Roundtable on Scholarship, Cultural Engagement, and Precarious Labor Following Graduate Work
Image Credit: https://wie.ieee.org/grantsandscholarships/
Elisa Jochum, Stefania Marghitu, and Beckett Warren
Elisa Jochum heads the Audio-visual Heritage department at the Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin. At the time of the roundtable discussion, she was working in the Culture Department at the headquarters of the Goethe-Institut in Munich. She holds a PhD from University College London. Her thesis intertwines film studies with postal history and spatial theory. During her postgraduate research, Elisa was a Visiting Assistant in Research at Yale University. Her teaching posts include Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg.
Stefania Marghitu received her PhD from the University of Southern California’s Cinema and Media Studies division in 2020. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola University New Orleans. She is the author of Teen TV (Routledge 2021). Her work can also be found in Feminist Media Studies and Communication, Culture, and Critique. She is co-editor, with Sarah Louise Smyth, of The New Review of Film and Television special issue on Women’s Authorship and Contemporary Television Adaptations.
Beckett Warren received an MA in American Culture Studies in 2008 from Bowling Green State University. They parent Bert and Bark with Jillian Warren in Cleveland, Ohio. They have co-written academic publications with Cynthia Baron, fiction with Tony Yannick, and comics and roleplaying game material with Todd Jakubisin. They had a brick-and-mortar comic and game store, Weird Realms, which transitioned to an online presence in 2020. They also work for small-press game publisher Exalted Funeral.
The roundtable conversation took place intermittently during the pandemic (winter to summer 2021) among participants who completed their graduate work following the Great Recession (2007-2009) and universities’ escalation of neoliberal policies, which have caused 70% of the academic workforce to be precarious laborers. Many thanks to journal editorial board members Arundhati Ghosh and Jamie Stuart, who helped get the conversation started.
What prompted you to attend graduate school; how and why did you select your field of study; when you started, how did you envision that experience figuring into your future?
Stefania Marghitu: I’ve actually known Elisa since we began our MAs in Film Studies at University College London together. I recall returning to the states that summer to finish my thesis and staying at her flat during submissions week as we had to be there in person, but it was a nice way to celebrate.
As far as my professional and academic trajectory, I originally began journalism school at Indiana University, wanting to be a media journalist, and spent most of my time at the highly professionalized student newspaper, The Indiana Daily Student. I didn’t take a film course until my junior year, which was a class for my Romanian language minor. By then, I was sort of burnt out from working at the newspaper and seeing the decline in jobs for journalists, and I switched my minor of Art History to my major. But the film course on Soviet and Russian Cinema tapped into all my interests. I then took a Polish Cinema class and a French Cinema since the New Wave class, where my final paper on the Romanian New Wave turned into my first published academic article. Yet I had taken these classes so late in my undergraduate career and had wanted to pursue a job at the record label I interned for since I was a sophomore.
Mad Men was kind of the buzz show at the time, and I started noting parallels between the contemporary creative industries and the gendered and racialized hierarchies in this 1960s-period TV program. I didn’t have the same opportunity to pursue writing about my interests for the first time, and I really missed it. And I had only ever written about national cinemas, which I assumed would be my emphasis at UCL. The Eastern European class wasn’t taught that year, and Mad Men was still a really big talking point amongst my friends and me. The program was traditionally film studies, but I was able to write about television for my thesis and realized I wanted to return to the US for a PhD to take more classes on television and feminist television studies.
Because our MA was only a year and I never formally majored in film or media, navigating that world was new to me. I didn’t get accepted into any US PhD programs my first year and began my doctoral studies at King’s College London, where my advisor Harvey Cohen was the first to believe in my project on women showrunners. But I still knew I would have better chances in a US program, so I reached out for help for those that I did know in the field, attended conferences, published in undergraduate and graduate journals, and was accepted a few places stateside.
