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Are Academics Cowards?

The Grip of Grievance Studies and the Sunk Costs of Academic Pursuit

By James A. Lindsay | Areo Magazine | December 4, 2018

There is much that should be said about the ways in which the dominant Social Justice ideology has negative impacts upon the university, free expression, academic freedom and, especially, the sciences. Like all rigid ideologies, Social Justice is inimical to science—not because of what it claims or concludes but because of how it goes about reaching its conclusions. Social Justice, like all rigid ideologies, is only interested in science that supports its predetermined theoretical conclusions and holds all other science suspect.

Of course, the accusation that the sciences are susceptible to the forces of Social Justice and its endless politicking may come as some surprise to those in the sciences, because they are duly confident in their own rigor. They are right to realize that, even if the Social Justice educational reformers go too far or have a frightening amount of institutional control, they cannot really influence science directly because they don’t do science. The assumption held by many, which is plausible, is that scientists will keep doing science according to rigorous scientific methodologies and needn’t worry much about the influence of politics from the more ideological sectors of the academy—including the administration.

This attitude is both laudable and quaintly naive. It is likely to underestimate the degree to which the sciences, like all disciplines, are susceptible to the influences and whims of a dominant orthodoxy. We should note that this exact concern is also what we hear from proponents of Social Justice when they attempt to encroach upon science—it’s perhaps the chorus of the siren song of feminist studies of science and technology to insist that the sciences are already biased and that their activism is a necessary corrective. These criticisms of science insist that science is already prejudiced towards the ideological assumptions of white, Western men and therefore needs to be made more inclusive. This argument, however, goes against the core and essential nature of science, which is universality. Whatever is true about the world should be discoverable by the same methods, regardless of who or what does the experiment.

Another core part of the scientific process is skepticism. This means that science, as a process, is already geared to minimize and correct for potential biases and errors, be they ideological or otherwise. Input into ways to do this more efficiently are always welcome, but Social Justice approaches do not seek to further improve the objectivity of science. Instead, they aim to introduce opposing biases, which they see as effectively counteracting existing ones. Far from being a novel or useful insight, however, concerns about the lack of objectivity on the part of any given observer or theoretician aren’t lost on any serious scientist or philosopher of science and haven’t been in decades (and appropriating Thomas Kuhn’s work here doesn’t work on the Social Justice side).

For these reasons, scientists should be deeply concerned with the possibility that people with strongly ideological and political motives, many of which are ambivalent at best and hostile at worst to the core values of scientific inquiry, might establish themselves as the body of working scientists and arbiters of what science can and should be done and for what reasons. Rigorous epistemology and a certain willingness to let the cards fall where they may and to have one’s ideas proven wrong will suffice.

The thing is, it is extremely likely that a majority of working scientists, at least outside of the social sciences, are keenly aware of the ways in which Social Justice can corrupt science, its conflict with the core values of science and science education, and its potential costs and implications. Nevertheless, it appears that they are letting it happen. Why would they do this?

There’s no real mystery in this question. Most of the scientists who see the writing on the wall and wish they could do something about it will eagerly tell you precisely why they don’t speak and act against the creeping woke hegemony they know will eventually corrupt their disciplines, possibly for generations. They’re afraid. They’re afraid they’ll be fired. They’re afraid they’ll be blacklisted from jobs, tenure and research funding opportunities. They’re afraid they’ll become thorns in the sides of the administration, especially the Grand Wizards of their institutions’ Offices of Diversity and Inclusion, and targets of the newly minted campus inquisition Bias Response Teams, and never have another peaceful day to get real work done. They’re afraid they’ll be done like Tim Hunt was done.

Outside of the academy, this attitude often gets them branded cowards. In fact, the insistence that academics are cowardly, and that’s how we got into this mess in the first place, is one that seems to have a worrying level of support lately. It’s probably true that significant numbers of academics are cowards. In the main, however, it is only true in the sense in which a person is a coward for knowing that the first few to speak out in a revolt against any hegemonic regime are going to be its first martyrs. Speaking game theoretically, she who speaks out first should always be somebody else.

On those grounds, it’s probably not correct to say that academics are cowards. We hear exhortations that they should have the courage to risk their positions by speaking out because they have options. They have PhDs for God’s sake—surely they can get another job somewhere. This is a popular myth, but the opposite is nearer to the truth. Getting a PhD often locks a person into very few options other than to toe whatever line is needed to stay in academia. If we’re going to solve many of the institutional problems facing the academic working environment, not least the creep of Social Justice ideology into these institutions, the reality of the PhD job market is going to have to be taken into account.

To understand and find a workable path forward, we need to empathize.

