Now that you know why I left academia, let me tell you how I was able to do it.
I was able to do it because I can afford to do it.
Ah, money. The subject couples fight about most. And a topic about which academics are largely silent, even though historians, literary scholars, and economists may write and teach about money and class privilege all the time.
So how does class privilege work in and around the academy? How does money – both individual and institutional – shape the way we do our work as scholars?
I was able to leave academia and forego a full-time academic salary for 2 reasons:
My spouse makes enough money to support us both.
This does not mean that we were always flush with cash. When we moved to Lubbock, we were only able to buy a house because my grandmother had left me some money in her will that we could put down as a deposit. And for those first few years, the expense of our back-and-forth life meant that we were not able to save or invest.
From a financial standpoint, the five years that we spent choosing my job and putting Dan’s at risk were completely insane. But we knew launching my academic career would require a certain level of sacrifice. Without the financial safety net of Dan’s salary, however, we could not have made these sacrifices in the first place.
I am fully aware – and always have been – of the privilege that money has afforded me to be flexible in my career choices, and to take risks that I otherwise would not have been able to take.
It also makes me aware of how difficult it is for other academics who do not have such financial resources:
- Couples who are both academics and must negotiate the rocky shoals of spousal hiring and trailing
- Couples forced to live apart because of (surprisingly) limited career opportunities in small college towns
- Single men and women who often struggle to make ends meet on one academic salary, and who cannot leave one job without the security of another.
Dan’s salary enables us both to be flexible. As does the fact that we do not have children.
We made this choice long ago. Although we have always remained open to the possibility that one of us would wake up one day yearning for a baby, in the end that didn’t happen for either of us.
But let’s imagine that it did, back in 2013 when I had my revelation and decided that I was going to leave academia.
To raise that child in the urban Northeast (the most expensive region in the United States) to age 18, the USDA projects, would have cost $506,610. This includes childcare and education, housing, healthcare (though not healthcare for chronic medical issues), food, clothing, and transportation. It does not include college expenses.
So. Not having kids gives us more disposable income, which also makes the next few years of freelance writing financially possible. Also, we are able to pull up stakes at any moment and move, if need be.
There are as many stories of financial success and woe as there are academics to tell them. Sometimes the academic is a woman, and sometimes he is a man. The gendered nature of family finances is an issue too complicated to address here in full.
But I know how this looks – Woman Quits Job to Follow Her Man! But I can say with certainty that neither Dan nor I ever expected that his career would take precedence over mine because he is a man and I am a woman. Dan has nothing but the utmost respect for my work and my career ambitions. So he was willing to take that leap for me — for us – back in 2003. And conversely, I admire his drive, and his dedication to his job. This shaped my decision to take the leap for him – for us – five years later.
While I don’t see our decisions as un-feminist, I will say that the fact that I am not currently contributing to the family coffers makes me very uncomfortable. I want to do what I love, but I do not want to work for free, even though I could. So I will devote the next several years to this project of freelance writing, with the goal of earning some consistent money by writing for magazines and securing a book advance. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll figure out something else to do that will compensate me for my skills.
These issues circulating around money and class privilege are not unique to academia. But given that job options for academics are so restricted, and they require a willingness – and financial ability – to move to often far-flung places, they do seem more stark and often quite dire.
Thinking about family money and how having it – and not having it – can impact your academic career, led me to ponder another form of class privilege in academia:
Most academics on the market would be happy (or at least they convince themselves they would be happy) to score any job. But the dream is the elite school: the Ivy League, the flagship public, the rigorous liberal arts college or private university.
Here, the professor has great students, spends her days on a beautiful campus, and benefits from the money generated by a huge endowment.
There has been an uptick in the conversations about about elite institutions and their cultural and academic power in recent weeks. Most of these conversations have been about hiring and about the salaries paid to university endowment investment managers at the expense of student financial aid.
But faculty members benefit from the elite status of their workplaces as well. More money means lower teaching loads and often, teaching assistants to help teach classes or grade stacks of papers and exams. It means sabbaticals before and after tenure as well as research stipends, research assistants, funding for conference travel, and “start-up money” for technology. Sometimes there are other perks: subsidized housing and public transportation, better health care options, access to events that produce networking opportunities, large brick-and-mortar libraries, and massive e-resource collections.
And then are the advantages of name recognition.
Academics who teach at elite institutions receive more public recognition; they are more likely to be tapped for media interviews, documentaries, and high-profile newspaper columns. I experienced this myself when I was adjuncting at Harvard. I did not have all of the same perks as a tenure-track faculty member, obviously, but I had some of them. And I am quite sure that I secured many of my speaking engagements on the strength of the Harvard name. At many of these events, I was introduced as a “Harvard history professor” even after insisting that I was no such thing.
Just being an academic elicits some measure of respect. Despite the popular disdain for the intellectual elite in some quarters, the term “professor” still manages to impress most people you’re sitting next to on a plane. But being an academic at an elite institution also reaffirms and reproduces a high-value collective identity, which creates cultural capital.
All of this generates privilege. Faculty members at elite universities have more time and financial support to write articles and books; this means they are more competitive in institutional and national fellowship and award competitions. And once you win one or two fellowships or awards, more will come your way.
This privilege of intellectual production creates social and professional inequalities throughout the system. Those working at satellite campuses, small liberal arts colleges, state universities, and community colleges are at a distinct disadvantage.
- Their high teaching loads and the lack of sabbatical or internal research funding leave them without much time to research and write.
- They often have to pay for conference travel out of their salaries, and thus sometimes must forego these opportunities to share their research and network with their colleagues.
- They have access to fewer research resources on their own campuses, and this slows their progress and can hamper their attempts to win fellowships for travel and funding.
And yet they the publication expectations for tenure and promotion at their institutions are increasingly commensurate with those at elite institutions.
How can we make academia more equitable? It seems like an impossible dream, short of instituting some kind of revenue-sharing system, a la the National Football League. But perhaps national and institutional fellowship committees could earmark the majority of their funds for both adjuncts and faculty at non-elite universities and colleges. Perhaps universities and colleges could devote more federal funds to creating additional faculty lines and lowering teaching loads, and purchasing more e-resources. These are just two not-impossible strategies, and they would work toward a common academic good.
For Love and Money
There is a common perception – both outside and inside of academia – that academics don’t teach and write and research for money; we do it because we love it. We may love it, but to ignore the role that money plays in job searches, hiring, workloads, and research production is itself an assertion of privilege. As Miya Tokumitsu has put it, this whole rhetoric of love “is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment.”
We need to recognize the significance of money in all academic contexts. We need to admit to the class privileges that dual incomes, financial safety nets, and huge university endowments provide. Once we recognize this, we can better understand how academia actually works. And perhaps then we can start to think about how to change its structures of inequality.