Beckett Warren: During my undergraduate studies in philosophy, my academic mentor told me that I really had a knack for it and that I ought to consider graduate school and a career in academia. By the time I finished my MA, this guy had left teaching philosophy to be a lawyer at labor-busting Jones Day of all places, [known for its work as outside counsel on the Trump 2016 and 2020 campaigns and his challenges to the 2020 election]. Like if you were thinking academia sucked so bad, why did you encourage me? And he was even tenure track! I also majored in Communication, and my mentor in that discipline, Austin Allen, helped me decide on American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University.
Like Stefania, I had been considering a career in journalism. At the time, Cleveland State University had a single program that included journalism, film studies, media production, and corporate public relations all in one department. In addition to the grim job prospects within journalism, I had started to figure out that the position of objectivity was a fiction that only served the interests of capital. Meanwhile, in the film courses I was taking, I was exposed to Franz Fanon and postcolonial theory, philosophy that seemed much more important to me than the Anglo-Empiricism that made up the majority of my philosophy coursework.
The graduate school plan was almost derailed by my final semester internship at the ACLU of Ohio turning into full-time employment, and my failure to get the Regents Fellowship that the philosopher-turned-union-buster encouraged me to apply for. My time at the ACLU was some of the most rewarding work I have done, but it was also some of the most soul-crushing. I started in November of 2004, right after Bush was re-elected, so the political climate was not one in which we were seeing many victories. One of my job responsibilities was to stay abreast of the news related to issues of civil liberties. What this meant was spending hours reading about war crimes committed by the US and its allies, looking at pictures of burnt children in Iraq and Lebanon (my time also overlapped with the Israeli invasion there), and reading intake letters about police abuse. At the ACLU, we worked with a lot of academics, and while the cool ones also appeared as rundown and defeated as I felt, they did not have to go to fancy dinners to ask rich people for money to pay for the work they did, so I thought, maybe I should try graduate school even without being a Regent Fellow.
At the time, I thought I’d either complete the MA in American Culture Studies and continue to do PhD work, or I’d return to the ACLU with an advanced degree and start applying to executive staff positions. Neither came to be.
Elisa Jochum: During my BA in Germany, film studies had been my minor. Early on, the theories and history made me realize that I wanted to intensify my engagement with film. First, I chose to focus on cinema in an interdisciplinary exploration for my undergraduate thesis. Subsequently, I attended the MA Film Studies program at UCL – I have many fond memories of our time in London, Stefania! Indeed, the experiences of that year blew me away: the level of camaraderie (among students) and mentorship (by faculty members), the schools of thought, and personal support. I had already considered pursuing a PhD for a while – now I quickly knew that I wanted to research it there.
One of my mentors from the MA program, Jann Matlock, became my primary supervisor and such an intellectual force in my life; mentors like Stephanie Bird and Lee Grieveson continued to support and accompany me in my research endeavors and beyond. (During my MA and PhD, there would be many more to mention to whom I am very grateful – supervisors, examiners, and kind, helpful voices.) Some peers from the MA and PhD are dear friends of mine to this day, friends I incredibly value on a personal and intellectual level, such as my fellow members in the eFEMeral cities research group or the close friend who is sitting here at our (virtual) roundtable.
I perceived the PhD as a unique opportunity to direct more questions at culture, society, and history, as well as to learn how and where to find answers. I also entered this chapter with a thought that goes beyond my field of research and back to my dad. When I was little, he obtained a PhD in economics in the face of a series of hurdles. He never sugarcoated the immense challenges postgraduate research could pose while also encouraging me to work toward it if my heart was in it. He especially taught me that, in addition to expertise on a given research topic and methodology, the process also equipped you with a set of widely relevant, transferable skills – perhaps above all, analytical skills that constantly integrate both strategic and detail-oriented angles.
How did your training or experience affect your daily activities, employment options, or way of approaching the world?
Stefania Marghitu: The first time I applied for my PhD, I was told a lot of twenty-somethings were applying to grad school because of the lingering recession and limited job opportunities. I knew I didn’t want a 9 to 5 job, and I think the first year of rejections made me determined and focused during the PhD. I thought it would also prepare me for the cruelty of the academic job market, which it in some ways did and in some ways didn’t. My parents are academics in engineering and always stressed the significance of publishing. Even if we are in totally opposite fields, I know I am fortunate to have that support and understanding from them. The way many colleagues describe their experiences with parents or close ones in academia is what I already experienced in pursuing journalism and the humanities.
