In the last few weeks, as I prepare to visit and apply to graduate schools, I have been thinking a lot about the role of academia in this historical moment. These thoughts have been exploring terrain that was opened to me by reading some work by the group Ultra, specifically their generational analysis of capitalism and by the joyful discovery of the work of Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine in the last year, work that, in its mixture of theory, poetry and memoir marks out a new genre that I believe uniquely speaks to a generational experience. Anyways, I hope to write and more clearly articulate these linkages soon but the following piece of writing was something I put up on Facebook that is one piece of the story. Very much reflecting general concerns about the academy, Very provisional and leaves a lot out.
I've been thinking a lot about the decline of stablitlity of academic jobs recently and have this (heretical) historical hypothesis and conjecture: The relative stability of academic jobs is a generational anomaly which corresponded to a boom in the academy in the late 60s (caused by the move towards higher education to avoid the draft, the increase in number of people going to college and a huge influx of funding in area studies as a result of the cold war). This boom not only created a large number of tenured jobs which provided a very secure elite/upper-middle class lifestyle for academics but also served to (unintentionally or not) depoliticize academics by providing them refuge and insulation from the realities of the world (i.e. going to grad school instead of joining militant anti-draft resistant organizations, studying post-colonialism or marxist cultural theory rather than taking part in the afterlives of post-68 social movements).
However, in our time period we are witnessing a convergence of numerous factors that are undermining the stability of the academy: the increase in administrator pay, the defunding of the social sciences, the move towards conceiving of education as pre-professional, the destruction of the middle class, the end of growing rates of college attendance amoung others (MOOCS?). This has the very unfortunate effect of destroying tenured professorships as a widely available secure job prospect. However, this also means that academic in the United States are going to increasingly have to emulate academics in countries where there have never been secure job prospects: In Latin America for example, it is not uncommon for academics to balance teaching and research with other more "engaged" activities like working for civil society organizations, writing articles for popular publications and so forth.
An upshot, though ultimately harder and less secure for those of us who dream of the vaulted halls of the ivory tower, is that the entire structure that inadvertently insulates academics and thereby insulates them from the economic and social effects of capitalism and militarization will also crumble, necessarily opening the way for a more engaged form of academic practice which at its best means a break down between a distinction between theory and practice.