A Select Few Regrets, or: The Last Jew in Academe?

By now, the majority of the 36,000 people who Facebook “Liked” an article for Slate I wrote almost two months ago have forgotten all about it. But there remain a few souls out there still yapping about my favorite topic: moi.  Unsurprisingly, all are academics at this point.

Sometimes, these folks offer kind solidarity or civil critique, but mostly it’s just a bunch of pissed off grad students or people with double-tenure, like this guy, who recently spent many hours of his sacred thought-making time riding my ass on the Chronicle Web site.

In Kafka’s Der Proceß (The Trial), our hapless protagonist Josef K. at one point attempts to draft a pro se brief in his own defense. But, since he has no charge against which to defend himself, it goes like this:

Er wollte darin eine kurze Lebensbeschreibung vorlegen und bei jedem irgendwie wichtigeren Ereignis erklären, aus welchen Gründen er so gehandelt hatte[.]
He wanted to offer a short description of his life, and explain why he had handled himself in every situation that could possibly be determined important[.]

I had originally envisioned “Thesis Hatement” as spending a few days buried under political commentary and the valuable advice of Dear Prudence before it disappeared forever—so I just wrote from my heart and worked with the editors and forgot about it. If I had known it would go “academic-viral” I would have composed it like K.’s “tautological innocence” brief, with the talons of the entrenched and the anti-academic in my forebrain to help me second-guess every single word.

If I had “Thesis Hatement” to write over again, I would make three changes to it.

1. I would have fought harder for headline approval. You should have seen the one they wanted to give me before I freaked out—and, lest I remind you, the editor of this piece is my friend. But publishing’s publishing, man. It’s not personal—“emotional trainwreck, like me” got clicks. But it was a characterization that set the tone and made it easy for haters to read the whole thing as “hysterical” and “screechy,” two adjectives reserved exclusively for women who dare state their opinions with a little color (I’d say “sass,” but that’s been coopted by racist and sexist forces as well). And it also made the whole thing about me, when it was really just a list of incontrovertible facts about the job market, spliced in with what I thought was some harmless repartee about academic stereotypes and other people’s views of the over-theorization of the literary disciplines. The result of this was a torrent of people attacking both my credentials and my tone.

DIGRESSION: Attacks on my tone have extended to “My Academic Metamorphosis” and this very blog you are (probably not) reading right this second! Even very awesome FoPKKs have expressed disapproval of both my hyperbolic style and my word choice (most recently, “cult”). I find these critiques to be telling, because most come from the Haves of academe, out to tell me the appropriate way to express my anguish that the career for which I spent ten years working myself to the bone has no place for me. Academics get really up in arms that someone dares to express herself about academic issues in any voice that isn’t the reserved, affect-free—and, yes, WASPy—non-voice of the Proper Scholar. This brings me to…

2. “bat-shit.” I very, very much regret offhandedly referring to my own research as “bat-shit.” I meant it in a self-deprecating and funny way, like “WITTGENSTEIN? Like, truth tables and shit? You’d have to be bat-shit crazy to put yourself through the Tractatus on purpose and make it relate to Kafka, and then make everyone think that the world needs yet another book on Kafka! But go for it!” I called my work “bat-shit” because it pushes disciplinary boundaries. It’s kind of “out there.” But make no mistake, I definitely think it’s good. I do. I just really don’t want to go around saying that, because self-aggrandizement is what assholes do. I am only vaunting it now because I feel like I’m being forced to. And this brings me to my larger point, about my tone and self-deprecation in general:

Am I the last Jew in academe? (FYI: I don’t  practice! I am not a bat mitzvah and my mother isn’t even Jewish!!!! But my dad’s family is Reconstructionist so it’s all cool!) Have no academics in the world ever heard of Woody Allen? Larry David? Lewis Mothertrucking Black? I’m not saying I’m one seventy-billionth as funny as they are, but I am probably as neurotic. Why is that not allowed? I make fun of French Theory a little (and I graduated from the House that Derrida Deconstructed!), and I make fun of my own work, and I jokingly call myself “the intellectual’s anti-intellectual” because I can analyze Wittgenstein in German but I can also name every member of Honey Boo Boo’s family, and suddenly I’m an actual anti-intellectual academia-hater.