Beckett Warren: The experience of graduate school taught me I wasn’t really cut out for a life in academia. The intellectual exercise, however, put me into a mental space that keeps my brain from entirely turning into mush. My limited experience teaching was incredibly useful for figuring out how to present ideas an audience is likely hostile towards, but to get them to take in a tiny bit or at least not immediately tune out.
Elisa Jochum: My PhD confronted me with the task of looking inward and outward at the same time. Inward for self-motivation, self-discipline, and self-organization. Outward for investigating historical materials and making sense of them.
Conceptually, this process has had a profound impact on how I approach the world – partly providing me with new outlooks and partly expanding previous views of mine. Three aspects come immediately to mind. First, we cannot overestimate the significance of asking questions about the ways the world works and the ways people operate in it. Second, most questions become particularly productive at the intersection of different realms and perspectives. The third aspect pertains to the complexity of results. Friction can be a result, as can paradoxes. Quite often, new questions are results, too. In research, I have found work highly compelling that dares bring to the fore the presence of coexisting meanings rather than forcefully prioritizing one over the other or reducing the second to a mere caveat. For instance, just recently, I reread an essay by Shelley Stamp, one of my PhD examiners, titled “Feminist Media Historiography and the Work Ahead,” where she establishes Lois Weber’s rightful place in history: “Should she be recognized principally for her achievements as a woman, or does she warrant broader recognition as a pioneering filmmaker? The answer, most certainly, is both.” Boom!
There exist, of course, entire research branches on “ambiguity” and on what Else Frenkel-Brunswik termed “tolerance of ambiguity.” All three of my sampled “learnings” might not be newly discovered concepts. I am astonished, however, how revelatory every further instance, every moment of awareness is – when I realize the power of these insights all over again. So, yes, if I were to pin post-it notes on my wall, these ideas would be up there as guidance for undertakings in academia, the cultural sphere, and daily life.
How have socioeconomic factors affected how you engage in intellectual life? How have developments in the last year shaped your practical engagement with intellectual life?
Stefania Marghitu: In some ways, choosing USC as a grad school was advantageous because of the amount of film and media departments nearby. Aware of academia, I didn’t plan on staying in LA after my PhD if I received a full-time job or made attempts to only find something stable in such a desirable area. Geographic flexibility, to me, is part of academia. But I also grew up with it: I moved with my family from Romania to Texas to Alabama. My husband and I moved from the states to London to Los Angeles. Of course, you can have desired areas or areas you’ll apply more to. My hats off to those who have been able to stay or move where they want and receive a great position there! And, of course, extenuating circumstances are often a part of it. I began adjuncting for the final year of my PhD, when my funding was precarious semester by semester, but I also wanted to teach my own courses, which my department does not provide its graduate students. I also realized my naïveté at the beginning of the program and the importance of picking a serious and committed chair and advisor. When you’re a grad student, you’re under a kind of Stockholm Syndrome as a way of coping and finishing. It was only when I graduated that I really came to terms with the way graduate labor is exploited. But the silver lining was also ending up with an amazing final committee and mentors who are helping me during this time of precarity. I do see a pattern of graduate students picking departments that offer them support and guidance over a big name, which I think is becoming a smarter choice. It was definitely a hard choice I had to make.
As an adjunct, your teaching offer is always tentative based on various factors, such as class enrollment. With the pandemic and remote teaching, I took on four classes across three institutions because the LA commute was not a factor. It was still exhausting in other ways, especially as I finished my book during this time, after my first draft submission in the summer. I was also lucky that one of the institutions provided benefits if I taught at least two courses with them.
