Laboring in Academe

Amidst the discussion of both the alleged mismanagement and abuses of Hau‘s editor-in-chief in particular and the power dynamics of the discipline of anthropology more broadly, currently ongoing under the hashtag #hautalk, a central topic of concern is the exploitation of workers. The allegations against Giovanni da Col stem directly from two open letters penned by former or current Hau staff, which confirmed what an amorphous whisper network had already known and others had suspected. Many of the allegations are about workplace management, either of finances or of staff, and it begs the question of what it might look like to work in academia in a manner that is not exploitative.

This question is one that many precarious and early career academics grapple with constantly, and one which senior academics seem to consider not at all. From the vantage point of graduate students, our role model faculty and the structures and positions they inhabit often seem out of touch on issues of precarity and the job market, inclusivity and access, and questions of gender, race, indigeneity, sexuality, ability, and other factors that affect us.

As I was explaining Emily Yates-Doerr’s experience with Hau—something which can only be described as a shakedown—to my partner, I had to remind myself that only in academia is it totally normal for authors and editors to not be paid for their labor. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the solution is always paying people for their work. As Marcel LaFlamme notes (in a Twitter conversation that is really useful but hard to organize – but glimpse here, here, and here), transforming academic publishing into another gig economy is hardly a solution at all. Rather, we should think more seriously about how to make the academic training process (i.e. graduate school) and the everyday work of academics (i.e. research, writing, teaching, and university administration) less exploitative and hierarchical, more egalitarian and emancipatory. Part of that involves paying marginalized people for their labor (that goes for in teaching and publishing, but also in the field in our interactions with interlocutors and research assistants), but it involves much more than that also.

The above-linked Twitter threads are all worth a read. This whole conversation reminded me of a similarly broad conversation a few years back when Yasmin Nair stated that academics who write for free are scabs. I don’t want to rehash that whole thing, but it’s worth asking just what conditions we expect and tolerate in academia. Unfortunately, I think too often the answer is far more than we should.

I say this as someone who always is very excited to be involved in the community of scholars, whatever that means. I’ve been publishing writing outside of this blog for five years and only ever been paid once. I’ve done an assortment of guest lectures, social media posting, book reviewing, and event organizing, mostly without remuneration. This was not because I was compelled to, rather I was excited to. I sought these things out. That doesn’t mean it is, or isn’t, exploitative. The fact is that some tasks seem like good networking or practical opportunities (whether or not they are in reality) and others seem like chances to be part of something we care about and something that, maybe, can change the discipline for the better.

I, like many, did not go into academia for the money, even while we yearn for and deeply need a living wage. Rather, I and presumably others chose academia because I wanted a career of teaching and learning, a life pursuing and producing knowledge and understanding. It’s an ideal to chase, to be sure. The problem is that these ideals are easily exploitable by those who would rather look the other way, especially as they benefit from the status quo, feed these ideals, and turn them into demands. This is precisely the case with Hau – both open letters elaborate that the staff were deeply committed to the “radical” open-access project that reinvigorated ethnographic theory. It is this commitment, this passion for the possibilities of anthropology, of scholarship, and of doing things otherwise that was in the end used to justify abuse and wage theft. (See Anand Pandian on what “open access” should really mean)

It is ethical and just to do political work – work that contributes to a project you believe in – with or without compensation. If we can earn something to make that work more sustainable, we should, but such work should not be reduced to a transaction. This goes for efforts to open up the academy to others, a burden often placed on the shoulders of marginalized faculty in the form of emotional labor, diversity appointments, and other service work that is all but invisible to privileged scholars and administrations. This also goes for efforts to do anthropology differently, no doubt part of the appeal of public anthropology, decolonizing anthropology, and open access scholarship. Contributions to these types of projects become unethical if you are convinced to do this work under the pretense of some benefit that might never materialize, or when you are told you will be rewarded but there’s actually no guarantee of that. All too often, this happens in academia, and far beyond. (The number of students I have juggling multiple internship a semester can attest to that).

Many in the world of academia continue to pretend it is somehow separate from the processes under which the rest of the world works. As Hugh Gusterson notes, “anthropologists have not been doing enough homework” – by which he means they haven’t been paying attention to how universities function. Journals and professional societies and conferences and departments are all a part of this.

“It is as if there is an avoidance relationship preventing us from systematically studying the institutions we inhabit,” Gusterson writes. I can only assume this avoidance relationship is because actually noticing the power dynamics of our departments and journals and associations would mean acknowledging that they need to be changed. That’s the only explanation for why the most elite universities would rather wage a scorched earth campaign against their own graduate students than acknowledge that they are workers with the right to unionize. It must also explain why we train students plenty about the theoretical and analytical politics of our discipline, but very little about its labor politics.

