My Industry Is Failing: Academia Edition | Crooked Media
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February 15, 2023
Work Appropriate
My Industry Is Failing: Academia Edition

In This Episode

We’re kicking off a new series on Work Appropriate called “My Industry Is Failing.” First up? Academia.  Professor Dominique Baker of SMU joins host Anne Helen Petersen to answer listeners’ questions about surviving within academia when the whole institution seems irrevocably broken. Regardless of your own industry, you’re sure to hear some familiar themes in these stories.

If you’ve got a workplace problem that feels emblematic of your own broken industry, we want to hear about it! Some of the realms we want to explore include health care, retail,  veterinary medicine, teaching, non-profits… the list goes on and on. Head to www.workappropriate.com to view submission guidelines and send us your question.

 

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. This is Work Appropriate. And I’m your host, Anne Helen Petersen. [music plays] When you write about the things that I write about and have a podcast like this one, you end up hearing a lot, like a lot about people’s jobs. Sometimes I ask people to tell me about their jobs and then sometimes I just get emails out of the blue DMs all over the place just telling me about their jobs. You might think that the recurring theme in these emails and DMs would be bad bosses or underpay or productivity demands and yeah, all that stuff comes up. But the recurring theme usually actually isn’t about their specific job. It’s about the fundamental brokenness of their entire industry. We’re talking about the way people are trained, hired, retained, but also the entire ethos, the spoken and unspoken expectations. The status quo, something foundational in these industries is cracked, which means that the structures built upon them are crumbling in risk of imminent collapse. These industries may be broken, but they’re also societally essential. That means there are millions of people who have to figure out on a daily basis how to keep doing their jobs, even as they hope for overarching structural reform. If that sounds familiar, this new series on Work Appropriate is for you. Every month or so we’ll have a new co-host to deal with your questions about navigating your broken industry. This week, it’s academia. And if you’re not in academia, you might think these questions won’t be of interest. But I’m telling you, if you’re in the working world, and particularly if you’re in a broken industry, all of these quandaries are going to seem very, very familiar. And even though I have a whole lot of personal experience with academia, we’ll get to that in a little bit. I knew I needed a co-host who’s still working on these questions of brokenness from the inside. [music plays]

 

Dominique Baker: My name is Dominique Baker. I’m an associate professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. So I study higher education policy. Frequently, that means I wind up looking at things like student financial aid. Who borrows to go to college. What types of colleges do they go to is that very easy peasy and no problems whatsoever is that a bit of— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Oh, yeah. [laughter]

 

Dominique Baker: Right, right. Like supes, just like no problem. Or is that a bit of a struggle? Okay. What does that struggle look like? Who is struggling more or less when it comes to that? I look at also admissions policies and thinking about who gets into different types of colleges. In my former life, I was an assistant dean of admissions, and so I carry that into the work that I do today. And then I also just try to think broadly about what do we mean when we say an equitable campus climate. These are words that are incredibly laden with thoughts about how society works and what our society should be versus what it is presently. And so I try to think about ways that we can systematically or structurally create a type of college campus that we’d hope that people could experience. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Part of the reason I wanted to talk to you was because I think sometimes people who are on the instruction or faculty side of things like really kind of tunnel vision, think about this is what my experiences inside of academia, when academia in reality is this huge conglomerate of faculty experience, staff experience, which is oftentimes invisiblized in different ways, and student experience, too, right? So I wanted an episode that was able to grapple with more than just the faculty experience, which sometimes becomes the loudest voice in the room. 

 

Dominique Baker: It’s a really big challenge because we have this idea in the United States when we talk about college, both that we are talking specifically about certain types of colleges. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And when we talk about labor within colleges, we’re talking about specific sector of labor. So it’s this really unfortunate sort of a essentializing of both— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: —the college experience overall, but then also who works within as if the only people who are actually working within a college are the ones who are teaching and doing research. One of the things that I always try when I’m talking to students or folks who might not be as aware of the university as an employer is trying to talk about the fact that even within staff, right, we have different designations. We have the folks who have benefits and retirement plans and long term, and then we have the people who will frequently say technically don’t work for the university. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Uh huh. 

 

Dominique Baker: Right, they contract through Aramark or all these different pieces. Yeah so like universities, they can be like tiny corporations. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. [laughs]

 

Dominique Baker: That have many different realms of labor. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And I should say too my background on this, for people who don’t know. So I have a Ph.D. in media studies, but I went to a small liberal arts college, and then I went and received my M.A. and worked at larger universities, University of Oregon, University of Texas. And then my mom was a long term adjunct at a small state college in Idaho. And then I went back and taught at a liberal arts college as well. So I’ve experienced many different corners of what it can look like to be employed by a university, you know, even though even when you are a graduate student who is working as a TA and how different it can be if you’re at a unionized university or you’re in Texas, which, you know, right to work state, there is a union doesn’t have much power. So how does that change your experience as well? All of it is really, really interesting and complicated. 

