First, a confession: In 2011, I penned a pseudonymous article under the name Sally Racket (an anagram of Crystal Lake) for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s advice column. I’ve never publicly owned my authorship of “Survivor’s Guilt,” which describes how, well, guilty I felt when I learned that I’d finally landed a tenure-track job in English after three years on the job market following the 2008 crash. I published the article pseudonymously because I didn’t want my colleagues at Wright State University, where I’d just been hired, to think that I was anything other than overjoyed at the prospect of joining their ranks.
In “Survivor’s Guilt,” I responded to a previous article by Leonard Cassuto, titled “They’re Mad as Hell.” In turn, Cassuto’s “Mad as Hell” was a response to comments that graduate students had left on an earlier article that he had also published, one suggesting that graduate programs needed to start making professional-development seminars a formal part of their curriculums. In that earlier article, Cassuto explained that graduate students could no longer bank on landing research-oriented jobs like those their advisors enjoyed. Consequently, he argued that graduate students—and especially those at elite institutions—should be offered seminars that would prepare them for careers as either future teaching- and service-oriented professors or as professionals working in “alternative” careers that might be outside of academe altogether.
In the comments section that followed Cassuto’s original article about those professional-development seminars, graduate students let it rip. They condemned those tenured faculty who had failed either to understand or to acknowledge the job crisis in the humanities over the last—God, how many years was it even by 2011? Let’s say, it was a lot of years. Cassuto’s “Mad as Hell” article responded to the anger that grad students vented by describing his own career trajectory and also, his own survivor’s guilt. As Cassuto explained, he had once been a computer programmer. He began his PhD in English for fun. He didn’t really think about the job market. He was just lucky. This kind of “personal journey” is what the profession was all about for Cassuto, and he concluded that while he understood why many graduate students were mad as hell, they also needed to take responsibility for their life choices.
At the time, a professional-development seminar seemed to me like it would do little other than give one more pointless heave-ho to the hamster-wheel that most graduate students were already tired of running on. That’s not to say I was against the idea of offering professional development seminars, but I kind of couldn’t believe that someone seemed to be suggesting that whether or not you got a job in the humanities had anything whatsoever to do with so-called “professional development.” By 2011, hadn’t the crisis of the academic job market gone on long enough for all of us to give up the fictions of meritocracy? Besides, as someone who graduated from a not-elite PhD program, I didn’t know a single graduate student—or even a single faculty advisor—who took an R1 career for granted. “Professional development” was a cornerstone of the departmental culture at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where I began my doctoral studies in 2003. From the get-go, faculty there encouraged me to present at conferences, to publish early and often, to collaborate and network, to get involved in service, to apply for grants and fellowships, to develop a teaching philosophy and a portfolio.
I’d done all of that, and I’m sure it helped my odds on the market, but everyone I knew in 2011 knew that the job market was just that: an odds game. “Professionalizing” was like buying twenty lottery tickets instead of one or two. Cassuto had it right; it was all luck. As I explained in “Survivor’s Guilt,” I wasn’t “mad as hell.” I didn’t know how to be mad as hell at something like a lottery or a car crash. I was spent, and sad, and scared. The last years of graduate school and the years I’d spent on the job market had felt like a cycle of sprints and marathons, and I wasn’t sure what that would mean for those of us who were about to start running laps on the tenure track.
How quaint all that talk of the job crisis in the humanities sounds to me now, after having worked at Wright State University for seven and a half years and having just spent twenty days in subzero temperatures and cold rain on a picket line. I should have been “mad as hell” in 2011. I should have been mad like those grad students who’d let it rip, who were angry about the willful, blissful ignorance that seemed to surround them, angry that the best anyone seemed to offer them was a free box of band-aids or the opportunity to scratch off a few extra lottery tickets.
I should have been madder about all of that in 2011, but we all should have been madder in 2011—not about the academic job crisis in the humanities, which was like the Titanic crashing into the tip of an iceberg, but about the crisis in public education that swelled deep underneath our sinking ship.
Another confession: I did sometimes get mad as hell while I was on the job market. Whenever I heard someone talking about how important “fit” was for landing a tenure-track job, I could feel my face get hot. Really hot. If the fiction of meritocracy had all of us professionalizing in ways that added lines to our CVs, at least that felt like we were doing something. At least we were buying an extra lottery ticket; at least we got some psychosomatic relief from putting on a band-aid. But to talk about finding a good “fit” on the job market? Honestly, that shit was crazy-making.
