Culture of Fear, or Just the Fearful?

Originally published at Stillwater Historians, February 16, 2012.  Links likely outdated.

Maybe it’s just the particular path that I’ve been beating through the blogosphere of late, and maybe I’m suffering from something akin to compassion fatigue, but Fear (so prevalent that I’m inclined to capitalize it) seems to be the pervasive theme amongst academics, and historians prominently among them, and I’m a little sick of it.  Tenured faculty fear the administration, junior faculty fear tenured faculty, adjuncts fear all of these and the inferiority complex to which they contribute, and grad students fear everything that moves.  It’s been used as the excuse for why more innovative teaching techniques are not used, more controversial ideas are not articulated, and more radical and ground-breaking research is neither published nor pursued.  The common denominator seems to be that we could all be better at our respective jobs if we weren’t all so afraid of losing our jobs.

Well I say: pull yourselves together, you sniveling, whining, pansy-assed-excuse-for-professionals.  I understand that there are adversities, there are paradoxes, catch-22s, and a million ways to run afoul of those more advanced in the hierarchical structure of your chosen profession.  Things are tough all over.

The first link above describes the “culture of fear” with the very brevity and wit that makes the whole blog worth a read (and the overall point is not ill-conceived), but the criticisms of academics’ use of pseudonyms and anonymous blogs when contributing to online conversations would be more poignant if not coming from an anonymous blog.  Nonetheless he or she chalks up the fear amongst academics to “the staggering power imbalance between academics and the people who employ them.”  I get that in a volatile job market with many more qualified candidates than jobs to put them in, this can raise concerns amongst the untenured–really anybody who depends on contract renewals or availability of funding.  But have we really reached the point of rewarding the silently mediocre at the expense of the boldly controversial?  I don’t know that we have, but that may be only because rewards in general these days are so few.

The other link is to a blog post on the Chronicle by Isaac Sweeney.  Perhaps because I’m staring my future in the face, and perhaps because I’m avidly avoiding my present, I’ve been wandering amongst blogs dedicated to the plight of the adjunct.  That said, I recognize that this may be amplifying my sense of the fear factor.  Sweeney and others attended a meeting of the New Faculty Majority in Washington DC recently, and he is one of many who have been blogging about it.  The “A is for Adjunct” link on our blogroll (on the right) will give you a sampling if you’re interested.  But here again, the fear factor.

My thoughts:  yes, the economy is imperfect–ask any employed and breathing academic and they’ll tell you how bad it was when they started their career too.  To hear most tell it, there’s been a virtual hiring freeze for the last half century.  But instead of lamenting it, instead of rattling a cup outside the administration building, why do historians not focus on creating demand for themselves and their skills?  I mean we spend enough time studying the dynamics of market economies–aren’t there one or two possible applications we can draw?  You can amass skill sets to meet a demand or you can create a demand for a given set of skills.  What you need is some understanding of the game and its players–and isn’t this what historians are ever congratulating themselves as having in abundance?  It may be true that highly trained historians will find themselves in something other than their dream job.  Again, not a unique experience.  I don’t know if statistics are compiled on this, but I don’t imagine there is a spate of PhDs in 21st century soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  So maybe a little perspective (another thing we suppose ourselves to have a keener sense of than others) might not be out of line.  The fact that scientists very often occupy the most modern campus buildings while historians begin their day by blowing away the plaster dust that has fallen from the ceiling overnight is because scientists have done a better job demonstrating their value.  Historians tend to have some aloof sense of inherent value–a value that is somehow too pure to be assessed, reevaluated, or in any way questioned.  Maybe if they pursued projects that produced tangible benefits to their regions, populations, and industries, their value would be better appreciated and administrators could better justify additional resources, new centers, and more faculty.

Much of the fear I’m finding around the blogosphere seems to come from conversations about the plight of the adjunct.  But then again, the first blogger noted above talks about the use of pseudonyms and the unwillingness of many academics at all levels to tie themselves to controversial ideas expressed in unconventional places.  I’m struck by the fact that last week’s guest blogger on the Tenured Radical used a pseudonym–despite the fact that, at this point, it would seem to me that being an invited guest blogger on one of the best-known, oft-read blogs amongst historians and academics in general, would be pretty good exposure for a budding professional.  Are we afraid of the newfound ability to disseminate half-formed thoughts?  Or are we fearful of the criticism of our peers?  And what exactly do we do with criticism that is also anonymous?  Is it more apt to be honest or less?  And is it fear, or something else that compells us to cling to anonymity when tiptoeing around the internet as we do?

Thinking about fear brings me back to a number of themes we’ve explored already–not least among them Katherine’s ideas about mentoring (see Traipsing…) and the conversation that flowered around Grafton, Grossman, and Lemisch (see Fighting Words).  Grad students and junior scholars model the more senior scholars who mentor them.  And if the ”culture of fear” is, in fact, real, then we are actively infecting new generations of scholars with it every day.  Rather than engage the creativity of brilliant minds to find new applications for our skills, new markets for our produce, and new audiences for what we have to say, we are instead lamenting that the old audiences grow inattentive while old markets contract, and skills become obsolete and unappreciated.  It’s not enough to simply study change–historians, as those supposedly most comfortable with the concept–should be leading it.  Sweeney asks how we can “lower the fear”.  My only answer is: stop being so afraid of it!