Academic Privilege

Yesterday, I was taking a break from a nonstop parade of non-work festivities–yes, I took a day 100% off for my 37th birthday, and I drank a Frappuccino, and I ate a Cake Pop, and I got this spectacular manicure:


Also check out my titanium wedding ring! Got it on Etsy for $60!

and here is another pornographic glamour shot of Bikedict Cumberbike, my new bike, so named because he has sleek, beautiful lines and is stunning in a cold, asexual way:


Anyway, yesterday on a break from nonstop fun, I was checking my blog stats and I found a few clickthrus from the brand-new site of Carrie Lamanna, a very beautiful writer and English/Writing professor at Colorado State who is, to my immense delight, branching out into academic coaching. Her post “A Raw Spot On My Soul” is extraordinary, and not just because it quotes the most polarizing paragraph in the most polarizing article ever written by yours truly.

I got to thinking about why that paragraph has caused, as she puts it, some heads to explode: it is far and away the excerpt most often quoted by people attempting to show that I am an unstable piece of shit, from obnoxious, blinkered dipshits like Freddie DeBoer to people I actually respect like Tressie McMillan Cottom.

And then I got an email yesterday from one of my friends, who is  a former colleague at OSU (one of the two who  gave a shit when I got pneumonia). She had read yesterday’s post, and was writing to tell me she had no idea the extent of my misery there—which, first of all, awesome: I am better at holding in my Feels than I thought!

I go around assuming that I am an extremely, uncomfortably open book. “Rebecca has a very expressive face,” one of the gymnastics dads I grew up around used to say, and I would add that I have a very expressive piehole as well—SHUT YOUR PIEHOLE! my brother used to say, quite often, sometimes just abbreviated to PIEHOLE! and sometimes expanded to its own hardcore song, that went SHUT YOUR PIEHOLE SHUT YOUR PIEHOLE SHUT IT SHUT IT SHUT YOUR PIEHOLE, Offspring-style atonally.

So, I am quite proud that I managed to keep something to myself for once, but in emailing with my friend, she wrote something that I find very interesting, precisely because I’ve heard it (or rather read it) so much.

And it has to do with the aforementioned paragraph, which I will quote because I love quoting myself—or rather, because it was  the climax of “Thesis Hatement,” and does resonate so much with academics, whether positively or otherwise:

So you won’t get a tenure-track job. Why should that stop you? You can cradle your new knowledge close, and just go do something else. Great—are you ready to withstand the open scorn of everyone you know? During graduate school, you will be broken down and reconfigured in the image of the academy. By the time you finish—if you even do— you academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you, and nobody outside of academia will understand why. (Bright side: you will no longer have any friends outside academia.)

My friend told me that she doesn’t feel like she has put her entire identity into her academic self, that, indeed, she believes she could be just as happy, if not happier, in some incarnation of “public intellectualism” (like Walter Benjamin–because that worked out so well for him, ha. But srsly I see what she means).

I believe that she really, sincerely believes this, as do I believe the sincerity of sentiment from every single person who has insisted, in one form or another, Rebecca Schuman’s view of academia is pathetic and inaccurate, because this isn’t how I feel. I would be FINE doing something else! I have a ZILLION friends outside the Academy! And by the way, my academic work is SO IMPORTANT that I’d DO IT FOR FREE—not like I ever would have to though, ha ha ha ha ha ha.

I think it says a tremendous, tremendous amount that every single person who has said this is either a graduate student who has never been on the market (and thus doesn’t know what it feels like to fail on it), or tenure-track/tenured (and thus has succeeded on the market and doesn’t know what it feels like to fail on it), or otherwise heavily privileged by living in New York or somewhere else awesome (and thus doesn’t know what it feels like to get stuck in some godforsaken red-state college town with nothing other than the University, ninety-twelve jabillion frats and a Chipotle, and then fail on the market).

They have no idea whatsoever what it is like to have put years, sometimes a decade, of their lives into the Life of the Mind and not have that work validated—indeed, instead be excluded completely.

