The scariest thing a young faculty member experiences is not, as is conventionally supposed, the “need to produce” and therefore her/his experience is not aided by the “mentorship” of an experienced scholar. Rather, the young scholar’s fear stems from the fact that no one in the department is talking to each other about scholarship. Faculty are socializing, going out, schmoozing all the time, and the ideas that supposedly drive the work they do are not being discussed. The mentor, if assigned, will try to teach the young faculty member how to navigate the minefield of the department, but that is exactly what is alienating. ..
The mentor, especially when well-intentioned, may be the model for what is wrong, not an aid in coping. Indeed, if the mentor is really similar to the young faculty member in terms of ideology or social identity, the mentor may be a model for what the young faculty member does not wish to become. The one conversation everyone is having incessantly is the one about the micropolitical maneuvers within the department. This conversation is, of course always done with armor on, with an eye toward alliances and enemies already made, with everyone watching to find out which camp the new faculty member will join. And while there is a relationship between micropolitics and geopolitics, it is far more tenuous, far more mediated by local institutional conditions, than the new faculty first imagines. Because no one is talking about substance, only alliances, and because alienation is general, a vacuum exists at the center of institutional power which is not filled by talent or argument, but by those who feel most comfortable or justified taking advantage of it. For those in power, and for those who hope to attain power, the arrival of a new junior faculty member is to be watched closely for his/her schmoozing choices. As a result, it is not simply the case that junior faculty fear senior faculty, but that the senior faculty fear the junior faculty, walking around wondering whether this new person will contribute to their already hatched plan to take over the curriculum. The fact that the new person was hired with accomplishments and expectations much higher than so many senior faculty members does not help this form of fear, of course. While it remains true that the power differential between tenured and untenured faculty makes the ubiquity of fear particularly threatening to the careers of junior faculty members, the longer one stays the more one discovers that one’s unhappiness is simply an example of the larger misery of faculty members. Senior faculty don’t exactly help or support one another either. Tenure might lead to a sense of security; it surely does not breed happiness. The net that academics are ultimately caught in, regardless of the structure or the “progressiveness” of the specific department, is the net of personal power. Within the capitalist professional class, the criteria by which alliances are formed and judgments made is generally limited by an abstract and objective, rather than personal, question: did you make money for the shareholders? Even where personality or group dynamics dictates one or another poor relationship, there is some criteria of performance evaluation outside of academia’s twin criteria: personal alliance and ideology. In truth, it takes an incredible number of hours to evaluate adequately any individual’s research. For all but a handful of us, the number of people who have given our work that kind of attention is miniscule. We are tied to those individuals not the way a consultant is tied to a client’s account books, but the way we are tied to lovers and friends — and ex-lovers and enemies. Obviously, I am aware that markets create winners and losers, and also, that there is no “free market” unconstructed by the intervention of human psyches. Yet at least within the bourgeoisie the existence of a monetary reference point provides some resistance to personal power, while the structure of institutionalized intellectual work permits no such outside reference point — not community service, not ethics, not, in light of the inability of humanities scholars to agree about what such a concept might mean, truth. Academia has neither capitalist forms of abstraction nor socialist forms of solidarity to recommend it.