Beckett Warren: It has been more than a decade since I left the academic world. The vast majority of what I’ve done to pay bills seemingly has nothing to do with intellectual life or my scholarship; I’ve spent a lot of time bartending and, more recently, being a shopkeeper. Maybe the intellectual bartender is a cliché, but if being a cliché was good enough for Poly Styrene, it’s good enough for me, too. My training in cultural studies allowed me to explain why their open mic comedy joke wasn’t funny, but not to feel too bad, because there is really nothing funny. So, I probably squeezed a few more extra tips than I would have otherwise. Conversely, I had a job doing production assistant work on The First 48, and my functioning intellect wouldn’t let me forget how disgusting and exploitative the show is while having to smile as an assistant prosecutor spewed vile racist cop bullshit. So, I turned down the next opportunity to make stupid amounts of money for very little work.
The store I run, Weird Realm in Cleveland, which is temporarily closed due to pandemics and babies, is definitely informed by intellectual life. For the most part, it is in rather nebulous ways that are reflected in the values and principles of the place. But there were also weeks when I sold more copies of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia than whatever was the newest corporate roleplaying game offering. I often say I’m trying to sneak an anarchist book store into a game and comic shop.
I almost overlooked different creative endeavors that are the most direct expression of my intellectual life because, until recently, such things did not bring in any money. I have two projects that at least brought in a decent amount of revenue, but it remains to be seen how much I will clear after all the costs involved.
A bit more than a month ago, I started my first W-2 job in almost 8 years. I am a wholesale sales rep for a company that publishes and distributes weird small-press Dungeons and Dragons books. Thus far, I’ve been setting up processes and making forms, pretty far removed from my past scholarship. However, one of the other three employees is a recovered academic (she had gone much deeper and was much more damaged by the endeavor), but maybe that is what this place needs.
Elisa Jochum: In a nutshell: for the past year and then some, my participation in intellectual and cultural life has been digital. At least until June 2021, in my environment, COVID’s cultural law has dictated: do it online or don’t do it. Our conversation here led me to ponder what this “law” had entailed for me. While the high-energy atmosphere of physical events and in-person interaction was lost, live and on-demand streaming made events available to which I would not have had access otherwise, for geographical and scheduling reasons. When it came to talks and roundtable discussions in particular, I would usually only have had access to a limited number of respective festivals, conferences, or evening events a year. The sheer quantity of digital content extended their presence and, for me, ushered in a state of being in process – I should use the plural as I had the chance to take part in other people’s processes: to an unprecedented degree, I became privy to a vast spectrum of other scholars, educators, and cultural professionals thinking out loud and pausing for thought. They developed their arguments and new questions in front of me – that is, in front of my Zoom window or YouTube tab, whether I, myself, occupied an active role in the event or, very often, simply was a captivated audience member. “The process” constitutes a facet of producing, sharing, and engaging with knowledge that, for me, has emerged as a characteristic of the pandemic’s first year.
Even beyond this, much of the work I have done since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis has drawn on the digital, partly, but not only, because I was in the online editorial department of the Goethe-Institut until August 2020. In some instances, for example, when teaching online, I have found that the digital-only setting had its downsides. (Therefore, what an intriguing angle, Stefania, to look at how the digital makeup of courses enabled you to teach at different universities.)
The Internet has, however, proven to be the inherently best medium for other projects which I ran or in which I was involved – especially an interactive map of (de)colonial film archives https://www.goethe.de/prj/zei/en/pos/21879035.html and the multimedia roundtable project “Shift Society” on opportunities and dangers the digital world has generated. “Shift Society” opens a digital space for thinking about digital communication, intending to hit “home” – that is, to spark (self-)reflections and actions among the online community and players in the field, including the “Shift Society” format itself. One of the two resulting publications centered on the remembrance of the Holocaust https://www.goethe.de/prj/zei/en/pdk/21753957.html (an analytical summary can be found in Memoria https://viewer.joomag.com/memoria-en-nr-35-08-2020clone/0579154001598468742, a publication by the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau).
