Math, in pandemic and precarity

Today is the last day of my employment. I didn’t expect it to matter to me, because my relationship with my current institution has soured over the way the administration and tenured faculty have handled their response to the pandemic, and also because I do have a job that starts in September. But it still hit me, with the only indication of my employment ending were the emails yesterday alerting me that my institutional email was going to expire and I should return my work computer. No one from my department has contacted me, asked if I had any employment after, or just said it was nice to know you.

Despite all that, what’s even more bitter is the feeling of failure: today will also be the last day of employment for my other contingent faculty colleagues, whose promises of contract renewals were rescinded, and who will enter the ranks of the unemployed tomorrow. Since the hiring freeze was announced three months ago, as with academic institutions across the US, contingent faculty began to lose their jobs, contracts offers were rescinded, and searches were stopped. At my institution, we got organized: we petitioned, wrote letters, got press coverage, made a website, had them boycotted by prominent academics, gained wider support, even as the administration dug in their heels. They had no moral argument: what excuse did they have to furlough staff and layoff faculty when administrators had paychecks sometimes 10 times theirs? They hid behind “curricular need” and “budget shortfall,” repeating the same lines over and over again knowing that eventually we’d be gone. Even tenured and tenure-track faculty wrote letters in support that got little to no response.

“What irony for an institution that writes to its students and alumni about its commitment to racial justice, when women and people of color are overrepresented in its contingent faculty ranks, when it values the non-labour of its tenured professors and administrators over the labour of their working class, and whose Office of Equity and Inclusion’s only furloughed employee is a Black woman.”

So for today—though I promise not to give up—I feel like a failure. I failed to save my friends from losing their jobs. We’re not alone though: staff have already been furloughed since a month ago. What irony for an institution that writes to its students and alumni about its commitment to racial justice, when women and people of color are overrepresented in its contingent faculty ranks, when it values the non-labour of its tenured professors and administrators over the labour of their working class, and whose Office of Equity and Inclusion’s only furloughed employee is a Black woman.

I know contingent faculty who have been afraid to speak up for fear of losing what little longevity they have at the institution, and tenure-track faculty afraid of possible retribution in their tenure-review. The academic system is so disciplining, so domesticating. We’re supposed to be grateful for any tenure-track job we get. But what’s tenure worth if tenured professors would not dare or care speak out and act up for us, beyond writing a polite letter to the administration? How fitting, that I learned today that the Gini coefficient of academia is even higher than that of the US income distribution. How sad, that this should not surprise anyone.

On the rare occasion that I can work on math these days, it’s actually a pleasure. It feels like a form of escapism, like retreating into a world where the problems don’t oppress or kill. And then you wake up one day in the middle of the George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade) rebellion to learn that it’s not just data science that powers predictive policing, it’s abstract mathematics.

“I wanted to hear about how the math community will account for the lack of productivity during a global pandemic. The coming Fall job market will be a frozen tundra. What’s to stop the best jobs from going to the highest bidder? What’s not to say that those who have been most mathematically productive during the pandemic and protests will be rewarded? And we know that the coronavirus affects communities of color disproportionately, not to mention the trauma of Black death.”

I attended a Zoom panel recently where mathematicians reflected on doing math during the pandemic. People talked about schedules and routine and childcare, but no one seemed to be having a really hard time at all. Honestly, I wanted to hear how it sucked like it does for me. I want to hear how someone is also having a hard time doing “pure math” when the world is in crisis and things aren’t getting better. I wanted to hear about how the math community will account for the lack of productivity during a global pandemic. The coming Fall job market will be a frozen tundra. What’s to stop the best jobs from going to the highest bidder? What’s not to say that those who have been most mathematically productive during the pandemic and protests will be rewarded? And we know that the coronavirus affects communities of color disproportionately, not to mention the trauma of Black death. Grad students and contingent faculty including math lecturers, visiting professors, and postdocs are expected to go back on the job market with a pandemic’s worth of mathematical output. Sure, one might say we value mathematics qua mathematics, but can’t a profession full of PhDs figure out a system that works better?

Sadly, if my last few months are anything to go by, the answer will be no. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”

Today, I have decided it is ok to be sad. Tomorrow, the fight continues.*

 

*Despite being out of health insurance.

This entry was posted in Black Lives Matter, cultural pressure in academia, hiring. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Math, in pandemic and precarity

  1. Avatar Tim McEldowney says:

    I remember as a graduate student going to a panel on diversity in mathematics and pointing out if they were looking for female and Black mathematicians they are already on your campuses working as adjuncts. I got general applause and definite inaction. I continue to speak out as a Post Doc and the inaction continues. Good luck in your next position. I hope you find true allies and collaborators.

  2. Avatar John Golden says:

    What a bummer. I’m disappointed for you in your institution. Hope the next place is better, with a cohort that will support you striving for equity.

  3. Avatar Catherine Roberts says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, and I hope many people read your words. You articulate serious concerns about our profession in these turbulent times.

  4. Avatar female mathematician says:

    Zoom panels are certainly not representative of us mathematicians, with strong selective bias! I would chime in with you on what an uphill battle it is to give brainspace and time to math at this hour, but you won’t find me on a Zoom panel… being interrupted now as I type this—

  5. Avatar Amanda Ruiz says:

    This is an excellent post. Thank you, Tian An, for sharing so vividly. It didn’t occur to me until I read your words that as my department hires this year, we really need to consider how we will evaluate progress made (or not made) in 2020. One thing I feel sure of is if we compare two otherwise similar candidates, and made a decision based on higher productivity in 2020, we are probably not getting the best candidate for us. So how do we navigate this? Should we try to evaluate solely on pre-2020 work? How do we distinguish when most progress on the work was made? This complicates the process a lot, but I think we can find a solution if enough of the decision makers think it is important.

  6. Avatar Carrie Diaz Eaton says:

    Such a great post and the irony you write of resonates. I think a lot of what you said applies to tenure/promotion as well.
    I’m going to go share this widely now 🙂

  7. Avatar Isaac Newton says:

    Your previous “Can mathematics be antiracist?” post was a non-factual political article.Mathematics is just logic; it just is. There is no racism of any kind in mathematics, NONE. Trying to insert a political agenda in a field so vital to future STEM graduates is unconscionable and an extreme disservice to students. Focusing on science and the material at hand must be the only priority.

  8. Avatar D says:

    I can relate when it feels like everything is burning down around you, but no one is reacting how you expect they would.

  9. Avatar Tosin says:

    Good luck with everything.

    I don’t know if you like these comments, but: 1. congratulations, you are free! and 2. you will survive.
    If you’d rather go after the power and problems, then, well, yes, it’s allll a scam, work life is, human civilization is, the snobbery of “higher” ed is, the unhappiness it requires of workers is, the casino of capital is, … but maybe you’ll make it better, “by force, by fire” as some say. Cheering you on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

Comments Guidelines

The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We review comments before they're posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off-topic or promoting a commercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.

18,351 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments