Nondisabled People Always Win the “Hunger Games” of Academic Publishing and Tenure

This year, only one department lists “disability studies” amongst its desired areas of specialization; namely, California Polytechnic State University’s AOS is “Technology Ethics, as related to Feminist Ethics and/or Disability Studies.” No department is looking for a specialist in critical disability theory or crip theory. Based on a keyword search, the word “disability” appears in only one other listing; State University of New York’s AOC is described as “open, but desirable in social ontology, social epistemology, disability studies, gender and sexuality studies, and/or critical race theory.” Philosophers generally profess that they want to hire more disabled philosophers, but then decline to search in the one area of specialization in which disabled academics are most concentrated, and in which we contribute the most original scholarship, mentoring, and unpaid service work. Indeed, the amount of service work that we have contributed to conferences, workshops, and departmental operations without compensation or adequate recognition is a massively overlooked source of worker exploitation.   

How did we get here? One source of ableist marginalization and exploitation in philosophy is the journal-ranking system, which favors generalist venues and ableist-patriarchal-colonialist methods, which are used as a proxy for academic competence. As Maeve McKeown explains, academia has long been dominated by a neoliberal agenda that demands continuous publishing in “top” journals and successful grant applications as a condition of employment, continued institutional support, and professional status. Non-generalist journals are considered “niche” and “specialist,” and are thereby positioned as queer, disabled, “dark ghettos” of the Ivory Tower. The philosophical method enshrined in “top” journals is, as McKeown says, deeply Western, Anglocentric, imperialist, and hostile to change from below. This is an “open secret” in academia, disguised by the myth of meritocracy and other forms of institutional gaslighting. The journal-ranking system not only silences marginalized groups but also stifles academic creativity by specifying a narrow range of “legitimate” philosophical interests and methods. I myself have had my work disparaged as “ideological,” “polemical,” “absurd” and “a turn-off.” But the critical question is, ideological to whom? McKeown is pointing out that academia is inherently ideological in the sense of being subservient to neoliberal, imperialist interests. Hence, critiques from a crip, Marxist, feminist perspective such as mine are merely corrective.

The selective hiring of nondisabled philosophers is deeply entangled with the “Hunger Games” of the predatory ranking system, which favors privileged academics working in dominant areas. It is worth posting McKeown’s abstract in full to give a sense of the magnitude of the problem:

Contemporary political theory is a game. Individuals compete to publish in ‘top’ journals, to amass greater numbers of publications than their peers; then journal-ranking is combined with number of publications generating scores. The aim is to get the most points. Whoever gets the most points wins: they get the best jobs and the most prestige. This Hunger Games–like contest has serious consequences for people’s lives, determining who can make a living from academia, who will be relegated to the academic precariat or forced out of the profession. In this article, I argue that, aside from the chilling effect that job insecurity and the gamification of academia has on the precariat, these conditions are stifling intellectual creativity, diversity, and dissent in political theory/philosophy. I discuss how privatization and deregulation of universities has created unbearable working conditions, why academics are forced to publish in so-called top journals and why this is detrimental to our field, marginalizing people, topics, and methodologies these journals do not support (which usually align with already structurally marginalized peoples and modes of knowledge). I explain why we are engaging in this game and how it perpetuates itself. I conclude with some suggestions for breaking this vicious cycle, as well as a discussion of who is really benefitting from it, namely, the corporate elites who run many universities and most academic publishers.

McKeown 2022, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-022-00705-z

Before closing, I will note that I have written specifically on why structural ableism in academia has made elite philosophy a sad and boring place, tragically deprived of the creativity, playfulness, and kinship of crip culture. The prescriptive, ritualistic, and exclusionary strictures of the Anglo-American analytic tradition undermine philosophy’s potential to substantively challenge the neoliberal-imperial practices that both propagate and benefit from that tradition. Indeed, mainstream philosophy is so “stifling,” to use McKeown’s term, that many minorities do not want to participate in it, but would rather congregate in the shadowy backrooms of the perpetual underclass – a space yet uncolonized by the securietariat’s enforced “mediocrity.” If philosophers are to integrate marginalised voices, as most claim they want to do, they must abandon the ranking systems, methods, and pedagogies of the dominant framework. 

More broadly, philosophers need to collectively resist the ongoing neoliberalisation of academia, which is harming not only the precariat masses but also the privileged few, who are increasingly subject to bureaucratic performance evaluations and economic measures of “excellence.” Consequently, even the most privileged academics are compelled to compete against each other for scarce resources, based on metrics that none of us endorsed or underwrote. Philosophers, says McKeown, “can join trade unions…, go on strike, and take other measures directed at reversing the neoliberal gouging of universities.” Indeed, we need precisely the transformative change endorsed by crip theory and other revolutionary discourses to save philosophy from its neoliberal death spiral and set it on course for a sustainable future. 

About Mich Ciurria

Mich Ciurrial (She/they) is a disabled queer philosopher who works on intersectionality, feminist philosophy, critical disability theory, and justice studies.

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