I recognize that the provisional sine qua non of the digital has pulled the rug out from under various cultural business models, from museums to cinemas. (This holds true for countless contexts and applies in different intensities to these contexts, whereas my most extensive frame of reference is for Germany.) Many freelancers and institutions that offered online content have done so for free, without earning money in the process. The threat the pandemic has posed to people’s livelihoods in the cultural domain has been immense. So I feel that I have been very lucky. The option to shift reception and production online continues to be a privilege in the workplace. Lest we forget: a series of “divides” manifests injustices regarding mere digital access.
Given your ongoing and perhaps localized research and cultural study, what do you see as the most salient developments in contemporary life; how might work within or outside the academy respond to the developments that concern you or contribute to ones you would like to facilitate?
Stefania Marghitu: I have noticed post-docs especially are more flexible with remote status. The US job market is in a drought, but UK and EU jobs are on a “rolling” basis in contrast to the US model. Nobody knows the case with Brexit and UK hiring, because Brexit is still a mess. A book, my other publications, and teaching experience will hopefully open doors to positions, but I don’t think those things will lead to an immediate entry to an elusive and fading tenure-track job. Alt-academic jobs are mentioned a lot, but sometimes this just means working at a university but not as a faculty. Those fields sometimes work for academics, but we forget that while we’ve been training to be academics, others have gained work experience in these positions.
I’ve had lots of colleagues and friends pursue non-profit and other jobs not in academia, a decision they made before the pandemic, and they are happy. It’s very cool to see them find these great jobs and that their PhD helped them towards it. In Los Angeles, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a great opportunity where a lot of my colleagues have found fulfilling positions. Many, I think, are still like me, across academia: adjuncts who live within a gig economy. And this was something I was aware of as a potential reality, especially since our SCMS Women’s Caucus meetings on precarious labor. One of my mentors, who finished her PhD right after 9/11, noticed a similar freeze in jobs, as well as parallels to 2008. But she said, if you do want a job in academia that is permanent, or more permanent than what I have, a lot of it is endurance. I’ve been reading a lot about 2008 and its aftermath and realizing the cyclical nature of economics in this country, too.
I think the culture of the office has clearly changed. There are millions of empty office spaces around the world right now. Perhaps it will make the US adapt to the more flexible weekday that we read about in features on Scandinavia’s model.
I don’t know if remote learning or flexible models of learning will advance. Part of it is that I don’t know when fully in-person higher education will return. I do know it has impacted my undergraduate and graduate students in ways I can’t even imagine. In Spring 2020, so many of my students left the college experience to enter a sort of regression to their high school lives. Many seem to feel they are in a state of purgatory. I will say, young college students relate to the struggles of women confined to the domestic sphere in a newfound way! A colleague who hired me as an adjunct mentioned that the year she finished her PhD, 2010, was the first sign of revival since 2008. And she estimated that 2022 can very much mirror it, not only with new jobs, but with current job freezes across academia. Academia in general is about the long game, so it’s something to consider.
Beckett Warren: As far as significant developments that I have considered and feel that I have some insight about, the first is an expectation of expertise on all subjects. This is readily seen on social media when people share their “take” on subjects ranging from weighty social issues to fleeting frivolities. I think this expectation for informed expertise is creating a heightened baseline anxiety that is already at a fever pitch as we stare at looming environmental collapse. I’m not sure what can be done except for me to say it’s ok not to know and to shake my cane.
Games are also now everywhere, but instead of ludic escape, they have become re-enactments of the processes of capitalist accumulation or a new culture industry that puts performance of play at the forefront. I suppose presenting an alternative, one of play rather than gaming or performing, is what I am currently most actively pursuing.
How have US universities figured into your academic life?
Elisa Jochum: I spent a greatly inspirational term at Yale University during my PhD, yet my “home university” was in the UK.
Stefania Marghitu: I began my graduate education in the UK as a matter of application timing but came back to the US due to funding opportunities and the desire to build my expertise further through coursework, as I was not in media studies as an undergraduate. Also, mentors both in the US and UK believed a PhD in the US was a better fit for my graduate work and dissertation project on women showrunners in US television.
How do you see those institutions fitting into US or global society? Are there changes needed to make them better serve the people who attend?