Well, two can play at the extremely un-fun game of Taking Oneself Way Too Seriously. If you are seriously going to call me an anti-intellectual, if you are going to misread neurotic humor for “screeching hysteria,” then I am going to say: fine, I am a screeching, hysterical, too-emotional lady-woman who hates learning…but that makes you a misogynist Anti-Semite. Why don’t you look up all my relatives in Belarus and tell them how disappointed you are in me? Oh, you can’t—they’re all dead. In the Holocaust. TRUMP CARD. Game over.

3. Remote Midwestern or Southern universities of which you have never heard.” I can’t go into detail about this one, because it deserves to be written about for a larger audience and so I have pitched it to a legitimate publication, but people have been just laying into me about that line. How dare I think myself “too good” to move to “the flyover” and teach the “great unwashed”? No wonder I didn’t find a job, with the kind of “coastal elitism” I must have oozed at interviews. LIZ LEMON EYE ROLL COMMENCE. Here is a list of places I have lived since 2009:

  • Columbus, OH
  • St. Louis, MO

Both of these places are in the Midwest already, and I have the omnipresent tornado sirens to prove it. I get to make fun of the Midwest, because I live here. I also get to make fun of the South, because Missouri was a goddamned Slave state. And I get to not like living here, because it is so far away from my family, including my brand-new, week-old BABY NIECE ZOMG SHE IS SO CUTE I CAN’T TAKE IT! Gratuitous picture of a baby alert!!!!


But besides the simple fact that I am already a Midwesterner, there is also the fact that—and here’s where I don’t want to go into detail—most colleges and universities in the US, especially in the non-coastal US, are remotely located. And thus, they present a tremendous dilemma for an academic with a working partner. If I had gotten a job in a remote small college down or teensy college village, I would probably have gone there alone. I would have lived with no support system—no partner, no trusted friends, no family, no nothing. That is a tremendously difficult life on top of the already-unpleasant pressures of trying to get tenure, and I would like people to get off my back about admitting I didn’t want to live it. I can’t say any more or I won’t be able to publish a real piece on this idea! But please stop calling me an “elitist snob,” because you have NOT seen my Hulu queue (Hint: “NASHVILLE.” SO MUCH “NASHVILLE”).

Coming soon to a PKK near you: FoPKK Tales from the Trenches II. Stay tuned!

15 thoughts on “A Select Few Regrets, or: The Last Jew in Academe?

  1. You are not the only Jew in academia. And my sarcasm is growing by the minute. I’ll start posting dark humor jokes in my blog any minute now. But if you dare criticize the state of Ohio, I am coming after you (critiquing the current governor is allowed).


    • Well, now basically you are just ASKING me to say something about Cincinnati Chili. Although now that I’ve moved back to St. Louis, where the “speciality” is deep-fried ravioli filled with a “processed cheese food” that is made by DuPont, I shall remain respectfully silent.


  2. Again, I do not really understand why people get so touchy on this. I know why I get touchy on the things I get touchy on, so I understand that you’ve hit a sore point. I just don’t understand what it is — it has to be something more than the ways in which some of what you have said could be excerpted in such a way as to play into right-wing attacks on education and scholarship. But I don’t understand what it is and I feel practically non-Western by this point, so Zen-like am I in the face of criticism of academia by people who have suffered or are suffering in it.


    • I am SUPPOSED to be getting zen about my life too. I started (very poorly) attempting to follow the Noble Eightfold Path about five months ago, and I have been taking my yoga practice more seriously (by calling it “my yoga practice,” primarily–but look how good I am at that!), but I am not doing a good job of detaching myself from the material rewards of the academic world. Nor am I doing a good job of reminding myself that everyone–from the non-academics scoffing at my dissertation topic to the FullProfs snidely chiding me for not believing in my ideas and then scorning my ideas–is just caught in the same cycle of suffering that I am. I GET AN F IN BUDDHISM IF BUDDHISM GAVE GRADES. CONVERSION TO BuJew NEEDS IMPROVEMENT. Whatever it is, I just hope that eventually I stop feeling the need to express myself so vociferously (with my “excretions” apparently) and I can just move on with my life. It’s very interesting to jump on the anti-academia parts of what I’m saying, though, as those were really just supposed to be satirical asides. Now I know.


      • “FullProfs snidely chiding me for not believing in my ideas and then scorning my ideas–is just caught in the same cycle of suffering that I am” … this really is true and is key. And I guess that is what the sore point could be.

        I’m senior faculty, although not famous or “successful” in the way some are. I have had a few bad things happen to me in and around academia and I really did have to express myself quite vociferously about it for years. Hence, among other things, the blog. Getting out of field would have helped me recover faster.
        Speaking and publishing more publicly, as you are doing, would have as well. Starting to refuse to take *any* b.s. at work is what finally helped.


