Open Letter to Amy Pistone, Ph.D. Student in Classical Studies at the University of Michigan: The Articles Will Stop When The Exploitation Stops

[updated 4. May 2013 6:00 pm. Edited for length and excessive vitriol.]

Dear Amy,

First of all, I am very sorry if the following missive hurts your feelings. Your ad hominem attack under the official and ordained masthead of the University of Michigan certainly hurt mine, and that was not at all fun, so I know how it feels. That said—girl, you trolled me. So now this is happening.


I see you one Contemplatively By a Book and raise you a Glasses!

Granted, my target is not you personally, but the institutional ideology that empowered and emboldened you to make the command—one I am aware that many of your fellow graduates students are taking as gospel—that I, along with my partners in crimes against the Humanities, William Pannapacker, Sarah Kendzior, et. al., should just shut up already.

It’s not sufficient that you get off the Internet and go back to your Aeschylus: we Untouchables who dare state incontrovertible facts about the academic job market and the exploitation of adjuncts need to begone forthwith!

You do realize that’s the same line of argument homophobes use about gay people. They are so skeeved out (titillated perhaps?) by the very fact that gay sex exists that it’s not enough to just, oh I don’t know, refrain from watching gay porn. They want to make sure every LGBT who’s dared crawl out of Gomorrah for long enough to throw a parade stays cowering in the shadows in shame.

You know what, University of Michigan bigwigs who put it into Amy Pistone’s head that she should tell me, and Bill, and Sarah, and the rest of us, to shut up and go away? You don’t get to tell me to shut up. My days of cowering silently while I’m assured that “the good people get jobs” by people who got jobs—and thus, of course, if they benefited from a system, that system must be fair and just—are in the rearview mirror, and I’m here to tell the people who made you think you were in the position to tell me to shut up: no thanks.

Do I dislike you, personally, Amy Pistone, even though you have misunderstood the dark humor in an article I wrote, one that by the way was not aimed at you, but rather at people who have not yet joined your ranks? And even though you chose to respond with condescending ad hominem attacks about my poor “career choices,” which by the way are identical to your career choices? No, on the contrary, you remind me of a far more earnest version of myself at your stage (I’d say “at your age,” but I spent seven years working in the private sector between college and grad school, which is more than two, in case you’re wondering).

No, my reaction to you, personally, is “Oh, bless her heart—she’ll learn soon enough.” Because it’s not your fault—there are people in charge of mentoring you who are making you think this way, and my beef is with them. To them, I say: sure, keep telling me to shut up. See how that goes for you. Keep telling Sarah Kendzior to shut up—her superpowers are such that such admonishment just makes her stronger, and as a result her next piece for AJE will probably get ten million Facebook Shares.

And please, please, please keep telling William Pannapacker to shut up—people have been telling Pannapacker to shut up since back when I had a fake ID and a real nose ring. Pannapacker breakfasts every day on the “blinkered posturing” of grad students who have never even defended a dissertation proposal, much less gone onto the job market, and yet can’t wait to tell us that our pain at the receiving end of a system that survives on exploitative labor is due to our personal failings. I’m sure he’ll skulk back into his office now, duly chastened.

Amy Pistone, you are far from the only person to disagree with my article, but you are disagreeing with it for the wrong reasons. There are many who’ve disagreed for the right reasons: Tressie McCombs Cottom and Annemarie Pérez, for example, who have both argued in different ways that advanced degrees are necessary in the fight against institutional racism and scholarly underrepresentation. But neither of these badass scholarly women dispute for a second that the job numbers are grim and that the adjunct world is exploitative: they dispute instead—and rightly so—my woeful view, upon exiting graduate school, that anything other than tenure-track employment constituted failure, and that said employment was the only reason to finish the degree.

So, Amy, my article wasn’t aimed at you—if it had been, it would have consisted of two sentiments.

One: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WRITE A DISSERTATION AIMED AT ALT-AC EMPLOYMENT AND KNOW YOUR OPTIONS NOW. NOW NOW NOW. Do not listen to anyone who tells you “the life of the mind” is preferable to any other; like you yourself said, all jobs have their ups and downs, including tenure-track academic ones, but your betters (many of whom are miserable!) will tell you that any strife you encounter in the Ivory Tower is due to you being unfit for the Life of the Mind because you “don’t love it enough.” DO NOT INTERNALIZE THESE VOICES.

Two: Graduate school may very well change you into a person who internalizes these voices.

So: sorry, but the articles will not stop. In fact, I’ve got a new one coming out next week. It’s about the different ways the cult mentality of graduate school changes people until they don’t recognize themselves anymore—and I suggest you read it carefully.

Yours in not-shutting-up perpetuity,

Rebecca Schuman, Ph.D.

PS I did not write the headline for that Slate article. No journalist writes the headline for her own article; editors write headlines. Just ask Mitt Romney.

