John Hodgman’s spoof, “Downton Abbey — With Cats,” (The New Yorker, January 13 2014), has it exactly right. The season premiere of this popular, snooze-inducing update of Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-1975) has finally been reduced to its essence: clothing, manners, food and estate management. There is no longer a plot, nor is there really much of a script. It is not possible, for example, to issue spoiler alerts, as nothing happened in the premiere to season 4 that aired on Sunday. Nothing. You can watch it and go to bed with nothing on your mind.
This does not mean that we learn nothing from Downton, however, even though you would become a great deal more educated about the cultural history of post-war England from Bertie and Jeeves. For example, unless you have taken Modern British history you will be puzzled as to why everyone is going on and on about the death duties and why, like primogeniture, taxes will be an enduring plot point for the show.
Our most important lesson from Downton is the media Valium that also kept us watching for the past three seasons: inequality works beautifully when everyone, no matter where he or she is positioned, appreciates its benefits and is invested in the system (find out what your job at Downton would be here.) But when the system disinvests in individual happiness, that’s when things go awry. For example, we learned on Sunday that the job market for butlers was so grim in 1922 that butlers risked the indignity of being put to work on public roads instead. Trouble lurks in ensuing episodes, I am sure, since everyone knows that being a butler is not a job, it is a privileged role, one that keeps the whole system of masters and servants functioning in an orderly manner.
Hodgman’s piece, in which he debates the Downton narrative with his cats, also caused me to think that Downton Abbey has important lessons for debates on this blog about why nothing of any real substance is being done about academic (un)employment. Few people in the debate seem to understand that, whatever their views are, they have been formed by and depend on a romance about academia in which each of us has a role as well as a job. Here we might highlight the fact that performing one’s role is, in and of itself, part of everyone’s job description at Downton, as it is in the academy, and each role has its own script. Lady Mary, for example, has never had a job other than being Lady Mary. She is now adding to her vita by becoming an amateur assistant estate manager, but has only been able to take that on after figuring out how to resume her original work (interrupted by Matthew’s death) performing Lady Mary.
We might also highlight the naturalized, but nearly impermeable social boundaries at Downton, maintained by tacit agreement from above and from below. Everyone plays complementary roles in this system because, unequal as it is, everyone who agrees to the rules is cared for. The Downton staff, in addition to keeping everyone clean, dressed, polished and fed, has the onerous job of universal advice-giving and manipulating all of the Crawleys into doing the right thing. The Crawleys’ job, on the other hand, is to run their portion of the Empire, ensuring the continued employment of their advice-giving servants. This requires that the Crawleys be simultaneously wise and stupid, clueless and perceptive, while defending the
university, the untenured, contingent labor, graduate students and staff estate from having to deal with the economic challenges of a post-World War I world that will surely, in the end, turn Downton Abbey into a National Trust property and its lands into Council Houses. (Remember: death duties will be a crucial plot point!)
Which leads us to a comparison between the style in which intellectual and emotional differences are debated at Downton and recent conflicts on this blog, and in other virtual spaces, about the academic job market. I must say, I prefer the Downton Discourse. Instead of accusing Lady Mary of being a life boater, Mr. Carson presents his views and accepts her rebuke stoically rather than pointing out that she is tone policing him; he bides his time, knowing that in time she will see that he is right. After more or less telling Carson he is a concern-troll, Lady Mary eventually realizes that she is stubbornly refusing the truth about herself, takes his advice, and a short bout of weeping, all’s well.
If only things worked like that in real life.
However, there is also an aspect to this mentoring moment between Carson and Lady Mary. An ongoing theme of Downton Abbey is how easily people who resist, or detest, historical change actually find a way to incorporate unwanted events into the next phase of life while maintaining their romance about the viability of Downton’s social justice model. The Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, has a constant state of alarm on her face as she is forced to confront one outrage after another: girls going to London unchaperoned; men appearing at dinner without tails; and the abrupt loss of one’s lady’s maid. Yet, she takes these horrors in stride, works them into her world view and even develops some prot0-feminist views, all the while believing that she is maintaining nineteenth century standards on the estate .
