Bibliography: Research on Contract Faculty

In light of the recent strikes at York University and University of Toronto, linked below is a list of some of the sources I’ve tracked down relating to PhD ‘demand’, the academic job market, contract faculty, and labour unions. The focus is on Canada – and it’s by no means exhaustive – but there are some references here from other countries as well. I’ve also tried to include a range of perspectives on the issues. Here’s the link:
Sources on contract faculty and academic unions in Canada.

Cracking the code for employment

I wrote this post after reading one too many articles about how coding is the skill that leads to a job. It’s a skill all right, and a useful one, but will it definitely lead to a job? We return again to the “purpose” of learning, or of education – and because of context so many people are fixated on seeking the magic formula for employment, and other factors are diminished. We also lose sight of the process by which people actually do end up with meaningful employment. Here is a link to the original post, from January 13, 2012:Cracking the code for unemployment .

The question of whether postsecondary education is a good investment, of whether the “risk” is too much or if it is “worth it,” is one generally framed in terms of economic value now that PSE credentials have become ever more expensive and necessary for larger numbers of people.

Of course the correlation is there — I’d be the last one to deny it; graduates of PSE programs earn more over their lifetimes and are more likely to advance in their careers than those without such credentials. But how exactly does the correlation map out in practice? How do postsecondary graduates actually find and obtain jobs? How do they build their careers? And what image of this journey are we projecting, in the media and in classrooms? How are students being encouraged to make the connection between education and employment, and what are the consequences of that?

These are difficult questions because they relate to process: what happens between the point at which a student begins a degree and the time it is completed, such that somehow a student can obtain employment later?

Heavily emphasizing or highlighting certain skill sets, courses and degree programs because they are more highly correlated with employment is a bad idea because job markets can shift rapidly, and also because it places the skill or knowledge base outside of its larger context. As a small example, in this article the skill of computer coding is described as something that can “get you a job.” But stating this, alongside average hourly wages for computer programmers, is to present what looks like an overly simplistic equation. Who finds work that involves coding, and what is its use? How much experience, and of what kind, is required? How does coding fit into a larger skill set in a way that would help a candidate to “stand out” in a large pool of applicants?

Focusing on the university-to-job correlation without a balance of attention to process can mean that we place less value and emphasis on looking for other ways to build careers. And it means reducing the attention we pay to extra-educational factors, not only the enthusiasm, energy, talent, and work ethic that one may or may not bring to one’s education but also the privilege or lack of it, the social and cultural capital, and the many other factors that can be beyond the scope of one’s education-to-career planning.

There are no short cuts and no easy plans — no easy mapping of knowledge to employment, now that overcrowding plagues even formerly stable professions such as teaching and law. To imply that there is ever really a “guarantee” from a degree is to lead students down the garden path; it raises unrealistic expectations and re-inscribes unhelpful assumptions.

Even the availability of a degree-related job doesn’t guarantee one’s career pick. I recall about two years ago I met a young Belgian man at the hostel where I was staying in Picton, New Zealand, and by coincidence we ended up taking the same early morning ferry back to Wellington together. He came from a well-educated family, and had gone to university at 18 to become a doctor, as his parents expected. But now in his early 20s, having just completed his medical training, he seemed at a loss. He didn’t want to practice medicine, though he’d earned the credential; he’d done it not because he desired to use his time and talents in that field, but because it was just the next thing to do. I thought it was interesting that he had obtained a desirable professional degree but was now at loose ends, not even because of the job market but because of his own lack of direction outside of the university program.

Among other things, knowing yourself — your own capacity, your predilections, strengths and weaknesses and how you learn and think and function in different environments — is extremely important for making the decisions that lead to a career. There is little point in cobbling together a random kit of recommended skills if you have no real interest in those skills or in the things they enable you to do; you might find a job, but I think it’s unlikely that the recipe for employment will turn out the way you planned. Even an economic assessment of a possible career path must take non-economic, less tangible factors into account if it is to prove of any worth.

