The last thing I want to do is give any more clicks to one of the least-important pieces of educational journalism to be published in the past year–so I won’t. But I would like to talk about it a little bit, because it contained this somewhat jarring description of my online persona:
In the humanities, Rebecca Schuman has become a voice for the university’s dispossessed. More often than not, Schuman uses her platform at Slate and elsewhere to throw out the whole university baby with the bathwater of adjunct labor. Schuman herself, it’s worth pointing out, is a product of a broken system. A prestige-obsessed research culture indoctrinated her and others like her into believing that the tenure-track R1 job is the only path to a good life. Then, after years of humiliating rejection in a terrible academic job market, Schuman, as she retells it, is relegated, with so many part-time faculty members (myself included), to a row in the adjunct galley, keeping the ship of academe afloat—while being treated (as the Emory English professor and Chronicle columnist Marc Bousquet so floridly puts it) as the “indigestible remainder” of a system that thrives on exploitation.
Oof. All right. I’ll tell you one thing: Being described like this in a publication that regularly prints my own work and claims to like me is many times more humiliating than the job market in German — which rejects the vast majority of its entrants, impersonally and often with immense regret. (I’d also, if I had time, provide ocular proof of the 90/10 teaching college/R1 ratio of my job apps.)
My other quibble with this is the “more often than not.” I’m actually in the process of getting a word cloud of my Slate corpus done to prove that my work is, again, 90% about things that almost all academics agree with (sexual assault is a huge problem! Adjuncts need better pay! Cruise-taking provosts are, in Jean-Ralphio Sapperstein sing-song, the wooooorst! Colleges shuttering departments but building climbing walls can go fuck themselves! Violating a professor’s academic freedom is not OK! Business degrees that never end are weird! The Digital Humanities is a thing! Paper mills are dodgy!). It’s not my fault that what people choose to focus on is the stuff that pisses them off. I mean, I do that too! We all do that. That’s what the Internet is for. Anyway.
The piece goes on to argue that:
In response [to growing discontent with the labor status quo…I think?], we’re turning to venomous bloggers who, outside academic disciplines, can’t be held accountable to academic standards of civility, and who, being individual guns for hire, don’t speak to the needs of the profession so much as they serve the needs of their editors. Indeed, it warrants repeating that many of the dispossessed no longer see themselves as belonging to a profession—hence they don’t feel obliged to speak courteously, think honestly, or work for the common good.
I resemble that remark! OK, seriously: I read this description, and I think: This Rebecca Schuman person sounds awful. Who would ever listen to her?
And it gets better. I should never, ever, ever read the comments for articles like these (or any), but my friend Marc Bousquet linked me to what I thought was his blogged or otherwise non-commented reaction, and that brought me to a comment thread that basically consisted of my friends, arguing with my enemies, about a me who faded further and further into the background. I barely recognized myself in the author’s original characterization, so you can imagine what I thought when I saw this:
Please spare us the nonsense that [Rebecca is] some champion of academic labor. She demeans grad students. She demeans academic research. She hates tenure track faculty – tenured and non. She degrades the work they do and the institutions they work for. And yet she proclaims, over and over again, that she’s really our advocate.
So, this is what I want to talk about. Not with vitriol, not with defensiveness — just a quiet discussion between friends.
Okay. First. I have never meant to demean anyone’s research. When I called my own work “bat-shit” in Slate over a year ago, that was so that I didn’t look like a complete dick linking out to it (hint: this failed. But, on the other hand, if I hadn’t linked to proof of a strong publication record, all I would have gotten is well she probably can’t do anything so that’s why she’s so dumb etc etc).
I don’t have a problem with academic writing per se: I have a problem with the paywalls, the turnaround, the gatekeeping, the deliberate inaccessibility of it to the greater public. I also don’t agree with the current expectations of academic publishing, which none other than Mr. Higgs-Boson himself has said make innovation almost impossible. There is simply too much writing expected of scholars in all disciplines. Publish or perish has become an absurd caricature of itself (plus, it’s often “publish and perish” anyway). This is my unvarnished, persona-free, real and true opinion, and if you want to know more about it, here’s an idea: fucking email me with your real name and have a conversation like a human. I’m very easy to contact.
All right, second. APB to the dozens of ladder faculty I call my friends (and vice versa): Did you know that I hate you? I didn’t. Forgive me!
All right, now on to demeaning graduate students. This is a particularly upsetting accusation, and I will tell you why. When I am not taking provocative stances as a writer for a publication that champions contradictory points of view, I am something called a “dissertation coach.” I work under another name (though not in secret; simply to keep my personae separate) for a wonderful company that saves careers and (sometimes, no exaggeration) saves lives.
My Not-Secret Other Life
As a dissertation coach, I am part therapist, part project manager, all friend. I listen to my clients’ honest, forthright descriptions of their struggles: With advisers distant or micro-managerial, with deadlines near and far, with years-long blockages, with projects fraught with joy and disappointment, with relationships with academe healthy and toxic, with dissertations that need to get done. I speak with each client for an hour a week over Skype, and during the first half of that hour, they are more honest with me about their fears, challenges, triumphs and issues than they are with their advisors, with their friends — often even with their spouses (as anyone who is both married and in possession of a doctorate knows, at some point all spouses just do not want to hear it anymore).
I talk my clients through their problems, and I suggest compassionate, real ways in which they can re-orient their relationship to their work, so that it is not a source of dread or fear, but a source of pleasure and fun. I help them to see the strength inside them that was always there, or to fake it until they make it. I show them that no matter what happens after graduate school, they can finish and move on with their lives. I teach them to be kind to themselves — and promise (always correctly) that better work comes out of self-compassion and kindness.
For the second half of the call, it’s drill-sergeant mode. I have them list the work they have to do and its deadlines, and I determine the pace they need — and then schedule their work in finite, accomplish-able tasks, which they check off or cross out at the end of every day on a document we both share and edit. On this document they also write me little notes about how their work is going (or isn’t), and I wish them luck and troubleshoot their queries between coaching sessions.
In short, my coaching practice (currently at capacity, I’ll have you know!) allows me to use both my triumphs and defeats in academia to help people. The people I help come to me desperate and broken, and I help them fix themselves. I have watched people self-repair before my eyes. It is the proudest accomplishment of my life.
Yes, I criticize academia quite robustly in my writer persona — because academia, as a system, needs somebody to do it who, yes, is not beholden to its conventions and thus can speak with honesty. I know that I do not speak for everyone. I have never meant to, nor even tried to. I do not expect everyone to like me or agree with me. But to say that what I do demeans graduate students is both hurtful and false. In reality, I spend a great portion of my day helping graduate students — more, a great deal more, than any sycophantic hit-piece or circular, sniping comment thread ever will.