Cultural Capital Doesn't Pay the Rent

From Inside Higher Ed:

MM: Where did you think your education was going to lead you and where are you in that career path?

JL: I was in my 30s when I started grad school. I was working my way out of some tough situations, being homeless, on welfare, and living in a domestic violence shelter. I also was engaged in grassroots feminist and anti-violence work, building a collective organization in response to a friend's rape and murder. I had friends and mentors who were professors, artists, and activists; their lives looked great to me. I thought having graduate degrees — and teaching at the college level — would be a way to have a stable income while staying engaged in art and activism. I had a lot of work to do to package myself as academically viable, but I did. I earned an M.A. in cultural studies and an M.F.A. in studio art, my terminal degree.

What I didn’t know at that time was how flooded the market was becoming with M.F.A.s. It was basically a Ponzi scheme. Schools were growing programs by recruiting students into degrees that had no meaningful academic job market. Ironically, I was one of the few in my program who wanted to teach. There was a pervasive attitude in the art world that those who can’t do, teach. I never encountered this attitude toward teaching until I was in the academic art world.

When I graduated I landed a great one-year sabbatical replacement position through those mentors I kept a relationship with. I had a full-time salary and benefits. I could afford membership and conference fees to the professional associations I needed to actually be on the job market. My position included travel expenses; I could also attend the conferences, a necessity since that’s where many job interviews are conducted. These are more of the ways contingent faculty are effectively locked out of career advancement. We aren’t paid enough to afford these fees and travel on our own. Yet many interviews are conducted at conferences where candidates must pay their own way to attend. (JF: For more on this, see Rebecca Schuman’s recent column on doing away with the conference interview.)

My first year out of grad school I was doing O.K., and the next year was fine too. I taught at the same college and picked up more classes in the consortium that school was a part of, including graduate-level courses. I was an adjunct but was paid well and still given access to perks like conference fees and travel. It was limited but still manageable. Then the recession hit.

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