You can say all you want that you’d be fine just fine in another world—and you probably would, as I am now. But please try to be mindful of the legitimate mourning process that some people need, even if you don’t understand that need, precisely because you yourself have never had the experience of being impersonally and unceremoniously shut out of the Ivory Tower.

The people who say, over and over again, that it’s just not true that academic socialization can be total (or that if it is, it’s your own fault for some sort of moral failing) are all, every single one of them, coming from a position of privilege. So they literally do not know even a little bit what it is like to have placed one’s identity and self-worth into one’s academic self and then have that self rejected. They have no real idea how much of themselves they’ve put into academia because they are succeeding and haven’t had those selves questioned.  I’m not talking about my friend anymore, I’m talking about all the fuckwits and dipshits, and even well-meaning academics,  who have said this in the past six months, and about the people whose heads have exploded by reading a few sentences that are largely just reportage.

That is what is so interesting about Carrie’s post, because she is being really honest about the socialization that has made her feel like she has to stay even if she’s feeling conflicted.

One of the important things I’ve learned in my four years on the market is that you can’t know how important the work and the sacrifice was to you until nobody gives a fuck about it; you can’t know how badly you want the scholarly community to include you until nobody does.

32 thoughts on “Academic Privilege

  1. We used to talk a lot about this when I was in grad school. One of my friends finished her PhD and then went to medical school and became a doctor — and she still felt ashamed of herself every time she ran into her old major professor.


  2. Overwhelmingly well written, Rebecca. And coincidentally, I was about to write a blog post today on privilege in academia (specifically, my own). Several comments by other academics (Annick Wieben, specifically) made me reflect on the fact that I have resources, and privilege. And I really work hard at keeping myself in check, although your post reminds me that I should do that more often. I will not write said post, but instead bring folks to your excellent post.

    As I said in the paragraph above, I do admit I come from a position of privilege (on the tenure-track, and perhaps intoxicated with the love for academia), but I am also committed to fight a good battle for all of those “on the other side of the fence” (e.g. New Majority Faculty, alt-acad, etc.)

    I don’t really know how to fix the academic and higher education system, but I sure as hell want to help. Again, thanks for writing this. It made me reflect and moved stuff within my very core.


    • Vielen Dank, Raul! I really admire how mindful you are. Many in your position are what Werner Herzog’s Bear calls Lifeboaters, and your inclusive attitude represents as much of a sea change in academe as adjuncts and post-acs speaking up ever will. I really, really appreciate it. Your attitude will be contagious, and it will break down barriers, and I am really optimistic that things will change.


      • Another post which deeply resonates, Rebecca. It also took me about four years to get to a place where I could be happy for not still having so much of my Self invested in the idea of being an a academic inculcated by grad school, not feel like a ‘failure’ and ‘loser’ for not ‘making it’.

        It is very hard for most people benefiting from structural inequality to acknowledge their privilege, much less want to renounce it or acknowledge how deey their sense of self/worth is actually constructed through and *dependent upon* the deprivation, degradation, diminishment, and immiserating of others. Can’t be on the inside without there being an outside, after all. So if one wants to be part of an exclusive group, one has to be willing to exclude others and rationalize the exclusion as necessary and inevitable. The problem of the academy is a deeply structural one, with more and more people being excluded, and it is the rare person on the inside who is willing to acknowledge his/her privilege–and advocate for those without it.

        Yes, more allies are needed for things to change for the better. For sure.


      • That passage from your Slate article blows academics’ minds because it is hard for people deeply invested in believing that they ‘rose to the top’ by sheer dint of their hard work and brilliance to acknowledge that they didn’t get to the top simply because the academy is a meritocracy, but through a combination of personal effort, good luck, and structural inequality working in their favor (while it didn’t work in the favor of others).