 

Dominique Baker: One of the things I always worry about when we think about the university as an employer, is, as a site of labor. We collapse down our notion of what a university is. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: Most of the time when I talk to people about this, they’re going to ask me about, well, what’s it like for tenure line faculty? What’s it like to be tenured? And you have all these competing interests for your research and service and thinking about your teaching, and it’s just like we have to think so much more expansively about how higher education works, because the way that we talk about even just one job that we say your tenure line faculty member, that is your job is so different at different institutions. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Dominique Baker: I think sometimes we think it’s sort of like if you work in software development, you work in software development [laughter] and whether you do that at Amazon or I’m not a tech person, other place with software development [laughter] like we think that, oh, the job is roughly the same and you might have a different boss or like different colleagues. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And maybe the widget you’re working on is a little bit different. But, but it’s roughly the same and that’s just not the case within higher ed.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Not at all. And so this is I’m going to ask you a really hard question, but I feel like you are one of the people that could actually answer it. Is there a way to describe in sort of a concise but compelling way [laughter] how academia as an institution broadly has changed over the last 20 or 30 years. 

 

Dominique Baker: Audience I just want you to know she was not lying [laughter] when she said she was gonna be asking a hard question. Okay. Yeah. People. [laughter] People write dissertations on this. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. No, just no big deal. Just like. 

 

Dominique Baker: No. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Just a paragraph. 

 

Dominique Baker: Yes. I love this. I love this. Oh, and asking a professor to be concise, my word. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah I know right. 

 

Dominique Baker: So I would say. We have seen an acceleration of sort of maybe two strands that I that I think a lot about. One, we have seen an acceleration towards less security. What we generally seem to see is a trend within higher education towards jobs that provide less security around those types of things that we typically call academic freedom, but are also around things like just health care benefits, around— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: —retirement benefits. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 

 

Dominique Baker: What we can think of really is sort of like a gig economy being created within higher education. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: So at the same time we see that happening with Uber and all these other different types of jobs. Instacart. We’re also seeing that happen within higher education. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And I would say the same time we also see this trend of distrust and, and that is distrust within the academy as a whole. And I think this is both true as a side of labor, but also from a broader perspective as a site of learning and education. And I think that these then feed off of each other that for a very long time in the K-12 schools, there is a very large push for thinking about how you can quantify how much value individual teachers add to a student’s learning experience, something we like to call value added in higher education. There was this trust within and from, I guess, the public that when I sometimes would talk to people, they would say, well, we don’t need a value added for higher ed because like, that’s the secret sauce, right? We don’t have to prove that this is what we do, that we teach, learning that we teach civic engagement, because that’s what we do. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dominique Baker: And it’s really interesting to me, right, Because I it does not escape my notice that the erosion in this trust happens more and more as more Black and brown people enter higher education, as more working class people enter higher education, that that is when we start losing this trust and that doesn’t mean, look, I don’t trust a lot of people, so I’m not saying that we can’t have accountability structures, but that this really large shift that happened that then starts getting to a place where we say, well, you know, if we’re going to give a college or university money, we’re going to tie it to how many students they graduate because we don’t trust that they’re actually working to make sure that they graduate these students. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. So this whole conversation, I think, is pointing at two things that we should establish as sort of foundation as we go forward and try to give some advice, which is that working at a college institution has become a less good job over the course of the last 20, 30, 40 years. 

 

Dominique Baker: Yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. It used to be a job that was much more stable. And we’re not just talking about tenure, of course. We’re talking about like it is a job that you start and you stay there. Right, like— 

 

Dominique Baker: Yes, yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —it is it is a job with benefits. It is a job with 401k matches often, you know, especially if you’re working for a state institution. There used to be much more assurance of like this is a job that I can feel stable in as a staff member, as a faculty member. Moving forward. It was also more stable for graduate students, right? For people who were receiving stipends, who weren’t taking out loans necessarily to live. So as a job, it has gotten worse. At the same time, all of these same things about college being this incredible value added proposition, right, something that is can be magic, something that can change the course of someone’s life. That vocational awe is still very much attached to the profession. And that includes, I think, people who are working as as instructors, but then also people who are working as staff to create the overall environment. Right. And so it’s a worse job where expectations are still very large. And how do you reconcile the distance between those two things? That’s where I think a lot of this strife, exhaustion, burnout, demoralization, we’re getting that at the intersection of those two things. 

