A Brief Interlude from my Other/Real Self

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.

35 thoughts on “A Brief Interlude from my Other/Real Self

  1. These academic attackers: a demonstration of your effectiveness. You have got through some extremely tough craniums (numb skulls?:) who have been in long denial. Notice that they do not address the problems you discuss but simply use ad hominem attacks, the cheapest form of argument. They’re just screaming. SO WHAT, LET THEM SCREAM1


  2. Yes, you help tons of grad students. A lot. Haters gonna hate. And grad students often hate themselves, and project it.

    I hope all your clients sent you pics of themselves with their degrees when they finish. ❤


  3. I found this byte from the piece you quoted to be hilarious:

    “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.”

    Since when did “the profession” ever care about the “common good” or honest thinking? The biggest reason I became disenchanted with it was how it preached truth and justice while treating a large number of its members as lesser people whose job it was to get paid peanuts while keeping their mouths shut.

    The powers that be in the academic profession have been so used to getting a free pass and avoiding criticism from the inside that they just can’t handle the truth, to quote Jack Nicholson. Keep up the good work.


    • Yeah, I didn’t even GET to that. Like, as if I work dishonestly and for the common bad, and my polar opposite, the academic establishment, works in complete honesty and for the common good. L to the O to the L


  4. “we’re turning to venomous bloggers who, outside academic disciplines, can’t be held accountable to academic standards of civility,”

    Academic standards of civility…seriously… is that a thing?

    My graduate program had two professors with offices next door to each other who didn’t speak for something like 20 years. I’ve seen all sorts of people just ooze contempt for their colleagues. Question and answer sessions at conferences are often unnecessarily vicious. A friend in another department (fortunately tenured) had a department chair who simply refused to speak to her for his entire stint as chair, all communication had to go through the department secretary for six years. Another friend’s tenure was nearly sabotaged by a department chair who had publicly feuded with his wife. I’ve sat in more than one meeting staring at a crack in the floor while two tenured faculty shouted at each other from opposite sides of the room. I’ve seen faculty meetings end with slamming doors and people running down the hall. And bloggers are a problem because they are “outside the standards of the profession”?


    • Can I just say….I LOVE hearing about these scenarios even thought it’s so wrong!. It’s my “bread and circus” vindictive pleasure.Academic departments often resemble (ARE) dysfunctional 25 year marriages with ten other people.


    • Indeed, this smokescreen of “academic standards of civility” simply seems to be an awkward complaint about the blogosphere that reveals an unwillingness for many institutions to tackle lots of these fundamental issues, which we indeed seem to be mostly in agreement about. Bloggers are much more willing to concede the human toll of the academy’s current state, and of course that is going to unnerve some observers who want to suggest they are actually allies. I have some sympathy as a tenured insider frustrated with many of these same issues and with administrators’ unwillingness to entertain change, but ridiculing peoples’ experiences as expressed outside conventional channels is simply naive at best. And of course the personalities peopling the academy are their own peculiar stripe of neuroticism that often don’t deserve to be described as “civil” at all. I never have thought the blog was anti-academic at all, but to characterize academic discourse as “civil” or the academy as a well-oiled machine is a convenient fantasy.


  5. I find it a bit Stockholm-Syndrome-like (and counterintuitive) that somebody will write a piece asking for a civil conversation while actually writing demeaning stuff about the person they say actually demeans “the profession” (their words, not mine).

    I spend, as you may have witnessed online Rebecca, a fair amount of my time encouraging civil discourse and conversation among academics. Yet I find myself angered by the same things you write about so passionately. I feel vindicated when you too critique something that breaks my heart about academia.

    Overall, as I’ve said, I may not agree 100% with 100% you say, but by hell I have your email and we’ve had some wonderful email exchanges and I sure as hell am grateful that there is a voice like yours (and like Eric Grollman, and @Zaranosaur and Kim Wilson and Lee Skallerup Bessette and Robert Oprisko and so many more I respect as I do you) to remind us (yes, I’m on a tenure-track position) that we are in this together, and that if we are to save higher education and academia, we do it as a team, and not divided.

    Many hugs.


  6. So basically, we have an insider who benefits from the status quo dismissing a systematic critique as a campaign of lies and disinformation from a disgruntled former employee. I’m troubled at the extent to which the Academy has adopted the corporate playbook, rolled it up, and used it to squash the insects of dissent. (I think you’re the insect in this metaphor, sorry.)

    As a failed academic with a technical career who is objectively “more successful” than his professor friends, but envies them their classrooms, let me say again that I think you provide a valuable voice against the trend of turning the University into a country club.


    • No kidding. Her blog itself was really empowering for me and therapeutic in and of itself in helping me see that *I* am not the problem.


      • Ditto. I don’t know where I’d be without Rebecca, frankly. I CANNOT imagine what it must have been like ten years ago to face this ac/postac process without the support that she has extended in the public sphere.

        AND I would have also LOVED to pay for a dissertation coach/ mentor who actually cared about me AND knew how to help me write a dissertation. Because god knows I had NO ONE… AND I MEAN NO ONE. Neglect was the better option to the obstruction I’d faced for my first few years while in residence.


  7. Thank you for helping graduate students! If tenure track faculty took their dissertation advising responsibilities seriously, there might not be a booming demand for dissertation coaches.


    • Maybe, maybe not. Even the most supportive dissertation advisor might not actually have much good productive advice about how to actually write the thing, because everyone’s writing style/needs are different.


  8. Coaching client (as was) D. Gregor here; you helped me A LOT! With the completion of my first chapter and a plan for the second one, in exactly the ways you describe here.

    I’m glad you took the opportunity to let the haters know how you help grad students through coaching. Your writing helps us, too, but that’s already out here.

    Look for a jpeg of my title page.


    • Yeah, normally I keep the worlds separate, but seeing that I “demean” and “hate” graduate students repeated over and over again was too much, given how many hours a week I spend devoted to helping them finish. I know your next chapter is going to be amazing — and on your terms :).


  9. I’m a bit late to this story, so I’m not sure what article you’re not linking too, but here’s the part of what you quoted that jumped out at me:

    “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.”

    I get really tired of hearing this idea spouted. Yes, this attitude exists, but mostly only among the already tenured and among grad students who haven’t yet had to face the academic job market.

    And it’s a doubly pernicious lie/delusion. First, it’s an easy bit of victim blaming. “Oh, you entitled humanities PhDs would have jobs if only you weren’t so stuck up.” But second, and more importantly, it sends a false message of hope to current or prospective grad students, “Don’t worry: As long as you actually like teaching and aren’t hung up on prestige, you’ll have no problem getting a teaching job.”


  10. Oh yeah, and if we’re worried about people who demean and degrade the work we do and the institutions we work for, let’s start with those who hire fellow members of their own profession at poverty-level wages. Adjunct teaching contracts degrade us all by demonstrating to students, parents, administrators, boards of regents, governors, and legislatures that academic work does not require professional wages and benefits.


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