainful academic employment must pay attention to” – and now that I (finally) have a tenure-track job it’s not really my place to be dismissive about the importance of the (soul-crushing) job search.

    But if the macro forces are the problem, I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to talk about those and to talk about those collectively. Further, I think it’s the responsibility of senior (ie, tenured) faculty to take the lead since they have more job security. (And, psst, they should do so soon since that security may not last too long.)

    The ranks of those in city parks around the country who have “occupied” their cities are not exactly limited to the employed. The need for employment shouldn’t put off or individualize a movement. Nor, especially, should the lack of that need.

    So again, to further extend Andrew’s important reflection about an Occupy Academia movement: What should that movement look like?

    – James Levy

  16. If an Occupy Acadamia movement were to occur, I think it would have to involve students, faculty, and staff along with community members. Teach-ins, sit-ins, and public protests, although interesting ideas, seem to be too conservative for the current atmosphere. I think the key point missing from the OWS protests and the smaller subgroups that are springing up in college towns is the communication with the people they are actually trying to protest. Perhaps brining in members of the corporate world to discuss their business practices would be a start to finding the compromise the 99% is desperately trying to seek. Or gathering great minds together to look at the state of the nation and supply the government with educated options for the future.
    College campuses are primo spots for holding debates and formulating ideas on how to change the world. It is time to put down the drums and stop screaming at skyscrapers and start looking at what needs to be done to a) create new jobs for people of all skill levels, b) share the wealth, and c) realize that we are all in this together and there needs to be compromise before unintended consequences arise.

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