I Win! (And So Can You?) / by Naima Lowe

To my very dear 7 readers, I have some amazing news.

I have scored my dream job at the Evergreen State College in Olympia WA. I'll be teaching experimental and non-fiction film and video at a fantastic little public liberal arts college. It's an interdisciplinary college so that means that I get to teach across methodologies and with faculty in a variety of fields. The people are great, the campus is beautiful, and the opportunities for growth are fantastic. Like I said, my dream job. So dreamy in fact that I still periodically check the job boards because I haven't totally convinced myself that it's real.

I'm moving far away from everything I've ever known here on the dirty old East Coast, which is such an adventure for me in so many ways. I am happy, scared, thrilled, nervous, amazed and generally impressed with myself and the universe for this amazing opportunity.

I'm inspired to write a little something about this whole issue of getting ones foot in the academia door based on an interesting post written by this illustrious Julie Levin Russo last year when she landed her first academic job. She muses brilliantly on the strange culture industry that is academia and the challenges faced by young/new scholars. Her conclusions are astutely based in an analysis of how class privilege dictates ones relative ability to "make it" in academia. I couldn't agree more with her conclusions, and I recommend you read her thoughts on this and more over at her blog.

I am, of course, in a slightly different category as an artist navigating academia. In some ways us artists have an advantage, at least in terms of our mindset. As an artist, I've long since given up on the idea that what I produce is anything but a commodity to be traded in one of various cultural marketplaces. We all do it, one way or another. We go on tour, we get commissions, we audition for commercials, we get design gigs on the side, we teach, we beg, we borrow, we steal. Depending on our educations, privileges, and inclinations, some of us end up in Academia. I am one such person.

Some background: I grew up around educators and academics and artists, so my inclination towards this field was somewhat predisposed. There was a moment in college when I thought I'd rebel and become a corporate lawyer or get an MBA, but I figured I'd rather not actually be able to pay off my student loans, so I stuck with art. My father is an artist and scholar working in academia, so its really kind of the family business.

There is a somewhat long and convoluted story that accounts for how I ended up getting an MFA in Film in 2008, which I won't bother to tell right now. But I did it, and then I needed to become employed. Before and during graduate school, I had a variety of jobs, in fields savory and unsavory that paid my bills and kept me in good stories to make art about. After graduate school I decided to really "go for it" and focused all of my energy on doing that wonderfully absurd hustle known as: Being an Adjunct.

And all of the stories you've heard about it are true. I've worked at 4 different colleges and high school media programs in the last 2 years, often all at the same time, and still made less than I did with one job as an Administrative Assistant before graduate school. I had no job security, no health benefits, almost no formal career development or supervisory support, and little to no collegiality. More than anything, I had a general sense that I was a disposable commodity in the minds of the administration(s) of the school(s) I worked for. As in, if I walked away angrily, I could be easily replaced. And now that I'm leaving this life behind, I will be, by people who are just as (and often more so) qualified and hard working.

Also, I loved it. I happen to love teaching. I happen to think it is fulfilling, exciting, and fun. It's a creative job with lots of flexibility and autonomy. It's a job that connects you to people while they are exploring ideas and dreams, which is dreamy. I came to appreciate the fact that my life changed all the time. With a total lack of job security came new people, new places, and new challenges all the time. I wouldn't trade that for anything.

Now, my ability to find joy in this crazy lifestyle was facilitated largely by the stability provided by living with my consistently employed partner of five years in a house with a tiny mortgage. She works for a company that provides domestic partner benefits, and she had faith (thanks love!) in my ability to eventually come out with a better job. (Class privileges come in many many forms, yes they do.) So, I built my CV, both in teaching and in my art practice. I worked on projects new and old, updated my website, kept up my contacts with other artists, did activist work with organizations that I cared about, got to spend time with my family, and managed to live a pretty good life. I had time to go on the academic job market 2 years in a row, applying to around 40 jobs that resulted in 7 phone interviews and 5 campus interviews. There were close calls, near misses, bad fits, and tragic outcomes. My anxiety was in constant overdrive, and my therapist worked hard for her sliding scale fee. And then about 3 weeks ago I got a phone call over dinner with a fellow hard working artist. We were actually in the midst of talking about how badly I wanted this job at Evergreen. And then I got it. And now everything changes.

I never ever have to do the adjunct hustle again. If I'm savvy and committed in this job, I have the opportunity to stay there for a long time which means continual fulfilling work in a place that will support my creativity and teaching ability. I get to take summers off to work on my own art practice (and personal well being.) I get to be one of the "chosen few." There are lots of artists who have no desire to be in academia, and even more who will never have access to its comforts regardless of their personal inclinations. I'm not going to attempt any deep contemplation on the deeply complex class issues that impact artists more broadly in this little missive.  I feel more equipped to consider the fact that even for those of us who have the privilege and desire to commit ourselves to the false meritocracy that is academia, eyes wide open and willing to do it just for the sake of creativity, inquiry and exploration... Even for us, this system is fundamentally flawed. I'm not saying that I didn't work hard or that I don't deserve to be where I am. I didn't lie, cheat, or steal to get this job. But this isn't a simple equation of smarts + experience + dedication + education + talent = job. Like every other person trying to survive capitalism I had to find the right way to sell the commodity that is ME, and enter into an industry that is barely willing to acknowledge the fact that it is, in fact, an industry!

As cultural producers and service providers in colleges and universities, academics are workers (of a peculiar  and highly privileged sort, no doubt, but workers nonetheless.), and it behooves us to continually evaluate our labor, evaluate our relationships to management, strengthen our relationships to other workers within our industry and in all industries, and work hard to remind ourselves and everyone around us of the structural inequities that impact our ability to work with dignity and fairness. I'm writing this as a reminder to myself that I have "moved up in the world," but that I don't want to fall into the trap of thinking "well, that's just how it's done." In addition to the lie of meritocracy, academics of all stripes, and perhaps artists in particular, participate in the lie that it's ok to let junior scholars and artists put up with this mess because we had to put up with it! Graduate school, post-graduate school, and junior scholar status is like a 10 year long hazing ritual for the overly educated. What are the implications for academia if it continues on in this way? What does it mean for undergraduates, future scholars, and the production of new knowledge and art in academia if only the strongest (and most class privileged) can survive? Does it have to be this way?

So my dear 7 readers, what are the alternatives? I am here as an artist in academia because I actually do believe in art and education for its own sake. I believe that it is important and worthwhile, and I believe that it is worth investing my time, energy and smarts in, despite all its flaws. Maybe the 8 of us can come up some ideas on how to make it better, for everyone.

Yours Truly,

Naima