a dispatch from the academic abyss

I can’t be the only academic who has found themselves unmoored since 2020 (feels weird to even call myself an academic, but I digress and here I am). I shifted timelines that year, landing my current academic job (which I’m grateful for), completing my dissertation, and beginning a career in the midst of the pandemic. But that experience of remote teaching, virtual conferences, social isolation,and then later leaving my support networks to live by myself in a tiny upstate liberal arts college town, took a massive toll on my sense of self, my research, and my feelings of connectedness to the world. I’ve yet to find my footing again. I’m in search of my flock.

So I’m back here to try to document what I’m doing, or trying to do, as a way to help me feel more tethered, and to track my brain on its way to healing from this grief and to finding some stable ground. More importantly, engaging in a regular writing process, with the terrifying pressure of making it semi-public facing. I’ve always struggled with keeping up with my work- deadlines, protocols, thoroughness, and completing things-  and with imposter syndrome and feeling inadequate in academic spaces-  especially as someone who came into academia from the other side of the “tofu curtain” without much resources (I’m referring to a set of spatial inequalities only those familiar with Western Massachusetts might understand). I’m always playing catch up. But, I’m here now, and the one thing I do feel confident in are the very earnest questions that I have about the world. The questions, not my ability to find the answers, but here I’ll start to try. 

So what am I doing, and what are those questions? 

After the 2008 crisis, I found myself entering graduate school to study radical economics almost as a fluke. I had failed out and gotten in too much trouble the first time around at college, and was worried about my brain rotting, so I found myself in continuing education classes that year, starting with an introductory economics course and later somehow convincing some professors to allow me to register for their University (not continuing ed) courses on Marx. It was happenstance that I happened to sign up for those classes at a heterodox economics department, or that they were even offered to begin with. At that point  I did not understand academia whatsoever, but I did know that the ideas and the professors I was being introduced to helped explain to me the suffering, struggles, and stresses that overwhelmed the world I grew up in. So I clawed my way through classes, somehow finagled them to count as an undergraduate degree, and by some other stroke of random luck, ended up in the PhD program of that same institution. Anyway, long story short, my entry point to this thing was Marx, and now I feel a certain way about getting to teach my first Marxist Political Economy course this semester. I had students begin with Part 8, and then go back with Part 1 onward. I’m sharing with them notes from both Cleaver and Heinrich so that we can compare those readings with other approaches, and so that I can confront this reading again. Due to burnout, I’m not employing my most energetic or participatory teaching methods, but I am enjoying a seminar format for discussing these ideas with students (especially those who might not otherwise get exposure). 

I spent an amount of my time in graduate school  focusing on learning empirical methods, especially econometrics. A  number of things motivated this: it’s easier in some ways to write this sort of research paper,  data are widely accessible, and it’s certainly one of the more popular research methods in the field. Reliance on econometric testing and “evidence-based” this and that also is a political minefield, used against those marginalized in society. I wanted to try to understand it, and to do my own work. For a while I even wondered if clever econometrics could help sway some arguments towards liberation. I don’t think regressions will free us, but I do think that it helped me to more critically evaluate economics and even heterodox approaches. I think other heterodox economists do a better job at clever econometrics that I ever can. That said, I’ve shifted. I’m working on exploring, while I have the resources to do so, qualitative methods, specifically using structured or semi-structured interviews to answer research questions that I just don’t think can be quantified. How else can I actually learn about the reproduction of capitalist social relations? 

Currently, I’m thinking critically about two terms that the pandemic has made us throw around a lot: “care work” and “social reproduction”. My dissertation, which was mostly some applied econometrics and a tiny dip into theory around understanding the “school-to-prison pipeline”, gave me a glimmer of the issues with these terms, and the overlap that exists between the so-called “care economy” and carceral spaces (schools, hospitals, prisons, and so on). Some of this was shared earlier this year at the URPE @ ASSA 2023 Session on Critical Perspectives on Care Work and Carceral Systems, which included Hannah Archambault (Cal State Fresno), Samantha Sterba (Univ of Redlands), Geert Dhondt (John Jay College) and Eric Seligman (John Jay College), and then again on a panel organized by Sarah Small (Univ of Utah) on Care Work at the Eastern Economics Association 2023 meeting (Hannah, Samantha and I are all working on adjacent and overlapping projects in this arena). I’m trying to understand how this term “care work” came into favor, noting the shift from domestic labor, to women’s work, to household labor, and now caring labor, and how it is at times evoked almost as a panacea. Seems like we may be haunted by the ghosts of the domestic labor debate, and those ghosts might be servants to capital. 

 I’m not sure that we can “care” our way out of capitalism, as the process of this involves its own relations of domination and, I’d argue (maybe, if I can figure out how), produces and reproduces our subjectivities. Care work is still work, and that’s the problem. Similarly the term “social reproduction” appears co-opted (almost) into the mainstream, with limited critical perspectives on what is actually being reproduced (capital and capitalist society, see Munro’s helpful 2019 article on this in Science & Society). I think we should interrogate the labor processes of care work and social reproduction, to understand how these put workers in the contradictory position of either consuming or providing “services we need, in social relations we don’t.”  (In and Against the State). 

Last note, I shared some of the news from Atalnta with my students, not long after watching a documentary on Line 3, finish Part 8 of Capital, reading an excerpt from Carceral Capitalism, and David Gordon’s article on the class aspects of so-called “crime”. Anyway https://stopreevesyoung.com https://stopcop.city https://atlsolidarity.org 

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