Jobs for Writers at Universities & the Covert Intellectual

Kirsten Hilgeford has written a sobering report of the job market for writing teacher in academia. This essay is interesting reading not only for its description of jobs for writers but the academic market in general. I was well aware of how scarce jobs are in academia, but the underlying trends are even worse than one would imagine. Hilgeford describes an environment where the number of students are increasing while state support is decreasing and tuition costs are rising (reducing academic opportunities overall). She cites Rosemary Feal’ s statement that “Knowledge cannot be sustained and deepened if as a society we cannot support humanistic learning. Students will no longer choose to devote their lives to the study of language and literature, and it risks becoming a hobby, not a profession.”

It’s not easy to make a utilitarian argument supporting the teaching of humanities (something Dan Green and others have grappled with), and recent statistics about the declining value of the “college degree” also calls this in question. A liberal arts education has always been two-faced, touting itself as uplifting the human spirit to the idealistic youth and as a good economic investment to those paying the tuition. However, the conclusion is slightly off; where is the harm of relegating the study of literature and culture to passionate amateurs? I’m not convinced that we need people permanently ensconsed in academia to keep the flame of humanism alive.

People, thinkers and artists go where the money is. If academia cannot offer opportunities for full time work, then scholars go elsewhere. (In fact, the intense competition for academic positions has the ironic effect of increasing conformity to academic groupthink rather than decreasing it). I would love full time support for my projects, but it’s also nice to have complete independence from this academic groupthink.

Here are two problems. First, some projects just cannot be pursued as an avocation. Novels, yes, historical preservation and cognitive research, no. If you cannot keep a steady staff of full time scholars, the institutional knowledge is lost and hard to rebuild. Second, the business world does impose demands. For example, the 40 hour per week and 10 days vacation are sacrosanct in American society. It’s next to impossible to negotiate for fewer or more flexible hours and still preserve seniority and benefits. The solution, I think, is to allow more time off and leave of absences. Perhaps in addition to 2 weeks paid vacation, the individual could have the option to exercise up to 1 chunk of 3 weeks unpaid leave.

I have generally enjoyed my professional jobs, but the 40 hour week/10 days of vacation is just a straitjacket (and please, don’t remind me about what Europe does). You can only do so much with 3 day weekends.

I remember 10 years ago a literature teacher predicted the death of the tenure system. The problem goes deeper than that; there aren’t even full time jobs.

On the other hand, let’s not lose sight of what we have: a class of educated talented people working in the “real world” , somewhat well-paid and able to surf the web and blog often enough. Hey, this Internet thing allows you to read almost everything–for free! And with ebooks and amazon used books and netflix, almost all kinds of books and multimedia material sell for practically nothing. And this Internet thing–I hear it allows you to publish your thoughts all over the world–for free! The modern writer may be overworked but pampered with all kinds of luxuries unimaginable to previous generations.

For those of us who work as “covert intellectuals” in the workplace, taking subversive political and social positions, finding the daily outrage to blog about or the latest online philosophical conundrum to cogitate over, the key question is whether our advanced study make us better-equipped  to deal with the money-obsessed workworld or simply  increases our alienation from it. One delightful essay described  web-surfing-at-work as the ultimate “opiate of the masses,” calling it a reward for having to endure the soulless world of business. I laughed  when I read it, thinking it a delightful pseudo-rationalization for workplace sloth. As the years go by, I have to wonder whether the clandestine nature of work surfing causes the thinker’s voice to diminish. When people seek academic jobs, what they are really seeking is a way to maintain a public identity as an intellectual; an academic job  gives one the right to be a gadfly or a bohemian and not get fired.  On the other hand, the technology/Internet  boom has produced enormously interesting and profitable jobs for educated people. (I would argue that liberal arts graduates are one of its main  beneficiaries).  The work environment is comfortable, challenging to the brain and full of workplace diversity.  I may be the only blogger in my group of technical writers, but the rest of us have equally diverse interests. In many ways, our workplace conditions are more conducive to intellectual cogitation than an academic niche.  The modern work environments I have inhabited over the last 10 years have been enormously tolerant of intellectual curiosity, personal growth and diversity of opinion. Yet, everything seems geared to productivity, business goals and profitability. Such a work environment is conducive to learning; but can an intellectual find it satisfying over the long term?







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