 

Dominique Baker: I resonate really strongly with this, especially when thinking about the fact that it is it is it has become a worse job. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And part of the reason that I think that also matters is because I think the way we’ve set up labor within higher education was always predicated on the notion that we will have an endless supply of people who are interested in these jobs. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Dominique Baker: And as soon as. The job becomes worse and people realize just how much worse the job became, which I think happened a lot for people as we transitioned into the pandemic. And it sort of became a like, whoa, what we I need to take stock here. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 

 

Dominique Baker: That I think that supply cannot be counted on in the same ways that it was before, which is why we see a lot of discussion about, oh, we can’t hire, we can’t fill for this job or that one. And there’s a lot of stuff that’s been put on people as jobs are not getting filled. And so work is being distributed and people are getting even more tasks and responsibility put on them than was before. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. So one question that I would wanted to start with is one that we get a lot in different iterations. So I wanted to use this as another kind of table setting, establishing question, and people ask, why are institutions so unwilling to fix retention problems and invest in workers instead of driving them away and constantly rehiring every week? [laughs] Basically, it’s a question of like, why doesn’t academia think like a smart employer? 

 

Dominique Baker: Mm hmm. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: How do you grapple with that overarching question? Because I think there’s actually some real pushback always against thinking of academia as a business. 

 

Dominique Baker: Yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And I understand why. But also sometimes academia is such a poorly run business in ways that could be very easily tweaked. Right. Even if that’s just thinking about maybe the head of our department should be someone who has some management skills. [laughs]

 

Dominique Baker: And, you know, that’s [indistinct] interesting is that people that are often in these type of hiring and firing roles within academia often have had no formalized training— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 

 

Dominique Baker: —or professionalization around management. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: None. 

 

Dominique Baker: And, and— [laughter]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Not even like worked as a manager like at a bagel shop? Right. 

 

Dominique Baker: Right, right, right, right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like none of it. None. 

 

Dominique Baker: And it 100% shows. So I think that is real. Part of the reason that they have been willing to just let people go is they think there’s this endless supply of people that will always come falling behind. Sort of one of your former episodes talked about, right? Like passion jobs. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: So because higher education could be considered one of these types of passion jobs, you’ve always got people that are going to be coming. Maybe someone hasn’t heard that this is a less good job yet or let’s be fair, right? It might be a less good job, but it might be better than the other options that is in front of someone. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Or it might be the only job. 

 

Dominique Baker: Or it might be the only job, yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And I think about this a lot. People who are not within academia might not be familiar with the idea of what’s sometimes called the two body problem, which is when someone gets hired at an institution and maybe that’s the only option that they have. And then you have a partner who also needs a job. And a lot of institutions are in places that are smaller where there aren’t a lot of options in your field. And so maybe you have to take a job as a staff member in something that you’re not that interested in or, you know, there’s just it’s not a choice. And a lot of people in the world outside of academia don’t always have a choice about the jobs that they’re doing. 

 

Dominique Baker: Exactly. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: To be clear. But it also, I think, creates a paradigm at institutions where they say, oh, yeah, like this person might, you know, maybe they’ll just come in for a year, they’re going to leave. Like churn is just an accepted part and there will be more supply. 

 

Dominique Baker: Churn is an accepted way of doing business. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And I think this is true. I think this is definitely true for like the contracted staff who are working with the dining hall. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Dominique Baker: Or doing cleaning services. But I definitely think this is true for a lot of people all the way through to tenured faculty members. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: That there there are 100% institutions that view it as we’d be more interested in paying someone less, right? Because remember, more often than not, when someone leaves the next person you hire, depending, you can pay them less. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. [laughter] Yes. Yes.

 

Dominique Baker: So, this is this is a benefit that can work for them. We hear every year about higher education institutions that have done things like denied tenure to someone for a reason that just looks incredibly shady. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dominique Baker: And and we hear that all the time and people still go and work in those environments after. Right. For a number of reasons that we’ve said about whether or not you have a choice, it might still be the best choice of the options you have available. All these sorts of things. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. In other [laughter] in other businesses, when someone becomes an employer that is renowned for being a crappy an employer, then maybe it’s harder for them to recruit employees. But when there’s a scarcity of employment within academia at large, yeah, there’s no penalty. Right. So basically they’re doing it because they can. But I think two, though, the hard thing that this person is pointing out too, is like, or this question is pointing out, it’s like this is just so inefficient. Like it’s just like it’s bad business to be bad at business. [laughs] Do you know what I mean?

 

Dominique Baker: You got a bird in the hand. What are— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: —what are we doing? Say like, no, no, no, go fly off. I’ll just I’ll grab some eggs and maybe they’ll hatch. [laughter] And maybe it’ll work out. Maybe it won’t. Who knows?  

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. [music plays] So our first question really illustrates what it’s like to live through all of these issues we’ve talked about. This is from Mary, and our colleague Fiona is going to read it. 

