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The meritocracy is getting me down
An essay on scarcity and abundance and, in the words of Ross Gay, becoming unfixed.
A few weeks ago I had to complete something called a merit application for work. The idea is that you catalog all your professional accomplishments for the year in a very specific (and slightly maddening) form so that a committee of your peers can decide if you are worthy of special financial compensation. It is, essentially, an application for a raise.
In theory, merit sounds like a nice idea: it’s a way to reward those who have put extra time and effort into their work. And I, of all people, should thrive in this system. I love positive reinforcement and I am always putting extra time and effort into my work. But somehow, in practice, it only ever leaves me feeling inadequate and resentful.
I first applied for merit two years ago. At the time, I was still suffering through the early days of pregnancy—and I’d just gotten my first Covid vaccine. The combination was brutal. I spent the day on the couch, alternating between bouts of sweats and chills, nauseous, swaddled in blankets and staring deep into a Word document as I fiddled with academic jargon. (Did I “design and deliver” seven courses? Or did I “create and implement” them?) I was so tired that I asked Mark to fill my Camelback with water so I could drink from the tube without having to exert the energy required to sit up and lift a glass to my lips. It was pitiful.
I started my job in the depths of the pandemic—in September 2020—and I’ve never worked as hard as I did that first year. I had to learn how to teach online, design a bunch of new courses, and, in ways large and small, look out for my students and TAs, all of whom seemed to be lost in the same lonely Zoom fog—all while struggling through the fog myself.
I wanted merit. I didn’t care about the raise—for the first time in my teaching career I was actually earning more than I needed to live comfortably. I wanted merit because I wanted some tangible acknowledgement of that impossibly difficult work. But when I looked at my application, I struggled to quantify much of what had made it so hard. I had few publications or talks or guest lectures to list. My days had been demanding but not hectic. I worked long hours but I barely left my bedroom.
What had I accomplished that could be measured by the institution? What could I say that would make me seem worthy?
That winter I’d lost a student to suicide, something I discovered weeks after he stopped submitting work. I hadn’t known him well but he’d been warm and enthusiastic, serious about becoming a better writer. In a year when so many students were names on a screen, he was someone whose face and voice I can still recall. It was a terrible loss in a season of losses. And it changed how I teach, how I think about students and how I communicate with them. But these weren’t things that fit easily on my application. They weren’t things I wanted extra pay for, but I did want the institution to see—in a visceral, day-to-day way—what it looked like to teach in a pandemic.
Everything felt unbearably fragile that year. But then spring arrived and I submitted my final grades. The lilac bush out on the patio was about to bloom and fill the apartment with fragrance. And my body was, at that very moment, manufacturing new antibodies that would keep me alive in the face of a deadly virus—and also—miraculously!—it was making two new humans who could use those antibodies too. And somehow, despite this abundance of wonder, all I could think about was why I hadn’t tried to participate in more Zoom panels.
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Part of my resentment then (and now) is that for the first thirteen years I worked at this same university, I wasn’t eligible for merit. I was paid by the course as a sessional lecturer, working on short term contracts, making enough money to get by but not enough to save. Now, I have a different title and I earn about $25,000 more than I used to for teaching the same number of courses. Now, I am required to apply for merit as part of the university’s annual review process. So, just to put a really fine point on it, this means that those with the lowest pay and the least job security—those who would benefit the most from a raise—are not even allowed to apply for one. The implicit reason for this policy is that sessional jobs are meant to be short term and it makes no sense to give someone a raise when their contract ends in just a few months. But, as evidenced by my thirteen years of sessional work, in practice many are not short-term but instead long-term employees who get none of the benefits of long-term work.
It is shocking to feel valued by the university when for so long I felt disposable. It’s not just the financial security, but also the sense that someone is paying attention to the work I do and would like to keep me around. And, at the same time, it is weirdly objectifying to have to argue for my own value in this application process year after year after year, to quantify my work in ways that make it measurable and rewardable.
