Editor’s note: Vitae columnist Kelly Baker interviewed Miya Tokumitsu, an art historian at the University of Melbourne, about her new book, Do What You Love: And Other Lies about Success and Happiness. The interview took place via Google Hangouts.
Baker: I loved your essay (in Jacobin and then in Slate), and I enjoyed your new book, because you talk about labor in ways that run counter to the image of labor in popular culture and everyday life. “Do What You Love” (DWYL) rhetoric, as you show, has taken over. What brought you to this project?
Tokumitsu: I wrote the initial article after I wrote my dissertation. ... In the arts and academia, DWYL is the gospel. People are really passionate, and they are sincere. They care. For the level of education that they have — compared to other fields like law or finance — they sacrifice the big pay in order to do this kind of work. Both arts and academia [can be] their own little closed worlds. After the years hearing of DWYL, I realized that it sat uncomfortably with me. After I finished my dissertation, I had a minute to pause and brainstorm about why, which gave me the scaffolding for the article.
Baker: And then, the essay blew up.
Tokumitsu: Yes. The other part comes from my training as an art historian. We're trained to think about the visual world, the man-made parts of it that we see. After Steve Jobs died, I heard that people in the Bay Area were wearing blue jeans and turtlenecks as a tribute. I was fascinated by how these totally banal clothing items became imbued with such meaning and what Steve Jobs himself was able to project as a worker. The blue jeans and turtleneck came to embody passion, yet they were casual. I wouldn't have thought that way if I hadn't been trained as an art historian.
Baker: Passion becomes the main motivator for one's work. This happens in academia. Pick a topic that interests you. Dedicate 6, 7, or even 10 years of your life to this topic of inquiry. Value your work above all else. Your job is more than a job; it is vocation. The vocation language drives me up a wall. DWYL maneuvers people by telling us that you have to do all of this because there's that dream job waiting on you. There’s no reality check about what the labor market looks like for Ph.D.s.
Tokumitsu: It is really sad but true that people coming out of graduate school don't realize that they are competing for jobs with people who have books, who basically have tenurable profiles.
Baker: What I tell grad students now is that you can control how good you are, but I can't tell them that doing certain things will get you a job. That's ethically suspect.
Tokumitsu: What I tell people in graduate school, (only if they ask since I don't love telling them what to do) is that it is different now. It is important to network and attain skills outside of academia to the extent that you can. … You look at the people who have made it onto the tenure track. They're great. They deserve it. I wouldn't begrudge them their position. But, what the notion of meritocracy does, in some people, is create a sense of validation that depends on them believing absolutely in the structures that delivered them this job. Therefore, everyone else who wasn't able to succeed in that system is a personal failure.
Baker: DWYL makes everything personalizable and ignores all the structures that keep us in certain positions. You don't have the job that you love, which is your fault. There's not enough discussion of the barriers that we can't get rid of with passion or hard work.
Tokumitsu: My biggest overarching issue with DWYL is that … it is all about the individual. If you can just solve the problem of what makes you happy, then everything will be fixed. This is particularly dangerous in academia because academic work, by its nature, can be isolating. People find this out when they write their dissertations. You leave the classroom and you are on your own, especially in the humanities where I feel like there is less group-authoring. Your book. Your article. Your conference paper. Your project. There's not a lot of co-authoring, unlike the sciences. There's an employment structure that's already atomizing, which presents a challenge to solidarity, to reaching out, and to saying "Hey, your struggle is my struggle. Let's team up."
People think academia is a liberal and lefty space, but it is very individualistic and almost libertarian. Academia is a natural space for DWYL to flourish. When you see people dumping on adjuncts, in addition to the dark side of the meritocracy, it is anti-solidarity. It makes the most sense for people on the tenure track and the tenured to band together with the adjuncts because it is not like tenure is safe. Tenure has come under attack.