Truthfully, I probably got so angry about “fit” because I was in the early days of getting a divorce, too, in 2011. Whenever people talked about “fit” and the job market, I heard the whispers of a staid marriage plot. Job letters were like online dating profiles; MLA interviews, first dates; campus interviews, meeting the friends and parents; a tenure-track job offer put a ring on it; the job itself, a lifelong commitment. The genre of job market stories, which in 2011 still commonly featured conference hotel rooms as prime settings, included plenty of subplots, too—about terrible first dates and ghostings; there were more than a few gaslighters and a couple of crazy exes as well as sleazy affairs to go around. It was the “true love” tripe that most rankled me, though, behind the “fit” narrative that I heard on the job market: a veritable “love at first” sight story as far as I could tell. In 2011, my marriage was ending after thirteen years. No way was I buying the idea that after exchanging one or two messages and going on one or two dates a search committee could know the first thing about whether or not we would be a good “fit” for the long haul.
Here’s the thing: Wright State and I were, we are, a good fit. I get it now. I tumbled head over heels at first sight when I arrived in Dayton, OH. Reader, I fell in love with a particular person, but I also fell in something like love with my students. Wright State is a regional public university in the Rust Belt. About 15,000 students go to school here. Most of them commute to their classes. Many are first-generation college students. Many are older students who are returning to college after having had other lives and other jobs—other lives and other jobs that usually hadn’t panned out. Many have children or spouses. Their extended families live nearby. Many are veterans. An Air Force base is just across the street. Many take care of their siblings, or their parents, or even their grandparents. I’ve never met a single student at Wright State who didn’t have at least one part-time job. I’ve met a lot who hold down more than that.
Once upon a time in rural West Virginia, I myself started college in a bad way: in a financial lurch after my dad, who’d developed a nasty drinking habit following my parents’ divorce, died of liver failure right before I graduated from high school. I ended up a college dropout soon enough, and I climbed my way back by taking courses at a community college. I rambled into an English major at a big state university just in the nick of time to graduate, having failed to finish majors I’d started in musical theatre, and history, and geology (don’t ask). I worked extra jobs while I was in college and in grad school: as a paralegal, a telemarketer, a cashier, a cocktail waitress, a tech writer, an adjunct, and more. So my students and I at Wright State, we turned out to have a lot of things in common, to fit together, as it were.
Although sometimes I’ve thought of myself as an accidental professor, I know it’s not really an accident. The truth is, privilege paves all of our ways into the ivory tower. Even if a few stones were missing on the path that I followed to get here, enough remained for me to still get here in the end. I’ve been lucky. Although Wright State is where I ended up, for many of my students, the university marks the first stone on a path to someplace, anyplace, that’s better than where they started. Wright State’s students do not take a college degree for granted.
For a long time, it seemed like Wright State didn’t take its mission to give our students a college degree for granted, either: to “transform students’ lives,” as our mission statement put it, by offering them not only an affordable, accessible education but also a real education. One of the things about Wright State that made it a job that I loved was its faculty union. The union ensured that Wright State bridged certain kinds of divides that were already common in academe when I landed my job here. Research and teaching both mattered at Wright State. The union had established a 3/2 teaching load as the baseline for tenured and tenure-track faculty; it had ensured that our research expectations for tenure were not only clearly spelled out but also reasonably modest, which meant that faculty here could devote time and energy to projects that might speak more directly to our students and our communities. It turns out that I didn’t have to worry as much as I did in 2011 about what it would mean to start running laps on the tenure track. I took a long time to write a scholarly monograph, and I think mine will be a better book for it, but more importantly, I was able to be—really be—with my students and to think with them about what kinds of work I could do right now, right here that might matter most to them.
In 1986, the faculty at Temple University spent 29 days on the picket lines. Having clocked in at 20 days, the Wright State faculty strike is now the second-longest higher education strike in the U.S. On the surface, the strike at Wright State hinged on a legal technicality. Faculty here weren’t striking for the things you’d expect, like a pay raise or better benefits. We were striking largely over one clause in the proposed, then the imposed, contract—one that said our administration could change our health insurance and benefits with 60 days’ notice. That clause effectively negated the faculty union’s right to negotiate their healthcare, and here’s a good explanation of why that matters.
