Academic Fugitives: An Interview with Dr. Jillian Powers

 

“After all, the subversive intellectual came under false pretenses, with bad documents, out of love. Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings. And on top of all that, she disappears. She disappears into the underground, the downlow lowdown maroon community of the univer- sity, into the Undercommons of Enlightenment, where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.”

-- Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses,” Social Text, 79 (Vol. 22, No. 2), Summer 2004, 101-102

 Moten and Harney’s conceptualization of the undercommons is the dialectical opposite of the University commons. The undercommons is a place of gathering for those who exceed the confines of the university. They state that to enter this space, “is to inhabit the ruptural and enraptured discourse of the commons that fugitive enlightenment enacts, the criminal, matricidal, queer, in the cistern, on the stroll of the stolen life, the life stolen by enlightenment and stolen back.”

What does it mean to identify as a fugitive of the University? Can one still work within its hallowed walls and claim this? Can one work for a multi-national corporation and still identify? I unequivocally answer those with: Yes. Of course. And those voices are perhaps the most important.

This is mostly a rhetorical question my alt-ac friends and I have been asking each other for about a year. Leaving aside the obvious critiques of Moten and Harney’s reliance on Enlightenment thought (which is to say, the thinking of white men in Europe), and that they are still paid by the university which they proclaim that fugitives must steal from, their book Undercommons offers an amazing contextualization of me and my fellow lost scholars. We are all fugitives and it’s time for us to claim our fugitivity for all that it allows us to be and do.

For January, I’m posting an interview with my friend, Jillian Powers. Part I (what you’re reading now) is about her transition into fugitivity and Part 2 (out in 2 weeks) will be about her very successful career transition and how she still maintains a fugitive identity (she is editing a volume about adjuncting & teaches civic engagement to high schoolers in Harlem).

Jillian graduated from Duke University with a PhD in Sociology, before going on to two different post-docs. This is where she finally had enough of the unequal relegation of labor and the shitty pay.  This Slate article about her is pretty impressive, and her own Medium article “Leaving Academia” speaks to a lot of the same issues PhDs, adjuncts, post-docs, and other members of the academic precariate are facing.

 

                                                                        --

I first met Jillian when spring was just breaking through in New York last year, which is always an agonizingly slow shift that leaves one frantically yearning for warmer weather. I was also in transition, as was Jillian.

Jillian is one of those people whose brain moves faster than their mouth, and has no issues loudly proclaiming injustice. As you can imagine, we immediately bonded over our shared righteous indignation. Jillian’s tireless involvement in activism and social justice has been so inspiring for me-- she’s taught me how to live a life that is informed by my training in intersectional feminism. That is, she showed me a path forward. I hope this interview does the same for you.

AH: You left academia, following the completion of your 2nd post-doc, after making a very public stand over the paltry compensation they offered you in order to fill the position of undergraduate head for a semester. I gotta say, I love your style.

JP: Yes, I had a post-doctorate at Brandeis. Following that, I went from a post doc to a lecturer where I was now doing twice as much work for half as much money. During this time, they listed a faculty position twice (once when I was a post-doc and again as a lecturer) for the exact job that I was already doing, but for twice the pay. I had an Ivy-league background, I was published, and I was already there. I didn’t even get an initial interview.

In the meantime, the department decided to “help me out” by offering me $1,000 to serve as an undergraduate head for a semester. As any faculty member reading this knows, that position involved a lot of mentoring and administrative tasks. A friend of mine, who was a VAP (Visiting Assistant Professor) elsewhere and also didn’t get a full-time version of her job, suggested that if I took the department up on their offer to help “me,” I should start tracking the hours I spent fulfilling the duties of as undergraduate head.

 So, I carried around a giant stop-watch around my neck, and whenever I had to attend to those responsibilities, I set the watch. I was in charge of making sure that every single student in the department had enough credits for graduation, in addition to a long list of other administrative tasks. I don’t even remember what I set for my hourly rate, but when I reached $1,000.00 I stopped working.

 My Flava Flav-inspired stop-watch encouraged my students to begin asking questions about how their instructors were, or were not, paid. As a result of this, a group of my students petitioned the school and asked them to offer me at least the chance to interview for the full time position I was already doing, which is what the Slate article is about. Of course, it didn’t come to pass.

 This whole experience, especially the frustrating yet predictable stance the university took towards me made me feel like I was being pushed out of academia. I realized it was either time to move again for another short-term VAP position or stick-around and try to cobble together a living wage by adjuncting at a variety of schools in the Boston area.

 Leaving academia was not a decision that made me feel righteous, it was more out of self-preservation. There just wasn’t a job for me anymore. It was really difficult to give up my life-long goal of becoming a professor, especially since I loved what I did.

 

AH: What came out of all this for you, personally? I know all too well the high price individuals face when they stand up against a dysfunctional and exploitative system.

 JP: Don’t get me wrong, I loved Brandeis and the mentorship I received there, especially from the second-wave feminist professors. I love that my experience there allowed me to come to consciousness a bit more. It was there that I realized how much I did and how little it was valued throughout academia and our culture as a whole.