18 thoughts on “Open Letter to Amy Pistone, Ph.D. Student in Classical Studies at the University of Michigan: The Articles Will Stop When The Exploitation Stops

  1. This is a terrific, terrific response.

    I’m the blogger who wrote about privilege (and whose arguments and viewpoints were badly misrepresented by Pistone, of course). I’m working on a response to all of this as well. I don’t mind being critiqued … but having my writing totally misrepresented under the official University of Michigan masthead is not something I’m willing to put up with. (Nor is being told to shut up about the things I write about more generally).

    Anyway, terrific response. (And terrific article in Slate, as well!)


  2. Terrific response!! Thank you! I’m completely agree with your open reply to Amy Pistone.

    Amy Pistone, frankly I was stunned at reading what you had to say. Wow…was my first thought. My second thought was that you behaved either like a small child who’s having a hissy fit for not getting their own way or as a dictator in an authoritarian state.

    My advice is that if you want to be heard by others outside of your little clique at grad-school (especially under the official University of Michigan masthead) and you want to be taken seriously you must respect the fact that others have the right to their opinions. Did your PhD supervisor not tell you that you have to be diplomatic when you challenged another person’s point of view which you disliked? Mmm… I wonder.

    I like JC will be writing a reply since I’m growing increasing tired of the childish behavior and attacks that pass for rational argument. Intolerance appears to be the norm and its worrying. Tolerance and respect for others having their own opinion is crucial…and debate is part and parcel of being a member of the Republic of Letters. Just read Grafton’s 2006 article in The New Yorker or his other writings on the subject.


    • JC’s reply is linked to above this post! It’s very good. Just remember that Amy is basically a kid, maybe 25 or 26, and she, like a lot of grad students and like me back then, does not want to heeeeeeeeeear the terrible facts about the job market. I can’t fault her. I fault UM for allowing her the support of an institutional masthead in imparting a very willfully ignorant opinion. They are sanctioning this blinkered thinking, and that is what drove me to respond.


      • Yes, JC’s reply is good.Yes, UM is the problem here. I agree with you. My issue is that Amy might be a junior member of the Academy but technically she’s an adult. Legally she’s an adult…she can vote, get married, drive a car, buy liquor and join the military. So, she’s technically she’s an adult. She should have been given better advice from her university.

        She bares a strong resemblance to people I encountered at graduate school who would get furious that other people might have a different view of something to themselves. All of us have different opinions about everything. While she may not not want to hear the dreadful facts about the job market (she can put he fingers in her ears if she wants) the fact remains that she has to respect the rules of adult behavior and recognize that others have the right to their own opinion. So, UM failed her in this respect.


  3. I beg your pardon, but I am afraid you’ve committed one of the same sins that you had accused Amy of – misunderstanding. It appears to me you jumped too quickly to respond to the “shut up” phrase, in an emotional frenzy, and let go the main message she had.
    The point, as I hope I understand it, was that “yes, we are aware of the difficulties related to PhD studies”, and that nevertheless “we conscientiously choose to go for it, because we like it”. It also did not deny that there are universities where entry-level academic jobs are somewhat a way to exploit young scholars. [Surpriiiiise – happens in every other field I am aware of, and I’ve worked in quite a few]. Instead, Amy suggested that academia, like any other field, is competitive, and some get more than others. Some newly-produced PhDs get an entry job that offers them $80k a year, and others strive to live on $30-40k. Amy’s message was that we are aware of this, and we take the risks, because they come with so many rewards. You cannot criticize her for offering an alternative opinion to yours, specifically because I know many of the grad students who share it. And by the way, I worked 7 years after my BA and before starting an MA, and then another 3 after my MA, before deciding to join a PhD program [I mention it since you seem to put a lot of emphasis on work experience].
    Also, and Amy touches upon it too, people go into academia most of the times understanding that it very often pays less comparing to the private sector. If it is money that you are after, then get an engineering, or a computer science degree, an MBA or a law degree. With all respect, it is about the choices that we make, accounting for the risks of the job market, that are felt across all sectors of the economy.
    I can understand your retort in response to the “shut up” thing, but I believe you were not targeted personally through that. The way I understand it, this was instead a general call to stop the pessimist messages of the type you spread, and portray them as a dominant opinion about graduate studies. Amy offered an alternative opinion, and as some commenter above stressed, we’ve got to respect different opinions, especially when we do have empiric evidence in support of them.
    And to answer the possible questions that you may have – yes, I am from the UofM, I am a PhD candidate, and I am not doing Humanities. Oh, one more – I do not know Amy, never met her – I just happen to share her view about graduate studies and the world of academia. I know I won’t make lots of money, but it was my choice to start an academic career, because I love the good things it offers.