 

Mary: I work part time for a university and part time for myself. I have a humanities Ph.D. burned out at the end of it and moved across the country. Now, coming up on seven years after my defense, my work at the university is highly meaningful. I do work that is significant and innovative that will make the lives of the students who I support better. And that is, I think, and hope slowly moving academia to a be a better place. My problem, well, it’s twofold. First is that I hate my university’s COVID policies. They never enforced their vaccine requirement. They also want to mandate that I work on campus more than 50% of the time. As someone who has been highly productive at home and who is COVID cautious, these moves make me angry. I have a supportive manager who will fight to allow me to continue to work from home 75% of the time, but the broader institution is infuriating. The second thing is that my work for myself is going really well. It’s lucrative. I get to flow easily and I’m great at it, but it isn’t broadly meaningful in the same way. It doesn’t contribute to broad social change within academia. My friends say about It’s obvious that I should quit my university job. Do the thing that is less stressful and more lucrative. My manager at the university says she doesn’t think anyone else could do my job the way I do it. I’m completely overworked and I never take a day off. So my quandary is how long should I keep fighting to try to make the academy better? At what point do I decide to stop being ambitious and settle into the thing that I like that pays well? That would allow me to take a weekend off, maybe even a holiday? I know that the institution cannot love me back and that only I can put myself first. But my university job, it’s important. How do I know when I ought to leave it to someone else and hope they do it justice? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Huh? So to me, this seems like a trap. Right. Like there’s some vocational awe going on here which— 

 

Dominique Baker: Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —if people aren’t familiar with that is this idea comes from for Fobazi Ettarh’s work on librarians that basically when someone’s work is thought to be so important, right? Like, you end up excusing or ignoring all manner of worthy critique. Like, even if like Mary here, you can see it very clearly. And I also think that when you’re deep in academia, sometimes it’s very easy to keep those blinders on. And Mary has the benefit of having friends who are like, listen, this isn’t how it should be. [laughs] But it’s also hard for her to let go of this work that really feels important to her. And she is receiving support from her manager that I think is affirming this idea that, like the work you’re doing is so important, no one else could do it like you. So does this sound familiar at all? 

 

Dominique Baker: Oh, my gosh. Yes. [laughter] Yes, it does. Oof. I think that’s I mean, this is a tough thing more because it sounds like Mary knows what the best option is. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Right. 

 

Dominique Baker: And needs to process that through. And I think that’s great. Right? Like giving ourselves time to process major decision changes like that is really important, especially when we are making decisions that make the best sense for us but don’t necessarily align with what we thought we would be doing. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And so being kind to ourselves to give ourselves a space to process that I think is, is clutch and very important. But yeah, it sounds like what I was really loving is as I hear towards the end, like, should I pick the job that I like, that I enjoy, right, right. [laughter] It’s not even necessarily this other job she dislikes. Like—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dominique Baker: Mary’s saying, I like the other job. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dominique Baker: I think one of the things we we can find ourselves saying that, like the job that I do, my main steady W2 paycheck has to also be advancing my personal goals and beliefs and—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: —help to create change. And I think I think that’s important. But I also think it’s important that we can recognize the ways that we can help create that change outside of our job as well, whether that’s through community organizing, whether that’s through joining with other community groups that are doing things, volunteering with your local public library. Right. Like can be just as important as the work that you’re doing at the university. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 

 

Dominique Baker: I think that, yes, the manager is very supportive, but there’s also a bit of guilt there to say—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Uh huh, yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: —but Mary, Mary, you are the one that does this. [laughter] You do it so well. Nobody else could ever do this. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Because the manager knows she’s going to be in trouble if Mary quits, right? 

 

Dominique Baker: Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Because probably Mary is doing the job of at least two people. 

 

Dominique Baker: Exactly. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like I know this scenario. [laughs]

 

Dominique Baker: Yeah, exactly. They present that to somebody else and they’re like, I’d like to hire you. And these are the five jobs I would like you to do. And they’re going—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Dominique Baker: —to be like, no, I’m good. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. [laughter]

 

Dominique Baker: No, thank you. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: You know, so I think Mary’s rare in a lot of cases, or people that I hear from in academia often don’t have that life raft set up the way that she seemingly does. Or if they do, it’s a job that they don’t think that they would like. And they’re trying to kind of they’re trying to judge between like, do I take this j o b that feels meaningless to me? But she seems to really like this other option. And as you note and as I think we try to talk a lot on this podcast about this all the time, there are other ways to find meaning in your life and to make meaning in the lives of others that are outside of your job. 

 

Dominique Baker: Yes.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: But you have to not be exhausted by your job to conceive of that. 

 

Dominique Baker: Right. [laughter] Right. You have to be able to take a weekend off. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: To be able to find that fulfillment in other spaces. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Okay. What about this last little part of this question, which I think is kind of key? How does she know that she can, like, trust that the person who comes after her will do the work justice? Do you have any thoughts on that? 

