I demand you stop supplying me with Capitalist claptrap

There are apparently some comp/rhet endowed chairs who are very bad at reading.  Male, White, highly-successful endowed chairs who are damn sure they got everything they have because they worked hard and earned it, and who want to make sure to pull rank and remind Untermenschen such as myself just how worthless we are–while at the same time insisting that the scathing judgment of your academic peers should have no bearing on your personal worth (and while at the same-same time insisting that one’s position as an endowed chair is an accurate marker thereof).

Self-righteous Endowed Chair Jeff Rice has decided that because I dared to mention, yesterday, that Ian Bogost makes a lot of money (comparatively, for an academic, in Georgia), that that means I resent others’ success and am just jealous of it because Ayn Rand bootstraps Howard Roark supply and demand meritocracy. I also got a comment last night full of faux incredulity that apparently I don’t understand that certain disciplines, like mine, are not in demand, and I should not resent Ian Bogost success in one that is.

Methinks the Capitalist teat-suckers doth protest too much. If there is one thing in my life I don’t care about as long as I have a bare minimum amount of it, it’s money. I live in St. Louis, where the $30,000 or so a year I cobble together from my three jobs is enough to make me a straight-up baller. I get manipedis, and Frappuccinos, and see movies in the theater, and I own two–two–pairs of jeans, and each cost over $100 (I only buy jeans made in the U.S., and if you do that, and you want your ass not to look like Barbara Bush, you gotta shell out). There’s a lot I dislike about it here, but it’s so cheap it’s going to be hard to leave if I finally get my shit together someday to do so. So you live in Kentucky or Georgia and make seven times what I do? Congratumotherfuckinglations, now pay your damn taxes.

My use of Ian’s comfortable salary is simply to demonstrate that he–whom I like, by the way, and with whom I had an hour-long discussion on teh Twittarz yesterday in which it was determined that except in the case of Zac Ernst’s ire at the University of Missouri, we agree on literally everything in the entire world–is operating from a position of immense fortune. Thus to get down on someone for leaving the profession, when he himself has never had to do so, and especially not under duress (like me) or acrimonious circumstances (like Zac), is not a particularly compassionate act.

Ian went out of his way on the Twittarz to tell me that he was not talking about people like me (I make everything about me, because that is the central tenet of Secular Schumanism), but rather people like Zac who leave one successful position for another. He was actually quite OK with my argument about how it hurts to have other people tell you “tough titties” when you have given a decade-plus of your life in the service of an industry that does not even grant you the chance to start working in it–he just pointed out, rightly, that I was arguing against a straw man that was not him (and I amended the post accordingly).

But, thanks to Jeff Rice, I don’t need a straw man anymore, because I have a real, live, self-righteous White male meritocrat (who, by the way, LOVED moving all around the country to different jobs–perhaps because he was able to cart his wife and kids with him everywhere he went?), and he’s here to tell me just how my fault it is that I wasn’t good enough, and how it’s not HIS fault that he just works so damn hard and is so damn good, even in a discipline that not everybody deems worthy (although comp/rhet is currently the least competitive field in the humanities, for what it’s worth). Check this out:

The factors that have gone into my success including actors such as “I worked hard” but they also include other factors as well. One factor may be: “My work is important to me.” But it also may be: “studying rhetoric and network theory is not the most important thing to other people or the world.” 

Did you hear that, my fellow marginalized scholars? First of all, our work just isn’t important enough to us. Second of all, he’s schooling us in the ever-obscure fact of disciplinary supply and demand, a similar “schooling” I got in a comment this morning (possibly from one of Jeff Rice’s paltry trickle of referrers):

Gosh, could it be that patterns of disciplinary supply and demand might have something to do with who gets a tenure-track job and who doesn’t? 

I DON’T KNOW! COULD IT?!?!?!?!??!?!?!? Is THAT why fields like Engineering are so robust, except people have a hell of a time finding tenure-track jobs in them, too, because adjunctification affects all disciplines?? 

Every week or so I get a comment confidently informing me of something called “PhD overproduction” in the face of “dwindling supply,” as if I had mono for all of seventh grade and did not know that already. I understand the rules of supply and demand perfectly well. I just don’t think they should govern how universities are run, because universities are not businesses. Universities don’t need to make a profit (at least legitimate ones don’t), and as such they should not be so subject to the idiotic whims of a general populace that thinks a bachelor’s degree should be 100% vocational training.

