I talked about the notion of “selling out” with my most recent podcast guest, Julie Clarenbach. If you haven’t listened to it yet, I encourage you to do so. Julie was a great guest and shared a lot of valuable insights. I want to dwell on some of what she said about “selling out” and add my thoughts to the mix. She mentioned that “selling out is an ideology that keeps people accepting crappy working conditions and insane workloads.” In my experience, that’s absolutely true. It’s basically a guilt trip. The academy, which is portrayed as a virtuous vocation — complete with vows of poverty, it seems — is contrasted with the crass commercialism of the outside world. We should be willing to forsake this temptation and sacrifice everything in order to pursue our noble calling. I’ve commented before on the similarities between the academy and religious institutions, so I won’t retread that ground here. Nevertheless, we’re told that the humanities are something that we have to do out of “love of the discipline” or “for its own sake” and not *gasp* for the money. Sound familiar? Actually, some feminist commentators have pointed out that these are the same tactics that have been used historically to justify paying women little or nothing for the work that they do. It’s an interesting tack to pursue, but I’ll leave that to others. At the same time, however, humanities departments and students are preoccupied with applying for grant money and seeking funding from their institutions by trumpeting the ‘relevance’ of their discipline. Suffice it to say, that the humanities have an ambivalent relationship to money.
I think this problem afflicts philosophy more so than the other humanities. Part of the reason has to do with our founding mythology. Socrates lived simply and philosophized free of charge. It was the Sophists, those rhetoricians and hucksters, who charged money. But like any founding mythology — and it’s at least partly myth — we have to take it with a grain of salt. Also, Socrates isn’t our only example. Thales cornered the market on olive oil presses right before a bumper crop. Plato was certainly well off. Aristotle earned the equivalent of $20 million in gold from Philip of Macedon for tutoring his son, Alexander. I suspect that record still stands. So there’s no rule that says philosophers have to be broke. The academy, however, in order to continue its exploitation of cheap labor, has to perpetuate this myth.
Nobody goes into philosophy to get rich. I’m not a materialistic person deep down, but whether we like it or not, our society assigns value through money. When you’re not paid a fair wage for a job well done, you begin to feel worthless. It’s about more than the money; your self-worth as a person is effected, regardless of how hard you try to tell yourself that your self-worth isn’t defined by how much you make. It’s especially difficult when your peers start to pull away from you and achieve the comfortable middle class lifestyle that you want. You begin to feel disenfranchised. You may criticize the materialistic culture in which we live, and rightly so, but that doesn’t change the reality or help pay the bills. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be paid a decent wage for your efforts. This doesn’t make you a crass materialist; it just means you have a well-developed sense of fairness and self-worth.
So why don’t more grad students and junior academics recognize the injustice and “sell out” themselves? Why don’t they expose “selling out” for the academic myth that it is? Of course, it’s difficult to answer this question decisively, but I have a few thoughts. I owe the first one to William Pannapaker, aka Thomas Benton of “Just Don’t Go” fame. In a tweet, a while ago, he said that adjuncts are “paid in status capital.” Since he only had 140 characters, he didn’t elaborate that much, but I think I know what he meant. It’s gratifying to be called ‘professor’ — especially by attractive twenty-something women — and command the respect and admiration of your students. The satisfaction you get out of having the status — even if the pay is abysmal — is its own reward, at least for awhile. In my case, that luster wore off, but for others, it doesn’t.
Perhaps the promissory note of future success in the academy is enough to sustain some people. As you go about your professorial duties, you begin to think “I’m pretty good at this. I could see myself doing this for a living. It’s only a matter of time before all my hard work is rewarded with a full-time position. All I have to do is pay my dues for awhile.” This condition has been aptly dubbed ‘foot-in-the-door disease.’ This is another reason academia breeds low career satisfaction. We never really ‘arrive.’ We’re always looking toward the future — maybe after the PhD, or more post-doc work, or the next grant application, etc. — there’s a delay of career satisfaction well in to our thirties and even forties. It’s all about the promise of tomorrow, a promise that may never come to fruition. In the meantime, we’re expected to sustain ourselves on the gratification we get from our status and all the ‘valuable work’ that we’re doing. Don’t get me wrong. The work is valuable. It’s certainly valuable to the university in terms of dollars. It’s just a shame that its value in dollars is never passed along to us.
So, under the circumstances I’ve described, can anybody be blamed for “selling out”? I don’t think so. It’s not that we never deserved to be in academia; many of us have nothing more to prove. It’s just a personal decision. We’re tired of waiting to be rewarded for a decade or more of hard work. We’re tired of singing along with Little Orphan Annie about the promise of tomorrow. We’re interested in finding people and institutions that are willing to reward us for our talents and skills today. We want the means to build good lives for ourselves. As Julie said, it’s not selling out to want the means to buy a house, raise a family, go on a vacation, or donate to charity. As an adjunct, I just couldn’t see that anywhere in my future. Being poor, moving from place to place, giving up friends and relationships in the process — these are not the ingredients of a fulfilling life. If wanting a fulfilling life makes me a sell-out, then a sell-out am I.