The Real World

There’s this argument about quote unquote the real world. It is usually made as an ancillary point to something else. E.g. “Scott Walker’s getting rid of tenure, which is fine because no one should have tenure. I had a terrible professor in college once who wouldn’t have lasted a second in the real world.”

Okay. So. I think we can all obviously agree that Scott Walker is a stupid and dangerous man. Like bag-of-hamsters-which-has-somehow-gotten-hold-of-a-bunch-of-IEDs stupid.

The problem I have here is the second part of my based-on-true-events quotation. This idea that academia is a world (hazy, separate, floating?) that exists apart from the “real world.” I’m not exactly sure, but I think what people mean when they make this distinction is that academia seems nice—we get jobs for life, we have flexible schedules, we don’t ever have to worry about being fired, we can say whatever we want, when we want, and wear cargo shorts to work. That seems to be the perception that people have of academia. The thing about this list (besides maybe the cargo shorts) is that it is really kind of awesome. It’s also incorrect. It’s untrue that tenured professors can’t be fired. They can be fired for all the “real” reasons anyone else can be fired: harassment, injury, assault, sustained and aggrieved insubordination, etc. BUT they ARE specifically protected from being fired for their research, creative activity, and their teaching of difficult or controversial subjects. Their speech is more protected than someone’s speech at a corporation. “A job for life” essentially means that, unless the police are involved, it’s a chore to fire a tenured professor. And here’s the thing: their firing is a point of self-governance. Universities govern themselves, which means that to fire someone with tenure (or to give them tenure in the first place) means that the firing offense (or reward of tenure) goes through committee. To fire a professor, that professor’s actions have to be so egregious that many educated people must agree that the professor has overstepped bounds and actually done something fireable, something ethically or morally wrong. Something that flies in the face of that professor’s mandate (teach and serve).

[Except, of course, in right to work states–like Maryland and Michigan, where Matt and I work–this isn’t true at all. “Right to work,” like many right-wing concepts, is linguistically inverted. What it really means is “right to fire.”]

I guess what I’m coming to here is that these “real world” arguments against tenure are actually, at their heart, pro-capitalist anti-worker sentiments. Why wouldn’t we want to work in a society where to fire someone took some time, forethought and a committee’s evaluation and oversight? Why wouldn’t we want to live in a society where workers were given flexible schedules (which allowed them, to, say, pick up their children from school or go to a doctor’s appointment without being penalized with the loss of sick days or pay)? Where several committees of our peers decided our fates as workers, instead of a hierarchy of single (usually white and male) authority figures?

When we say academics don’t work (live?) in the “real world” what we are actually saying is that academics are allowed to be themselves. That we have to conform to an inhumane corporate culture less. That we get to think more and on our own time, according to our own clocks. What we’re really saying is that academics are allowed to work in a manner that is ethical. That’s not to say that we aren’t overworked and prone to burn out, because we are. But the idea inherent in the statement that we don’t work in the “real world” is that the “real world” is punishing to original thought and ideas. The “real world” values original thinking, service, and mentorship less. In the end, isn’t this catchphrase another insidious inversion? Another way of dehumanizing that very human cog, of valuing production over human life? Of saying that what is “real” is profit and money, and what is not real are, well, people, and the things that make us human? Because in this formulation, what is real begins to sound very much like what is not real at all, but a little cave (or, if you prefer, five strangers, picked to live in a house…) in which we are placed to make rich people and corporations richer, with little regard to the enrichment of our own lives. A very long time ago, Plato had something to say about that cave.

Really, though? I just work too hard and fierce for you to tell me that what I do isn’t real. I challenge these “real world” folks (and hamster-bag Scott Walker) to do what we do (read, think, plan, write, teach, serve, meet, comfort, help, revise, respond, speak, present, glad-hand, email, advise and letter-and-grant write) for one week, without assistants, aides, or secretaries. Then tell me how real I am.