My adviser recently told me that I will need to work on saying “no” to professional opportunities. I’ve always been eager to get involved in projects, and graduate school inculcates in us the propensity to see everything as an opportunity. Opportunities were how I’ve wound up doing a lot of extra work throughout grad school, and a “missed opportunity” was precisely what I was presented with when I failed to meet someone’s expectations. Everything is a chance to improve, network, publish, or get a line on the CV. But it’s also a chance to be a part of the discipline in a more involved way. In a position plagued with impostor syndrome, taking on extra work is one way to feel like you actually belong. And with a job market so precarious, you just have to suck it up and do the extra work if you really want that postdoc. There’s a critique of the neoliberal university in here, to be sure. But there’s also a clarion call to do things differently.

What can we do differently? The tl;dr of this is to smash hierarchies and build solidarity everywhere you turn. If there’s one thing I learned from organizing here in DC, it’s that hierarchical organizing is a choice. So is collective work. Our departments, journals, and associations should be as egalitarian as possible, and should work to tear down hierarchies elsewhere. Our research, citation, and hiring practices should recognize the labor of others, especially those most marginalized. Collaboration over exploitation, autonomy over coercion, accountability over impunity. There are editorial collectives and labor unions and other anthropological affinity groups out there doing the work. We need more. If anthropology is a way of being or understanding, than let us make it one worth fighting for or create something new that is.

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Unpaid Internships Need to Change

Earlier this month the Times ran a story on college graduates flocking to unpaid internships. The story is about how the bad economy has driven many graduates into the arms of unpaid work, and includes interviews with some interns who have sued for wages since their internships violate Labor Department regulations. But as Derek Thompson points out, internships are “an inextricable part of the college experience and a pre-req for post-graduate employment.” And that’s key. Graduates are okay with, or at least will settle for, unpaid internships because they’ve been told to. Colleges have been pushing internships in all sorts of fields, and industries are more than happy to bring in free work. Unpaid internships have become a standard in too many fields, and it puts everyone at a disadvantage.

In my four years at college, I raked up 10 weeks of an unpaid internship abroad (I independently won a $1000 scholarship, which covered less than the flight there, let alone the flight back, tuition, and living expenses) for one major and four months of unpaid internship at home (during which I was explicitly barred from working, which a number of those in my cohort ignored), along with three prior semesters of 6-hours-per-week internships, for another. I was one of the more privileged ones, with my parents covering tuition and my employer willing to hire me back when I returned from Uganda. For many students unpaid internships mean less wages to pay for the mounting expenses, and an internship that’s far away means usually means quitting whatever job you’ve been using to pay for things.

Internships are integral parts of many professions, and for some it actually makes quite a bit of sense – but that doesn’t mean they should be unpaid. As far as I can tell, education majors have always had to complete a student teaching requirement. Experience in the classroom is essential to teaching, and having a mentor teacher help you navigate through your first semester can be incredibly helpful. I knew this was a requirement, and so I planned for it, worked beforehand, and relied on my wife and parents while working long days and taking work home for four months. At my university there was very little help in ensuring that such a sacrifice was possible, and the little help available was reserved for math and science teachers, as per everyone’s obsession with those fields. For the elementary education majors, my alma mater has decided to double the student teaching requirement to two semesters, which does not bode well. While my own student teaching experience was unorthodox, to say the least, it was hugely beneficial and supplemented my education in a way that really couldn’t be replicated in a university – I just wish I had a little bit of help.

Other degree programs require internships that are flexible and, therefore, leave students open to being exploited even more. Student teaching, usually, offers the student a mentor and a classroom experience through effectively replacing the classroom’s teacher. The school gains little (outside of additional funding), but the student gains a lot (albeit while struggling to pay bills). Interning in many fields means one of two things (or both). You either do work that directly benefits your employer (at no cost) like completing research, reviewing books, and conducting interviews, or you do menial work and chores that don’t benefit you and could easily be left to the already-employed, such as picking up items and cleaning out offices. The first type of internship needs to be paid, and the second should really just end.

The culture of internships is apparently here to stay, but that doesn’t mean we can’t demand some changes. It’s pretty clear that a lot of unpaid internship programs violate minimum wage laws, and many of them shouldn’t even qualify for school credit based on the assigned tasks. If employers are going to require internships to be on prospective employees’ resumes, they should be offering at least minimum wage (which we all know is too low already) to their own interns. But for these same reasons, schools should be finding ways to offer stipends for students if they are going to require internships for graduation. If schools and employers both made the right decision across the board, they would end up having more experienced graduates and hiring better employees, and interns would be able to gain useful experience without making huge sacrifices. It’s not just a more fair option, but it’s smarter too.