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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We are the 99% – 1890 Style

I recently started a part-time job at a library on campus, stamping and source-marking books and manuscripts in acquisitions. My first project has been to sort through a large array of broadside ballads and booklets of songs. Last Friday I happened upon something pretty great: the December 17, 1890 edition of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside & General Labourers’ Union of Great Britain & Ireland. The issue is a collection of labor songs, and one on the front page struck me as particularly linked to contemporary issues. Unsurprisingly, it seems workers chanted against the stark inequality of the top one percent long before last September. Here’s a scanned copy, with the text below.

“Chants of Labour,” from December, 1890.

“There are Ninety and Nine”

There are ninety and nine that work and die
In want and hunger and cold,
That one may live in luxury,
And be lapped in the silken fold!
And ninety and nine in their hovels bare,
And one in a palace of riches rare.
From the sweat of their brows the desert blooms,
And the forest before them falls;
Their labour has builded humble homes
And cities with lofted halls,
And the one owns cities and houses and lands,
And the ninety and nine have empty hands.
But the night so dreary and dark and long
At last shall the morning bring;
And over the land the victors’ song
Of the ninety and nine shall ring,
And echo afar, from zone to zone,
“Rejoice! for Labour shall have its own!”