You want to let the free market dictate what people study in college? Then I look forward to my school opening a major in Kardashians (and I hope I get appointed its endowed chair, because that may involve literally endowing me with breast implants). The point of college is that it’s supposed to learn you shit you don’t already know, and that’s good fer you. That involves, ever so minutely nowadays, teaching you how to read, write, think, and amass basic non-proficiency in a language that isn’t Text Message English. These disciplines still exist, however pitifully, because even the businessiest university recognizes their inherent worth (for now).

The reason that I went into German studies is that

a) I had no idea what the academic labor market was, and didn’t think it applied to me anyway, because I would just go back to being a writer (which, by the way, I did, so congratulations 27-year-old-me, you were right about exactly one thingI), and

b) I couldn’t see six years into the future anyway, because what 27-year-old has a six-year plan? One who is not living in NYC and subsisting largely on Pringles and cigarettes, that’s for damn sure, and

c) I recognized that the discipline has inherent worth, that is completely disconnected to whether some Wall Street fucko or Walmart exec values it.

So chastising me, or anyone else, for not properly recognizing my (lack of) worth in a system I loathe and which I do not believe should govern my worth at all, is rich indeed. Almost as rich as determining that the academic labor market is a wonderful meritocracy–because, after all, look at you!




19 thoughts on “I demand you stop supplying me with Capitalist claptrap

  1. Rebecca,
    I’ve been following the blog/twitter/slate exchanges over finding work and the dubious nature of “success” in academia and the humanities. As someone who’s finishing a dissertation and deciding on whether to even go on the job market, I doubt more and more whether universities do value anything outside a business framework. Rice’s response made me laugh a bit because in many ways digital humanities and other specialities marked as the “next big thing” are in part–and only in part because I don’t want to paint new fields as simply intellectually corrupt; they’re not–are attempts to give humanities scholarship a marketable brand that can be recognized as valuable by the business administrators. I appreciate the fact that the exchanges reminded people that market value is not all value. It’s sad people in the humanities need such a reminder.

    Anyway, the writing has been thought provoking and revealing. Thanks.



  2. Thought of you, Rebecca, when one of my students, who is learning German as a non-native speaker, selected (with no input from me) The Small Fable from Kafka (which your readers will remember you posted recently) to read for an assignment to practice plosives. Does that student want to improve his accent in order to be able to work in some profession in Germany and be taken seriously? Yes. Did that student get totally blown away by his choice of written work to read aloud and get excited about it? Yes. Hmm. So a German for People Who Want to Work In Highly Paid Jobs might also include an understanding of Kafka, his own relationship to language, and his relationship to the many countries and communities who claim him as “theirs”…. but that would include people writing about Kafka. And, also, it would include learning the finer details of German grammar, European history, and a dose of philosophy and ethics. Wait – I just described the ideal of a university. Which I teach the history of, all the way back, so give me a break about universities being just ivory towers, thousands of years ago or now, any more than people in certain corner offices of certain professions have no clue about the rest of the universe – yes, there are those people in academia and in corner offices. No, they are not what everyone in whatever profession you can come up with aspires to be, or is.


  3. A bit of an orthogonal response jumping off from constant claims that the university should be considered a business only interested in its bottom line and previous references to/contrasts with the tech industry and Silicon Valley
    start-up culture: I was at the Berkeley Uncharted conference this weekend and heard psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton say something that I’ve been thinking about since then which resonates with this conversation. Mendoza-Denton cited research which shows that employees from marginalized groups perform worse in environments in which bigotry and discrimination are ambiguous. Seemingly paradoxically, it is actually better for such an employee to work for a boss they know to be an unabashed bigot because one has no expectation for respect and equal acceptance and thus tailors expectations accordingly. Conversely, in environments in which people claim not to be bigoted but are, marginalized employees are destabilized by constant self-doubt in wondering how to understand discriminatory interactions (i.e. Wait, am I right to think that was racist/sexist, etc.?) and their performance suffers as a result.