Stefania Marghitu: I think international students faced increasingly difficult situations and general anxieties during Trump’s years in office. I also think Brexit was devastating for international and EU students who witnessed xenophobia or no longer received the same funding. The rise in right-wing populism in general globally is terrifying and has, of course, impacted academia.
One aspect of the global media economy and transnational productions that make me excited about the future is that non–Hollywood/Western television and film is getting more attention. It’s difficult to fit every relevant nation into an introductory-level course, but hopefully upper-level courses can provide more. I think this has helped media studies become less US/Western–centric as a whole, and I hope to see it continue.
If it were possible to go back in time, would you make the same choices concerning graduate work?
Stefania Marghitu: Of course, I would have changed a few choices in hindsight, but as with anything, I try to not dwell and instead apply that to my current work ethos and any mentoring or discussions with potential or incoming graduate students.
Beckett Warren: I’d never risk answering a time travel question, let alone actually time travelling.
Elisa Jochum: One year into my PhD, I probably thought, “Oh, if I had known this already at the outset, then I could have streamlined my work process. I could have saved some time.” Two and three years in, the same again, when glancing back at the one-year mark. I am talking about archive materials to which you devote hours, and which do not turn out to be useful – avenues that transpire to be dead ends. This experience could be frustrating from time to time. But, hey, that epitomizes the process of research, doesn’t it? You do not squeeze your questions and materials into a precast template that does not fit. You set out with the best-suited framework possible and then continuously mold this framework according to new, necessary, and fruitful parameters you discover.
 “Paradoxical” is a key term in Stamp’s analysis of how Weber was perceived. Stamp, “Feminist Media Historiography and the Work Ahead,” Screening the Past (August 2015), http://www.screeningthepast.com/2015/08/feminist-media-historiography-and-the-work-ahead/. The quoted passages were previously published in her book Lois Weber in Early Hollywood (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 283; see 281.
 Recently, Thomas Bauer’s essay on ambiguity presenting a multi-faceted argument (not all of which, however, is without problems) has become widely familiar to audiences in the German-speaking realm. I also include a link to a German-language article from 2019 providing a journalistic overview of a selection of present-day research on the matter across a set of disciplines, while the journal On_Culture is currently working on an issue on ambiguity. Else Frenkel-Brunswik, “Intolerance of Ambiguity as an Emotional and Perceptual Personality Variable,” Journal of Personality 18, no. 1: 108-143 (120); Bauer, Die Vereindeutigung der Welt: Über den Verlust an Mehrdeutigkeit und Vielfalt (Ditzingen: Reclam, 2018); Wolfgang Streitbörger, “Ambiguitätstoleranz: Lernen, mit Mehrdeutigkeit zu leben,” Deutschlandfunk Kultur, December 30, 2019, https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/ambiguitaetstoleranz-lernen-mit-mehrdeutigkeit-zu-leben.976.de.html?dram:article_id=466828; CfA: Ambiguity (On_Culture, Issue 12), https://www.uni-giessen.de/faculties/gcsc/newsboard/cfa-onculture-ambiguity.
 At the Goethe-Institut, we launched a temporary global platform for cultural content, live and VoD, where audiences could make donations to creators. On “free cultural offers” in Germany and on the German cultural scene during the first months of the pandemic, see also, for example, Cornelia Dümcke. A 2021 article by Deutsche Welle examines persistent challenges (again with an emphasis on Germany), and an overview by The New York Times provides examples on government efforts in several countries. Dümcke, “Five Months under COVID-19 in the Cultural Sector: A German Perspective,” Cultural Trends 30, no. 1: 19-27 (24); Stefan Dege, “Art Behind Locked Doors: How Galleries Continue to Suffer During COVID-19,” Deutsche Welle, February 2, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/art-behind-locked-doors-how-galleries-continue-to-suffer-during-covid-19/a-56424221; Alex Marshall, “How 8 Countries Have Tried to Keep Artists Afloat,” The New York Times, January 13, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/13/arts/coronavirus-pandemic-arts-support.html.