Radical job candidates: beware ever getting a job and maintaining your integrity! Perhaps no one is a better example of the transformative power of inclusion than Tom Branson, the former revolutionary Irish chauffeur who scandalized everyone, including his co-workers, by marrying Lady Sybil Crawley. Having abandoned Irish nationalism, Branson is now the estate agent for Downton. His ideas are now merely modern and sensible. They include progressive notions like listening to women when they speak and paying back a debt over time. No longer the Branson who would burn down Downton and give the land to the people, he is busy cultivating industrious work habits, upping productivity among the tenants and negotiating a good interest rate.
Branson is a social exception at Downton, but his ability to cross class lines has required important compromises. We might recall, for example, that Matthew Crawley cajoling Branson into dressing for dinner was a major turning point. I would suggest that all aspiring academic job candidates keep an eye on Branson: no matter how much of a bomb thrower you started as, if you are successful at making an academic career, you will probably end up like Branson. Nearly everybody does. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person.
Life is often a matter of small accomplishments, and even smaller dreams. Everyone on the show aspires to something manageable, whether it is dating the kitchen maid, becoming comfortable with electricity, getting former housemaids out of prostitution, or finding a man who has all his parts intact. Thomas Barrow, a sort of blog troll who always manages to slip the consequences for his deviousness, moves everyone else around like chess pieces to achieve his goal of becoming (wait for it!) a gentleman’s valet. Lady Edith is constantly on the verge of sexually inappropriate behavior and seems about to go very twentieth century by having sex with a married man: at least, she has raised all of our eyebrows by kissing him in a restaurant.
Success is often counted in the small things and, at the same time, we have to keep our eye on making much bigger changes. The changes that must occur in academia are much larger than anyone wants to grapple with, especially its many critics. Perhaps it is because he is an Africanist, and understands the complexities of how history leads us to unwanted outcomes and pointless interventions, Tim Burke has argued that the dysfunction in higher ed is far larger than anyone wants to talk about. In this post, he urges us to think much bigger than the job market if universities are truly to be put in the service of those who need them. It seems to me that part of what has been going on on this blog for the past several weeks is a vast ressentiment that the system of academic employment is broken, but only recently broken and thus can be returned to an imagined past if only there were the will to do so.
However, this romantic academic past, where merit was honored and everyone had the job they wanted, never actually existed. Those searching for jobs imagine that there was a time when there was full employment. They blame forms of gatekeeping like the traditional conference interview, or the fear of the currently tenured that they will be outshone by newcomers, for keeping employable grad students out of a well-regulated world where there is a place for everyone and everyone has a place. These things have never been true, I’m afraid: the academic world has always relied on exclusion to maintain its fictions of equal opportunity and meritocracy. There have always been people kept firmly at arm’s length in the academic job market: people of color, women, queers and Jews. But more importantly, the idea that the hiring system itself is a source of gross inequity neglects a quite recent past in which the conference interview was introduced as a democratizing reform. It replaced a system in which faculty merely called their friends and asked them to simply recommend “a good man” to replace a retiring colleague. Hate conference interviews? How about not even being allowed to apply for jobs in the first place?
In other words, if you think the current system is not transparent, you should see how they used to do business.
But of course, if we thought much bigger than the conference interview or the full restoration of the tenure track, it wouldn’t be Downton University anymore, would it? That’s the thing people have not yet truly faced: whatever higher education system actually works in the twenty-first century will not restore the past, but depart from it completely. The “restoration” being demanded — in which all jobs are tenured, going to the MLAHA is inexpensive and inclusive, virtue and intelligence are rewarded, and money/effort spent on looking for a job is always repaid with good employment — never existed. In this Downton Abbey version of higher education, there is a pervasive belief that if only all those jobs were restored, universities would function democratically, just as they used to. The problem is that they do function as they used to, except that there are so many fewer Crawleys and more staff. Reversing the ratio of Crawleys to staff, or making the staff into Crawleys, will not, in and of itself, solve our problems. The problem is a political one, and demands political solutions, none of which can be actuated inside universities and professional organizations.
So as we move forward with these discussions in 2014, just look at where the plot of Downton Abbey must inevitably go. Whether they make it enough seasons or not, it’s the death duties, socialism, and the political expansion of higher education that will create irreversible change for England. Not anything that happens inside a manor house. And in the meantime, be kinder.
Correction and spoiler alert for those who have not yet watched the show: this post has been edited to reflect that is Lady Edith, not Lady Sybil (who is dead) who kissed a married man in a restaurant.