On the up and up – Socioeconomic class and inter-generational change

I wrote this post after watching the Up Series, a group of documentaries begun in 1964 and continued for every 7 years after. The series traces the personal histories of a group of children through their adulthood. I was struck by how much people’s life trajectories seem to have changed within less than 2 generations, particularly with regards to education and employment. The latest instalment of the Up Series – 56 Up – was released in 2012. Here is a link to the original post from September 19, 2011: On the up and up.

“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

— Jesuit saying

This week I spent a couple of days watching every movie in the Up Series, a set of seven documentary films that follow the lives of a group of English children over a period of about 45 years.

The Up Series is an unusual and fascinating project that began in 1964, when a program was commissioned by Granada Television as part of the World in Action TV series. The first episode, Seven Up, was directed by Paul Almond, and Michael Apted took over for the following six films which were produced in 1970, 1977, 1984, 1991, 1998, and 2005.

The films follow the lives of 14 children who were initially chosen as “representative” of various socio-economic class (SEC) strata. The program was designed to focus on the “determining” role of class in people’s life circumstances. The group of children included was geographically and socially diverse, ranging from one child from the rural Yorkshire Dales to those from London’s East End and suburban Liverpool.

In successive episodes, the participants were asked about various topics including their leisure time activities, educational environment, family, class and money, and race. The project later delved more into participants’ personal lives — choices and relationships, attitudes and motivations, and self-awareness. Several of them bowed out of a number of episodes over time.

Aside from the fascination of watching lives unfold, I was most interested in the role of education, which was a focus in the series because of the association made between education and SEC. There were varied educational experiences within the group, including elite private and prep schools (singing “Waltzing Matilda” in Latin!), state comprehensive and grammar schools, and a charity-based boarding school; several of the children later attended Oxbridge while others didn’t complete high school. Style of education is framed as an early sorting mechanism, as in the first episode where the narrator argues that the “distinction between freedom and discipline is the key to [the children’s] whole future.”

What’s become clearer over time is that this series also provides a small portrait of a generation. Born in 1957, these children were part of the long post-war Baby Boom. They grew up in an era of unprecedented change, both to social values and to economic prospects; and they benefited uniquely from the Keynesian “welfare state”, much of which was built by their parents’ generation.

There was a huge difference in the perception of education between participants, as well as between “then and now”. Those who weren’t from privileged circumstances seemed to see higher education as optional to a full life, including a career and a family, though for some it clearly wasn’t an option presented. This was a contrast to the children from wealthy families who knew from a young age the stepping-stones to professional careers.

The trajectory of life in general was also different, possibly because of the timing of education. Many of the participants had married and had children by 28. Several of the marriages had lasted over 20 years by the time 49 Up was filmed in 2006 (though several others had divorced). Most started full-time work at a younger age than the current average — including the one participant who became an academic.

Within a generation, we’ve already seen this picture change beyond recognition. It’s now uncommon for teens to leave school at the age of 15 or 16 for other prospects, probably because there are no prospects without at least a high school diploma. High school alone is not “enough” anymore; class mobility is practically impossible without a post-secondary credential, and even then, the competition is fierce. These days, the news from the UK indicates that teenagers there (and elsewhere) are thoroughly preoccupied with trying to map our their life choices at earlier ages as they navigate the educational system, suffering increased anxiety over future prospects, and sometimes a sense of lethargic hopelessness in the face of increasing economic inequality.

Class still matters, now as much as ever. Watching the Up Series films made me think about what we might learn about class, culture, and education if we had not only longitudinal, statistical information, but qualitative work that fleshes out the complex processes involved in people’s decisions, the opportunities available to them, and the ways in which education is involved. The larger story of a life in context tells us more than a series of numbers. But with cuts to education research in Canada, it’s hard to imagine that kind of study being pursued in the near future.

Myths and mismatches: Where from here?

This is the last part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 17, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches”: Where from here?

The last series of blog posts left me all blogged out for a couple of weeks, but I thought I’d offer a follow-up post regarding my thoughts on the e-course by Jo and Julie, on career planning and professional development, and a few other things.

What I found helpful about the course was that it provided me something to respond to, and in the process I found myself thinking harder about my current decisions. And because I’m feeling “stuck” and unfocussed at the moment, this was a valuable exercise. I tried to imagine my self in a particular role, and asked: what would I look like doing this job? How is that going to happen? Where do my current actions take me in terms of that kind of goal? Fairly basic stuff, but I find writing it all down tends to help me with coherence and direction. And when I’m feeling lost, I like to focus on the tangible aims that make it easier to make decisions in the present–since they build towards something in the future.

Some of the things I’m doing at the moment in order to provide myself direction–in a few different aspects of (academic) career development:

Making a decision about an academic “subject area” in which I could work comfortably, i.e. as a member of a department or program or team. This sounds like a no-brainer, and for most people in a PhD program it hasn’t been an issue since at least the MA level. But because of the way my interests have developed, choosing an “area” has been a less than straightforward process (my degrees are in Communication Studies, Linguistics, and Education).

A related task is to work towards drawing my various projects into a well-articulated and coherent research “map” that works within that subject area. I have diverse interests, but diversity is only a strength if it’s grounded in something stable like a good knowledge base, along with a plan regarding how the various pieces fit together and reinforce each other. I know well enough how everything is related, but I need to work actively to make those connections clear to others. This is important no matter what line of work I end up following.

…Alongside the usual academic channels, I’ve been experimenting with using social media to meet new colleagues and develop professional relationships, to “network” and to share/publicise my own work, to develop opportunities for contributing to ongoing debates (such as writing articles for other blogs and web sites), and to keep up with news/issues in my fields. As a result, I’m thinking about blogging and other “public communication” as part of academics being “public intellectuals”, not just professors or employees of the university. I’d like my blog to be a way to share my ideas even as I’m developing them in other ways (e.g. through research).

While I won’t swap social media for more traditional fora such academic conferences, participation in the latter is restricted for me because of the expense (travel, accommodation, registration fees) and timing. Sources like Twitter are an ongoing means of conversing with others whose interests I share, engaging in long-term exchanges that keep me thinking and that open up the discussion to anyone who can use a hashtag.

I’m working on teaching through practice (even just with my small tutorial group this year) and through development of approaches and philosophies; and I’m thinking about pedagogy rather than “teaching”, about theory and overall strategy as well as classroom tactics and practices. I’m looking for ways to examples that “stick”.

And in the context of our wired classroom, where students can use laptops and Blackberries to “tune out” from course discussions, I’m trying to understand and take into account the issues involved – “student engagement” and technology in the classroom; consumerism and credentialism; cognitive development in learning; differences in learning “styles” – and translate that back into an approach that gets students interested enough to abandon Facebook in the middle of class (high hopes, I know).

I still see teaching and learning as being about relationships, communication, partnership, mutual responsibility, motivation, feedback, confidence, hard work, listening, and changing your approach when something doesn’t work. Most important to me is to create an environment wherein questions and discussion can happen. With all that in mind I’m considering things like course design (in the abstract) and how this relates to pedagogy, particularly in terms of how different aspects of the course (curriculum/readings, assignments, tutorials and TAs, lectures) all have to work together in a way that makes sense to students.

I think that’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed the series of “Myths & Mismatches” posts, and if you’re following my blog – thanks for joining me!

Myths and mismatches, part 10

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 17, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 10: What it takes, for what it’s worth.

Here is the last post in my series of responses to Jo Van Every and Julie Clarenbach‘s e-course on “Myths & Mismatches” in academic careers. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, and I recommend this e-course as well as other materials available on both authors’ web sites.

