Academic Labor by Jonathan Sterne

Academic Labor by Jonathan Sterne

Author:Jonathan Sterne
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: USC Annenberg Press

Of Careers and Curricula Vitae:

Losing Track of Academic Professionalism


San Jose State University

In a time of tough competition for academic jobs, job seekers have lost track of what it means to professionalize one’s self. In first-person narratives featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education, job seekers define “professionalism” as candid self-scrutiny, self-discipline, and emotional composure. These narratives suggest that the academic dimensions of professionalism have given way to self-interrogation techniques. Job seekers see their professional efforts as less a matter of advancing a program of research and teaching and more a matter of recalibrating their selves in order to “stay on track.” Read through the lens of neoliberalism, these narratives show how job seekers rationalize these habits as necessary to their career success.

Raymond Williams’ dictionary of keywords (1983) tells us that the word “career” was used in the sixth century to mean racecourse, gallop, or any rapid, uninterrupted, or unrestrained activity. As Williams notes, there are shadows of the term’s earlier connotations in phrases such as “the rat race,” but in its more generous sense, the term suggests a safeguard against the itinerancy of piecemeal work, or what we refer to today as “flexible labor” (p. 53). Williams notes that the word “is still used in the abstract spectacular sense of politicians and entertainers, but more generally it is applied, with some conscious and unconscious class distinction, to work or a job which contains implicit promise of progress” (pp. 52–53).

For academic careers, the veracity of that promise is the subject of some dispute. In a now famous article, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” Benton (2009) takes aim at the idea of academy-as-meritocracy and the impression held by prospective graduate students that intelligence and hard work will not go unrecognized. To dispel that idea, he argues that the labor conditions of the academy are such that those “who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery” (para. 17). To explain why so many continue to believe the academy to be a meritocracy in the face of evidence to the contrary, Benton points to students’ stubborn faith in their own unique and singular talents, an even more stubborn adherence by professors to academic tradition, and to an exceptionalism—a belief that the academy is singular and unique in its social structure—that Benton argues permeates academic culture.1

In The Last Professors, Frank Donoghue also remarks on the culture of the academic job search that “assigns the responsibility of being valued to the job seekers themselves,” which, he adds, is “a cruel injustice given the way that the hiring system actually works” (p. 37). Where Benton credits an air of exceptionalism, Donoghue attributes this impulse to job seekers and their advisors’ faith in market logics that they believe will, like a free-market economy, “sort out” the value of each job candidate (p. 36).

A third analysis of academic professionalization by Eng-Beng Lim, Lisa Duggan, and José Esteban Muñoz (2010) takes Donoghue’s argument a step further to attribute the


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