On Being Grateful

Tenured Radical has a phenomenal series on the economics of professorial salaries going right now, and the conversation has lapped over onto Historiann.  If you are currently seeking a distraction from grading and/or writing, you could do worse than their comments threads.  The first post begins by noting that TR’s salary has more or less stagnated at $107K a year and shows no signs of going up despite an increasing workload.  I confess that when I first read it, my lizard brain said “uh oh,” because I was anticipating the demands from less well-paid individuals that TR simply be grateful for what they may justifiably feel is a largesse.  And, admittedly, as someone who alone nets about $17K a year from what are essentially three part time jobs at my university, I experienced a twinge of “suck it up” myself.

But I’ve written about “being grateful” here before.  There is nothing wrong with counting your blessings and reflecting on the fact that you are better off than many others, but there is also nothing wrong with demanding a remunerative wage for the work you perform, especially if that wage is commensurate with the wages earned by individuals with similar levels of experience in the same job (which is all TR is really asking for).  Similarly, “being grateful” doesn’t benefit the people who are less fortunate than you.  It benefits the people who stand to benefit by not paying you OR the people who make less than you.  It tells your employers that they can reasonably expect all of you to work for free if they simply appeal to your sense of personal and professional ethics.

As I’ve said before, despite what looks on paper to be poverty level wages, I too experience the pressure to simply “be grateful.”  I have spousal support, after all, though it comes from a spouse making a public school teacher’s salary.  Also, we have no debt and substantial equity in our home, the product of being on the good side of the last decade’s real estate bubble.  And I attend graduate school largely tuition free (except for that one semester) and get decent health benefits, which is more than can be said for most grad students in the humanities.  In other words, even as a grad student, I have a pretty decent middle class life.  And I do, much of the time, feel grateful for that modicum of economic security and reflect on the myriad other forms of satisfaction I derive from my job.

But occasionally that life and those forms of satisfaction are inexplicably used as a rationale to get me to work for the university for little or no extra money.  That, folks, is ridiculous.  At what point, exactly, is one allowed to respectfully decline to do extra work for free?  When you can no longer afford your mortgage?  When you finally qualify for food stamps?  No, at some point, I think it is reasonable to do as TR is doing and weigh the costs and benefits of agreeing to do more work for free and, you know, finding some other line of work. Because, for better or for worse, that’s the free market, baby, and as long as there’s a healthy supply of suckers out there willing to just “be grateful” for living a life of the mind and getting to work with young people and blah blah blah, universities will feel free to capitalize on that.

Coming soon:  The cultural capital of “not caring about money.”

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2 thoughts on “On Being Grateful

  1. Good post. I got a bit of the same push back that you anticipate for TR on my last post in response to that “So you want a PhD in the Humanities?” video, and while it’s not the same issue, I think some of the same misapprehensions exist about the proper stance to take on our line of work and what it’s worth.

    I am quite looking forward to that coming soon post, too.

    1. Yeah, I read your post, and frankly, I identify with your perspective on why it’s great to be in the humanities just as I identify with TR’s perspective on how frustrating it is to be bullied into accepting unreasonable employment terms. Ultimately, it’s a cost/benefit analysis that has to be done on an individual basis, and I’ve personally decided that I’m willing to brave a couple of years on the job market to see what comes my way, though I’ve determined that I won’t take just *any* job in order to stay in academia. I won’t make an interstate move for a one year contract, for example, and I refuse to get stuck in Waco, TX or places that remind me of Waco, TX.

      I guess my real point is that there’s nothing to be gained by berating people like TR about how “lucky” they are when they’re questioning their current career path. Anyone who does that either has something to gain by convincing profs to work for less than what their worth or is currently in that situation and is simply trying to reduce cognitive dissonance. I’m not sure what the answer to our professional woes is, but I do think that one of many possible solutions is empowering academics and future academics at all levels to make reasonable, informed decisions about their lives sans bullying and snobbery, and frankly I think that was the most important take away message from that video and this conversation in general.

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