May 12, 2020

Professor Hoang, We Need Academic Community—Not Competition—Amid the Pandemic

Graduate students must combat the coronavirus crisis together.

We, a collection of sociology Ph.D. students at the University of Chicago, would like to respond to professor Kimberly Hoang’s recent op-ed published in The Chicago Maroon. Our aim is neither to polemicize against the author of the piece nor provoke further controversies. Instead, we merely want to offer an alternative set of value commitments. We see this recent post as an opportunity to restate our continuous commitment to scholarship, rigorous research, and community during these tumultuous times.

The problem we see with Hoang’s “tough love” is not so much her advice per se. Of course, it is important to continue our research, publish, and think about potentially necessary adaptations of our projects. We also do not take issue with the advice that students should seriously consider non-academic jobs. Rather, we do not agree with her framing of our most important tasks as an academic community in the current situation. Hoang’s piece subscribes to an ideological vision of the academy as a competitive market, in which atomistic individuals fight for dominance of their brand. In her uptake of the meritocratic ideal, she suggests that academia selects those who apply themselves most and are worthy by measure of their intellectual brilliance. If only we increase our personal commitment and output, we might be able to weather the crisis. Even if read more generously, this rhetoric provides little in support of the true intellectual community we seek.

The problem with this view is that it ignores the many structural conditions that shape who will make it, as well as the unpredictability of success. It ignores that thriving communities of scholarship are more than marketplaces and require solidarity, mutual concern, and altruism. It also ignores, finally, the structurally precarious situation of graduate students and dresses it up as privilege. Working hard is no guarantee for success. So, we wonder, why not highlight the failures of the academic job market instead of exhorting those who cannot “deal with it” to exit?

In contrast, we want to emphasize a different vision. The current COVID-19 situation is already reinforcing existing inequalities. As universities come under economic pressure, they will make cuts where it is easiest—that is, with respect to those who are most vulnerable. Instead of a world where each individual just focuses on themselves and their research, we believe that communities should come together and fight to mitigate the fallout from the crisis together. We want to affirm that ours is an intellectual community that is oriented to joint progress through mutual aid and learning. Accordingly, we recommend that the next steps should be worked out together: We should understand how the current crisis and our response to it perpetuate inequality, and how we can combat it. What kind of new accessibility challenges does the virtual classroom pose? What additional difficulties result for people with mental and physical disabilities? How do we support and build cooperative social networks over distance? Then, we should think about how to collectively establish systems of support and care. For instance, graduate students of the sociology department have come up with lists of concrete suggestions of how faculty-student cooperation could look like. Graduate students have also mobilized a petition asking the University to continue wage payments to cooking and cleaning staff. 

Many of us have come to this university to find and create a community in the academy. We want to build a community that helps all of us feel supported and that enables us all to succeed in our personal and professional lives. We want to build a community that understands the systemic injustices that cause certain groups of people to suffer no matter how hard they work. We want to help them succeed and overcome the structural sources of this inequality to come an inch closer to a world that can be meritocratic. This is why we do sociology. This is what we, as graduate students along with our faculty, can and should do right now.

Ultimately, Hoang would know any of this had she bothered to ask the students in her own department what they are going through. It is strange that an ethnographer by training does not engage with the subjects she is supposedly giving advice to. Aspiring ethnographers are taught how to listen. Is Hoang listening to us? We, for one, are willing to talk. 

 The authors are sociology Ph.D. students at the University. They have requested anonymity in light of the influence Hoang has as an instructor and administrator in their department.