Template for a Lifeboater Manifesto

By far the most infuriating “rejoinders” to postacademic punditry are the lifeboaters (tm WHB): “junior scholars who don’t bother thinking about the naked exploitation of a system where adjuncts are paid as little as $1,700 a course, and do just as good of a job (or better) as they do. In their minds, they won, they’re on the lifeboat, and fuck all those other people drowning around them.”

I realize that I Quit manifestos are also everywhere (here’s Melissa’s!)—but here’s the difference. There can never be enough I Quit manifestos, just as there can never be enough testimonies by exploited fast-food workers. The I Quitters like Zac Ernst and the Google-ditchers are the minority—the majority of us didn’t quit, so much as the discipline to which we devoted a decade-plus of our lives, and damn near our entire identities, quit us before we even had a chance to start our careers. I Quit manifestos are a minute but vitally important re-grasp in the general direction of an agency and power we do not have.

Lifeboater manifestos, on the other hand, are people from “on high” who stomp downward, and chastise us plebs for daring to use our outside voices while we’re drowning.

Since these essays literally are all exactly the same, I thought I’d provide this comprehensive outline, to save any future lifeboaters the trouble of attempting to take me, or anyone else in my position, to task (from official University websites, of course).

I. Introduction: lifeboater (LB) explains how s/he happened upon raw, blunt, highly vulnerable tale of academic failure that also contains systemic critique, and his/her subsequent call to action.
Ia. lifeboater’s actual reaction is “Holy shit, there but the grace of Gawd go I.”
Ia1. true feelings also include:
Ia1i. frustration at being stuck forever in Bumblefuck, Klansville
Ia1ii. abject, total horror that tenure bid will be rejected
Ia1iii. continuing Impostor Syndrome
Ib. true feelings, unacceptable in academia, internalized fully & fought over violently, then emerge from LB chest cavity as…
Ic. personal affront at “attack” that had nothing to do with him/her, and
Id. self-righteous rage in order to “defend” said “attack,” which reminded lifeboater of precariousness of circumstances, and rather large part luck played in securing them.

II. LB half-assedly nods in general direction of brutal realities of academic labor market in abstract.
IIa. tossed-off reference to “adjunctification” or “contingency” (LB has never adjuncted)
IIb. tossed-off reference to market being “tough” (LB received TT offer as ABD)

III. LB launches personal attack of author of initial critique.
IIIa. misguided assumption that national publication authors write own headlines
IIIb. wholesale dismissal of critic’s personal experience as invalid, because contradicts LB’s
IIIc. suggestion that critic’s own flaws to blame for failure to secure permanent employ, incl.
IIIc1. “off-brand” doctorate
IIIc2. “bad attitude,” all gleaned from systemic critique leveled after critic has left field
IIIc3. intimation that critic does not “believe in” or “love” work enough
IIIc4. dismissal of critic as “anti-intellectual” or neoconservative
IIIc4i. total cognitive dissonance that LB is him/herself acting like Ayn Randian college sophomore
IIId. assumption that author now makes steady full-time salary with benefits as freelance writer

IV. LB reminds us all of our assumed privilege from position of extreme privilege.
IVa. You could be a trash collector!
IVb. You could be a 911 operator!
IVc. You could shovel shit all day!
IVa1. cognitive dissonance of blatant, cruel classicism in these comparisons
IVa2. cognitive dissonance of fact that all above occupations are civil servant jobs with competitive salary, health benefits, sick time, vacation pay
IVa3. blissful lack of awareness that LB has never had to do any of these “inferior” occupations and never will

V. LB demonstrates how great things are for LB–>ergo, system great.
Va. Description of daily life, “love” of
Va1. mention of tea, lack of time card optional
Vb. Vociferous defense of “vibrant” shitty college down in middle of nowhere where LB lives
Vb1. LB either has no spouse (b/c LB is asshole) or…
Vb2. …does not have to live away from spouse; ergo, no mention of “two-body problem” except in smug abstract
Vc. hagiography of own research, esp. “love” thereof, insistence that would do for free
Vc1. has never had to do research for free
Vc2. will never have to do research for free
Vd. hagiography of own teaching and students
Vd1. hopes this manifesto counts for tenure portfolio

VI. Insistence upon deservedness of LB position–>ergo, meritocracy/platitudes
VIa. total disconnect from casual Marxism that informs all LB scholarship
VIa1. doubling down on new love of Randian capitalism with platitudes, incl. but not limited to:
VIa1i. “there are no guarantees” (LB had no uncertainty in own career)
VIa1ii. “nobody promised you your dream job” (LB has dream job)
VIa1ii. “you made your own choices” (LB made identical choices w/different outcome)

I think that pretty much covers it. I will consider all subsequent Lifeboater Manifestos to be plagiarism of this outline—and make no mistake, I will file charges.

