Interdisciplinarity, crisis, and the future of academic institutions

Since the 2008 financial “crisis” (and it’s hard to keep calling something a crisis when it continues for 5 years), tenure track jobs have fallen by about 40%.  Many with PhDs are jobless, on welfare, working in tenuous positions, trying to find work in different sectors, or moving from one job to another—be it an adjunct position or more steady multiple year teaching contracts. Admittedly, the job market has been constricting since the 1980s, but now, there are fewer  jobs elsewhere to mitigate the effects of fewer academic positions.

I have been relatively lucky in this market compared to some.  I have had two positions since earning my PhD that have treated me with respect, decent wages, and health insurance.  These were harbors in the storm that many of my friends and cohort have not been lucky enough to find.  That said, I have racked up hundreds of dollars in fees to my dossier service and spent countless hours over the last three years preparing job letters and sending dossiers to potential employers. This has netted me two campus interviews and one phone interview.  In the meantime, I teach introductory courses to bright-eyed freshmen, take care of my family, research and write in whatever time I have left.

The personal financial troubles of visiting professors and adjuncts are compounded by the larger constriction of university funds. The 2008 crisis devalued endowments and investments for many universities.  While used to fighting for funds and support, humanities, social science, and interdisciplinary departments found themselves fighting for survival within their universities.  Funding was cut to many programs, and in some cases, entire departments were suspended. Technologies like MOOCs and machine graded essays moved in to fill in the gaps between fewer professors and tuition income pulled in by larger classes.  In some cases, both visiting and tenure track professors create online classes that threaten to replace them in subsequent semesters.

The important question for me—as the vagaries and cruelties of this new post-employment academic market have been addressed in nearly all ways elsewhere— is how this affects junior scholars who are attempting to craft an interdisciplinary research career in this tenuous and competitive market.  I have spoken of cabinet of curiosities in earlier posts as a way to imagine IR, but how does this measure up when hiring departments want people doing “real” IR?  What does this mean more broadly for projects that cross or question disciplines?  Research projects that grapple with the interconnected, global, rhizomatic, and immanent world filled with hybrid forms, spaces of flows, and networks are more crucial than ever. Does this new environment suffocate these important research plans?

So, perhaps getting jobs is harder in this market, but what about the future of the university with fewer tenured professors and (perhaps) fewer interdisciplinary humanities and social science projects? Traditionally, the university has been a space for intellectuals to speak subversively without fear or reprisal—especially important is job protection.  An adjunct or visiting professor will likely not even have the time to be a public intellectual.  There is no research leave or course buy out with grant money.  In fact, we are here to teach the classes for tenure track and tenured professors while they pursue their research careers.  They loan us their offices and we fight for time and space to do our own work while teaching, and, more often than not advising and serving the institution that offers visiting professors multiple one-year contracts. But this seems to me as part and parcel of the bigger problem looming over academia as an institution: neoliberal business practices imported to the university uncritically and whole-heartedly by a burgeoning administrative class. The safe space of the university is disappearing and it is unclear what will follow. In theory, I might be okay with a long term teaching contract with little to no research requirements, but what about the public intellectual who should be engaging with civil society and sharing publicly funded research?

The students certainly suffer under this new system, but this may not seem apparent to the students at first.  This is not to say that visiting and adjunct professors are “easy,” in fact, this seems to work in the opposite.  Visiting professors bring new research, disciplinary rigor, and generally plan their classes with the goals of the department and the university in mind.  Young undergraduate scholars may not have the opportunity to create long-term mentoring relationships with their professors, or even more simply, cannot choose them as their department advisors.  Long term, will they be able to request letters of recommendation from their overworked tenured advisor who teaches classes of 250 or from a visiting prof that now works at a different institution? Maybe two or three different places?

The open questions with which I would like to end: What will the university as an institution look like in the next decade or two?  Will tenure still be an option?  What departments will ascend in this neoliberal future?