 

Dominique Baker: So I frequently say this to myself, and so it’s going to sound a little harsh, but I say this to myself. So I will I will share it as well. And actually, I’ve heard one of my favorite scholar thinkers, [indistinct] say this before. And so I feel like it’s not too harsh. I can I can share it out there as well to say. I’m not that, I’m special, I’m not that special. Right. [laughter] So, so, so, yes, I work hard and I care deeply about these issues. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 

 

Dominique Baker: But I would bet that there are also other people who care hard and think deeply about these issues. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And it’s a it’s a difficult thing. I do not want to minimize that, but it is sort of almost a release to realize that you are not the only person on this planet who can do your job and do it well with thoughtfulness and integrity. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And hopefully that can release a little bit of the pressure that you put on yourself that if you leave, it will all fall apart. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: If a single person leaves and the whole game falls apart— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: The game was r— 

 

Dominique Baker: Then, then the game, right. The game was already rigged. [laughter] This was already a thing that was going to happen. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And the other piece of comfort that I would give this person is just that I think people who are only children, I don’t know if this question answer is an only child or people who have taken a lot, old, eldest daughters often have this this role in their families. But then also people, I think, who have been told their entire lives that they’re exceptional in some way, which is, you know, a narrative that that many high achieving people within academia have been surrounded by. It’s hard to let go of that. But I think it’s also healthy, right, to say, admitting that there are other people who could be as good at my job doesn’t mean that I’m not also good at it. 

 

Dominique Baker: Yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And I think that creates more of like this idea of like we are in community. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. [laughs]

 

Dominique Baker: We are all contributing in interesting and fun ways. And it’s not so much like I have to come out and save this organization, this institution. It’s all on my shoulders. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: That that’s not the case. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. So, okay, I think we’re in agreement here that Mary knows what she needs to do. 

 

Dominique Baker: And I’m very excited for her. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I know right. [laughs]

 

Dominique Baker: I’m looking, yes, I hope Mary writes in, to give a follow up on how dope the new the new job is. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Truly. This is one of my favorite parts actually, people listening right now, is when I hear from from people who have been on the show and have either taken our advice or sometimes they’ve already done something even before—

 

Dominique Baker: Yeah, yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —we address it on the show. And they’re like, you told me what to do. And I had already done it and it felt good. 

 

Dominique Baker: That’s dope. 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Our next question is about thriving in the system when everything feels like a competition. Here’s Rebecca. 

 

Rebecca: Higher education often touts its collegial processes when in reality much of it is driven under an individualized, performance based model. Whether it’s reading my students course evaluations or competing with my departmental colleagues for merit raises, the academy is built on a flawed meritocracy, where the pursuit of individual success becomes the priority. As a result, we seek and value the good opinion of our students and colleagues, even when it comes at the expense of our own values and beliefs. I used to think the problem was with me, but I now realize that lies within the system. All around me I can see how this performance mindset is unconsciously shaping our interactions and choices that we make within higher ed. Which leaves me wondering how can I navigate and survive within a system that runs so counter to my values as an educator? How can I maintain my motivation when my colleagues view my successes as their competition rather than as an opportunity to collaborate? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So this question, what’s kind of implicit within it is the flawed meritocracy. But the fact that the flawed meritocracy is also racist and sexist, right? 

 

Dominique Baker: Mm hmm. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like they’re the people who succeed within this meritocracy are people who are modeling a certain understanding of what an educator should look like. How do you think about this question? 

 

Dominique Baker: At first I was like, oh, did y’all get access to my therapy notes? Where did this come from? [laughter] So I think this is something that a lot of people experience and try to think about, especially people who are not white men. Within higher education, straight white men in particular. So I will say the way that I’ve tried to get through this and the way I talk to colleagues about it, is that I am really careful to think about, like, what is my North Star? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 

 

Dominique Baker: Why do I do the job that I do? And the thing I used to tell people before I even got tenure is I would tell them that my North Star is that I want to be a part of a community that helps make our world better. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And in particular, I want to help make the world better for people of color, especially Black people, because we can frequently see in research in all sorts of things that when we make the world better, particularly for Black women, turns out we make the world better for everybody else. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Universal design, you know.  

 

Dominique Baker: It is. [laughter] Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Dominique Baker: So, so that has been my goal, my purpose around my work and what that’s allowed me to do. And so I’ve always told people getting tenure is great. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 

 

Dominique Baker: It’s lovely If that is how my employer chooses to reward the work that I’ve done. But I separate that from—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 

 

Dominique Baker: —my goals with my career. Because. I think when I orient in this way, it allows me to do a couple of different things. It allows me to say every time that I’m deciding, like, am I going to start that research project or am I interested in writing up a public version of the peer reviewed journal article that I wrote? I don’t ask. Does this get me tenure? I ask, does this further my goals towards making broader change? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And when I’m able to do that, I think it makes some of my decisions look a little bit different than the sort of typical faculty member. And that doesn’t mean right, like I am a fairly strategic person. So I can look and I can say these are the things that I think further my larger goals, okay, what do I need to do to spin them in a way so that my dean can recognize its value, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: How do I write it on my report in a way that— 