 I also realized that the actual practice of intellectual labor requires so much praxis. That is, you need to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk. I had imagined that my mentors would also have a sense of integration between intellectual practice and lived praxis in terms of feminism and social justice. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

 These second wave feminist professors would commiserate with me and talk about how fucked up everything was, but they certainly weren’t going to stick their necks out for me, or anyone. I realize now, this is because they had been professionalized into complacency.

 

AH: This is perhaps my biggest disappointment of so-named ‘feminists’ who operate within the University space: most never seem to be able to practice what they preach. Also, white women within the academe who identify as ‘feminists’ but do not support younger women are a particular kind of trash (feel free to @ me on Twitter,  I said what I said and I’m just getting started with my beef about my fellow white women).

 Returning to your story, do you mean that these professors stopped supporting you when it came time to actually take a stand and speak out?

 JP: Yes. When I realized that the tenured professors weren’t going to speak out about this, I knew that someone had to. This was when I started on my current book project about adjuncting. I don’t think the comfortably tenured realize how rough it is out there. Sometimes, I think having been at R1 institutions for my entire academic career set me up for failure. Perhaps if I hadn’t had such high aspirations for myself, I wouldn’t have fizzled out the way I did.

 

AH: Let’s just take a minute to unravel that statement. Because you had high aspirations for yourself, you fizzled out faster. Who doesn’t go into academia without high aspirations, if not for themselves, for their research??

 So….you’re saying that your ambition actually undercut your chances of success in academia?

 JP: I guess so. How I was seen in academia was always so fascinating to me. I was trained at an R1, that cadence shapes you and how you view success. I don’t think that I fizzled faster because of that, but I think that because I didn’t publish like an R1 academic in sociology—that is, I didn’t have co-authored papers with my advisor, and my academic pedigree was all private institutions – the privilege of my background made some jobs think I couldn’t teach anyplace other than where I came from. Part of my problem was that I felt very timid, I never took control of how I was seen, and because of that, I never got any major awards or funding.

 I always wanted my work to be more embodied. I’ve learned so much from the practice of building and living and leading a sociologically informed intellectual life. I’ve learned a lot about my topics from living through them, and I don’t want to throw my graduate training under the bus, but what we incentivize as the intellectual trajectory of a PhD is not as expansive as it should be.

 Looking back on my PhD, I am so grateful for the privilege of being able to spend 7 years at Duke and then 5 years teaching. It was glorious. There is a reason why we all want the life of a mind, it’s an amazing thing. Being able to think for a living is a serious privilege. I wish all the other bullshit didn’t get in the way.

 And that goes for everyone, right? The tenured, those who’ve had to go into administration, as well as for adjuncts who can’t afford their rent.

 This is something I’ve thought a lot about this, I see it on Twitter a lot from those who have left academia, they lament over their training, how it didn’t prepare them for careers. I call bullshit—that very same PhD training prepared me for a life of the mind, for a way of being, regardless of how I pay my bills. I also use my training as a systems-level thinker and in ethnographic engagement every single day.

 

AH: I also cringe at the Twitter threads about integrating “practical” career training into PhD’s—when I look back to my own department, not a single professor would have been able to teach a course remotely like that, not that they didn’t try. I think instead of offering “practical” career training in PhD programs, we should just fucking hire more professors. Universities certainly have the money to do so, despite their continual cries of funding shortages. PhDs should only leave academia if they want to, not because the shortage of jobs makes it a mercilessly brutal environment.

 

JP: The more I think about it, the more I want to do with my book on adjuncting. I want adjuncts everywhere to know that I’m so glad that people are still doing it, they’re still in the trenches for the value of knowledge. These scholars are fighting the good fight—not just because they love it, but because they also know how fundamentally important it is to critically engage the minds of the future. To allow them to become nuanced thinkers and express themselves clearly and compellingly. Adjuncts are only there because they love teaching. Why else would you be there?

 Because otherwise, go be a bank teller. Being an adjunct offers no stable pay or benefits. It’s a frantic existence.  But, there is something to be said of the morality of the pursuit of knowledge that both earning a PhD and teaching represents.

 

AH: I think about this a lot. ::snaps in agreement::

 JP: We need a social movement for ourselves. We need to join with all the teacher strikes. Teaching is a public service job, it’s supposed to be a good government job. You know you’re not going to be Bill Gates, but you are going to have a quality of life. Teachers need to be able to live in the communities that they teach. And the ones who don’t see themselves that way, need to check themselves. You need to check that others are just as important you, because teachers are doing the work of fucking democracy.

 This is where my conception of a pedagogy of the people comes in.  I see the importance of pedagogy wherever I go, whether it’s in the actual classroom—I am currently teaching a course on American Democracy to high school seniors,  or facilitating training for organizations, to even design thinking for clients. Pedagogy is all about the collective act of acquiring knowledge. It’s what matters most, and what is invested in the least. I take my cues from bell hooks—I teach to transgress.

 I’d also like to say that I also have so much respect for people who left academia. If shit is burning all around you, you get the fuck out. We all need to move on if things aren’t working. We must be brace and refuse to accept what is placed in front of us. Only then can we build something better.

 But, yeah. Academia sucks, ask me some more questions.

 

And with that, stay tuned in 2 weeks for our interview about her transition into market research. As always, I’m listening, if you have any specific questions or topics you’d like to know more about, write in and I’ll address them if I can.