“As I myself am untenured, the problem of precarity still ineluctably haunts me and most of the people I am close to in the academy.”
Interview conducted by Jacquelyn Kelley
In her article, “Precarity is a Feminist Issue: Gender and Contingent Labor in the Academy,” Robin Zheng establishes that two common myths—“the myth of meritocracy” and “the myth of work as its own reward”—not only reinforce the academic job crisis but also have gendered origins, ultimately allowing gender stereotypes and job insecurity to reinforce one another within the discipline of Philosophy.
Published in the Spring 2018 issue of Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, Zheng’s research was first presented at the 2016 SWIP UK Conference followed by the 2017 Joint Session at the University of Edinburgh.
Her article was cited by the Australasian Association of Philosophy’s Committee for the Status of Women in Philosophy in their Statement on Insecure Work, and has received notable recognition and praise on social media.
Zheng holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and is currently an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at YaleNUSCollege in Singapore. I recently had a chance to catch up with Zheng, learn more about her career, and pose a couple questions about her popular article in Hypatia.
JK: What has been your favorite part about living and teaching in Singapore thus far?
RZ: My favorite part of teaching in Singapore has been the eagerness and enthusiasm that comes with trying to do something bold and different. For instance, I teach in a mandatory year-long team-taught course on “Philosophy and Political Thought” (PPT), covering 1/3 Chinese, 1/3 Indian, and 1/3 Western traditions of thought from antiquity to modernity. Working through PPT is very challenging for everyone involved, both teachers and students, but it is also extremely rewarding. It’s opened so many doors into new areas and ways of doing philosophy for me, and there really is nowhere else in the world where you could get this kind of education. I feel a strong sense of collective commitment amongst students, staff, and faculty to each put forward our best in pursuing a vision of what a liberal arts education is meant to be.
JK: How long have you been teaching there, and when you relocated, was your transition difficult, strange, or exciting in ways you maybe didn’t expect?
RZ: I’ve now been teaching for two years. Certainly the transition to teaching PPT was difficult, strange, and exciting all at once! Since my own philosophical training was very different, I really wasn’t very reflective about the value of engaging with philosophical texts qua texts and in their own social context, which I now understand is crucial, especially with a student population that is 60% Singapore and 40% international (from over 60 other countries). My second time through the course, I’ve been struck by how different texts have “lit up” for me, in the sense of appearing to me as intuitively powerful and compelling (rather than confusing and impenetrable), compared to the first year. Teaching in PPT has given me greater confidence that we all have the capacity to learn new things, and in the value of partaking in inquiry that pushes beyond the familiar boundaries of our home (sub-)disciplines.
JK: Turning now to your article, “Precarity is a Feminist Issue: Gender and Contingent Labor in the Academy,” what first inspired you to research and write on job insecurity within philosophy teaching and the overall realm of higher education?
RZ: This one is easy: my experience in the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan, which is the oldest continuously-running graduate student labor union in the country. Through the activities of the union, I gained a practical understanding of “how the university works” that had previously been completely opaque to me, along with a set of normatively rich perspectives and practices grounded in deep institutional memory. As I myself am untenured, the problem of precarity still ineluctably haunts me and most of the people I am close to in the academy. I’m very grateful that my time in the union gave me a much wider perspective on higher education and the job market crisis—plus their connections to more global crises—than I ever had as just a philosophy student.
JK: You write in your article that philosophers are particularly prone to believing “the myth of work as its own reward” because of your personal commitment to attaining “such ideals as truth, knowledge, and justice.” How often do you find yourself swept up by this myth and how do you snap out of it?
RZ: To be honest, I think that the pressures and constraints I face in my position as a junior academic (with respect to getting publications, going up for tenure, etc.) make very clear that philosophy is a social institution with its own set of hierarchies, vested interests, and professional norms which can be quite orthogonal to truth, knowledge, and justice.
But perhaps one way that the myth manifests in my own life is through frequent experiences of moral guilt whenever I perceive shortcomings in my teaching or research. I have to remind myself that it is okay not to put in a full 100% even if I genuinely, passionately care about them. At the end of the day, it is still just a job. There’s only a certain number of hours in the day that I am paid to spend on work, and I should consider it morally permissible to use the rest of my time on other things.
JK: In your article, you note that “the institution of tenure itself has problems, and may ultimately need overhaul,” and I can imagine there are many who would hotly debate your point of view. Are you interested in elaborating on this idea in future dialogues and writings?
RZ: This wasn’t the focus of my article, so I would have to do much more research before I could say anything definitive. But I should reiterate that I think the job security made possible through the tenure system is something that should be available for all workers, even though there is also distinctive reason for academics (namely, the freedom to pursue inquiry that challenges the status quo) to receive particularly strong protections. My main concerns with the tenure system are its being used as a kind of incentive or reward for individual “merit” and its being abused to protect people who are otherwise detrimental to the academic community (e.g. sexual harassers).
JK: Could you provide a preview of any other research projects you may be working on now—that way we can get excited about what’s next to come from you!
RZ: It’s still in very early stages, but I’m just beginning to think about a book project. My main areas of work are on moral responsibility and structural injustice, so I’m planning to look at the challenge of how politically allied groups can use practices of accountability to preserve solidarity in the face of disagreement.
Robin Zheng’s article “Precarity is a Feminist Issue: Gender and Contingent Labor in the Academy” is available Open Access here.