Mismatch #5: Mismatch of Skills

As discussed in a previous post in this series, we often gain more “skills” from graduate training than we think. But the “flip-side” of that fact is that those skills are also requiredto develop successful academic career.

“Success” at an academic job involves juggling aspects of work that require both collaboration and independent, creative work; maintaining a high level of communicative competence in both spoken and written forms and for diverse audiences; working both within and without structures and time constraints, as the context demands/requires; and having both micro- and macro-level understanding of a topic or issue or project.

While “for some people, these skills come naturally”, many of us will need to learn to balance our strengths and weaknesses to achieve the necessary results; personally I think I’ll need a workaround for my introversion (I now call it being “selectively social”), for my non-linear mode of approaching things (though I’m getting much better at dealing with that), and for my chronic perfectionism about research/writing (the blog helps, I think). I worry that I’ll be too “taxed” by teaching to finish any worthwhile research, that my focus couldn’t be sustained while my attention has to be stretched in so many different directions. But then I also know that when I get into a scheduled “groove”, I often rise to the challenge and get more work done than I would otherwise.

The question posed by Jo and Julie is whether “making do” in this way is “sustainable” for you. Like students, academics “have wildly different skill sets” and while “there may be a way to bridge that gap […] it may not be worth the time and effort required”. In other words, if the demands of the job feel like “too much”, there may only be so far you can go in terms of professionalizing yourself. In my case, I ask myself whether I can learn to hone my focus for shorter periods in order to cope with the fragmentation of diverse scheduled tasks, and whether I can clobber my perfectionism and just “let go” of my writing the way others seem to be able to do. Whether I can get around feeling a disheartening sense of personal responsibility every time a student does poorly. Will “trying harder” be enough?

Myths and mismatches, part 9

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 17, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 9 – Finding Your Place.

Today’s myth from Jo and Julie is one I find quite important – perhaps because I’ve done quite a bit of moving around throughout my life. I’m giving this one a lot of consideration as I ponder the next steps.

Myth #5: Geography Doesn’t Matter

In case you hadn’t heard, “academia is notable for the lack of control we have about where we end up geographically, especially in a job market with few opportunities.”
I know that for me, place has always had importance. Sometimes there’s more of a connection to the people around me (as there is in Ontario, where I’ve now lived for quite a while). Other places just feel “right” whether I know someone there or not (Montreal, for some reason; and New Zealand, probably because I grew up there). There are also places like England that I love to visit, but where I could never see myself living.

In a profession where long-term positions are becoming harder to obtain, mobility becomes an asset in your job search. But this is also the reason why “it’s not uncommon for people to end up in geographic locations that just don’t work for their lives and personalities.”

There’s more to place than climate and topography: “let’s face it — being the only person of color or queer person around is rarely sustainable.” The latter point is at least semi-relevant to me personally, and I think it applies to one’s life-politics (as opposed to life-style) as well. For example, I know a lot of people who have applied for work in the U.S., but I wouldn’t personally feel comfortable moving there even for a temporary position. That’s a personal preference, which also stems from cultural tastes and familiarities developed over a lifetime. But it’s also savvy to know and understand that there’s no way I would “fit in” at a college in rural Arkansas (or at least, that’s not how I want to spend my time).

Why is it, then, that where you work is supposed to be irrelevant? To return to a running theme in these posts, if you’re living “the Life of the Mind” then “geography doesn’t matter — because you can take your mind anywhere.” This is of course untrue at every level of post-secondary education (and elsewhere). It’s also an idea underpinned by the separation of mind and body, by the ideal of the ascetic/academic, and by the assumption of a guarded boundary between the university and the “real world”.

I feel the same way about my living/working space as I do about geographic location–I’m more stressed, it’s harder for me to work, when I’m living in an unpleasant environment and there are people with whom I don’t get along. At the moment I’m lucky, I have a great space and I share it with only my cats; I’m an introvert so this works out very well for me. I admit that I need quiet and physical order to get my work done, mostly because my mental state is usually pretty chaotic (or “creative” to put it nicely). The same point applies to institutional spaces, something I wrote about here.