38 thoughts on “Template for a Lifeboater Manifesto

  1. Thanks again for the credit. This is brilliant. We should also give credit to the non-LBs on the tenure track. There are plenty of folks out there who are totally willing to cop to their luck and good fortune. Too bad academia creates an atmosphere of constant insecurity and anxiety, which makes it difficult for many to admit their good luck.


  2. Spot-on! It’s the self-righteousness paired with complete disconnect from reality in these manifestoes that makes them so cruel. (Why did Toor put “contingent” in quotes, for instance?) I’d actually be a lot less offended by an LB just typing out, “FU LOSERS I GOTS MINEEEEE!!!” I mean, I can’t argue with that.


  3. I won’t speak for Merinda Simmons, but it seems to me that her post was strictly directed solely at *successful* academics who whine about how tough their life is. I find the treatment of adjuncts to be pretty awful in the current system, which is precisely why *successful* academics whining about how rough they have it rings extremely hollow to me. One could criticize the latter (as I understood Simmons to be doing), without implying that adjuncts have nothing to complain about. Your critique of Simmons seems misplaced to me …


    • Half of her essay is a personal attack on me, that is founded on several lies, one of which is that I am “successful” in any way. I am struggling every single day to make enough money to support myself. I am managing, but barely, and only because I have three jobs. She is a textbook lifeboater, to be sure–but this template isn’t for her. It’s for all of them.


  4. There’s a presumption that now that I’m on the TT, I’ll stop ‘whining’ about the treatment of adjuncts, or stop caring about issues of representation, the lack of alternative visions in graduate programs, etc. As if the issues that I’ve talked about and fought for are somehow magically gone just because I landed a full time gig. Guess what? They’re wrong. Because now I can put it in their faces EVERY SINGLE DAY. I can tell them they’re assholes and why, and give them data until they bleed.

    Bring it on, lifeboaters. I’ll give you exactly what you deserve.


  5. As an academic who left a TT job at a prestigious university, I was always struck and repulsed by the hypocrisy of my colleagues who espoused, loudly and often, leftist views about equality this and fairness that, but lived their privileged and pampered lives like hard-core right wingers who couldn’t care less about the suffering and inequality around them. Much easier to bitch about how we need universal health care or how Fox News is awful than to take action to correct an actual injustice in their everyday lives.


  6. Rebecca, I have to tell you that you continue to amaze me. (Not sarcastically but totally in the good way. It is so hard to read tone on the internet.) You singlehandedly compile and synthesize all the bogus reflections in the world of academic extracurricular media that would really depress me if I actually came across them. (Which I purposefully do not because dammit, I will get through this thesis come hell or high water and I’m trying not to get distracted by the pointlessness of it all…) It is all of the information and none of the soul-crushing depression. Many thanks.


  7. Is there any chance you will consider posting more “I Quit” manifestos from people? Or know of a place where we can contribute such manifestos?


  8. Technically academia can be considered as the perfect “meritocracy” since the term was coined by Michael Young as an ironic reflection of a system that validates its outcomes on claims that these outcomes are necessarily the result of merit


  9. Rebecca, I love your writing and I love the analogy of the life boat. I am on the tenure track; even so, I think I have PTSD from the job market (even though I landed a seat on the boat the first year I applied for jobs) and your writing is my therapy through laughter. Yet I still bristle at the language of “luck.” I know luck played a huge part in landing my job. Here is my take — I can say it was luck but not others. When other people say it was luck it downplays how hard it was to earn the PhD in the first place and to develop professionally while still a graduate student, it downplays the years spent studying the Chronicle job forum advice, and it downplays all the research and preparation that goes into the actual job search and the bruising interview rehearsals and the humiliating job interviews. Yes, I know it was luck that got me the job. I can say that but when others say that it belittles me — just as Rebecca says that no one can tell her “she’s just not cut out for academia” (an absurd assertion). The whole “luck” paradigm also plays into the women versus man success rhetoric, as evidenced by this http://m.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/02/in-the-new-york-times-sheryl-sandberg-is-lucky-men-are-good/252686/.
    What I haven’t figured out yet is if many LBs’ meanness (and tendency toward bullying) is a byproduct of the time they endured during the job search or if meanness is one of the skills that gets people jobs?


    • The politics of job market luck are very complex. Because those who do secure jobs 100% absolutely earned them and deserve them. But the inverse is not the case–and that’s where the lifeboating comes in. If we say, oh, well, I was unlucky out there and that’s it, then that implies the inverse as well: those who “made it” did it ONLY via luck. That’s not what I mean at all! You earned it, you did! But there is also *some* “good fortune” that came into play, because the hiring process is neither fair nor just. Even when it has a fair and just outcome, the process isn’t–and I think a lot of recently hired people have a lot of trouble parsing that, because the last thing someone wants after years of torture is to be told they don’t deserve what they have. That’s not what I’m saying–what I’m saying is, other people who didn’t get it deserve it too, and that’s not fair. What I’m saying is–you could just as easily have not gotten what you got, having done everything exactly as you did (I did everything exactly as you describe, for example–and I had a different outcome). At any rate, thank you and thanks for reading, and I hope your survivor’s guilt diminishes!


