“The Work,” and why you don’t have any
There is now a palpable sense of despair among PhD students and recent PhD graduates. Although job prospects for PhDs have never been good, they are now almost non-existent. (This may not apply to the new breed of super-keeners who turn every stray thought into an article for publication.)
The academic job situation has highlighted one of the contradictions in academia: many university professors care deeply about social justice, yet they participate in a system that unethically exploits graduate students and academic job-seekers by offering them false hope of tenure-track employment.
How is this contradiction justified? Many professors, I think, are simply unaware of the financial and emotional nightmare that awaits PhD students once they graduate. On the other hand, I am convinced that on some level, even if they won’t consciously acknowledge it, some professors feel that the ruination of grad students is an acceptable sacrifice for the continuation of what I call “the Work” of the humanities and social sciences.
If you listen carefully during your classes, at talks, and at conferences, you will hear the discourse of the Work. It is there when academics talk about the important “work” they are engaged in, the “work” that a particular theoretical concept performs, or their own idea of educational “praxis” (which means practical application of knowledge, but is another word for the Work). Specifically, it is the Work of disassembling and interrogating every aspect of Western culture and recovering and elevating every oppressed group and hidden historical narrative. The idea comes primarily from the oft-cited communist scholar Antonio Gramsci, who maintained that intellectuals can and must play a vital role in fighting capitalist “hegemony” by creating a counter-hegemony that will do the work, through educational praxis, of enlightening the populace and bringing about a new and more equal society.
To become a part of the counter-hegemony that is academia, you must do the Work. If you do not, you are a “traditional” intellectual (according to Gramscian thinking) and your work will be deemed uninteresting or even worthless. You may be fit, however, to slave away at contract work, teaching what you are expected to teach because you fear losing your low-paying job and your unlikely shot at the tenure track. The Work must be carried on at all costs, even if it must be supported, in the short term, by an unethical system.