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Task Force

First comes an email. A senior colleague in your field needs your opinion on contingent labor. You message back with your opinion. You also send links to posts, articles, and thinky pieces. Senior colleague responds, “Can we talk about contingency more?” You agree, but admit that you are no expert. Senior colleague is contacting you because you wrote a piece about your experiences as an adjunct and a full-time lecturer. You’ve also written about the challenges of the faculty job market and your attempt to walk away from academia. You realize that this makes you a voice on this issue. You are not sure how that makes you feel. You are writing to learn to live with how your life turned out, but you aren’t sure you are an activist. People keep calling you an activist. You wonder if speaking up is the mark of activism. It makes you sad to think that’s the case.

Next come the phone calls. You have a lovely chat with the senior colleague, who heads a prestigious committee for a learned society. He wants that society to take action on contingent faculty (finally). You agree wholeheartedly. This has been one of your frustrations with the learned society that you’ve been a part of for 12 years. Almost every year, you send money to this group for dues and conference fees. A quick calculation reveals that you’ve paid thousands of dollars on plane tickets and hotels to attend its annual conferences — all in an attempt to build an academic career.

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Activism

Here’s my second paper for #sblaar14, which was an invited talk about activism at the junior level. This was another strong panel with a small audience. Unsurprisingly, I took the prompt “Can we BE activists at the junior level?” as an excuse to think about activism’s relationship to not only religious studies but also the modern university. It is a small miracle that there’s so little cursing.

Can we be activists at the junior level? Hell.

Kelly J. Baker

Over the summer, I mentioned to a dear colleague and mentor of mine that I would be participating on a panel about activism at the junior level. He laughed at me. “How can you be on a panel about activism at the junior level,” he asked, “when you never made it to the junior level?” His question was also my question when I received the invitation to join this panel. My name, it seems, pops up when you ask people about activists in religious studies. This is puzzling and also sad.

I’m at best adjacent to academia. I took a year off, which is now a year and a half, and I have no plans to return. After six years on the job market, I bowed out. Publicly. I’m now a freelance writer, who covers higher ed, gender, and religion. I never made it to the junior level (if we’re defining junior as assistant professor. I’m not sure we should).

Yet, I’m at the AAR presenting on a panel about activism, even though I wouldn’t label myself an activist. This is a label applied to me because I write starkly about higher ed and sometimes my own discipline. Maybe my bar for activism is too high, and writing should count. Maybe everyone else’s bar is too low. Yet, I agreed to participate for two reasons. First, I still care deeply about this field we call religious studies, despite my attempts not to. Second, I have things to say about about the role of academic activism in the age of contingency. I’ve lived with this question since I received the invitation. I’m not sure I have any good answers, only more questions.

First, I want to tweak the initial question. Instead of “can you be an activist at the junior level?”, I ask, “Can you be an activist if you are perpetually on the job market?” My tentative answer is a firm “no.” Under the current job market, in which contractual is king and tenure track is not, anything you write, say, or do can be held against you. Members of search committees admit that they look for reasons to ELIMINATE candidates rather than keep them. The question of activism is even more fraught for contingent workers, who work at the whim of department chairs and heads. With positions that can be terminated at any time, certain kinds of activism might prove too risky while others might guarantee you are back for another semester. Continue reading

SanDiego

Gendering Contingency in Religious Studies

This paper was my contribution to a roundtable on contingency in religious studies at the annual AAR meeting. I talked through the paper rather than read it as written, so you miss my bad jokes , wild gestures, and animated facial expressions. What is striking to note is that the small audience was all contingent workers, who were mostly women. There were two men on our panel of five. Contractual labor needs gender analysis. Let’s hope this starts a much-needed discussion.

Gendering Contingency in Religious Studies at #sblaar14

I’ve only had contingent positions. I started adjuncting as a graduate student for extra money and continued adjuncting at multiple institutions in multiple states until I received a full-time non-tenure track job in 2011. I’ve taught at community colleges and big state universities, and for a long time, I taught heavy course loads while keeping up my research and searching for a tenure track job. I quit my lecturer job because I no could handle the strain of contractual work. Now I’m a freelance writer. I’ll say it again: I have only had contingent positions.