  3. i find that when people see unwelcome truth in the larger argument of a piece, they will avoid that truth and nitpick at smaller less relevant points (like disapproving of your research, or intentionally misreading your sarcasm/humor/self-deprication). So just remember, when readers use these tactics, as they have of late, you know you’ve hit a nerve.

    and this post, btw, made me laugh out loud (with you, not at you!).


    • So, what do you think the nerve *is*? What they say they are upset with, they can’t be. Is it that they do not want to admit that they, too, were harmed on the tenure track? Are they spooked by the spectre of “failure” and doing their best to make it disappear?


      • I think every single academic on earth has Impostor Syndrome, so that has a lot to do with it. And I think people who made it to the TT also want very much to believe luck had nothing to do with it. And I think everyone on the TT lives in constant fear. Even if they don’t realize it.


  4. Hi Rebecca, I’m the grad student who wrote to you from the music department of… a public institute of higher-higher education in the City of New York. I just wanted to tell you that there are Jews left in academe, but they are probably all concentrated at my institution and are about to retire! My first PhD course, an intro-to-the-discipline-type-class, was taught by the musicological incarnation of Woody Allen: of our discipline’s most prestigious national periodical, he said, “I like to read my issues of JAMS like Hebrew. Back-to-front. First ads for new publications, then book reviews, and then MAYBE I read the actual articles but usually they’re too damn lawng and written by stoopid people!”

    Sadly he is now retiring, along with others of his generation who have this amazing sense of humor. But I do find a certain solidarity with younger faculty members who are also, incidentally, Members of the Tribe. I had a talk with the [female Jewish] chair of my department recently, and was very candid about my disillusionment with playing the conference/ publishing game and climbing the vanishing tenure ladder; basically I told her that I wanted to finish the degree and write a dissertation on a topic that I found meaningful, but that I was already starting to seek out alternate career paths NOW and that I was deliberately beginning to detach myself from the insularity of the academic community. It was a ballsy move and I wasn’t sure how my neuroticism and melodramatics were going to be received, but my chair completely sympathized and even confessed to her own “lukewarm” attitudes re: the field (and the “business”); she told me that I was smart to be exploring as many options as possible and to educate myself on the realities of the market. I was so relieved to have her support. However, I couldn’t IMAGINE having a similar conversation with WASP-ier/ more patriarchal people in the field, who would probably dismiss me as hysterical and self-loathing and overly emotive and not-having-what-it-takes to suck it up and play the sharky shark game.

    Anyway, that’s just a long way of saying that you rock, and I love your tone, and please keep writing, however Semitically and hysterically you choose to do so!


  5. Also, I once had a hilarious experience at a Seder that was hosted by musicology faculty at my undergrad institution. They had this hilarious spin on hiding the Afikomen: instead of physically hiding it, they divided into teams and hid it “somewhere in history, or in literary history.” Then the two teams played Twenty Questions to figure out where it was “hidden in TIME.” My team decided to hide it on the morning that Gregor Samsa woke up to find himself transfigured (not joking!) The other team hid it on the day that Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin was first performed (also not joking!) Clearly academia is at its best when there are tipsy Jews involved.


  6. Impostor syndrome, belief it that there was no luck factor, and fear — yes, I see all this. Fear does not go away after tenure. I think one of your detractors is writing out of enormous fear.

    “If I had gotten a job in a remote small college town or teensy college village, I would probably have gone there alone. I would have lived with no support system—no partner, no trusted friends, no family, no nothing.”

    Yes, that is what one is supposed to do. I am very good at moving and adjusting but rural red state is difficult if you are by yourself, even if you are good on your own. Where I am it has taken about 15 years to finally figure out how to handle. All the people who do well professionally are people who bring families with them. What my facialist said yesterday: “Due to field and general life interests, you must have daily and even hourly adjustment problems here.”

    On Pannapacker and “don’t do it” — I think people don’t believe him because what they are told does not discourage them. I, for instance, was not discouraged by “midwest” because I thought that meant Ann Arbor, Madison, Minneapolis, Iowa City or Cham-bana at worst … was not aware of how depressing a place like Columbus is (and it is hardly the worst of possible places). People kept telling me I shouldn’t do it because I would have to do research, which was why I was interested in doing it, so that tactic did not work on me. Had they told me I would have to teach lower division, they would have deterred me more easily.


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