  10. (Long time listener, first time caller.)

    You hit it on the head right here:
    The politics of job market luck are very complex. Because those who do secure jobs 100% absolutely earned them and deserve them. But the inverse is not the case…

    That should be a post of its own!

    I’m an atypical reader of you; I am happily off the tenure track as a staff scientist at a federal lab. I am, with malice aforethought, building my publication record (H-index 7 and rising!) and my grant record so that, in four or six years, I can start interviewing at tenured-rank at research schools.

    I’m in a good place, and the future looks okay for me. My friends are mostly getting screwed, spending their lives as research assistant professors, as perpetual postdocs, and as one-year contract researchers. I only got my job because (1) I was a hard working postdoc in a prestigious lab with good references from well-known superstars and (2) my resume sailed over the transom at the same time the old grayhair with my same skills announced his retirement. So, skill and luck. I’m pretty good at what I do — but so are a lot of the folks living on one-year contract gigs here at the lab.

    Adjunctivitis has even clobbered the labs, not just SLACs and humanities departments. And the symptoms are the same.


  11. As someone who got tenure last year, I am very willing to cop to my dumb luck in going on the job market prior to the Great Recession. But if I can suggest a topic for a future article, how about couples in which one partner is entenured and the other an adjunct. The cognitive dissonance of the “I’m a total Marxist, but sod all those adjuncts” variety is SUPPOSED to take place within the mind of a Lifeboater, but it is much harder to maintain within an actual relationship. This could be a useful demographic to aim at.


    • I’ll work on it. I’m in a VERY weird situation, which is that my husband is “better” contingent faculty than I am (FT, with benefits) but we are both Less Than compared to the precious TTs.


  12. You forgot to include this one, which I’ve seen a good bit of lately: critic, “sounds like my grad students.” That one drives me particularly nuts. Also, it makes me feel really bad for that LBer’s grad students.


  13. MM asks a really important question which I think is worth exploring further (perhaps in a new post?) about what role meanness and bullying have in academic success. I think we should take seriously that the current job market/neoliberal corporate university not only rewards and encourages bullying and meanness, but also encourages and rewards unethical and sociopathic behavior. Sociopathy is characterized by a lack of empathy, and a lack of empathy is precisely what bullying lifeboaters display and encourage–and encourage their students to display. Moreover, true sociopaths have no problem ditching spouses so as to move for a job: no ‘two body’ problem there. (So when MM asks why mean bullies are rewarded and getting ahead academically, I think about a CNN article on sociopaths from a couple years ago, titled “The Psycho-path to Success?”)

    This lack of empathy, the sociopath’s lack of empathy, makes bullying and meanness not only acceptable but desirable. Enjoyment is derived from abusing others, from their suffering, while telling oneself it is because one is just better and smarter.

    Even within this conversation on acknowledging luck I think we need to push the conversation further, especially so as to think about how to push back against sociopathic levels/displays of non-empathy and bullying. Speaking as a person who has been on the receiving end of bullying and sociopathy, I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent murder of Renisha McBride, and how it is not in fact unrelated to this conversation. People in my graduate program all would claim to be good antiracist progressives, but when they saw a White male student, eventually joined by professors, bullying me for speaking out against the department’s hostile climate and culture of bullying, they had no qualms discrediting me for telling the truth by smearing me as a violent Black ghetto criminal (which I continue to be smeared as to this day despite being a Yale grad from lily white Connecticut). In short, they have no qualms supporting and encouraging others to view me through the racist stereotypes that killed Renisha McBride because it is always acceptable to say one felt threatened by a Black person, simply because the person is Black, even if the person was knocking on a door to ask for help or innocently “carrying a baby in a tummy pack”. Of course these same people would publicly lament the killing of Renisha McBride, but they are more than happy to support the racist lack of empathy which made her death possible, and to see it as disconnected from a Black graduate student speaking out against the bullying and meanness that have been normalized in the academy, especially at some schools and in certain departments.

    ‘Luck’ in getting an academic job also includes being in the right body to be seen as and treated as a human being, to not be treated as a criminal for speaking out about the meanness and bullying that MM writes about, to be seen as a human being worthy of getting help when asking for it, instead of being shot in the face. I would have been shot in the face too, as professors in my department have made clear, because I am seen as a “frightening” “very dark-skinned South African”. So yes, the normalization of meanness, bullying, and non-empathy in the academy is worth thinking more about, because it is at the heart of so much of what is presently wrong with contemporary academia, from the uncompassionate attacks by lifeboaters to the poverty wages paid to adjuncts.

    I know this was an orthogonal response, but in the end I couldn’t see the question of academic bullying and meanness as seperate from these articles:




  14. Amazing. Very, very true. Here in Brazil, I see daily people who were exploited when they were PhDs but got their jobs without doing endless post docs, and they expouse this kind of think exactly.


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