May 13, 2020

The Academy’s Longevity Should Incentivize Reform

In what I can only assume is a rational response to watching a sweaty Chris Cuomo deliver the news every day from our basement, my father recently suggested that I start studying for the GRE. He is nervous about the vague, nebulous thing we call the economy, and more than that, he is nervous about the prospects that I—his sociology major daughter—might have in whatever’s left of it after the pandemic. “It’s just good to have options,” he says. The University, if its extended deadlines are any indication, agrees. The assumption underlying both of these concerns is a commonplace one: It is the assumption that the academy will stand for a long time. Come hell or high water, the U.S. News and World Report rankings will be released next year, and they will serve us all well. Education endures.

The very longevity of the institution is precisely what makes Professor Kimberly Kay Hoang’s recent op-ed so infuriating. The piece has rightfully been denounced by graduate students and professors alike as arrogant tenure-splaining, an erasure of the years of graduate student organizing it took to get “almost the median income in Illinois,” and perhaps most simply, just plain bad sociology. No less a member of the sociological cannon than Max Weber once remarked that “[w]hether a lecturer ever attains the position of a full professor, let alone a scientific assistant becoming director of an institute, is simply a matter of chance. True, luck is not the only factor, but it plays an unusually predominant role—I can hardly think of another career in the world where chance plays such an outsize part.” It is nothing short of outrageous, given the incisive structural analysis that characterizes sociology, to hear a professor in the field make an argument condoning the logics of meritocracy.

This university and those like it will be around for a long time. And given that, shouldn’t our imperative be to make it as palatable as it can possibly be? If the academic job market is as punishing as everyone says, doesn’t it behoove us to take this unprecedented moment to advocate for its restructuring, or for some collective insulation against precariousness? To quote poet Anne Boyer, “This virus makes what has always been the case even more emphatically so.” There is always a balancing act between preparing for how the world is and how we wish it were, I know, but in balancing, we must be careful to never legitimize the former and never abandon the latter.

Legitimation, unfortunately, is the least of what Hoang’s op-ed does. It does nothing for graduate students, current and aspiring, to hear from a tenured professor that it is our job right now to analyze the situation we’re trying to survive, or to lower our expectations for the future. It does nothing to hear that we are privileged, because Hoang is more so. (And I’m sure that all the graduate students who are planning to write subpar dissertations have been thoroughly moved by her op-ed to do otherwise.)

Writing that “[i]f you feel that [producing an outstanding dissertation] is too much of a challenge, or is otherwise detrimental to your mental health, this is the time to think about alternative careers that are suitable to your personal and professional goals” is not simply tough love—it is exactly how “the market” will explain away students who don’t make it out of Ph.D. programs, with no thought or regard as to why. Hoang’s words are an acquiescence—a capitulation and reductive furthering of a deeply flawed system.

In her Sociological Theory class in the fall, Hoang enthusiastically extolled us undergraduates to “theorize from a place of conviction.” She told us that good sociology came from righteous beliefs. I am of the conviction that the academy needs the people who would be dissuaded from its ranks by her op-ed far more than those people need the academy. I am of the conviction that we should not step over the corpses of others to compete in academia. I am of the conviction that there is space in the ivory tower for people to not just work, but to live and heal and recover and grieve.

It’s a shame Hoang is not convinced of the same.