Academic Superstardom (and Its Costs)

There’s a fascinating conversation going on in two different posts on Invisible Adjunct (post 1 | post 2) about the celebrification of academia, and the potential costs of such a star system. IA herself (now that’s an interesting bit of gendering; why do I automatically assume that IA is female? Did I read something on the site that suggested such a pronoun use, or is there something gendered in the hierarchy of academia itself?) has put forward the theory that there’s a distinct connection between the rise of this star system and the parallel “adjunctification” of the academy, and that all of this is connected to the widespread devaluing of teaching at the university level, as well as the fall in the public sense of the value of a liberal arts education.

I want to second this notion, and I know that a number of my grad-school colleagues would do so as well. We were enrolled during a period when our Private University in the Public Service went on a major buying spree, snapping up superstars right and left. With a few notable exceptions, those stars did not teach — or rather, while they did preside over classes, on both the graduate and the undergraduate levels, it was clear that their raison d’?™tre at the university was not fundamentally about the students. They led their classes, but had slews of teaching assistants who handled all that messy grading. They spoke occasionally with graduate students, but only those who had already demonstrated their own star potential. They certainly did not Advise. Thus, the burden of real instruction, and particularly undergraduate instruction, and especially the extra unremunerated labor that such instruction brings, increasingly fell upon junior faculty, adjuncts, and graduate teaching assistants.

I find myself in an odd position with regard to this conversation, which I suppose is why I’m posting my thoughts here rather than in Invisible Adjunct’s comments. On the one hand, I’m without question one of the blessed: in a stroke that I can attribute to nothing but stupid luck, I got the job of my dreams right as I was finishing my dissertation, and have been here since. I can sympathize with those whom this system genuinely degrades into a second-class citizenry, but I can never empathize, as I just haven’t been there. On the other hand, I’m employed by a Small Liberal Arts College that is very keenly focused on undergraduate instruction and hands-on (and labor-intensive) interaction with students. We are also very conscious of the decreasing esteem in which such an education is held in the culture at large and very concerned to minimize our reliance upon adjunct labor. (This last should not necessarily be taken as a token of our virtue; an over-reliance on adjuncts can hurt one’s rankings among the other SLACs, a fact never too distant from our thoughts.) Working at a place like this, I have a measure of protection from the colder economic realities experienced at many larger universities, but a deeper investment in and commitment to teaching itself — a commitment that vastly diminishes the likelihood, because of the stresses on my time as well as the assumptions made by many in Research I schools about the lack of scholarly “seriousness” among faculty so committed, of my ever graduating into the realm of the academic elite. (Witness my manuscript-shopping travails in the previous post. How much easier is it to get your manuscript read when your letterhead says “Research I” than when it says “SLAC”?)

Which is not to say that I’d ever want to be such a Star. I’m committed to the choices I’ve made, I love this place, I adore my students, and I thank my lucky stars every day to have landed here. But it’s hard not to feel oneself a bit preterite-ized when the Elect are given so many demonstrable signs of their Value.


  1. I myself have found myself in a very fortunate position of a TT job (and one in the same city as my wife who is also an academic), and I’m not sure I can really say what landed me here other than that old Woody Allen joke suggesting that 90% of success is due to just showing up – which I did every day as an adjunct, whether I had a class or not. That led – in part – to fulltime work, and later to the TT position.

    But as you well know, and as we’ve discussed, the teaching-focused institution leaves little time for scholarship – not when you’re also expected to do heavy advising and committee work (let alone run administrative and faculty development programs). I find myself constantly frustrated in my attempts to get TIME to research and write. (We don’t have a junior leave here, so I can’t look forward to that.) And hey, as I wrote this, I was just interrupted with administrative questions!

    The longer this goes on, the further away I verge not from superstardom – which isn’t something I desire, or in my own sense of “anxiety of fraudness” think I deserve – but from being someone who will have his scholarship in the marketplace. And I find that incredibly frustrating, in and of itself and for future considerations. What happens if I want to leave here someday?! How could I?

    (Of course, the two kids in 2 1/2 years might have something to do with the time crunch! I mean who am I kidding, right?)

    Anyway, that’s a lot of belly-aching for someone in as fortunate a position as I am – thanks for the moment of self-pity. But I do understand your worries and frustrations about hierarchies and opportunities.

  2. I find myself in a similar position, as you know — besieged with committee work (which, to my eternal discredit, I do with great efficiency) and other administrative stuff, and hard-pressed to find time to get the scholarship done. I am, however, at an institution that has a junior-leave policy, so I got that blissful time away to focus — which is the only way I managed to produce the manuscript I’m now trying to forget is in front of anonymous readers somewhere.

    So yes, much of this is self-pity, on both our parts. But it seems to me that the hierarchization (?) of academia into an elite that writes, a middle-class that teaches and administrates but is nonetheless expected to write, and a proletariat that is expected merely to teach, teach, teach, picking up the slack for the rest of us, does a great disservice to the profession at large.

    Good luck with the work, though — and thanks for checking in here!

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