TAS of “Thesis Hatement,” Volume 4 and Merciful Conclusion: H8rs On Parade

Jeez, am I DONE WITH THIS YET ALREADY? Almost, I swear. Now, onto the “good” part(?), which is the latest in my weeklong series of “Behind the Whatever” about “Thesis Hatement.”

Also, an acknowledgement: About 500 words of this, give or take, also appear in my essay in Moving On. Thank you for allowing me to excerpt it and reprint it here.

Also, I’m busy doing this today (I scheduled this post IN ADVANCE because it’s the future!), but here are parts I deux, and 3.

Fourth (and Final) Part: Schumenschenhaß

I tried to insulate myself from the worst of the sudden and voluminous outpouring of personal vitriol—but honestly, I did not try hard enough. I read most of it, until too many crying fits brought about a “no reading comments or Googling yourself” rule in my house. I like to think that if Karl Kraus had written Die Fackel as a blog (he was, in many ways, the Marxist Matt Drudge of his age), he’d also be obsessed with Googling himself, and Frau Kraus would make the act strictly verboten. I mean, can you blame me for being curious? Until this, I’d had zero experience with anyone talking about me on the Internet, ever, because a) I am not an important or famous person, and b) the last time I was a “professional” writer was before the ubiquity of internet comments (I wrote an unpaid print-only column for the bi-weekly New York alt-mag The L for three years in the mid-aughts), and so all I got was the occasional fanboy trying to get a date (this was when I was much younger). As a result, delving into the article’s 2000 comments, and the weeks-long carnage they spawned (a rambling counter-article in the New Yorker; an infuriating rebuttal by Katie Roiphe positively dripping with privilege), was the emotional equivalent of ripping off a very large scab. It was hideous, it was shamefully enticing, it was completely my own fault, and it hurt like hell.

The worst were the smug insistences from high-ranking entrenched academics that everything worked out just great for them, and my big failing failure was simply a result of the life of the mind and its distinct not-for-everyone-ness. Those made me shake with a combination of self-loathing and righteous indignation—we’ll call it Nietzsche-FaktorFünf. Slightly less annoying were the vitriolic speculative attacks on my academic and scholarly record, which was ironically fairly accomplished. At the time I decided to give up, I had two articles in print in my discipline’s “major” journals, and had just had my dissertation on Kafka and Wittgenstein commissioned into a book by a major university press, solely on the basis of one of those articles. I was finishing the second year of a postdoctoral teaching position at a top flagship research university, where I was appointed as part of a very competitive fellowship for which I had beat out about 600 people. I had spent a year in Austria as a Fulbright scholar. My teaching evaluations had never been less than stellar, despite the fact that I regularly made my students do yoga and Burpees when they seemed lethargic, and often cursed them out for not studying hard enough (albeit always in more advanced German than they knew).

But that did not stop hundreds of strangers from stating decisively that my “off-brand” PhD and otherwise terrible credentials were the reason for my failure to secure one of my discipline’s twenty-nine total posts that year (each of which had 150-400 applicants). It reminded me of when The Trial’s Josef K. attends his first interrogation, and the magistrate begins by saying: “So, you’re a house painter?” K. works at a bank, and finds this laughable—but it turns out the joke’s on him, because the novel’s mysterious and all-pervasive Court gets to create new realities and eventualities with its records and its reach (the “eventuality” it causes with K. is, alas, his death).

Once people managed to unearth my publicly-available CV, some acknowledged that my credentials were solid, but then moved on to my elitism—my damning reference to obscure universities in what coastal types call “the flyover” was certainly the cause of my failure (never mind that I currently lived in Ohio, and had spent the vast majority of the four previous years in St. Louis). Whatever I had done in my life up until “Thesis Hatement,” it contained a multitude of missteps and personal failings that coalesced to make me preternaturally unhireable—not unlike in The Trial, when a Priest tells K. a fable about a man from the country who wants to get access to “The Law” and instead gets foiled by a dastardly doorkeeper, who reveals at the end: “This door was created for you alone; now I am going to shut it.” Unbeknownst to me, but knownst to the Internet, the valiant Ivory Tower of Academe existed for the sole reason of shutting out riff-raff such as myself. Above all else, there was the umbrage at my attitude—obviously with an attitude like that, no academic department in their right mind would hire someone like me.

