Let me tell you what to love.
Let me tell you why to stick it out.
Let me tell you why not to quit.
You’ve been told that the university is a back-breaking neoliberal machine. That it encourages a certain solipsism and inhibits any sort of solidarity. That it will wall you off from colleagues and comrades. That it wants you to be happy but also to focus only on your own happiness. And that, by doing so, by finding happiness in the profit you glean from your own labor, you are complicit in someone else’s tragic undoing. In their erasure from life on the tenure stream. And in their own chance at happiness. That the ideological work of the institution dissolves your identity as a worker, and that it makes it impossible for you to connect with someone else with a different pay grade or institutional status, even if you both work in the classroom.
The architects of this story are scarred survivors of a dystopian landscape. Brilliant and talented, they’ve walked away from the tenure stream, spent a few years questing for a bright future, or never quite got close. The university they describe is bleak. It features: people tearing down other people; days and weeks spent alone in the office; a job market that resembles Lord of the Flies; faculty who are either preening peacocks or back-stabbing social climbers; students who will suck the life out of you, or who too closely scrutinize your tone and your words; administrators interested only measuring things, in taking away money, or in expanding their own ranks. They describe a life set to the lonely rhythm of the keypad and warmed by narcissism.
If you’re alone in your office writing all day long, you’re doing it wrong. Or something else is horribly offbeat. Hollywood might portray faculty as mad geniuses working on giant blackboards, retreating into their minds, immune to the concerns of “the ordinary American,” but that doesn’t make it true. Advertising might celebrate the culture of “Do What You Love,” but that doesn’t mean that we uncritically embody it. An accurate portrait of life in the modern university isn’t necessarily found between these two fictional poles.
Those who want you to focus on the dystopia paint a bold, stark portrait of this landscape. Full of strong colors and clear divisions, it is a magnificent, totalizing, overdetermined work of art. Dystopian landscapes serve a purpose. They do great political work. Their broad brush strokes are meant to persuade, but also to focus the eye on a single, instrumentally conceived big picture. I might disagree with them on the details, but I also see their truth out there.
Not everywhere, though. And not at all times, either.
Because other realities are out there. Other landscapes for you to inhabit. Or to create. These other landscapes feature faculty who are supportive colleagues and even friends. Students who have big brains and bigger hearts, who are peers and not subjects, consumers, or products. Administrators who spend every single waking moment trying to make everyone’s life easier, or who lose sleep at night working to open the university to new and underrepresented categories of people. Universities or departments or even just small groups of people, driven to treat adjuncts fairly, to hail contingent colleagues as equals, to give staff people dignity. Colleagues who share work, who collaborate, who do things – socially and intellectually – together. Vibrant, meaningful, socially committed people, emboldened by dynamic environments, working sometimes alone but often together on projects of great social and political significance.
That still happens. Often.
Sometimes it is evanescent, lasting for just a deanship, or for a single generation. Sometimes it is built into the history of one specific place. Sometimes it is rooted in an economic moment – a minor boom, a city that is doing well. These other realities may be historically situated, but that doesn’t mean they are merely nostalgic. That doesn’t mean they can’t be rebuilt and strengthened. That doesn’t mean that they can’t emerge anywhere and under any set of conditions. That we can’t will them into being.
Stick around. Fix the place. For others.
You have to build this idyll. Like installing hardscape in a garden, along with the flowers and plants that accompany it. That stuff is heavy. Or delicate. None of it appears naturally. It isn’t regular feature of higher education, but it can be a big part of it, if you want. You just have to set each block, one at a time, and move mountains of earth, here and there. And then you have to cultivate it. It requires your attention. Every. single. day.
Workshops for papers. Close readings of essays and manuscripts. Conversations over coffee. Email chit-chat. Clear-eyed mentoring. Networking. Sunday afternoon pies. The use of a spare bedroom. Dogsitting. Babysitting. Help in a moment of trouble. A car ride to the train station. A joke at just the right moment. Laughter. Listening. Comforting. Crying. Letting someone else talk in a meeting. Spotlighting their accomplishments. All of it an expression of friendship. All of it in support of the one big idea. In support of serious thinking about the maelstrom of the modern.
Recognize that the university you are building is for others. Remember that many fought to make these places open to you. And reflect on what it means that so many of those are now gone. Agitate for equality, lobby for fairness, but fight for the idyll. Fight for others. Bleed for them.
Celebrate that. Take comfort in the work we do for others. In the support we provide for friends. For others who work in this strange, medieval institution, and whose labor is so vital, if also misunderstood.
Change the place. Forever.
And fall in love with that.
Make room for what seems truly, impossibly, revolutionary. Not just a fair, living wage for everyone, not just access to any institution, but the capacity for joy, for heartfelt collaboration between people from any walk of life, for a department meeting that is a cacophony of idealists not a chorus of privilege.
Please, though, don’t champion work. That is, not a sense of academic life as just work. Work is everywhere in the age of neoliberalism. Advocate for something bigger. Push for community.
Dystopias are hopeless landscapes. The problem with tearing down the dreamers of the present – even the most willfully blind sort, full of a pie-in-the-sky kind of hopefulness – is that you leave no room for anyone to aim for that something bigger. Pessimists tell you that the world is terrible and always has been, that it is frighteningly uneven. All of that is most certainly true. Changing the mission of the university, grinding away at its lofty, even its noble sense of purpose, and encouraging those within it to focus on their common cause as labor, and to organize as such, is a wonderful thing. It cuts against that historical truth.
Doing so, however, at the expense of dreaming, or of loving what you do, is unnecessary – and cruel. Too many fought too hard, and bled too long, to open this place up to others. And so, now that they are here, and now that the table includes different voices and experiences and ideologies, now, suddenly, it should all be about work? What dreams should be left to die? How many other battles will not be taken up, because they fall outside of the job description? What joy and friendship will be sacrificed?
Love the idyll. Live it, too.