 

Dominique Baker: Right, exactly. How do I how do I speak this up? So, so— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: I don’t want to say as if I was just like, I didn’t pay attention to any of that. But I always start from a place of how does this further those larger goals? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 

 

Dominique Baker: So I one time testified before the United States Senate, and what I tell people is like, okay, what you see on my CV is a line that says that I testified before the U.S. Senate. What you don’t see are the years worth of time that I wrote, translational pieces of peer reviewed research, not always my own right. Like this isn’t just me sort of puffing up saying, like, everybody should read more about my research. This is work that I was doing, trying to summarize like the larger field—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: —of research to help try to get people to think about if this is what we know, what does that mean for people’s lives, how we think about policy moving forward, all those sorts of things. Those were not things that automatically were going to get me tenure. Those were not things that, quite frankly, like grant funders cared about. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: But those things mattered when it came to what I wanted to do with trying to help find ways to be a part of a community that was trying to make our world a little bit better. And so they eventually did get to a thing that I am certain my university appreciates. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I think that one thing I’ve seen as many of my peers or about in my cohort age group have reached the tenure age or the point in their career where they would be they go up for tenure, they receive tenure. And then I’ve watched a lot of them quit. And the thing that’s striking to me is that especially graduating when many of us did, you know, either into the aftermath of the Great Recession, which is a really transitional point, I think, in just in terms of job stability, job availability in academia, there was just this idea that, like, if I can just keep my head above water, everything’s going to be okay. If I can just get to that ten year finish line and everything should be oriented towards getting to that finish line. 

 

Dominique Baker: Mm hmm. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And then you surface and you’re like, do I like the work that I do? Do I like the person that I’ve become? Right. [laughs] Like, sure. You can think of everything in terms of this. Like, I’m just trying to win out in this faulty meritocracy. But maybe you get to the top of the mountain and it smells like shit up there, and you want to get down as fast as possible. So you got to follow that North Star, I think, as you’ve been saying. 

 

Dominique Baker: And, you know, I completely agree because I also think about the fact that as a Black woman, I accepted that I could do everything right. I could follow all the rules about tenure and all those sorts of things. And they could still not give me tenure. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: In fact, Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied the summer I was putting my materials together. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Wow. 

 

Dominique Baker: And so, my poor husband [laughter] there was a lot of emotional processing. But. Right. So to me, it’s like I could do everything. Literally everything. And I could still be denied because I unapologetically study racism. Because I call a thing a thing. And so if that’s what’s going to happen, that’s what’s going to happen. I’m not going to look back and say, gosh, I, I should have done it differently. I never should have talked about race bump that—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: [laughter] Right. 

 

Dominique Baker: —that’s that’s just silly. And so I could play your game and there’s still no guarantee. So I might as well be me and do the things that I think matter. And that way, if if I am denied tenure, if I’m denied the next promotion, those types of things. Right. I don’t regret the decisions that I made. My larger goal is helping to improve people’s lives. It’s not for me to get one more line added to my CV. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, and I think there’s a tension here with what we were talking about in the previous questions and what we’re talking about now. You know, how do you keep your North Star without also exploiting yourself, right? Because other people around you are like, this is the work that you must do. Your work is so important. And I don’t think we have an answer that is life’s work—

 

Dominique Baker: Yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —if you were operating within the institution of academia. 

 

Dominique Baker: Yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: But there is a way to understand I need to do the work that is important to me, that nourishes me, that. Makes me feel like I’m doing the right work in the world right now. But then also to say, like, I’m not going to let my passion for that work be used to exploit me over and over again. Right. And excused. 

 

Dominique Baker: And I think one of the ways that I process through that is I say my goal is not to be a professor that helps to make the world better duh duh duh duh. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen:  Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: I said, my goal is to try to make these things better. I can do that from a lot of different places. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right, right, right. This is so—

 

Dominique Baker: I don’t have to be in academia to do that thing. I like, I love academia. I love teaching. I love doing the research. I’m here for all of it. But. There can come a time where I can think that this is no longer the space from which I need to be doing this work. And if that’s what happens, that’s what happens. And so that’s, I think, how I remind myself to not think like, oh, the stars shine down upon me and I was able to get this one job and it’s the only chance I got. And this is the only way that I can ever make impact. I can make impact in many different ways. And this suits me right now, but it does not have to suit me always. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So I think we’ve kind of gone a little bit like far afield of the original question [laughter] but I think we’re actually addressing, we’re, we’re basically saying to Rebecca, hey, you know what’s right, do what’s right, but also understand that, like if your institution will not allow you to do that work, then maybe your institution isn’t the right place, right? 