I would soon learn that there is a single correct way that we academic losers are allowed to express our loserdom. Multiple enraged defenders of the WASPy, disaffected voice of the proper academic treatise castigated me for being too passionate and pained in writing about my personal experience. Why was I not instead extolling, with measured but awestruck prose, the wondrousness of the academic journey that just happened not to lead to a career of exactly the type my detractors all possessed? This is a verbatim excerpt from a comment on a Chronicle of Higher Education forum devoted, in its entirety, to my numerous faults (and, truth be told, they barely scratched the surface):

What a missed opportunity, to find the joy and beauty in her voyage despite her disappointment, and to elevate her readers with a reflection on what she gained from it. She will never again have that audience and forum to deliver this tale. Imagine if she had used that space to thank the marvelous mentors she had acquired on her journey, or tell us about the serendipitous friendships she had made. […] I imagine a story like this, and I think of how satisfying it might have been to read, like drinking deeply from a fountain on a very hot day.

I failed to extol the beauty of my academic experience in print for several reasons. First, my favorite literature is along the lines of Gottfried Benn’s “Schöne Kindheit” (“A Fine Childhood”), which is a poem about a family of rats nesting inside the corpse of a teenaged prostitute, so “beauty” isn’t the word I’d use. Also, maybe I’m not interested in extolling the Life of the Mind because demanding that I laud a profession that excludes over 90 percent of the people it has created, at a moment when I truly do not know how I am going to keep from starving to death, is fucking absurd.

Oh, but those curse words! Would you just look at my attitude? Why must I have such a terrible attitude? So the Life of the Mind didn’t work out for me—it’s not for everyone, you know. But how dare I be so unprofessional about it? After all, academia is a profession that demands only the highest and most dignified standards of behavior from its august ranks. No tenured professor ever, for example, ditches his wife and kids to schtupp a student. No junior professor ever gets bullied for having the audacity to get pregnant, or shunned for having the temerity to report sexual harassment. No academic ever is a questionable-social-skills-having, unshowered, borderline-psychopathic misanthrope who shows up to meetings late on purpose and then holds up every single discussion with manufactured outrage that’s actually covering up some inane perceived slight from five years ago.

We failed academics are to clothe ourselves head to toe in emerald, like the hero of Gottfried Keller’s insufferable Green Henry (Der grüne Heinrich), and tiptoe up to our masters, whispering, as he did about nature, “Oh Gott! Wie schön!” (“Oh God! How Beautiful!”). We are then to sigh a tragic sigh that expresses, wordlessly, a wistful longing to have been worthy of joining the Great Conversation, and then we are to abscond forthwith! By refusing to do this, I was indeed being highly unprofessional—but given that I’d chosen to leave the profession, I didn’t think I needed to abide by its fucked-up rules anymore.


…and that’s where the origin story leaves off, and my new incarnation as both career and person began.

That’s entertainment (TM)!

17 thoughts on “TAS of “Thesis Hatement,” Volume 4 and Merciful Conclusion: H8rs On Parade

  1. You are my hero! I’m still continuing my academic journey but I have no illusions there will be some magic stellar outcome and that I will be on of the few that get their academic dream job. Thank goodness I found you and the others like you that keep us from seeing everything through the rose-colored glasses of the academic. Keep up the good work and let your nay sayers kiss your tush!


  2. For all of your strong feelings and personal investment in all of this, I think you’ve basically just -described- what happened. It’s hard to see much slant or misrepresentation in any of these posts: just your honest point of view.

    Good reading.


  3. First: Thank you for sharing this journey.

    As a former “academic” now entirely and happily ensconced in the business world, I have yet to attend a staff meeting even 10 percent as nuts as a faculty meeting. You nailed it with this – “No academic ever is a questionable-social-skills-having, unshowered, borderline-psychopathic misanthrope who shows up to meetings late on purpose and then holds up every single discussion with manufactured outrage that’s actually covering up some inane perceived slight from five years ago.” Pretty much describes every faculty meeting I ever attended – which put the outward projection of superiority and life of the mind BS in so much contrast I knew I was never going to go beyond the MFA level and ran ran ran away.


    • I was just going to quote the same paragraph, but would have included the bit about ditching their families for a student. Rebecca is at her best when describing what counts as “professional” in academia. Kills me every time!