This shouldn’t necessarily be surprising since contingency is now the norm, rather than the exception despite the what the AAR/SBL jobs report tries to suggest. The AAUP notes that 76% of the instructional positions at American universities and colleges are non-tenure track. Since 1975 tenured and tenure track positions are up by 26% while part-time appointments are up 300%. My story and the stories of my fellow panelists illuminate the reliance (or dare I say over reliance?) on contractual labor in higher ed and within religious studies. Yet, I don’t want to talk today about contingency generally. Instead, I want to direct our attentions to the relationship between the casualization of labor and gender.

It first occurred to me that contingent labor might be gendered at non-tenure track faculty reception at my old university. My fellow lecturer (also a woman) and I entered a room filled with many, many women and few men. Our university was trying hard to be equitable to those off the tenure-track, and the reception was a meet and greet with one of the vice presidents, who was establishing a system for promotion for lecturers. I was struck by the abundance of women in lecturer positions from all over the university, not just the humanities.

Usually, when critics lament the adjuntification of higher education, neither gender nor race are prominently discussed. While contingent labor is a clearly problem for the modern university that learned societies like AAR must react to, it is not a problem that affects everyone equally. What does it mean for religious studies and the AAR if contingency is a problem that overwhelming affects women? How does, or should, this change our approaches to contractual labor within our discipline? More importantly, what does this suggest about the gender politics of religious studies more broadly?

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At Stake Cover

Monsters

I’ve been thinking about monsters. Not the zombies I usually research and write about, but the language of monsters that lurks in our everyday speech. The rhetoric of horror is so pervasive and so present. It comes to us when we have something to speak that seems unspeakable. It is deployed to justify violence and harm. It is used to vilify and to distance. It appears in moments of trauma. The language of monsters is disastrously unavoidable.

I’ve been thinking about how we create monsters and ultimately about how we destroy them. Creation and destruction tangled together, dependent on one another. Their ubiquity begs for explanation when I have no words to give.

I’ve been thinking about monsters because I also can’t quit thinking about Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown.

Like so many people, I was heartbroken over the grand jury’s decision last week. I was also enraged and frustrated. I keep looking at my children and imagining the suffering of  Brown’s parents and all the parents that fear the same fate for their children. I don’t know their anguish; I can’t really. But, I’m haunted by autopsy sketches, the pain etched into his mother’s face, and the wounded bodies of protesters. I hug my children a bit tighter and hold them more closely. I also realize that their white skin offers them protection that Brown did not have.

I keep coming back to monsters.

In his testimony for the grand jury, Wilson described Brown, “it looks like a demon.” Dexter Thomas notes the dehumanizing language that Wilson employs with both “it” and “demon,” which resonates with a larger history of denying the humanity of African Americans. Thomas describes how the events in Ferguson feel like a bad movie playing out exactly like we feared it would. Spoilers aren’t an issue, if the pattern is the same.

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Sophie

Sophie the dog died last week.  She had surgery to fix her bladder. The surgery had complications. Sophie had to be put to sleep. These are the facts, but as is often the case, the facts leave so much unsaid.

My mother-in-law called my husband to let us know, and he told me. I cried (and I still cry when I think of Sophie). She was not my dog, but she used to be. She was my pet, and then, I had to give her up. She’s lived with my in-laws most of her life. Yet, I raised Sophie from a puppy. I struggle to mourn her loss.  I already gave her up. What right do I have to mourn? How can I not mourn her? What do I say about a dog who used to be a part of my family? What do I owe her memory? I have no good answers (I rarely do).

Instead, I’ll tell you Sophie’s story, the parts that I know. It is the least that I can do.

Sophie as a puppy.
Sophie as a puppy.

Chris and I already had one dog, Hannah, and a mean cat, Belle. We bought a new house with a large backyard, and we worried that Hannah might be lonely. We were both graduate students. We spent many hours at the university away from home.  We thought maybe another dog would be a good companion.

My mom happened to have a new litter of hound-mix puppies, so we decided to pick a puppy for Hannah. I was drawn to an off-white puppy with spots running through her fur. She had  big brown splotch over one eye, which made her look a bit like the Pokey Little Puppy. This puppy was also nervous, which amounted to much pee to be removed from carpet, and rambunctious. We named her, Sophie. The name was my choice because it sounded sweet, and she was.

When we brought her into our home, she promptly peed on the tile.

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Figuring it out one post at a time.