Being a professor is like being a rodeo clown.
Being in academia is like being in a frat.
Being a professor is like being first mate on a pirate ship in the 18th century.
Being in academia is like working in a coal mine.
Being a professor is like being a lumberjack.
Being in academe is like being in a drug gang.
Being a professor is like being a survivor on The Walking Dead.
All of these claims are stupid. Two of these claims have been advanced in actual publications in the last week or so to describe what it is “like” to be in academia, I presume for the shock value of the analogy. (If you don’t already know, you’ll have to keep reading after the break.)
Well, let me tell you the truth, folks, and hold on to your hats: being a professor is sort of like having a white collar job, and being in academia is sort of like being in academia. If you are an academic yourself, you already know what I mean. If you aren’t and/or you’re curious about what I mean, read on.
As wikipedia informs us not so helpfully, a white collar worker “is a person who performs professional, managerial, or administrative work, in contrast with a blue-collar worker, whose job requires manual labor. Typically, white collar work is performed in an office or cubicle.” Notably, wikipedia tells us, white collar workers nowadays wear a variety of colors.
Anyway, as far as the day-to-day nature of the job goes, I think that kind of sums it up. The broadness/squishiness of this definition allows for a wide range of academic workers to qualify as “white collar.” The local conditions of the office/cubicle work vary. I know there are places where faculty are expected to be in the office every day and for 40 hours a week, but in my field and at EMU, I’d describe myself as more of a telecommuter. The dress code varies a lot from place to place and also within discipline: it seems like folks in the College of Business at EMU dress up more often. Being a professor is a “professional” position that of course involves things like teaching and research, but it also involves the same kind of bullshit paperwork and meetings and office drama/comedy that anyone who has worked in an office anywhere knows all too well.
But I’m describing what the job is like once you get the job. When Alexandre Afonso goes into great detail about how academia resembles a drug gang (and to be honest, I’ve only the Inside Higher Ed piece) or when Nate Kreuter claims that the academy is like a frat, I think what they are actually arguing is getting the job in the first place is like the kill or be killed world of being in a drug gang or the back-slapping good-ol-boy networking of a fraternity.
Well, I’ve never been in a frat nor a drug gang, but I’m going to suggest that these are perhaps extreme analogies. Especially the drug gang thing.
Yes, getting into a tenure-track job– especially in fields like “the humanities” and the like– can be challenging to downright impossible (depending on the specialization/field, of course), and, depending on how you want to define the “crisis in higher education,” that’s pretty much been that way for 30 or so years. That crisis is a complex mix of supply and demand (too many grad students, not enough jobs in specific fields), the rise and decline of fields (turns out universities are a lot more interested in hiring comp/rhet specialists nowadays than they are in hiring medievalists or American literature specialists), the contraction of tenure-track positions (also part of the supply and demand problem in my view), etc., etc. But I don’t see any analogy there between the crisis in higher ed and frat/drug gang life.
And yes, within higher education, there are factions of people working together and against each other, there is networking and drinking, there are metaphoric struggles to become the kingpin, etc. But that just makes academia like everything else. Why do people watch Survivor and similar reality shows? Why do people watch The Sopranos or The Godfather? Those are just comic book extremes of human struggles, right?
Though Animal House is just darn funny.