Generation Wipeout

The following essay by Kirsten Galvin and Christina M. Spiker is part of “Beyond Survival: Public Support for the Arts and Humanities,” a call for reflections on and provocation about the precarious state of arts funding after decades of neoliberal economics and the long culture wars.

A vibrant scholarly community must strive to maintain a diversity of voices not only across gender, race, sexual orientation, and class, but also across generation and age to encompass all stages of academic careers. Robust discourse depends on contributions from all parts of the academic pipeline—from graduate students, who vitally support institutions during their progression to a PhD, to full professors and those that have transitioned to advanced administrative positions. However, the gap between these beginning and end points has dangerously widened, and the bridge has all but collapsed.

Non-tenure-track faculty comprise the vast majority of all college-level educators (75 percent, by some estimates), with fewer tenure lines extended every year in the humanities. For recent PhDs, postdoctoral positions in the humanities are scarce, ridiculously competitive, and susceptible to institutional bias. Even though such fellowships are hardly a guarantee for a tenure-track job, this competitiveness perpetuates a culture where only a precious few have the time, space, and funding to develop a dissertation into the benchmark “first book.” Even more disproportionately, the great majority of those who have recently completed a PhD are contingent laborers in the academy. They are overburdened, overstretched, undervalued, underpaid, and quickly dropping out of the academic labor pool.

Welcome to the “gigification” of higher education, where instructors are paid by the course (often at different institutions), may not receive health insurance, have little-to-no research support, and are not eligible for unemployment.1 Research is disincentivized in such an environment, reflecting a voluntary institutional blindness toward the link between an active research agenda and effective classroom teaching. The gig economy does not value innovators or independent thinkers. It wants Uber drivers of knowledge: pick-up/drop-off (rinse and repeat), because you may not be working next year, semester, or quarter. And without real investment in these faculty members, how can our students expect an educational return in an era of escalating tuition costs?

Although it often goes unsaid, an entire generation of educators and scholars is quickly being snuffed out. For every person writing their own version of “quit lit,” others have silently fell by the wayside due to poor wages and lack of institutional support. This is well documented and known, but solutions remain elusive. In the spirit of this series, is there a way to facilitate “survival” until things get better? Can we reasonably believe that things will? If current conditions do not improve, we risk losing thousands of laborers, thinkers, mentors, and creatives in higher education. To this end, we also risk the greater health and stability of the academic community, and by extension American intellectualism, at an indisputably critical time.

While some motion has begun to stir, institutions and organizations must actively, regularly, and transparently support job placement, networking, conference travel, publication, and research opportunities for this majority class of contingent academic laborers. National organizations must officially recognize this bloc of scholars and teachers, and, at the very least, dedicate funding for conference travel for early career scholars in non-tenure-track positions. Institutions, not the laborers, have created the problem, and therefore they must take responsibility and work towards a viable solution (and stop profiting off the problem).

The mass exodus has already begun. We need to either commit to collectively improving conditions or admit that the current model is untenable and explore new options. If we take no action, then we will all bear some responsibility for the consequences.

Kristen Galvin is an interdisciplinary scholar whose research and teaching explores post-1960s visual and material culture in the United States. She is currently teaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design and writing a book on the relationship between the decline of creative subcultures and rise of media nostalgias in the twenty-first century.

Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Christina M. Spiker researches modern and contemporary Asian art and visual culture. Her current work investigates visual representations of race and gender in Japan at the turn-of-the-twentieth century, with a unique focus on the indigenous Ainu. She is currently a visiting assistant professor of art history at St. Catherine University.

The next response in the Precarity and Potential chapter is “Forget about it!” by Alan W. Moore.

  1. We are not the first to discuss higher education in terms of “gigification” or the gig economy. For more, see Professors in the Gig Economy: Unionizing Adjunct Faculty in America, ed. Kim Tolley (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).