Higher education and the culture of gratitude

Universities are capitalising on junior academics’ willingness to accept deteriorating working conditions, argues Luke Brunning

August 7, 2014

Source: Elly Walton

If you frequent the parts of the internet where philosophers gather, you may be familiar with a controversy that happened earlier this year involving a woman known only as W, whose job offer at a US liberal arts college was retracted after she attempted to negotiate a better deal.

W’s style was direct. She had put forward several requests aimed at making it “easier” for her to accept the proffered tenure-track position at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York. These included a pay rise, a term of maternity leave, a cap on course preparation, a sabbatical before her tenure review and a delayed starting date. The college promptly withdrew the offer on the grounds that “[W’s] provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centred”.

There were polarised reactions to the incident. Many people were shocked and appalled on her behalf. Although her approach lacked nuance, many thought it was perfectly reasonable to ask, especially as W was anticipating the birth of a child. Others argued that her requests were extravagant, suggesting that she was woefully out of touch with her lowly status as an early career researcher trying to secure their first job in a saturated market. That latter response is symptomatic of a culture of gratitude in higher education that is helping to erode ever further the welfare of junior academics.

Life would be barren indeed without opportunities for gratitude, and all young academics have legitimate reasons to be grateful. One thing that makes the slog through a PhD manageable, for example, is the anticipated pleasure of being able, in your thesis acknowledgements, to thank those people who offered love and advice. You could even argue that an ideal academic environment is formed of voluntary interactions centred on a love of learning and the desire to encourage others: what you might call a true “gratitude economy”.

As things currently stand, however, gratitude culture, and its internalised effects, is being exploited: it is being used to mask deteriorating academic and financial conditions within higher education for young academics.

As soon as we arrive on campus as undergraduates we are encouraged to feel grateful just for getting in; that somehow our hard work and ongoing payments of vast fees to the university are not fully relevant.

Over time, we discover that university life is complex and resources are scarce. Like infants in the presence of older siblings, we learn to negotiate the personality politics of the academy by impersonating others. Old hands urge us to rest content that our lecturer replied to our email at all, even if it was months too late. Other members of faculty are grateful on our behalf that a “big name” spared us some time, or glanced over some of our work.

As we ascend the ivory tower, we are told that the teaching we do as graduate students – remunerated at less than the minimum wage once preparation time is factored in – is the jewel in our CV that will help us secure jobs. We are not told that our collective labour is indispensable if our department is to be able to offer courses and examine undergraduates. No one offers a lesson in diminishing marginal returns, pointing out that the nth course we are teaching will not significantly enhance our career although it erodes our time and mental health.

Then, when we start applying for jobs, we are expected to feel fortunate if we land a “0.5” position (translation: a near full-time position in which we have to design and deliver courses, carry out research and do administration for half the pay of a traditional job). In those deserts beyond the postdoctoral positions or junior research fellowships, the majority of academic hopefuls subsist on unstable agglomerations of teaching. Universities, increasingly wise to gratitude culture, deconstruct jobs – jettisoning the associated pay, rights and security – and offer them, like crumbs from the dinner table, to needy graduates.

Sadly, as with all instances of divide and rule, some of the most vocal voices urging us to be satisfied with our lot are other students, both graduate and undergraduate, who are even worse off. This race to the bottom harms everyone. Cries of “be grateful!” undermine attempts by graduates to approach the academy as genuine collaborators, in full recognition of their contributions and indispensable labour. And as universities get rather too used to the benefits – from their perspective – of a casualised and underpaid workforce, it is only a matter of time before those higher up the academic hierarchy begin to see their own terms and conditions unravel.

Instead of mocking W, it is time that those senior academics in a position to challenge the conditions of graduates and young researchers looked upon people like her with gratitude.

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