Metasacralities #2 — June 2019

Welcome back to the Metasacralities Newsletter!

This month I participated in three different teaching and research workshops and attended an academic conference. I went to the workshops because they came with a small stipend to defray childcare costs. Conference attendance was precipitated by a small but essential donation by a senior scholar who gave up their speaking fee to subsidize contingent and graduate student attendance. These small acts are essential for those of us whose job opportunities in the field continue to be part-time. The academic study of religion, like much of the rest of the academy, has two kinds of citizens, haves and have-nots. Too often contingency feels like having not because access to professional development can be challenging or come with unseen obstacles. I had to get approval for two of the workshops in order to sign up as an adjunct (FT employees didn’t fill all the slots). Such common differences are not a secret per se, but they are pernicious because we’re secretive about it.

We often think of contingency as simply a labor problem–just the low pay and few perks. What’s more pervasive is the constellation of things that happen when you are erratically orbiting the academy. Your access to campus is intermittent and so your relationships are, too. This applies just as much to library access as it does to people. It becomes harder to network and build long-term allies. You struggle to find professional opportunities or be available as a participant in the campus’ academic life. Nor does your participation necessarily count for your file or toward future employment or raises. Students who could be recruited as majors find themselves unable to take more courses with you. The list is endless because being a part-time faculty member just isn’t the same–even if the work in the classroom appears the same to students. If you find the time to publish, even that work will look the same in print and obscure the differences in its creation. Much of this applies as well to the differences between full-time teachers at R1 schools when compared with public institutions or community colleges.

Higher Ed is diverse and the concealment of labor differences is a feature and not a bug of the academic ecosystem. This has wide-ranging consequences. One especially frustrating feature is the fact that still-in-progress PhD candidates are routinely hired over those who have completed and made their way into the long-term teaching labor pool. Experience appears as a disadvantage sometimes with the chances of being hired for a TT job diminishing every year out from degree conferral. [I read this in a national study a few years back but for the life of me I can’t find it now to share.] The old explanations were that this more experienced pool is perishing rather than publishing or otherwise a bad fit for the available jobs. I understand as well that it can be tough to hire those who already have strong opinions about how the field looks. Worse still that opinion was cultivated by a patchwork quilt of short teaching opportunities gained in survival mode over years after degree completion. To downplay the experience that departments count on to survive (adjunct teaching of survey courses, for instance) perpetuates the cycle. New hires then may not have experienced scholarly life as the majority of our labor market does even if it looms on the horizon like a storm cloud for them. How can we expect these tenure-driven all-but-dissertation hires to be the allies long-term contingents need? The same is true of long-time tenured faculty, whose perspective on the market may be skewed or whose hands may be tied to hiring freezes, faculty buy-outs without TT line replacements, and so on.

If teaching and scholarship appear similar from the outside, the factors supporting or obstructing these elements of academic life are very different when you’re living them. During my workshops, I found myself nodding politely as the discussion turned to campus politics that pre-date my arrival and are above my pay grade since I don’t get a vote in the faculty senate. I was included in the conversation but it wasn’t for me. So I wistfully imagined a future course where I had the freedom to revise course descriptions and outcomes or see through significant curricular reforms to address our workshop’s pedagogical suggestions (on equity, if you can believe it). Similar things happen when I am encouraged to write more articles or finally figure out my first book project. When I hear about post-doctoral fellows whose only year-long duties are teaching single course and a broad expectation to publish, what I hear is: there’s someone who’ll be competing the market with me for jobs in two years. I had to pay for a fraction of the time to write they were guaranteed for two years. We don’t live in the same world, but we sure do apply for the same jobs. We may all be collectively over quit-lit, but the problems that force people to quit remain.

Speaking of jobs, last month on the Metasacralities blog I wrote about how little information our field collects (or shares) about recent Ph.D. graduates to help us all understand what’s going on with our job market. I argued that our lack of awareness about the landscape of early scholars is a problem we should all be aware of. You might think we’d have a way to see and celebrate the accomplishments of students completing academic doctorates in religious studies, but our guild and the several dozen PhD-granting departments don’t reliably share this information. Why not? What might we learn from a clear-eyed look at each year’s cohort of completed PhDs? What might we gain from looking at who is graduating scholars or knowing what they are writing about?

This month I tweeted like crazy during the Religion & American Culture’s Biennial conference. Some brief summary thoughts as I mentally unpack a busy conference weekend:

We’re all aware the landscape of our scholarship and teaching about religion is changing, but those that were trained decades ago have a perspective of continuity and a sense of legacy that newer folks do not. This is more than mere evolution of the field, since there was significant discussion in 2019 about how this generation of students and the current era of global, instantaneous social media is changing almost everything about our work. What struck me most was the desire of some participants to return to a sense of cohesion about our discipline and move past thirty years of critique about what we think it is we’re doing in the study of religion. In a room where a participant was just as likely to be a sociologist, political scientist, or historian as they were to be in a department of religion, that sense of clarity about our object of study seemed fanciful.

Perhaps we might track this as a disciplinary battle between those who think we study a universal “religion” as opposed to specific expressions of religion that may not be easily compared cross-culturally. Defining religion is a forever task for our field and old dividing lines remain visible today. Returning to the moment when it was possible to say things about “religion” writ large feels like hoping that one’s work can outlast its critics (or worse still ignore them). It’s a vivid reminder that every generation’s work is contingent. Like cheap labor, when we merely rent the theoretical work rather than own it and integrate it, we lose out. How much of the scholarship will survive to be more than historiographic comprehensive exam material or targets for showing how far we’ve come? Like contingent labor, the problem doesn’t go away if you try to ignore what the theories have to say and carry on as usual. The rebuttal is devastating, too, how many of our scholars will survive the disintegration of the humanities if we can’t find ways to solve these interdisciplinary struggles and clearly express our field’s value to keep our discipline going?

Share your thoughts:

How is contingent labor impacting your work? Does your department struggle to balance staffing needs with hiring limitations? What are you doing to create greater equity among those who do the work in our classrooms? As I am aware this month, small acts can have big impacts and really make a difference. What small thing could you do to help another faculty member or colleague?