Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Time to Say Goodbye?

One of academia's most dogged critics, Erin O'Connor, is apparently considering a new career.

I'm all for acknowledging the terrible treatment that most adjuncts receive. But, since O'Connor is not an adjunct, I can't help but wonder whether it makes sense to give up privileges that so many scholars dream of having:
Though the structural agoraphobia of the academy tries to pretend otherwise, the world is ever so much larger than the ivory tower, and full of opportunities for talented, creative, dedicated people to find meaningful, rewarding work that makes a difference.

I've been chasing a number of those opportunities myself this year, having slowly come to realize, over the last three or four years, that academe is not a place where I can do work I truly believe in and respect. Though the process of deciding to leave was agonal, the decision itself has felt incredibly freeing and right. I still plan to teach; I still plan to write; I still plan to read as much as it is humanly possible for me to read. But I plan to do it in a setting that feels less ethically compromised, more grounded in reality, and thus more likely to permit me to do work that actually matters. The prospect excites me no end, and it gives me a kind of hope that academe never did.
I'm sure that the strain of advocating a conservative but thoughtful libertarianism in an often hostile environment has worn on O'Connor. It would surely wear on me. Her decision to leave, however, seems to come from some place deeper.

When I first read her entry, I felt a surge of satisfaction. The involuntary leftist ideologue in me wants more Michael Bérubés and fewer Erin O'Connors commenting on my professional world.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that I have long struggled with precisely the feelings that O'Connor articulates. The painful conversations I've been having with knicolini in recent weeks on the topic of class have reminded me that the impulse to reject my privileged existence as an academic is itself a function of that privileged existence and one which proves particularly galling to those who don't have it. It's like watching rock stars destroy themselves with drugs.

I'm starting to understand that there is no law for the "conservation of privilege." If Erin O'Connor forsakes her academic career, she won't be able to guarantee that her position goes to somebody who both deserves and desires it. The situation of adjuncts is unlikely to improve as a consequence of her decision. And her departure from professorial life will deprive her of the credibility that makes her critique so powerful.

Will academics be as interested in reading an outsider's perspective on their world? I doubt it. I suspect that Erin O'Connor's readership will shrink to the already-converted, the right-wingers who merely search for validation of their hatred of higher education. And that will be a loss, both for the academy, which needs better insider critiques, and for Erin O'Connor, who needs the provocation of intellectual disagreement to remain incisive.

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