 

Dominique Baker: And that it’s fine to say like these things that want to do that are right align with the university’s goals. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: Awesome. Great. Okay, cool. You, you— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dominique Baker: —that’s fine. But. But when you get to a point where if they’re asking you to do something you’re not interested in doing, do you think that that violates your moral code? That’s okay. You don’t have to do that. That is an okay space to be in I think.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. [music plays] So our last question is a little less philosophical, which is good for us. We’re going to talk about a question that is relatable and practical for people in lots of different fields, not just academia. This is from Mihal, and our colleague Amelia is reading it for us. 

 

Mihal: I work as a researcher at a university, and I’ve had such a hard time finding a balance between pressing day to day tasks and finding time to do the non-urgent but important background work, such as reading and writing without any purpose. I seem to oscillate between completely ignoring emails and skipping all staff meetings, which I’m assuming I can only get away with for so long, or getting completely engrossed in these tasks and not being able to carve out any of my own time. I’ve tried blocking off time on my calendar, having to do lists, putting on and out of office when I’m writing, etc. but nothing has stuck. Any tips? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So this is something that I think gets at the heart of some of the tensions within academia between like the serious deep work of scholarship. Right. And it does take concentration and time to get at the larger ideas. And then the fact that you also are a person who’s operated with an institution and you have responsibilities, and some of those responsibilities are attending meetings, more administrative things. Right. And this is also a symptom, I think, of faculty and researchers like this person taking on more of what was formerly an administrative role. And I’ve talked a lot about this in some of my writing on my calendar culture and on how we think about time management. But I would love to hear from your own experience how you grapple with that division. 

 

Dominique Baker: Yeah. And so I’ll throw out there, the part of the challenge with giving advice for this, right, is this is incred— Really personal. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And so I can talk a little bit about myself, but what I will say is sort of the overarching idea to me is how do you create a space where you feel generative? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 

 

Dominique Baker: What does that mean and what does that look like? Because for me, early in my career, that was that I had twice weekly meetings with other pre tenure faculty and some tenure faculty in my department where we would just sit in the same space for 4 hours and we would say, this is what I’m going to work on today. And then over those hours we’d work on it. And then at the end we would say, this is what I’ve gotten done so far. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And so part of the reason that worked for me better than just doing a calendar is because for me, I needed a little bit of accountability I need, and at that time what was nice about the transition as I was trying to learn the ropes of being a professor and managing all these different claims on my time was that, oh, I’m going to go see these people who I really like and I don’t always get a chance to see and find out what research they’re working on at the moment. So this gives me an opportunity to do that and also get some of my own work done. But for some of my friends, right, that looks more like I have a friend who just did a writing retreat, which was their partner, took care of the kids for the weekend. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: They got a hotel room and they did their own little mini writing retreat in their town. And so I sort of think this is really about what do you need to be able to focus thinking about when you did your Ph.D. in the moments when you have been able to find focus, what are the elements that you’re noticing that are trends across those? Are there any ways that you can sort of systematize bringing those elements in more? Because some people putting something down on their calendar actually works perfectly and solves everything for them. It doesn’t work for this person. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 

 

Dominique Baker: So it’s really about listening to yourself and and trying to recognize the ways that you can feel more productive. And then once you recognize them, creating more scenarios that have those pieces. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Well, and you don’t want to be the person in this scenario, which there was [laughs] a big kerfuffle on Twitter about this a several months ago, about academia in particular, about people who, like, don’t respond to invites for meetings and how you have to do all these back and forths, like you don’t want to be the person making a lot of other work for other people, especially because that work often falls on women in particular, right? You don’t want to be that asshole. So how do you be more intentional? And for me, I think what’s what’s worked is trying to say, okay, this is a writing day and trying my hardest. Whether it’s using things like there are different programs you can use to make your email only deliver at once an hour, right? So it’s futile for you to keep going back to your email because there’s nothing more there. Right. Or using the program that got me through my dissertation, Freedom From the Internet, which just turns off your Internet and makes it shameful for you to have to turn on your computer again [laughter] to get it back right. Or putting your phone in the other room, all these different things, right. To to make that deep focus time. And I personally need a big chunk. 

 

Dominique Baker: Mm, mm hmm. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —in order to feel I have the space to expand in my thought process, in my writing process. And then when it’s email time being intentional about I’m going to whip through these emails and not in a way that’s like just trying to go to inbox zero. But trying to reply fully with the information that’s necessary, you know, getting the schedule done, getting that out of the way, but not just having it be this kind of ambient thing that I do while I’m screwing around. 

 

Dominique Baker: All the time. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. [laughs]

 

Dominique Baker: Yes. Well, and I think you can also you can set boundaries and, you know, people will test them. It’s not hard to set boundaries. It’s hard to maintain boundaries. Right. But you can set boundaries with people as well about like your email culture that you’re choosing to do. Right. I have colleagues who say I will respond to email once a day. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep, yep. 

