Image: A female theorist dealing with another load of crap

‘Is it a race thing or a lady thing?’ – the new Ghostbusters and the Academy

In the original Ghostbusters film academia was the subject of critique for being oversaturated with time, space, funding and equipment. The new Ghostbusters film performs a reversal by its portrayal of the privatised, neoliberal academy: the university is now the space where you have to apply for funding, and you will only receive it if you can demonstrate ‘results’. If you want to do something long-term, creative and out of the ordinary, you have to stay out of sight and hide in the margins. This is shown through Abby’s (Melissa McCarthy) character who does exactly that, although she underestimates how much the margins are increasingly being closed down. When her institution is taken over by a crude cookie-cutter corporate type, the women and their research are immediately kicked out. Abby’s original plan was to save Erin from mainstream academia and show her the beauty of the margins, but they are now even further than initially anticipated. As even the most dubious institutions aim to get in with the top achievers, the margins have to move outside of any institution. You essentially have to sacrifice your career and expose yourself to the risk of your own enterprise.

It’s so bizarre to me that I had this exact same experience. I left a comfortable and stable position at a top-twenty school, thinking that I would have more intellectual freedom at a university positioned a little more in the margins. The substantially lower-ranked school where I accepted a tenure-track position became more fantastically neoliberal with each passing year, however, and suddenly I was expected to produce more work than anyone else I knew despite being given almost no resources. It was this, basically:

First we see Erin (Kirsten Wiig), a theoretical physicist whose tenure is delayed by increasingly ridiculous requirements that no male colleague would have to perform. Another reference, another grant, another book – something is always missing, while male colleagues with less impressive achievements effortlessly move past. We see how Erin is aware of this, anxious to meet these criteria down to her appearance, but, at the same time, angry at having to perform a disproportional amount of ‘ass-kissing’. What I also like about the Erin vignette is the attention to knowledge policing: what gets validated by Western academia and what doesn’t. Academia rewards particular standards, particular modes of thinking and producing. You need to be similar to others, to cite the canon, to orient your research towards the current funding.
Despite being just as productive and successful as Erin, I was also denied tenure. My situation was simultaneously complicated and not complicated at all, in that it was an all-too-common combination of discrimination, intellectual conservatism, and neoliberal corporatization.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the concept of “the undercommons” (here’s a free PDF of the book), the gist of which is to “take what you can from the system and run.” I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good people in an extensive support network reach out to me since I was denied tenure, and many people have generously offered concrete resources that might help me make it back into the system. I’m grateful, of course, but I suspect that there may no longer be any room in the system for someone like me, who not only does research in and about the margins but also teaches from and to the margins. If the system won’t support me, I’m not too terribly interested in giving more of my labor to support the system.

My main concern, at the moment, is how to become a Ghostbuster.