As I get ready to spend most of December and January focusing on my book manuscript (and, also, as I prepare to bring a teeny tiny tyrant into the house), I’ve been reflecting back on the last year or so, which I’ve spent as a contracted columnist for Slate and the Chronicle. A tiny minority of the pieces I’ve written have been written with the stated intention of pissing off the academy. Tiny. Most of my work has been far more cut-and-dry: Here’s an administrator who did something terrible; here is how you participate in class without pissing off your classmates; here are some adjunct issues, and some more adjunct issues, and some MOOCs, and some academic freedom, and some old people who aren’t actually “clogging up the pipeline,” etc.
But I admit it — on a few occasions I have deliberately set out to kick the hornets’ nest, and it’s been interesting to see what the hornets did back.
I suppose, indeed, that “Thesis Hatement” was the first time I did this, and although it is not my most-read article (that would be a short news item on going to college in Germany for free), it definitely set the tone for how many in the academy perceive me, which is fine. I was not treated well by the academy, and I owe it nothing in return, and the fact that I have managed to eke out a living critiquing it with relentless honesty has been my life’s greatest professional blessing.
Other pieces in the Fuck Academia Subgenre include “Revise and Resubmit!,” “The End of the College Essay” (which was at least 50% tongue in cheek), and, most recently, “The Campus Alcohol Problem Nobody Talks About.” So again, that’s like four articles out of what I am pretty sure is a repertoire in the triple digits — but, if they’re the ones that make the biggest scream on their way out into the black hole of Internet oblivion, so be it.
Like I said — academia showed me its worst sides, chewed me up and spat me out to die, all the while telling me sanctimoniously I should never have felt “entitled” to a job, and this after I gave it ten years of devoted, underpaid labor in the service of an “apprenticeship” that was never to materialize into a career. Given how bad the job market is, academia has done this to a lot of people — the only difference is that for a lot of reasons, most folks are never able speak candidly.
It’s also not my fault my version of events has attracted a wider audience than some others. People like a spectacle. I don’t mind giving people what they like — in fact, I have recently parlayed my talent for self-humiliation into a pretty sweet book deal, and am in the process of writing, in great detail, a memoir that basically consists of my life’s most humiliating moments. (And for what it’s worth, these humiliating moments contain a lot of alcohol, as I was a heavy and enthusiastic drinker until about 2006.)
I also do find it interesting how different my experience in academia was than that of many others, and how we choose to express that difference, and that’s what I really want to talk about today. I am being 100% honest when I say that every “controversial” thing I have ever written about academia is something that seemed at the time so intrinsic to the culture — and to everyone I have ever known in it — that it was obvious.
When I wrote about the job market in “Thesis Hatement,” or the cult mentality in “My Academic Metamorphosis,” I was truly flabbergasted when so many righteously offended academics insisted that I was wrong, that academia is indeed a just meritocracy where the best succeed and the failures fail for a reason. I have known hundreds of academics across all different fields, and I had never come across any meritocrats until I wrote those two articles and they descended on me en masse. Some simpering medievalist jerk-butt once wrote in response to my work that adjuncting is like getting a smaller serving of the world’s greatest ice cream (full-timing being a larger serving, I suppose?) and that anyone who doesn’t believe this is just whining. I’m sorry, dafuq? Many adjuncts are on food stamps and get no ice cream ever, not to mention heat, medicine or gasoline.
When I wrote about peer review in “Revise and Resubmit,” it was because I have seen petty readers’ reports reduce grown adults to tears. Again, I have never met a single academic (and I know hundreds) who has not been the victim of some scathing needlesssly personal report — and, again, just as with the job market, the subject’s been written about a lot! And yet, suddenly, I was the dumb one (that fucking article is what prompted a sad little man-boy to spend God knows how much of his time “researching” the Schoeuvre for his sad, unreadable Inside Higher Ed hit piece). You really do learn something new every day.