I agree that geography, that place, “matters to our happiness, it matters to our health, and it matters to our relationships” and that this affects how well we’re able to do our jobs. When you make a decision you need to take into account that place contributes to your career trajectory often in unforeseen ways. Just as the wrong institution or department can be a “mismatch” (often a career setback), so can the wrong city/town or country.

Myths and mismatches, part 8

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 15, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 8-Are You “At Home”?

My series of responses continues today with one of the most crucial issues you might end up facing as a graduate student or as a professor…

Mismatch #4: Mismatch of personality

Every workplace, every university department or academic “unit”, is more than the sum of its walls and windows, its rules and regulations. It’s a place that emerges partly from the interactions of the people involved, i.e. faculty, staff, students, and so on; “the basic personality of departments, not to mention universities, is a conglomeration of many factors”. These include institutional orientation (e.g. research or teaching); departmental divides along theoretical, methodological or generational lines; and “the particular configurations of personalities that just don’t work well together”.

You’ve probably noticed after spending years in university environments that you feel more at home within some of these spaces than in others–and you might have identified some of those factors that “work” for you. But it’s really hard to tell what a “good fit” might be from only brief interactions with place, and with people and institutional structures. I’ve often felt afraid of making the wrong call on this point, since “much of this personality […] isn’t apparent at first glance”. And it feels even more important when one thinks about applying for faculty positions; as a student there is always the option of switching programs or institutions, but faculty need to be able to fit in eventually with their colleagues and with the university in the long term.

Jo and Julie argue that when a “personality” disconnect occurs, “the problem isn’t you–it’s just the mismatch between what you need and what they offer.” You can work with compromise up to a point, but you need to recognise if and when “you just don’t fit the culture of the department or institution”.

Myths and mismatches, part 7

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 15, 2011:“Myths & Mismatches” Part 7: How to Apply Yourself.

Closely tied to the idea that “Academia is the only game in town” and that “You’re not qualified to do anything else“:

“Myth #4: School is the only place for smart people.”

Jo and Julie pose the question, “why are we telling ourselves that if we’re smart, we must necessarily go for the highest degree possible?” One answer would be that this is how the system works; certainly Ken Robinson makes this argument, that the entire educational apparatus is designed to perpetuate itself by allowing those most successful to ascend to the level of Professor. When or not one agrees with the rest of Robinson’s theses, this point is useful because it highlights the process of replication that becomes especially important in graduate education. This can be stultifying; not only is the government agenda to push PhDs out of the university, but “if the last twenty years have taught us anything […] it’s the power of smart people outside of school”.

Not only is “school” the only place for intelligence, there’s also a hierarchy of knowledge. I know when I was considering doing my PhD in Education, I was advised not to (by more than one person) essentially because the discipline wasn’t respected; this seems to relate to a long tradition of Education as a research area being perceived as less valuable and prestigious than other disciplines (for some history on this, see “An Elusive Science” by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann). I’ve also heard of top students being advised not to apply for their B.Ed, for the same reason–teaching as a profession isn’t respected the way law, medicine and engineering are. The irony is that we need teachers to be the smartest people we can find, since they’re the ones preparing the future generations who’ll be running this place when we’re all too old to participate. Seems straightforward enough to me.

To be considered very smart and to do something other than remaining in academe is to violate expectations; after all, academe is supposed to be the one place where intellectual merit is rewarded most highly. But “what if we could bring our smartness to bear on whatever it is that makes us passionately, excitedly happy? For some people, yes, that will be academia. But not everyone.” I think this summarises my attitude – I want to be as effective as possible at something, given my own abilities and limitations; I need to feel like I’m doing something towards whatever my goal is (though the goal itself is evolving, and has always been so over time).