        This is an issue of self/worth that is very much about control and agency, and many people just don’t want to confront the reality of limited agency, especially if they’re a control freak in a position of power (over others). On some level I always wonder what attracted a person (especially the lifeboaters and top administrators) to the academy in the first place, and how much they were attracted by the opportunity to be in a position of power/control over others (e.g. students). Especially after interacting with one sociopathic male grad student who made it clear that he wanted to teach so as to have sexual access to and take advantage of female students. Power and control, and privilege. Yup.


    • It’s good to hear from someone on the t-t who cares. I don’t know what larger things need to be done, but small things count. As someone who was contingent, then on the t-t, I saw that there were lots of things t-t faculty could do in their daily lives.

      First and foremost is to treat contingent faculty like members of the department, not hired laborers. Get to know their names, talk to them, invite them to stuff. When they have a publication or other accomplishment, make sure others know. When I was a VAP I published a couple of articles, but they were not posted on a bulletin board of recent faculty publications in my department, which told me that I pretty much didn’t count. At the same time, some great t-t folks befriended me and helped me out by looking over job letters, etc.

      Since contingent faculty have little voice and often are barred from departmental meetings, talk with the contingent folks in your department/school and bring their concerns to the relevant forums. Raise your voice for those who aren’t given a platform to advocate for themselves. Push for adjuncts to have proper pay and support. I know from experience that some backing by t-t and tenured professors can make life easier and better for adjuncts and other contingents.


  3. Well, according to Mignolo you have the rhetoric of modernity: you have potential, just need to develop, and will get your chance, if you are valuable; and on the other hand the perspective of coloniality, which realizes it is part of the large supporting cast of “modernity” and the raw material it supports. Coloniality’s view is the more complete, since modernity and coloniality go together, but only coloniality sees both sides of the coin … much as with the double vision I think WEB DuBois talks about, the non privileged are supposed to take on the values and views of the privileged, but do not have that status.

    The non privileged are supposed to share the views and values of the privileged, and not recognize the structural barriers they face. This is why one gets so much pressure to behave.


      • It really helps to look at situation of colonial subjects. The key is that they are expected, and taught to turn the gaze of the colonizer upon themselves. You have to not let that to happen to you.

        One of my friends from graduate school, tenured at an R1 in a nice city, has now had a nervous breakdown due to this internalization of things. Which she maintains at the same time as she insists that her priorities, which resemble more those of a SLAC, should be those of her university. That isn’t realistic, either. So I am not recommending not being realistic, or insisting one is always “right” … but I am recommending that one keep firmly in mind that this is not a meritocracy but a colonialesque situation.


      • Z, as a FULLPROF, you have the power to write and publish a paper about this that could be huge. Have you thought to do this, to be the person, the incredibly brave soul, who turns the critical philosophy the meritocrats and feudalists of the Academy have no problem applying to literature and international conflicts, but don’t think applies to the Academy itself? I would love to see a long-form article about exactly this that just rips the fucking roof off the place.


    • Wow, that is terrific. I teach DuBois in the second semester, and I will be thinking about this when I do. I don’t think I’ve ever read Mignolo! Sounds like an interesting Ayn-Rand-boostraps type of view though, maybe I should add M. to my second-semester syllabus to flesh out all of the pinko Commie drivel I make them read? Or to talk more about Modernity, which we do? I like to think I have the rhetoric of Modernism: no moral compass and slight existential freakout due to; desire to purge aesthetically of some ornamentation and preference for a small, bright color palette; total skepticism of the efficacy of language and recognition of the complete arbitrariness of all narratives, real and imagined. 😉


    • Oh, I was such a tragic example of everything you wrote. Misrecognition wrapped in totured self-loathing, for years. Ridiculously blind to the structural barriers I was up against while drowning in self-flagellating self-recrimination as I wondered why I wasn’t as ‘successful’ as certain male Yale classmates who were writing for the NY Times and promoting their books on the daily show. I was so invested in a status quo which was never going to reward me in the ways I was futilely striving for. It was just really sad how miserable I was, how much abuse I accepted as normal though it clearly is not and is completely pathological, all because I thought ‘but the academy is supposed to be a meritocracy’.

      Yup, a colonial regime. We need to call it what it is. Absolutely.