That one clause, though, was just the tip of another iceberg. During the strike, our administration flexed all kinds of unchecked power that suggested whoever was running the ship at Wright State had little interest in negotiating with anyone, about anything. They told our students that if they didn’t attend classes taught by our “replacement instructors” while we “chose not to come to work,” that they could risk losing their Title IV financial aid funds. They said most classes were covered, that everything was business as usual, even as the social media posts from distressed, angry, and confused students kept piling up. They released an ad inviting anyone, anywhere in the country who had anything like an advanced degree in any subject to come to Wright State, live in the dorms, and teach our classes. And then they canceled many of our classes, and automatically enrolled our students in a new 7-week B term semester, “Instructor TBD.”
We shouldn’t have been surprised that our administration didn’t listen to us or our students during the strike because they hadn’t been listening to anyone outside of their inner circle about much of anything for a good long while. For nearly three years before the strike, the faculty at Wright State had been trying to hammer out a deal on a contract that expired in 2017. Our Board of Trustees—local business folk appointed by the governor—began staking their claim to determining teaching loads and the real meaning of tenure as early as 2016, helped along by a labor attorney from out of town whose only experience in higher education appears to be as a one-time student, and a new university president who came here after receiving a vote of no confidence as a chancellor at a technical school in Rolla, Missouri.
Dive down deeper under those contract disputes, and you’ll be plunged into a murky, secret history of financial mismanagement and corruption. The costs of working conditions at Wright State only started to pay dividends for “management rights” once the rank-and-file faculty as well as the public suddenly discovered that Wright State’s money was gone. Some time around 2015, we all realized that Wright State’s reserves—roughly $130 million—had vamoosed.
A lot of that cash had been blown on “revenue generating” schemes. Such schemes, of course, are touted as mission critical at universities everywhere these days, thanks to the strangling of state and federal funding for higher education and the enrollment cliff that we’re all fast approaching. But Wright State’s “revenue generating” schemes were more like life insurance scams than estate planning. Boondoggles, they’ve been called. This is a long, sordid story, and we still don’t know all the details, but suffice it to say that these “revenue generating” schemes generated revenue for a few people who were friendly either with upper administrators at Wright State or members of its Board of Trustees. They generated liability and legal fines, not revenue, for the university.
Here, the story of Wright State risks becoming local: a tale of some corrupt cronies and incompetent yokels who were connected to a university most people have never heard of somewhere in flyover country.
What became clear to me as I walked the picket line, however, was that regional institutions like Wright State are the next big battleground in the dismantling of public higher education in this country. What’s become clearer to me since is that they’re not the next big battleground; they’ve already been under attack for years. All those millions of dollars that Wright State lost and a few people got to pocket, that was our students’ money: the wages they’d earned, the dollars their relatives could afford to lend them, whatever they could save after the bills had been paid. And that’s why I should have been angrier, why all of us should have been angrier in 2011, angrier even before then. I’m ashamed now to think how much time I spent thinking about the job market, how much time I spent trying to tailor a letter for a “teaching” versus a “research” job. I didn’t spend enough time thinking about what a college education might mean for the students I would be teaching if I were lucky enough to get to do that. None of us spent enough thinking about whether or not there would even be a college education for students like ours at Wright State. As one of the members of Wright State’s Board of Trustees said recently, “We’re not here to serve everybody and all their dreams.”
I don’t know what will happen next here at Wright State or other places like it, but I do know that on the picket line, I fell both more in love with our students and more in love—however sappy it might sound, whatever neoliberalist jingoism it risks—with that sentiment in our mission statement: “transforming the lives of our students.” We’ve got a new “Strategy Document” in the works at Wright State now. Do you know what it says we’ll transform? The “university,” the “communities we serve,” and “the world.” If you’re like me, you probably just scoffed at that. And yeah, I get it. But also, I just came in from a cold picket line, and so I’m more ready than I have ever been to say, “You know what, I’m gonna hold Wright State to its plan to transform the university, the communities we serve, and the world. I’m going to hold us to that for as long as I can—with and especially for our students.”
Crystal B. Lake is an Associate Professor of English at Wright State University. Her book on eighteenth-century Artifacts is forthcoming soon from a university press near you. With Sarah Tindal Kareem, she is the co-founder and co-editor of The Rambling. Crystal is currently writing a new book about the history of early readers and the crafts they made. You can find her on Twitter @crystal_b_lake.