I have recently developed a new obsession regarding the academic life. Reading about fictional representations of academics was not enough, as I have plunged into the literature on academic culture. English literature professors seem to be the main producers of this area, which I find interesting. As a social scientist, I would think that one of my tribe would lead the charge in interrogating the structures and cultural norms of academic life. I began my journey with the Minnesota Review’s 2001 issue on Academostars and from there I have only accumulated more sources. I won’t regale you with all the new insights I have gleaned, but I will admit that what I suspected, that prestige, hierarchy, and affiliation matter – has proven to not be only a figment of my imagination.
In the book Affiliations: Identity in Academic Culture, Joseph R. Urgo writes in his essay, “My experience is that this affiliation [with Bryant College, a business college] may be disfiguring but can also become, like a Hawthornesque birthmark, a gauge by which one sees how standards are perpetuated” (28). He then goes on the discuss how he is perceived by colleagues at conferences when they hear about his affiliation with a small business school. They question his choice to teach there and his ability to get another job. He goes on to discuss how he talks to job candidates when they visit campus and alerts them to the fact that in taking that job they are giving up high status. He writes, “The job one lands is definitional, even if it last for only a while; it is there, on the record of what you did and more, on the development of who you are. Far from filling a position, the candidate is filled by it, an identity is articulated from the moment the contract is signed” (31). I wonder how this description fares currently in the wake of the financial crisis and the dramatic decrease in tenure track jobs. I would think that surely just landing a job would indicate some kind of status. But from my experiences, I fear that it doesn’t. I have had friends get REALLY fancy jobs, and they are still the ones envied and lauded. Despite the manic movements of the market, the regime of status and placement still seems to remain firmly intact, almost as if it is this system that will safeguard us in the storm.