Looking for a tenured teaching job? I’ve got one piece of advice: get lucky

By reinforcing the myth of meritocracy, we perpetuate a system grounded in cruelty and false promises. It needs to stop, says David Webster

David Webster's avatar
King's University College
3 Nov 2022
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Pretending that academia is a meritocracy harms tutors and students

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With so many smart, well-qualified people chasing so few jobs in the social sciences and humanities, and with hundreds of qualified applicants for every opening, it should go without saying that merit isn’t winning people jobs. When almost everyone is quick and whip-smart and qualified, the race is not to the swift. It falls, all too often, to chance.

Academia is no meritocracy. We’re training vast numbers of people for a shrinking number of jobs. It’s little short of cruelty to those who earn a PhD – and then find there’s nothing out there waiting for them; that the dream they were sold is a tattered lie.

The problem is precarity. To save money, universities turn increasingly to instructors – almost all of them equally or better qualified than existing tenured professors – to teach courses. But there is no job security, no benefits, no safety. Universities, and their tenured employees, are exploiting the same people they train in graduate schools to follow the “life of the mind”.

I’m in a tenured position. But I’m no better qualified than many who are not. I got lucky.

As people line up to apply for jobs, advice proliferates. The professors offering it are well meaning. Their advice can help a limited few. But it’s not about an extra publication here, a better cover letter, a more appropriate outfit. We need to explode the myth that job seekers are at fault, that they would be hired if they could just improve their style a bit. That myth harms.

By reinforcing the myth of meritocracy and pushing job seekers to do even more, we hurt precarious colleagues, graduate students and recent graduates seeking that most basic of goals: a full-time job in their chosen field. By reinforcing the myth of meritocracy, we perpetuate a system grounded in cruelty and false promises. It needs to stop.

Advice? Abandon the myth of meritocracy. Treat precarious colleagues as full colleagues. And tenured colleagues: be honest about how we got where we are.

What success I have in academia hangs on a thread with no branches, no choices. After my PhD, I received a single postdoctoral offer, and took it. Then the same again, twice more. Finally, I got lucky and received a single tenure-track job offer. So I took it and stayed in academic work, moving yet again, always one offer away from leaving.

I was lucky, and I was privileged. Lucky because there was always one more offer, one lifeline a year. Privileged because I was able to move around and benefit from being a white man with the means to follow the single offer each time it was dangled.

Rather than belabour what we all know – that academia is no meritocracy but instead devours its children and exploits precarious labour – let’s look at a promising approach that’s had some success.

In 2020, precariously employed colleagues in Canadian history issued an anonymous manifesto. They pointed to the “crisis in working conditions for precariously employed history professors in Canadian universities”.

One professor working without job security, Andrea Eidinger, called on tenured colleagues to “step up to the plate and take action. You benefit from a system that systematically exploits the labour of both precarious instructors and graduate students.” She was right.

Another precarious colleague, Jeremy Milloy, told other precariously employed professors it was “time for us to give up hope…that it’s going to be different for us…that we will be the ones picked to get that tenure-track job. These hopes keep us in chains.” What’s needed, he argued, was a collective approach, grounded in labour rights. This thinking draws on the “second wave” human rights approach, seeing the problems in individual liberties and pointing to the need for collective organising to defend collective rights. He was right, too.

The Canadian Historical Association (CHA), after some nudges, endorsed the manifesto. It acknowledged that academia is not a meritocracy. There’s been some change in the profession and in some history departments. A few have held conversations on fairness for precarious colleagues. Some collective agreements include elements of job security. Some department chairs are reaching out for advice. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s a start.

Recognising that we don’t work in a meritocracy is vital to creating change and promoting fairness to colleagues who just happen to be precariously employed, who just happen to not have had the luck and the structural privileges of some of us. That recognition would improve the overall quality of learning central to the mission of higher ed. It would help students who all too often see their favourite instructor has moved on, lacking the job security to stay, not there to write the reference letter they need.

The CHA has compiled a series of resources that will promote fairness within the profession. It goes well beyond historians. It recognises that luck and structural advantages are more important than merit in defining who is and who is not in the charmed circle of tenured professors, and it shares some calls for justice that are also calls for a better approach to teaching history. It points one way towards change. Give it a look. We owe that to our colleagues.

David Webster is an associate professor of human rights studies at King’s University College, Western University, Canada, and adjunct research professor in history at Carleton University, Canada. He is a member of the Canadian Historical Association council, the CHA committee on precarity.

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