      • A big part of the problem, I was shown, is the professionalization. They now start in from the first day on how you must be a professor and of a certain type. Also, Yale is awful by all reports.


      • I think we have to be honest about the seduction of elitism. And how it is cultivated. For a while there I was seduced. Almost.


  4. Mignolo as Ayn Rand, c’est amusant — ! This is him: … what he has published this century is quite readable at undergraduate level, as it is intended for both specialists and non. He’s a person at Duke, working on “decoloniality” … the “bootstraps” idea is actually the rhetoric of modernity, which your commie pinkos are still in (you know, Marx as grand narrative even if lefty).


  5. Paper on it, I sort of should. I am in a kind of unique subject position on this, because of my checkered work history — I think I have seen a lot more than most tenured faculty. You know: Mayhew and I have just put together a panel for LASA, everyone else on it is a genuine full professor and a famous one at that, as in, a shaper of field, at a mega-institution … I am a tenured assistant professor at what according to older Carnegie categories was a doctoral, not a research institution (now it is research intensive) … and I am the only woman. There are reasons why I got too beaten down to rise as high as these people did. Yet I am on the panel because they want my expertise. I feel like freakin’ Tiresias.

    So, this is actually something I was thinking about engaging you as a consultant on — I have some op-ed material I want a second eye on, and should or could perhaps also work on this.

    Meanwhile, note: in Mignolo, the colonial subject is the one subjected to the standards of modernity. This is important to understand the academic situation: you’re the one who must suffer the conditions and meet the standards, but you are also going to be kept in the colonized position.


    • P.S. Actually: my concept for it has been a combination memoir / advice book, i.e. a whole book, but to be written later.

      What you are recommending is that some ideas be advanced in shorter pieces first. Hmmmm….. interesting, and good point since I have other books to write. *And* my blog in back entries has a lot of material for this, and is in fact intended as the rough draft in many ways. Hmmmm.


  6. Yes. I’m so so so so so x a zillion thankful to pretty much no longer be in that space where I felt like a no good loser. It fills me with rage and sighing that there’s so much damage to be undone, so many wounds that must heal, so much grieving that needs to happen before an identity can be constructed out of the ruins of one’s past academic life. Once it’s done, oh boy: watch out world! PhDs unite! (Shout-out to Labour Day!)


  7. That was my favourite paragraph in “Thesis Hatement,” and was the reason I came out of my place of shame/seclusion/hiding to send you a note, Rebecca. It was the most precise expression of what my own experience had been, and I think you’re right about the reasons that the people who do flip out about it do so. It’s just impossible for some folks to sympathize with something they fundamentally don’t understand.


  8. Getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor are still two different things, in the country where I come from (Germany). I have at least four friends there, at the moment here, with Ph.D.s who either never contemplated a university career or decided against it after some reflection. None of them was kicked out. They all do meaningful work as journalists and authors and artists. The ones who pursued the university career, have been lucky so far. Hence, I believe that I am not just talking from a position of privilege and ignorance when I say that it is important to distinguish between one’s intellectual identity and work and “getting a job.” But, and this is a big BUT: the situation in the US seems to be very different and I have had friends here, there, who DID feel the pain that Rebecca and others are describing, and I DO empathize. I think it tells us that there a lot wrong with academia, society at large, in the US–and well, possibly in Germany too, since my view of the situation there, here, might be skewed. Not only that there are not enough jobs and too many promises of ones, which is obvious. But also that the aura of these jobs is overblown. And that there is not enough exchange between the inside and the outside of those famous walls. And that the value of the (humanities) PhD outside of academia is either not seen or perhaps also needs to be worked out or better defined, and “sold.” – Personally, I was in a visiting position with a 4-4- load for a year, not getting any of the tt-jobs I applied for, despite on campus interviews, contemplating–not totally seriously, but I was indeed unhappy–a jump into one of the famous Ithaca Gorges, and only then–luckily–landed a, one, single, precious tt job. In two years, I must have applied to 80 jobs. But my fear was more about earning my bread and butter and a visa and health insurance than my intellectual identity. Perhaps I am just too practical… I still feel I am in a precarious position–not so much personally anymore, with fresh tenure, (fingers still crossed, since the feeling of insecurity remains, perhaps irrationally), but if I look at my department, the humanities, the university in general. I am not sure how many years I should give the field, etc. Or how it should evolve. But that’s other stuff to ponder.