Imagine yourself as a relatively new PhD. Chances are that you have spent anywhere between the last three and twelve years dedicated to higher education, and you have been following a path of increasing difficulty, paired with increasingly specific and narrow focus. By definition, supposing your committee and institution were up to the task and you’re not a rather extreme outlier, you should be for about eighteen months the world’s foremost authority on some exceptionally narrow topic within a subfield of whatever field you tell people that you got your doctorate in. You’re going to be competent in other aspects of that field, of course, but it’s important to remember that you’ve spent at least the last two or three years of your program (or the entire program, depending on the country where you studied) going right to the bottom of some fairly deep rabbit hole.

Why did you do this? Passion. Love. Interest. Enthusiasm. To pursue the simple dream of doing something you genuinely love doing.

It’s virtually impossible to push yourself through a PhD program unless you truly love the subject you’re studying and want to devote your working life to researching it and teaching it—which means getting an academic job. And earning a PhD isn’t exactly a picnic. (When I did my master’s degree, my reaction was that it was a bit surprising how easy it was to earn compared to my expectations going into the program. When I finished my Ph.D., the only thing I could say was, “they don’t give those away!”) In nearly every case, it takes a great deal of dedication, interest and passion to earn a PhD, to say nothing of luck and talent.

The phrase grad student is misleading. It seems to many kind of like Easy Street. But many PhD students and postdocs work obscene hours—often in excess of eighty hours a week—to keep up with their educational, research and job duties, especially if they want to do well enough to score a tenure-track job later. They usually get summers off from coursework so that they can work even harder on their research, so there’s no real break there. They also usually do this out of passion and grit because there’s hardly any money in graduate assistantship stipends in the wide majority of fields.

And don’t get this wrong. This isn’t a poor PhD candidate story: it’s a tale of investment. A PhD program isn’t just school (or college); it is just another kind of apprenticeship like that any master tradesperson has to go through, except that it takes about a decade of insanely hard work to get through the first stage of it. To earn a PhD requires an enormous investment of time, energy, talent and resources. And what do you get in return (besides your degree and a set of wizard’s robes, complete with a hooded cape and a goofy hat)? (Note: You have to buy the robes and hat, and they’re expensive. Further, you’ll never wear them again unless you go into academia professionally.)

Pause to consider this. Chances are, if you’re looking for academic jobs, especially in the sciences, you’re coming off a postdoc or two, so you’ve literally spent the last decade or more in training for the job you hope to get. You’ve made incredible sacrifices for it. You’ve invested more into getting past the first hurdle of a future career than almost anyone else. Just imagine training at double full time, paid less than minimum wage, for a decade for a job and then being able to think it’s worth risking the career you’re working for to make a political point, even a really important or necessary one.

It’s not easy to call that cowardice when you see what it’s really about.

But you got a PhD at the end of it, so you’ve got little to worry about now, right? Wrong. By the time you earn your PhD, you will have achieved a few things, all of which contribute to why your job prospects outside of the academy border upon the mythological.

One: you’ll be hyper-competent in something pretty narrow and specific, while being generally knowledgeable about the raft of information that supports that specific set of skills. This isn’t particularly great for you, unless you get to apply that specific focus or fall into something closely related. This isn’t really a problem within the academy because it’s where your passion for researching and teaching led you—and it’s the job you trained yourself for—but if you abandon academia, it is a big problem.

Two: you will become overqualified for the vast majority of positions in the working world. For a long time, I wasn’t able to understand how overqualification is a problem, but I do now. If you are overqualified, you aren’t just worth more than many employers might want to pay; you’re worth more for a specific and important reason that matters far more than your education. Employers know that overqualified employees aren’t likely to last a long time in their jobs. It’s altogether too likely that an overqualified employee will become bored with their current job or find one more fitting to their qualifications and leave. This is a real risk for an employer, especially one who may (or may not!) already be paying you a lot more for your time than they’d pay someone rightly qualified for the work. This limits your employment options to something for which you are genuinely qualified (mostly in academia), jobs that don’t care about high turnover rates or jobs obtained through nepotism.

Three: despite having proved your capacity to learn new things and get very, very good at them, you’re likely to be essentially useless at everything else. I know this is a tough pill to swallow for a lot of PhDs, but it’s exactly how they’re seen from the outside. Even making the jump from a coding-heavy science specialty to something like commercial data mining—which you probably have the skills to adjust to quickly—isn’t an easy sell.

The result of this is the following employability portfolio. Unless something pretty fortunate happens to you (or nepotism), you can either (a) get a job in your field, which will almost certainly be in academia for most PhDs; (b) attempt to build something on your own; or (c) work somewhere that has high enough employee turnover not to care about your overqualification, for example, as a stocker in a grocery store or a barista in a coffee shop. The myth here is that (b) is easy because you have a PhD. It is, in fact, by far the most difficult of the three options. And (c) is about two notches above throwing the hardest decade of your life in a dumpster and setting it on fire.

Essentially, shooting for that job in academia—which is probably your main ambition anyway—takes a ton of work but is worth competing for because building something successful on your own takes a lot of auxiliary skills, work, time and luck, and it’s still extremely high risk. Most people who try this path fail, and there’s nothing in staying in formal educational spheres until you’re almost thirty that increases your odds at making it in the real world.