For myself, I do think it’s reasonable to view a university career as a good fit if I can engage in the things that are meaningful/productive to me (such as teaching, writing a book, being around other intellectually engaged people, communicating/engaging with different “publics”, and so on). I like the structure of the academic environment because in spite of its flaws, it helps motivate me and at its best it gives a kind of institutional form to practices and values I find important. And I think the university should be a place where new ideas can be tried out – where faculty also have a responsibility to voice critical viewpoints, to “engage” with larger audiences. Knowledge is political, that’s one of the things that draws me to this career; and the university is an ongoing project in which all members have some role. I find the perverse balance between tradition and innovation to be at the heart of the university, and rather than destructive I think this struggle is its very reason for continued existence over thousands of years.

But all this is about more than being “smart” or a good writer – it’s about negotiating the whole package, warts and all, and that’s part of what this whole series of posts has been about. You can be smart and do a hundred other worthwhile things, it’s just that this isn’t necessarily the message you’ll get while you’re at university, particularly in graduate school. If the whole package doesn’t end up working out, there are other, equally meaningful forms of employment to which you can apply your considerable skills and training.

Myths and mismatches, part 6

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 14, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 6: Getting Priorities Straight.

“Mismatch #3: Mismatch of Priorities.”

As discussed in a previous post on the “Life of the Mind” and pointed out by Jo and Julie, “structurally, if not ideologically, academia still takes as its ideal employee the gentleman scholar”. This means that if you have commitments to anything other than work, you’re implicitly being considered an exception to the ideal. And while this is more or less obvious depending on context (and has been mitigated over the past half-century), in general academic institutions continue to be built on the assumption of this invisible ideal (which is similar to the assumption of a certain kind of student).

I think I also previously linked to a blog post about this, but the gentleman-scholar “model presumes that someone else — let’s call her a wife — is doing all of the other work necessary for a life”. This would be the person who tends to all the details of everyday living that are presumed not to trouble the solo academic, including of course domestic duties such a housekeeping and child-rearing. This stereotype is still quite real; consider the phenomenon of the “faculty wife” (written about here and here), while the “two-body problem” is encountered by partnered academics moving to new institutions. [Update: here is a new post from Jo Van Every on the same topic.]

We all have other things in our lives beyond our jobs, and these can be accommodated with varying degrees of success depending on context. The problem arises when we cannot reconcile academic life with other parts of life, because of the nature and demands of successful full-time university work.

Jo and Julie note that “a mismatch of priorities is often read as a lack of commitment — if you really cared about this profession…” I want to point out that this problem is likely to be gendered; for example, women are the ones who take leave during a pregnancy and after children are born. Male academics are far less likely to have their tenure time-line affected by this, while women may be viewed as “less committed” to work if they choose to start a family.

I’ve definitely questioned my own priorities in light of the above assumptions. If I “really cared”, I’d be willing to go anywhere to find the right academic job. If I cared enough, I’d take contract teaching work while applying for every tenure-track job of relevance that came up. Or I’d have had five publications by now. But I know I’d rather find a job in another “sector” when my PhD is finished, if it seems that there’s no chance of getting something worthwhile at a university–which of course means I’m not “committed enough” to academic life.

I don’t know–maybe that’s true, but the most important thing is that I’m committed to my life.

Myths and mismatches, part 5

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 11, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 5: The Myth of Academic Meritocracy.

Today’s “myth” from Jo and Julie is possibly the biggest one of all, and thus the most destructive should you buy into it whole-heartedly. It ties in with every other point that’s been made thus far in this series…

“Myth #3: Merit is Everything.”

I just want to point out that my response to this issue is always a very personal one, for reasons I will partially explain below.