It was just about a year ago, though, that we ran “The End of the College Essay,” which caused what I am sure are a bunch of otherwise mild-mannered composition teachers to lose. their. shit. Like LOSE their shit on me. I was straight-up abused for writing that — and I wrote it for them! I wrote it for every single professor I have ever seen complain about grading a paper, which is every last fucking one of them. I wrote it as a steam-blowing-off joke, as semi-serious semi-satire, as a cheeky “what if” in response to the piles and piles and piles and piles of grading-woe that engulfed my Facebook and Twitter feeds every single semester. And yet, it turns out that professors are deeply invested in that paper-grading crown of thorns, the red-pen stigmata.
And, finally, yesterday I published a piece about academic drinking culture, to which a bunch of sanctimonious drinking academics replied that they had no idea what I was talking about. I mean, of course they enjoy a glass of wine (or five) sometimes, but that’s their right! They know plenty of non-drinkers who don’t have a problem with it at all! The isolating experience of the non-drinker in academia was completely and utterly discounted as fantasy, by a bunch of people who had never had that experience.
What a year of learning it’s been. I mean, obviously of course people are going to get defensive when I offend them — especially when I do so deliberately and with relish. But what I’ve realized is that the defensiveness comes not from any of us being “right” (I’m sure their truths are as true to them as mine are to me) — but from a specific defining characteristic of the academic lifestyle that is actually one of its best, except when it’s not.
Full-time academics basically have no boss. They often work with no accountability whatsoever — unless students really, really complain, faculty are trusted, largely, to know what they’re doing, in matters from curriculum design all the way to research workflow. What accountability there is comes from administrators, who are often concerned with offensively stupid shit like “learning outcomes” and retention and “customer experience,” so I 100% support the lack of cooperation with, and open resentment of, the oversight of people who have often never taught a class or done any research and don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of critiques leveled at academia from outsiders, usually conservative ones or Silicon Valley disrupt-a-douches, who again have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about, and should be summarily ignored. So, when you are largely immune to accountability from people whose opinions actually matter, and subject to “accountability” from people whose opinions are complete and utter bullshit, the result is that any critique will be lumped in the “complete and utter bullshit” category, and you will want to defend yourself against it.
As a critic of the academy who came up in it (and would, likely, still be in it if it had let me), and who recognizes the tremendous importance of the humanities and mourns their continuing snuffing-out, I’m not some intellectual-hating admini-dick. But I’ve found myself, unwittingly, being placed on what I consider the wrong side of the line, simply because I have not engaged in “solidarity” with all of academia. And yet, lumping me in with all of the dipshit anti-intellectuals is not fair to me or to the complexity of my criticism — it is like aligning feminist critiques of feminism with the MRAs.
The last year has, of course, also afforded a tremendous opportunity for me to reflect on my own failures and shortcomings, which are many. I’m too sensitive. I tend to fly off the handle when provoked, even when I provoke people to provoke me. I use too many em-dashes. I fail to conduct ten months of IRB-approved data collection to provide unassailable statistical backing for every single one of my articles. And that’s just what I can think of in 20 seconds.
I am not afraid of looking in the mirror, however terrifying it may be (and trust me, these days, as I grow monstrous and am taken over by bulging veins, it’s terrifying). I am not afraid of holding a mirror up to academia, either. I do not regret a single word I’ve written in the past year (except one ill-advised Tweet to an MRA that got me gagged from ever writing about Brian goddamned Leiter, in case you’re wondering why I’ve never dared go to town on that motherfucker).*
It’s been a wild and crazy ride, and I am looking forward to the relative few weeks of manuscript-writing peace and quiet I will get to experience before, all deities willing, the birth of our child. Once I return from maternity hiatus, I may be a changed person, so I make no guarantees about what I will write then.
In the meantime, I hope that others will continue to hold a mirror up to the academic establishment — and that they will not flinch when the established choose to punch that mirror to shards instead of taking a good, long look.
*I look forward to my forthcoming “defamation” “suit” “threat” from Leiter, wherein he accuses me of claiming that he literally fucks his mother.