Reflections on a Year of Pissed-Off Academics

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.

17 thoughts on “Reflections on a Year of Pissed-Off Academics

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Rebecca Schuman has a new article on her blog reminiscing about how she has successfully “pissed-off academics” across the country as an education writer for both Slate and the Chronicle’s Vitae site. Schuman’s salty and funny article reflects on why her posts became a lightening rod of criticism by academics. This past year she mocked the academic job market, highlighted the pettiness of peer review and the described “cult mentality” in academia. Whether or not you hate her or love her, Schuman’s articles are always worth reading.


  2. No, Brian does not literally fuck his mother. I know that for a fact. His mother told me when I was.. uh.. you know…


  3. From a fellow em-dash abuser, thank you for all your efforts over the past year, satiric/hyperbolic and not. I, too, have never met a meritocrat in person (at least not a conscious one; I think there’ s a good deal of survivor’s guilt and related unconscious embrace of parts of that philosophy out there), so it’s handy to have them flushed out of the woodwork now and then. I’m not sure whether you’ll convince them (or anyone else safely in the lifeboat and busily facing the middle with hands firmly over ears), but I suspect, at the very least, you’ve convinced a few aspiring grad students to do something else instead. Although I don’t want it to be the case (research *is* important, and the profession does need to renew itself, if perhaps not so prolifically as it has in the past), I’m beginning to think that cutting off the TA supply, even more than cutting off the adjunct supply, is the only force that will nudge the academy toward change.

    Congratulations on both book and baby. May both birthings go smoothly!


  4. i’ve occasionally disagreed with your characterization of this or that, but as to me your snark and sarcasm and sass and sense of humor were always extremely obvious, i guess i can’t understand how they would not be equally obvious to everyone. but admini-dicks and disrupt-a-douches (hilarious!) have never been known for their grasp of the obvious, nor have a very very large subset of academics. all of which is to say : don’t sweat it. and, double down. good luck with the little symbiote.


    • Thanks, FS. Yeah, I have never expected anyone to agree with me 100%, but I have ALWAYS expected EVERYONE to understand my writing style, which to me and you and everyone I know seems fucking obvious in its sarcasm and hyperbole. It’s fine if you don’t LIKE those stylistic choices, but to pretend they’re not there and I write (and should be taken) 100% straight–especially if you are a literature analyzer by trade–has always struck me as flabbergasting.


  5. I love you Rebecca and have always appreciated your craziness, individuality and ability to speak your mind, come up with clever quips, and generally funny style. I wish you the best on the birth of your child and can’t wait to read your book.


  6. I don’t get it. One moment a bunch of academics are saying to each other how terrible it is to grade essays, and how adjuncts are abused, and peer reviewers aren’t fair, and then they find out you’ve written the same thing in Slate or Vita and they fall all over themselves to disagree with you. If you said that kittens were cute, they would claim that you are advocating that everyone write in LOLcat. If you said that puppies were adorable, the would blame you for every rabies case in America. Academia has some unappealing sides to it, but I actually find the reactions to your writing by faculty members to be one of the most disappointing.

    Good luck with everything coming up, and don’t let the fullprofs get you down.


  7. Just read “Thesis Hatement” and can only say that I wish to God I had read that before I went to get my worthless history PhD. I hope some bright young things out there take it to heart. Kudos!


    • Thanks and GOOD LUCK. You may end up landing on your feet in some sort of weird job that quasi-uses that PhD someday, but the important thing is to move on with your life and take care of yourself!


  8. Like FS said, I don’t always agree with your view and your position on things (though I do agree quite a lot!), but I always welcome your critiques because they make me (and everyone who reads them, from what I can gather) think hard about the choices we are making within academia. I liked one particular paragraph that struck me really hard, and that I hope people who have criticized you will read again and again:

    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.

    I agree, you’re not the enemy (emphasis is mine). A system where we forget the importance of being human, being kind, and working within the merits of the discipline, is a system that needs rethinking. Let’s just reflect on the issue of Professor Stefan Grimm.

    I have taken what you have made me reflect upon to heart, and I look forward to many more conversations with you on academia, and on life. Happy New Year!


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