The neoliberal overlords have picked off the low-hanging fruit — young scholars. But now, they are really going after tenure aggressively. I think, of course, that was going to happen. When you play chess, you don't just stop when you grab all the pawns. You keep going.
Baker: How can anybody be surprised that tenure is under threat? The blood has been in the water for awhile, and the sharks have been circling. Universities are critical of tenure because they can't control those who have a more secure, permanent position as easily as they can control the adjuncts who have no security.
Tokumitsu: Ultimately, it is so divisive. That's the major problem. Academics at various stages in their careers do care about labor. But, when you see some of the comments or letters in The Chronicle … it makes clear to me how effective this DWYL rhetoric has been at dividing people. With the book, I didn't want to write a cynical, grumpy book. I did want to encourage people to reach out to someone who's had a different career path from you. We're all in the academy. We want to accomplish similar things. It makes sense to recognize each other as colleagues rather than to let the various titles define us.
Baker: You talk in the book about "hope labor” — that is, work in which you are so close you are next to the job you want, but still far from it. Tell us a little bit about hope labor in the academic context.
Tokumitsu: I came across this term by two other media scholars, Kathleen Kuehn and T.C. Corrigan, which they use to describe particular forms of digital labor. On a lot of social media sites and blogging platforms, people provide content for free. Kuehn and Corrigan noticed that entertainment was a motivation, but there was also a lingering idea that “if I project the right persona online or put up the right examples of my work, I'll get paid work out of this.”
What I saw was that hope is really a powerful force that keeps people working for low wages. I … The veneer of meritocracy requires that they be passionate about work, that money isn't the reason for doing it, and that they project affability and eagerness, which is exhausting.
The parallels between the labor system and the academic job market are quite clear. Academia is often presented as a complete meritocracy. If you do the work, publish in the right journals, and get the right credentials, then you'll come out a winner. So many people believe this, … [and] think they are entering a career path that is not "a real job." In a regular job, your boss tells you what to do, but in academia, it is your own ideas [that drive you].
That's an appealing picture of work. There are people who are willing to sacrifice a lot for a long time to have a chance at that. That's why hope labor is prevalent in academia.
Baker: Hope labor explains why I spent as long as on the job market as I did: “Any day now, I could have this position.” Why give that up?
Tokumitsu: What's so tricky about DWYL is that there is a lot of cynicism and abuse, but a lot of the people who embrace it are well-intentioned. I didn't want to insult those people. Their hearts were in the right place. DWYL is keeping all of us down and our attention focused on the wrong place. ...
It is a very narrow idea of success and identity: your job title.
Baker: You write about how you don't want to render the dystopian future, but that we have to realize that the world is a strange place, so why can't we make a strange world that works for us? … We can create a different future for workers and different versions of academia — we aren't stuck with what we have. This is about solidarity, which is so important to you.
Tokumitsu: It is so bizarre that we are doing work this way. These aren't the natural outcomes of humanity. This is part of the constructed world we live in, so let's remodel it to something more favorable. The key is that no one person can do it alone, which is the myth that we are living under today. We need to throw that myth out the window.
I really want to encourage people to reach out and say we can change things but we aren't gonna do it with a hack or an app or a simple fix or clever tweak. It will be difficult and hard. If we get the conversation going now, then people can think about how best to organize.
I’m particularly inspired by the Fight for $15 in the U.S. This was a totally utopian vision, and people laughed it off the stage at first. It started with fast food, but healthcare workers have joined in. Adjunct educators also joined because they are low-wage workers, too. It has been so successful because it was people saying "we're really different, but we have the same struggles and together we can make a demand."
Baker: A reasonable demand to be paid fairly for the jobs that they do.
Tokumitsu: And adjuncts are not looking down on these other workers who don’t have Ph.D.s.
Baker: This is crucial for solidarity.
Tokumitsu: One of things about the "love professions," which includes academia, it is really easy to forget that you are a worker. But when people remember that they are workers, they can make life better for themselves.