If I buy into the notion of the meritocracy (as I found myself doing again and again as I completed my application) then I have to accept that some folks deserve relief from the deep angst of scarcity and precarity—the angst that shaped the first thirteen years of my teaching career—and some do not. I have to accept that I was disposable before but now I matter. I hate this.
For a long time, I wondered why my salaried colleagues weren’t more vocally outraged about the conditions of sessional work. But now I see that maybe everyone is just too busy tap dancing for the university. It’s easy to lose sight of everyone else when you’re consumed by performing your own worth. And it is such a lonely performance!
This year, I served on the merit committee, which meant that I was responsible for reviewing my colleagues’ applications and making recommendations on who would (and subsequently who would not) receive merit. The four of us on the committee met via Zoom and, though I had carefully reviewed and made notes on each application, I could hear the hesitation in my voice growing with each recommendation. The criteria were so open-ended. But, beyond that, I understood how much could not be captured by the application: the work of mentoring a student who is having a rough term; the work of creating a classroom that feels safe enough for vulnerability; the work of arriving prepared and energetic when, for example, your two one year olds kept you up most of the night because they have a cold—again.
When it was time for the committee to discuss my application, my colleagues sent me to a breakout room, where I waited, alone, staring at my own face on the screen for a moment before (embarrassingly) reopening my application and trying to imagine what they’d have to say about it. The problem with merit is not just that we don’t have any reasonable or consistent means of assessing one another’s deservingness; it’s that the assessment itself is objectifying, pitting us against one another (however briefly) and creating the illusion of scarcity under the guise of reward.
Sometimes it’s funny to me, the way the right portrays colleges and universities as a threat to the status quo, when in fact we’re so good at upholding it. The meritocracy is one of those fundamentally capitalist ideas that the entire education system is built on. It’s the reason we assign grades. The reason we do annual reviews. We assess. We rank. It is at the heart of our self-concept. To question this is to undermine everything. And, to uphold this system, we must buy into the idea that some people are more meritorious—more valuable, more worthy—than others.
I have been thinking about what it might look like to reject the sense of scarcity at the heart of the meritocracy and reshape my work on the assumption of abundance. Though I cannot reshape the institution and its demands, I can work around those demands, to some extent, in my own classes. I have to assign grades but, perhaps, I can (however briefly) direct our attention away from evaluation and assessment and individual worth, and toward one another, toward a collaborative kind of achievement. I am thinking of this passage from Ross Gay’s new essay collection, Inciting Joy:
“If you think of art as something you wonder about, or listen to, or get lost in the making of, as something that might be trying to show you something you do not yet know how to understand, something that, again, unfixes us, perhaps we can practice making and heeding that. And if you imagine a classroom as a place where we do this unfixing work together--where we hold each other, and witness each other, through our unfixing--well, that sounds to me like school.”
(For what it’s worth, I like Gay’s book so much I bought in on audio and in hardback.)
Working under the assumption of abundance means, perhaps, being overly idealistic, dwelling a little too deeply in a sense of possibility. And I’ve always been a little afraid of this. But why not get lost in what’s possible? Isn’t that what countering the status quo requires? I’m no longer convinced that competition is the only way we can grow and thrive. As Gay puts it, “The ice is melting everywhere and I’m supposed to employ the method of teaching that is part of the same system that has gotten us here? I can’t do it anymore.”
Yes, life feels unbearably fragile from time to time; but that’s because it is. I understand that we sometimes need to forget this fact so we can go on living, but we also need to remember it. And, in the remembering, to see each other. To bear witness. To become unfixed, as in cut loose, as in unmade and remade into something new.
Isn’t this sense of possibility what students are craving these days anyway, as we move out of our pandemic lives and into whatever lay ahead? Don’t we want to belong to one another more than we want to belong to the institution? To the illusion of a meritocracy? Maybe that is me, again, being idealistic. But that deeper belonging, that unfixing, that witnessing, it’s what I want from my work—and my life. And, I guess, there’s no reason I can’t go about trying to convince everyone else to want it too.
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