Academic Precarity: on doing things differently

It is summer but not as we know it. For all the new normals 2020 has so far brought us some things remain constant, namely on-going academic precarity and the stresses the end of the one academic year brings ahead of the coming one. I’m becoming a seasoned pro at this experience. It never lessens the stress but is has given me an appetite to bring about systemic change, and doing things differently is what I want to talk about here.

The academic job market is the worst I’ve ever known it. Jobs are scarce in my field – German Studies – at the best of times, so you can imagine right now trying to get a job is little different from watching tumbleweed blow along a road. The few jobs that are available frequently have poor T&Cs, poor pay and they, much like the few marginally better sounding posts – are competitive. This is not really anything new – all jobs are competitive but when there is a lack of jobs the few that are there become all the more precious and the world you are in more narrow and restricted.

Earlier this year I thought my hard-fought for academic career was over. It is still not looking rosy. The system is broken. Or rather it is for those of us at the sharp end of it, those of us who do not want out but at this time of year are told by colleagues and acquaintances consolingly that they know academics who have left Higher Education and been much happier ever since or – in other words – don’t worry if your career is over, life will work out fine. These reassurances are meant to be kind, even if they are remarkably thoughtless – if you are not wanting to do something different, being forced to do so to survive really is neither fine nor fair. Apart from making me want to scream in frustration however, they show that actually, the system is not broken, at least not for those at the top of the neo-liberal university tree. If it were broken neo-liberal unis would have changed their modus operandi long ago. I can neither change the system singlehandedly, nor can change be achieved overnight. What I can do – and what I have already started to do – is disrupt the system by doing things differently.

If you are now picturing some revolutionary figure atop the barricades, I have to confess my disruption is not – yet at least – that radical. In a system that is brutal, it is revolutionary just to be kind, to collaborate rather than compete, to support not scupper. Where once the prospect of an interview seemed competitive, now I see it as a collaborative undertaking, talking and even preparing with my fellow candidates. Given that German Studies is a relatively small field we mostly know one another so it is easy for us to do. We just reach out and talk. In preparation for a recent interview not only did we prepare questions and discuss what each of us would present on, we also supported each other on the day and in the week that followed. We each shared our surprise at being asked if, contrary to the advertised post, we would consider a job share – in the interview I’d been a bit taken aback at the thought – as we all were but we decided actually that could work for us and we’d happily job share with one another. In the end it didn’t work out. We knew what was coming. From the various conversations we had had we had already worked out who had been successful before we received the email informing us we had not been. That solidarity softened the blow.

To collaborate might not seem like the approach to take to get the job – after all, we did not. Yet, I’m ever so glad we did – I felt supported and encouraged even though things seemed bleak. It’s further fired my passion for change.

The system works for those at the top so they see no need to fix it, which means the system will not change any time soon. The current system does not work for us though, so rather than accepting and conforming, the time has come to disrupt the system, to do things differently, in ways that do work for us and only then might we bring about systemic change.

2 comments

  1. Collaborating with the other candidates before the interview? Never heard of such a thing… A revolutionary act, indeed! You ‘ve just set a precedent – well done (also for making it public in this blog)!!

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