For the record, the ideal of meritocracy–that you succeed at academic work primarily because of how smart you are–is a myth (as Jo and Julie state: “Excuse our language, but this is all a fucking load of steaming crap”). And there are plenty of examples that illustrate it. One of them is the issue of socioeconomic class, something that has an effect literally from birth. In the research on post-secondary education (PSE), SEC is a clear factor and yet one that various researchers attempt to mitigate by making the claim that cultural capital matters more than economic capital. Any study you’ve seen that makes claims about the improving influence of the “number of books in the house” is a study making claims about class and culture in this way. The problem is that if you used the available statistics to draw a nice Venn diagram, you’d discover that the overlap between “class (economic) privilege” and “cultural capital” makes the diagram look more like one circle than two. Translation: you may have more books in the house, but you might not have the money to pay for an academically elite private school, or even for the extra tutoring that improves your grades and helps you win that merit scholarship. Money matters at least as much as “merit”.

Money also matters when you decide it’s not worth going into $35,000 worth of debt to finance your degree, even if a degree is “an investment that really pays off” as the research tells us (again and again). I know I didn’t want to go to graduate school if it meant I’d have to increase my student loan burden. Does that mean I would have been somehow “less smart” if I hadn’t gone? As it turns out, my grad degrees have been financed primarily by merit-based scholarships. Does that mean I’m now, somehow, inherently smarter than you? (Hint: the answer is “no”.) In the PSE research literature, this attitude of mine is called “debt aversion”. To me, coming from what would financially be called a working-class background, it’s called “common sense”.

Socioeconomic class is only one of the reasons why “merit” is a concept that draws a veil over the causes of “success” and “failure” in academe. But it’s the one with which I have the most intimate familiarity, and it’s why this response of mine is mostly about money/class/privilege vs. merit.

Jo and Julie write that the myth of merit-based success “doesn’t build us up -— it makes us live in fear that, any day now, someone is going to figure out that we aren’t as smart as they think we are, and then they’ll kick us out.” This is why so many (particularly female) graduate students suffer from what’s known as “imposter syndrome“.

But what I’ve noticed is that some people seem completely impervious to the debilitating threats to self-confidence – the daemons of self-doubt – that I know I have wrestled with in the past and continue to battle on a regular basis. Who are those people, and why do they seem so certain of their own place, of the value of their work, and of their intelligence? Career development in academe is dependent not only on how “smart” you are, but on your own assessment of your capacities and how your put that to work; and because we want to believe in “merit”, we often denigrate our own efforts and doubt ourselves even when we succeed (it was “luck”, or something else). The required confidence is harder to develop when you’ve spent your life not being outstandingly successful, and you’ve been assuming it was entirely due to your own deficiencies as opposed to other factors.

That self-interrogation of course informs the comparisons we’re (tacitly) encouraged to make between ourselves and others in grad school. We look at what other are doing, wondering why they seem to be “succeeding” when we’re not. Why do some people seem to be able to effortlessly afford that trip to the conference in San Francisco or Sydney or that three-month stint touring the Far East? Significantly, success in academe also depends on the capital you can invest in further professional experience, where additional available resources mean not having to take on two extra jobs to finance your conference travel (or pay the rent!), thereby losing time you could have spent on researching. Success, in the form of useful capital, builds on itself.

As someone who’s currently riding out my second large merit-based scholarship, obviously I have extremely mixed feelings about the concept of “merit”… on the one hand I represent, statistically, an aberration that should prove the effectiveness of meritocracy: a student without economic means who’s been able to get to the doctoral level, and to do it by winning awards for academic excellence. But sometimes all I see are the thousand other ways in which this story could have ended, the many times I felt like dropping out because I was so sick of being broke and angry and tired and stressed, and the others I knew who were smart and talented and dedicated and still didn’t win the scholarships I won, and who did leave, blaming themselves all the way. I tell myself I made the right friends, got the right advice, stepped into the right subject area at the right time. Surely these were the things that stood between me and a return to a past where I washed dishes for a living instead of marking undergraduate essays.

The line feels that slim–a paperwidth of possibility–one that can be “re-crossed” at any time, given the assumed tenuousness of my success. Because I will probably never feel as if I truly deserve what I have.