Worse, you haven’t probably had the time or resources to lay any of the tracks to pull this off if you’ve been working in academia up until this point because those jobs are usually insanely busy, especially now. That also implies that you can’t really safety net yourself in an academic job while you start building something because working in academia (especially sub-tenure) will leave you with absolutely no time to build a goddamn thing.

Because there are so many people with PhDs now and so many more in the educational pipeline, the academic jobs you’re after (both for practical reasons and because, remember, it’s probably your dream) are insanely competitive—often against people who literally cannot understand why anyone wouldn’t want to work as hard as they can for every waking moment of their lives. Therefore, these extremely demanding jobs don’t come easily, and thus there’s a lot of justifiable fear of losing one. (The applications process for academic jobs is, itself, a fairly brutal full-time job—except it doesn’t pay a cent.) This is even without factoring in the insane investment that went into being qualified for them in the first place.

It’s grimmer than that, though. Because your skill set is likely to be highly specific in your research and limited to education outside of it, there’s pretty much nothing left for you in the overqualification gulf between these options and working the back room of a big box store. And you can’t safety net there, either.

The same forces also make for another type of hypercompetitive pressure on academic jobs—you go obsolete fast. Your skills are hyper-specific, and there’s an army of people coming up behind you, with similar hyper-specific skills, which are just that little bit more fresh. Remember how I mentioned that you’ll be the world’s expert in your dissertation topic for about eighteen months? Yeah, well, take that much time off, and you’re obsolete. There’s no bridge back, at least not to a tenure-track position at a research university. After that much time has passed out of active work in your field, it will be virtually impossible for you to convince anyone that you’re marketable against the glut of hungry candidates who haven’t stepped away for a minute.

So, if you’re going to go for that academic job, you’re going to have to chain yourself to it. Your alternatives are to abandon it entirely (along with your dreams and most of the point of your hard work up to that point) and either take the great risk of building something new, completely changing course in life (probably by taking up a trade), or working in the lowest sectors of the economy, just as you could have done without ever chasing your dreams first.

So take a minute to imagine working a double-full-time apprenticeship in something you’re passionate about and want to do more than anything else in your life, doing it for a decade, and then having to give that up to serve someone coffee because you had political opinions that bucked the institutional orthodoxy. Worse, tenure is (perceived to be) little protection against the considerable inroads made by the Social Justice ideology into the academic institution’s administrative ranks, so that the further one goes in an academic career, the more one has to lose by challenging it. To lose tenure is, in a best case scenario, to have to earn it again, and if PhDs don’t come easy, tenure is far worse. It’s a grim picture.

This set of options sucks so much ass that it’s perfectly reasonable—not cowardly in the least—for so many academics to choose chaining themselves to their careers to be able to keep doing the thing they loved enough to go to college for a decade to be able to do and teach. I mean, you could go back to teaching as an adjunct, but you’re quite literally better off bartending.

In short, we don’t see most academics risking their careers to speak out against the creep of Social Justice ideology or other institutional and administrative nightmares because the risks just aren’t worth the potential rewards in most cases. This isn’t cowardice. It’s a legitimate problem to be overcome.

The thing is, there won’t be change if a few faculty members speak up. On the contrary, by putting themselves in the firing line and being summarily executed, other academics are likely to be further deterred from speaking out. To make a difference will require a critical mass action. It will require honest communication between academics for them to realize how many of them there are who see the same problem and become emboldened enough to feel safe speaking up about the institutionalization of a Social Justice orthodoxy throughout the academy and beyond. What we need now is a way for academics to connect with each other, share their concerns, discuss ways in which they can support each other and then all speak out at once.

The question comes down to what working scientists and other academics who are concerned about Social Justice ideology can do about any of this. Here are a few suggestions. Do as much as you can feel safe doing. That may mean making anonymous posts on message boards, social media or elsewhere. It may mean signing your name to the same, if you think you can. It is probably helpful to feel out the situation with your colleagues and find out whom you can talk to or to seek out similar people online. The purpose of this is to realize that many other people are concerned that the educational reformers and Social Justice busybodies have gone too far. Recognize that what these groups are after is far more than the pleasant sounding diversity, inclusion and equity and look into what those terms really mean. You may find that a great deal of what they’re after is at direct odds with your core values, and this might rouse you to want to do more about it. Most importantly, realize that you’re not alone in this, and you probably have far more colleagues who agree with you than who do not.

December 15, 2018 - Posted by | Full Spectrum Dominance, Science and Pseudo-Science | , ,

1 Comment »

  1. In short, we don’t see most academics risking their careers to speak out against the creep of Social Justice ideology or other institutional and administrative nightmares because the risks just aren’t worth the potential rewards in most cases

    That’s very true. It’s not at all easy to land a university post these days. Many are called, but few are chosen.

    Comment by traducteur | December 15, 2018 | Reply

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