Academe as Labor

As Rick Elgendy mentioned in his recent post, “Pedagogy in the Humanities and Professional Leadership,” the Craft of Teaching Religion blog is hosting a quarter-long conversation on the relationship between liberal education and the increasing calls for increased professionalization in higher education. As the second contributor to that series of posts, I continue the conversation here.

I have always struggled to understand the relationship between liberal education that values arts and humanities on one hand, and the pressure of professionalization and employability on the other. As someone who began my own undergraduate education with dreams of becoming a professional musician, before changing course to become a scholar of religion, I am apparently not someone who has spent a great deal of time fretting about employability.

Perhaps I should have.

Now, when confronted by increasing calls to justify the utility of an education in the humanities vis-à-vis pressures of employment, my reaction has always been one of confusion. To my mind, this is a category mistake. I teach at a small liberal arts college. We, as liberal arts professors, are not in the business of educating workers. We are educating human beings.

Increasingly, in my early years on the tenure track, I have become increasingly aware of my employment as labor—which it is, after all—and how this labor relates to my personhood.

In his article on this subject, “Education for Professional Leadership in the Humanities: Exhortations and Demonstrations,” Peter Kaufman quotes Stanley Fish as commanding the “humanities for its own sake”: “Do it because it is its own reward, and look for no pleasure beyond the pleasure of responsible, rigorous performance.” (Quoted in Kaufman, page 147.)


(image Dr. Donna Yates/Twitter)

Popular wisdom would have it that academia is way of life, a calling, or one’s identity, rather than a profession, a job, or a trade. In such a model, being an academic is like being an artist, or a musician. It is the entirety of one’s being, rather than something that is work that might end at a certain hour of the day. I maintain that such rhetoric is damaging, not only to us, but in our education of students as well. In the first post in this series, Rick Elgendy calls to “the need for those students who do specialize in the humanities or in professions that depend on the humanities to have some training in the skills that are associated with the professions.” He makes this point with reference to theological education in particular, and the need for future pastors and non-profiteers to know something of the business aspects of their respective vocations before they are confronted with the particulars of legal or accounting issues.

I echo this call in so far as I have also (relatively) recently left the confines of my own education, and am now employed in the service of educating others. While I, as junior faculty at many comparable institutions, can attend workshops on “work-life balance,” the reality is that I am still struggling on a daily basis to manage my employment as employment.

One thought on “Academe as Labor

  1. Pingback: Laboral Arts | The Craft of Teaching in the Academic Study of Religion

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