 

Dominique Baker: And so if you missed my time that day, right. Like I’ll be responding to you tomorrow. Okay, cool. There are ways that we can try to create those pieces. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Dominique Baker: But I would also throw out there, just as an aside, I think sometimes we are a little bit too narrow about how we think what how background work is happening— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Dominique Baker: —sort of how productivity is happening. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Uh huh. 

 

Dominique Baker: We think that unless I just wrote a word that will make it into the final finished piece, this was not productive. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And I frequently find that it’s all the other times when I’m showering and washing my hair and I’m thinking through something when I’m watching The Real Housewives and I’m thinking about how— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Uh huh. 

 

Dominique Baker: —they approach. In fact, frequently we have housewives, right, who are like talking about sending their child off to college and they want this one versus that one. All those things that gets my head thinking about status in our culture and how we think about higher education and all these different pieces. That’s background work. And it might not show itself explicitly in my next paper, but but it really is the part of like the creative process. So I would also just say to like, give yourself credit. I bet you are being more productive than you think you are being. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: We’re just not recognizing that productivity.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Totally. And I think that’s part of this, like this weird understanding in, in, that oftentimes shows up in academia that like it’s only productive if it’s showing up in your CV. 

 

Dominique Baker: Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: In some way. Right. When all of that cognitive work that happens [laughter] is going on, it’s going on while I’m walking my dog, right. 

 

Dominique Baker: Yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: It is going on in the shower because you know why it’s going on in the shower? Because you’re not thinking about anything else. 

 

Dominique Baker: Exactly. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right? [laughter] But I think giving giving ourselves some grace for that, but then also upping the intentionality with which we approach how we divide our day is really useful that way. I’m going to ask you one more hard question. As kind of our closer. 

 

Dominique Baker: Okay. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: What makes you hopeful about academia right now? 

 

Dominique Baker: I would say it’s a combination of people realizing that while academia is special, it is still in and of our larger society. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And I think in some ways. Right, that could not be hopeful because of the larger ills within our society. But I think. When we wall academia off from thinking about larger labor movements, from thinking about what justice means and looks like, I think we remove its chances of possibility, its chances to improve and become a better pillar of our of our civic lives. And so I am hopeful when I hear people say like, oh, staff workers should be paid a living wage and someone can respond and say, oh, well, but no, we’re not like a company we’re a university or someone [laughter] saying doesn’t matter. Right? Like, that’s the thing that should be happening— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Living wage. It’s still a thing. [laughter]

 

Dominique Baker: Right. Right. It’s still that’s a thing that matters. These are ways of thinking about the university that are old but also new, I guess. Right. Like, these are things that people have been saying, but it’s a thing that gives me some hope that academia can be a site of change when it recognizes. Right. That in fact, it is not special and separated. It is a part of our larger fabric. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: And so it can be a part of change then as long as we accept it also has to change as well. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I love that. It’s a perfect place to end too. I am so grateful that you came on the show today, I think— 

 

Dominique Baker: Oh thank you. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: That we offered some broad, pointed, interesting, complicated advice, which you know, that’s like that’s academia. So it’s good. [laughs] Where can people find you on the Internet if they want to hear more from you? 

 

Dominique Baker: I throw off a lot of irreverent tweets. And so if you if you are interested in using Twitter, perfectly, fine. If you’re not, I am @bakerdphd. Which rhymes and that’s why it’s that way. And I mean, you’re always welcome. I always tell people, if you Google Dominique Baker ed policy, it’s me. And so you’re always welcome to check out stuff from my website when it comes to like articles or other things of that nature. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dominique Baker: You always have to be really careful that you Google Dominique Baker ed policy because if you just do Dominique Baker, you will find a former employee of the Canadian government who broke [laughter] COVID protocols and went on a vacation to the Caribbean, I believe, which is lovely because—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Not you, it’s not you. [laughter] 

 

Dominique Baker: I then got some lovely tweets from Canada and they were like, how dare you? And I was like, y’all I ain’t been outside my house in months it wasn’t me. I’m not Canadian—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I’m a professor. I’m a professor. 

 

Dominique Baker: I’m just a little professor. [both speaking] I’m not doing it. I haven’t seen the sun in a while. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Oh, amazing. [music plays] That concludes our first edition of My Industry Is Failing. I am so grateful to Dominique Baker for joining me today. If you’ve got a problem at work that feels emblematic of your industry’s decline, please let us know. Some of the fields we have in mind to cover our health care, veterinarians, retail, teaching, non-profits. It goes on and on. You can find submission guidelines at WorkAppropriate.com, or send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at Crooked.com. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producers are Kendra James and Sandy Girard. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. You can follow me on Twitter @AnneHelen or on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen. And you can sign up for my newsletter culture study AnneHelen.substack.com.  Next week we welcome back Josh Gondelman to answer your questions about building confidence at work. Don’t miss it.