    Of course I am thinking about this research relative to the haughty arrogance of White male tenured profs proclaiming they made it because they’re better/smarter (while never giving serious consideration to how their race/gender/class privilege helped them get where they are), but I am also thinking about it relative to the disappointment felt by those who quite the academy because the academy first quit them. In so many way the academy sells a false bill of goods, claiming to be egalitarian and meritocratic in ways it is clearly not. And this kind of ambiguity is far more destabilizing than if the academy were as honest as, say, the tech world, where most people have no real expectation of equality or meritocracy and know that profit is what is valued above all else and that it is an elite White male club (just look at the flap over the boards of Twitter and Facebook). At least Tech doesn’t lie about who and what they value. A far cry from the academy which claims a commitment to diversity, equity, the life of the mind, meritocracy which it really is not about.

    Taking my own experience, I actually found working at a tech-oriented investment bank less racist and unbearable than grad school in anthropology, for the very reasons Mendoza-Denton cites. I remember being constantly confused by the racist and sexist behavior of people in my program, discipline as I kept trying to reconcile it against individual and institutional/disciplinary claims of a commitment to racial and gender equality. It was far easier to deal with people’s bad behavior when one started off having no expectation for good behavior. There was no second-guessing myself and thinking ‘it must be me doing something wrong’.

    So I think the work Rebecca is doing in calling out the BS of the academy is vital. It is much better to know what one is dealing with from the start of a graduate program and have low expectations, than to buy the egalitarianism/meritocracy claptrap.


    1. Loved, loved your post, “bad attitude”

      This, too, kept me absolutely disoriented for years; now that I understand what exactly is going on it enrages me: You wrote,” I remember being constantly confused by the racist and sexist behavior of people in my program, discipline as I kept trying to reconcile it against individual and institutional/disciplinary claims of a commitment to racial and gender equality. ”

      I don’t know what I’d do w/out this community of academic dissenters, I really don’t. Thank you!!!


  4. Well, you got manspalained and good, didn’t you? Never mind the 2008 collapse, the decline in state appropriations, the resultant explosion in adjuncts…it’s all because you chose a shitty field. Huh, now, where have I heard that before?
    Good lord, do these people not even bother to look at the facts?!


    1. I miss you, MB-M. You know we know each other, right? You never remember me from UCI, but I remember you, so that counts as knowing each other! Most of the convos we had Jason Sellers was also there; I was his HumCore teaching buddy.


  5. This comment will mostly illustrate how petty I am, but I have to admit: One of the sneaking thoughts in the back of my mind each time I read about the illusory meritocracy of academia is that the person I (currently) most want to fail in academia actually is white, male, and privileged (and tall, to boot). Not to make an enormous institutional/national/global problem all about my personal beef with someone, but the fact that I even think about this does drive home exactly how important and pervasive these issues are.


    1. Oh snap. Not that you want my advice, but in a moment like this I find it (begrudgingly) helpful to remind myself that even my nemeses are merely sentient beings caught in the same cycle of suffering as everyone else. Mr. Tall & Moneyed likely has struggles and miseries of his own, those that you know about and those that you don’t. And, also, keep in mind that a lot of TT and tenured people are miserable. It may be a brass ring, but a panacea it ain’t. That said, this guy sounds like a dick ;).


  6. Rebecca, you are a Goddess. Thanks for speaking out. I am so, so grateful for your activism. For calling out on the meritocracy BS. And for modeling alt–ac paths for those of us who want to continue contributing to our respective disciplines.


  7. I love, love, love the letter that Gregory Petsko wrote to the president of SUNY Albany when it closed most of its humanities departments. One of the points Petsko makes is that universities should not exist to respond to the “demands” of the labor market- scare quotes used because we are, apparently, not very good at translating these “demands” into majors and stuff (http://chronicle.com/article/Giving-Employers-What-They/139877). Anyway, Petsko points out that one major function of universities is as a repository for knowledge that might otherwise be lost, both for its own sake (where else might it be preserved? Certainly not in any other institutionalized form) and because it might become relevant in the future. The two examples he gives, I think- working from memory here- are the fields of virology and Middle Eastern Studies, thought irrelevant until, respectively, the AIDS crisis and 9-11 happened. For me, the takeaway is precisely the point you make- that not only do universities not HAVE to respond to the “labor market” but that they SHOULD NOT. Perhaps removing the excess of capitalistic vocabulary from the discussion of the function and operations of the university (dreaming, I know) would begin to tone down the self-important assurance that everyone who has made it into a t-t job did it purely through individual pulling on bootstraps, and so on.


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