    • The main message she had was “make the articles stop.” I understood it perfectly. As for your arguments, I cannot possibly even begin to take them seriously because you are a heavily-indoctrinated grad student. In a few years, when you’ve been on the market and you find yourself adjuncting–which pays $3000 per course sans benefits at most institutions that will hire you–you can revisit your cult indoctrination days and have a nice morbid chuckle. I am trying to make graduate students informed of the harsh reality that awaits–yes, even for SocSci and STEM, though not quite as bad. It is fully understandable that you don’t want to hear it. You are working harder than you ever have and the idea that it might leave you worse off then you started is terrifying. So you do what’s natural, which is cling to erroneous fake statistics spoon fed to you by your mentors who desperately don’t want you to quit and need to recruit more of you so that they can keep teaching overly specialized seminars to groups of sycophants and leave the undergrads to the likes of you. As a grad student, not only do you not have the faintest idea what you are talking about, but you are being willfully and actively deprived of the truth that awaits you by your betters. I have documented proof of some of the most respected programs in the country purposefully keeping job market data from current and future grad students. Says all you need to know. Now don’t you have some Habermas to read?


  4. What I am saying is not merely “pessimistic,” nor is it “opinion.” The fact that over 75% of higher education instruction is done by contingent labor is a FACT. For you to think that those $80k jobs, or even the $30k jobs, are a likelihood is the result of delusion perpetrated by the institution that desperately needs your cheap TA labor. Try. $15k a year. $25 if you are lucky. Food stamps. Living thousands of miles away from everyone you know and love if you’re willing to enter the VAP trap, which is a system that only “works” if you’re a man in a nice patriarchal marriage with a wife and kids who will and can follow you around Creation for who knows how many years. THESE ARE FACTS. I understand why you don’t want to hear them, but the idea that they’re disputable just proves my need to yell even louder and even further to anyone in range. I don’t mean that you should drop out of your program. I mean that you nneeeeeeeeeeeeed to be researching altac NOW. Ignore this advice at your own peril.


  5. pan kisses kafka says: “As for your arguments, I cannot possibly even begin to take them seriously because you are a heavily-indoctrinated grad student”
    Really? Is that how you address arguments, by discarding them through attacking the messenger? 🙂 How about doing what they teach us in graduate school, and just offer solid evidence, i.e. some nice graphs/charts/table with data, structured i.e. by things like: A. rows – a) graduated from top 10 departments; a1) 11-20 departments, etc.; B. columns – found job in b) 6 months after graduation; b1) 1 year after graduation, etc.; C. columns – salary c) >=15k; c1) 15k-25k; c2) 25k… etc. ?
    Then, your universal claim could be narrowed down to something more exact and fine-grained, like: if you graduate from a top 30s department, you have a chance p to get a job in the first 1 year, and the median/mean salary is going to be xk/year.
    Your statement “The fact that over 75% of higher education instruction is done by contingent labor is a FACT” is not a fact but a claim. Unless we do not see data, we can’t just take your words at face value. Specifically since I have seen some different data. And especially since you just labeled me “heavily-indoctrinated grad student” not knowing a single bit about me, but solely because I happen to disagree with you. It strikes me that such a person is highly unlikely to be methodical and thorough in analysis, but rather emotional and too eager to jump to fluffy conclusions.
    Since you suggested me Habermas for a reading, I will return you the favor and suggest that you also look at some King, Keohane, and Verba book, which while has its shortcomings, shall do just fine for you.
    Throwing around labels based solely on the fact that people disagree with you, does not make you a convincing and trustworthy messenger. Also, you really shall give us, doctoral students, a little bit more credit. I am done here – don’t forget the KKV (one would think they teach research methods everywhere).


    • I don’t offer any graphs and charts because it is a well known fact. The 75 percent number comes from a recent and rigorous New York Times article. Google it. Said graph you want, or a version of it that can even be made, given that most departments lie of obfuscate statistics so as “not to discourage” their students, is on the MLA website. I also have a copy of it in a very damning email I have in my possession, that offers incontrovertible evidence that the market is grim and that departments are covering it up. But I can’t post it because it would get my confidential tipsters into a lot if trouble. If you had ever been on the market, you would have gotten a rejection that told you the position had 150 applicants, or 300, or in open discipline fields 1200. I have gotten many such rejections, because I have been on the market for four years. I have adjuncted and I have had a VAP that nearly ruined my health and life because I was so isolated from my support system. I am living, breathing proof that the job market is brutal–go ahead and say it’s because I’m not good enough. I have three articles, a book, two chapters in edited volumes forthcoming, a Fulbright grant, absolutely stellar teaching evals, glowing letters from famous bigwigs, and one of the most high profile postdocs in the country. I couldn’t land a job because there simply aren’t enough of them to accommodate 100 people who are just as good as me, or who have that incalculable quality of “fit.” You are drinking the kool aid if you really think, really, that the facts, the incontrovertible facts, of the academic job market are my claim and opinion. You are like a Scientologist taking me to task for saying Scientology is a cult and then demanding to see a chart proving abuse from ranks that are trained to cower and lie. You are a spouse covered in bruises with a broken arm insisting he ran into a door and demanding I prove that unreported domestic abuse isn’t just a figment of my pessimistic imagination.


  6. “I see you one Contemplatively By a Book and raise you a Glasses!”

    Worthy of Touchstone, which is the highest praise I can muster!



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