    • I do think that you empathize, and I think you are one of those rare academics who truly is a scholar at heart and would very much be at home in another profession–but my point was that it’s just impossible to be sure how you would feel if you had never had your journey validated. Your temporary failures right after graduation got to be enclosed into a larger narrative of success, whereas mine are part of a completely different narrative. If that makes sense. I do also think that as a German (or just as you!) you have a different, and enviable, and more practical/Brotberuf-related attitude toward your career. I would like to be more like you in this respect!


    • I also look at it as much more of a practical thing. And was not told in graduate school, as many people are now, that one had to be a professor. Nowadays, partly because it has become so expensive to study, universities try to make sure every student is being not just trained in field but trained to be a professor and informed about professor jobs. This kind of inculturation seems to be what causes people to feel *so* bad if they do not do the professor thing, or get to.


  9. This is well said. I was definitely among those who thought, in response to that particular paragraph “but I do have friends outside the academy.” And I am in a position of privilege, which I can better see having read this post: I am a last-year graduate student on a fellowship who has never been on the job market (ever. of any kind. the only non-academic work I have held is entry-level retail and retail management). It’s also the case that I’ve reflected an awful lot on my friends’ experiences and so have been planning for a life outside of academia. Your wise words do help me to see that no amount of planning, valuing, thinking, reflecting, creating will prepare me for whatever feelings arise after I walk across the stage next May. Sobering but good.


    • You might not believe it, but I, too, have friends outside the academy, because that line, like many in “Thesis Hatement,” was a hyperbole for the sake of dark humor :). But the part about said friends not understanding the existential trauma of the academic job search and academic rejection was very true. You’re just starting out, so who knows what will befall you out there? I wish you all the best of luck, and hope that if you end up as one of the lucky ones, you will do what you can to advocate on behalf of the contingents and adjuncts around you!


  10. Rebecca, I’m so glad we’ve gotten to know each other (yay, Twitterz!) because I hear so much of myself in what you write and I know our experiences are similar even though we went different paths in grad school. (Zum beispiel, I haven’t gotten a postdoc, but I did move to the Midwest.) Anyway, just wanted to say this post resonated with me *yet again* because I know what that feels like: to feel rejected, like your contributions as a scholar do not matter. My rationale was that something must be wrong with me, that I must not be good enough for a tenure track position (I didn’t think until later that maybe there was something wrong with the system). And when I gave up, I was still in that mentality: “I’m not good enough, so whatever, I’ll go do something else.” Hence the mourning period. Months into my alt-ac job, I felt validated and acknowledged like I hadn’t felt in a while (outside of the folks in my dissertation committee, mind you). It took me years to internalize that I do have something to offer as a scholar, even if I won’t do it within an academic institution.

    Maybe it’s my ballsiest academic move yet.


  11. I just had a flash on this: not getting a job, nowadays, is the equivalent of, when I was in graduate school in the 80s, not getting tenure. Many of the most interesting professors did not — they couldn’t take the coroporateness of it, and so on. Then they had to figure out what to do; some got other academic jobs, some went corporate post-ac, some turned into hippies, etc. We the graduate students, already in a more career-oriented, desperate generation, studying at a time when there were no jobs and we could not expect to get them, assumed these people would be upset about not making it, but their response tended to be relief: they didn’t regret the degree and the experience, but were also just as happy to move onto the next thing. You could of course be that relaxed then because it was before the days of student loans.

    It seems that now, when graduate students are “professionalized” and socialized early on to think they are going to get academic jobs or have to, not getting one is the new functional equivalent of not getting tenure (which one is “supposed” to get if one goes up for it, etc.).


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