It’s officially crazy season. By June 30 I have to pass my qualifying exams, finish a short story about Godzilla (don’t ask), move all of my things into public storage, keep a group of undergrads from getting into serious trouble in Tokyo for the better part of a month, and relocate myself and a few boxes worth of stuff to Japan for a year. Most of it’s good–very good–but it hasn’t left me much time to blog. At the moment I’m itching to write about my recent experiment with Cincinnati chili, more scary details about the downward spiral of academia, that really horrifying story out of Sonoma about the elderly gay couple who were denied visitation rights and had all their possessions sold by the county, and a delightful “old Hollywood” bar called the HMS Bounty. For now, though, I’ll just stick to updates.
Against all odds I managed to land myself a Japan Foundation grant, a very generous fellowship that will allow me to live comfortably and do dissertation research in Japan for eleven months. I had hoped to get one of the three fellowships I applied for, but I’d also kind of resigned myself to the fact that there was a really good chance I wouldn’t get any of them. So this was VERY good news, especially in light of all the not-so-great things that have happened over the last several months.
It makes me realize, though, that my decision to continue with my academic career has largely been determined by whether or not someone offers me a great deal of money. I suppose that isn’t too shocking–getting a PhD is damned near impossible without some source of funding, and even with funding you’re likely to go into debt. At the same time, it makes me worry that I don’t want it bad enough, that if I were truly passionate about my chosen field I’d pursue it tooth and nail, money be damned. But that’s not realistic either, because receiving funding to continue your education is at least SOMEWHAT contingent on how suited you are for academic life (I’m not naive enough to think it’s ALL based on merit, but of course merit is a part of it). So if you find it absolutely impossible to get any funding, it seems natural that you would doubt whether academia is really your best option.
My fellowship comes at a time when the bleakness of the academic job market and the increasing budget / staff cuts at universities are becoming harder and harder to ignore. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published this article which sums a lot of things up nicely (namely, that we all need to get our heads out of the sand when it comes to the reality of jobs in the humanities–publishing and networking and writing a kick-ass dissertation just aren’t enough anymore). Another article discusses the common misconception that humanities courses are a drain on universities (math, science, and business are the real money-makers), when in reality humanities departments are pretty self-sustaining and in fact make universities plenty of money. As I see more and more humanities professors being denied tenure and so many being reduced to teaching as adjuncts (with no health insurance or real job security of any kind), I’m reminded of Todd McCarthy, the famous film critic who wrote for Variety for 31 years. Variety recently fired him as a cost-cutting measure, but asked him to continue to write reviews freelance (i.e. without a regular paycheck). The message here, as in so many humanities departments, seems to be similar: We know you’re valuable. We know that literature, art, language, and other such fields should be taught, every bit as much as pre-med courses and business courses should be taught. As much as we might look down our noses at fields that don’t guarantee the degree holder an immediate job, we admit that we can’t just do away with you completely. But we stop short of offering you a respectable wage or any real job security. We just hope that you’ll stick around and continue to do your job for a lot less.
And, sadly, a lot of us will. For now.
For now, I’m content in the knowledge that I will be able to live comfortably and continue to progress toward my PhD for a year. But a year goes by fast, and after it’s over and I (shudder) begin to think about entering that very unfriendly job market, things are going to look a lot more uncertain. I think the bottom line is that none of us–even those in tenured or tenure-track positions–can afford to get too comfortable right now. We can’t really feel secure until all of us can have a piece of that security, not just those at the top.