  4. The quote from the Chronicle comments section is priceless. The irony is that, if I were to reach for the most cringe-inducing metaphors available, your parrhesia and blistering sarcasm HAVE been like a fountain on a hot day (ugh, the quote is too awful to even reproduce it ironically). Reading this remoinds me of how I look forward to another year of feeling vindicated by your prose.


  5. “What a missed opportunity, to find the joy and beauty in her voyage despite her disappointment, and to elevate her readers with a reflection on what she gained from it.” BARF BARF BARF. Anyway, you are le awesome.


  6. It seems crazy to me in some ways that TH only came out a year ago. I remember reading it and nodding along. Not once did I think “this woman needs to be smacked down.” It was all so obviously true, I didn’t see how anybody could take issue with it. (Naive, huh? It’s like I’d never been on the internet before.) It fell out of my Facebook sharing circle and I didn’t think about it again for months. When I jumped back into the whole postac blog thing, it seemed that everybody had come around to your way of thinking. (There’s a big internet-bubble effect there: I know a lot of grad students/”early career professionals” in music and the humanities. Most of us are varying degrees of disgruntled.) Watching some of the bullshit your blog and Slate pieces still attract, my false first (second?) impressions are obvious. There are still lots of lifeboaters and true believers out there.

    Still, it seems that the last year has seen more people willing to speak up and step out. TH was a big piece of that for many of us.


  7. Loved reading your account of what happened behind the scenes! Ohhh, Webecca!!!! You are too awesome for words.


  8. Now that it’s been a year and the wounds are no longer fresh, I need to share this story with you: Not much more than a week after “Thesis Hatement” came out, one of your Ohio colleagues came to a conference at my institution. During one of the lunches, she came up to me, the only graduate student there, and asked, tentatively, if I had read your piece, explaining that you were at her institution. I made a very diplomatic answer, explaining how your experiences in graduate school didn’t entirely align with mine and I wouldn’t express things the same way, but that I nonetheless found what you wrote honest and insightful and agreed with the sentiment. (The whole system is corrupt; only 50% of people finish, and only a third get TT employment. Seriously, how can you justify maintaining the status quo?) She then proceeded to throw shade on you (you didn’t apply broadly enough, you didn’t like teaching, you were not suited to an academic career, etc.). I was so shocked at such *ahem* unprofessional behavior that I am not sure how I responded.


    • Huh, interesting. Nobody there knew me well enough to know how broadly I applied; everyone there knew me enough to knew that I was a devoted and beloved teacher, though. It’s true, though, that I wasn’t suited to an academic career, but that is actually because I am too awesome. Very interesting to know who it was–can you tell me at least if it was someone older or younger?


      • Unbe–efin–livable. The cattiness, the lies, the self-justifying blinders of so many academics. I know you’ve chilled out about everything, Rebecca, but what Professor Meanie relayed makes my blood boil. Because one has heard these lies and nastiness over and over…and have no doubt it’s said about me, too. One thing about academia: the passive aggressive grapevine makes sure messages get delivered in one way or another.

        Also, is yesterday’s debate going to be made available? I regrettably had to miss out (and also, btw, my comment about your “Other” book wasn’t a hallmark card BS politeness…I WOULD love to hear more about it as I’m sure many of your readers would).


  9. “I failed to extol the beauty of my academic experience in print for several reasons. First, my favorite literature is along the lines of Gottfried Benn’s “Schöne Kindheit” (“A Fine Childhood”), which is a poem about a family of rats nesting inside the corpse of a teenaged prostitute, so “beauty” isn’t the word I’d use.”

    – Gosh, you are such a good writer. This is talent, man.


  10. I read “Thesis Hatement” over and over again, and followed the comments obsessively (until my sense of self-preservation kicked in). Even though I gave up on academia almost ten years ago and have a great life, I can’t always completely shake the thoughts of shame and failure … somehow the mindset you pick up in grad school really takes root. The funny thing: my current employer is a large consultancy that goes to great effort to build esprit de corps among its staff, and people outside the company frequently accuse me of “belonging to a cult” or “being brainwashed” when I say positive things about my experience there. No one ever accused me of being brainwashed when I actually was….


  11. The description of the rebuttal in the New Yorker should serve as the magazine’s motto: “Rambling articles dripping with entitlement.”


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