Please Stop Saying “Not Everyone is Suited for Academia”

Some real talk today, talkin’ ‘bout my feelings ‘n shit.


[Rockin’ the Catskills today. You jelly?]

I am coming to terms with the fact that I am never going to be a “real” professor—although try telling that to the students whose lives I will enter in a few weeks’ time: their homework and grades will seem “pretty real” to them. But no, I’ll be a mere adjunct at a tiny Honors College inside a regional university in the Middle West (Gatsby style!), an “academic nobody,” as Lee Skallerup Besette has characterized the uncharitable views of some of her blog’s worst trolls.

Most days I am happier than I have been in many years about this. My long-term partner, whom I met my first year of graduate school (and whom I attracted precisely because I “didn’t seem like a grad student”) has remarked that since my postdoc ended and I moved back to St. Louis, that I’ve aged in reverse.

It’s true—there are some “Ohio wrinkles” I don’t see anymore, accompanied by a life in my eyes and a general dearth of the abject terror that lurked below each day in Columbus, like so many pollution-filled mussels on the bed of the Olentangy River. I dye my hair again, a glorious bottle-red, unleashed in all its pigment after years of Professorial Gravitas Brown—or, even worse, my natural color, which is now aggressively peppered with grey.


[Who’s that sweet redhead who appears to be in her MID-thirties instead of her LATE thirties?!?]

If I was a disciplined and productive academic writer, cranking out journal articles and then finally my monograph—finished and submitted to the press this past May—then now I am a motherfucking locomotive. I have so much to write that I simply can’t get it all down. It’s like eight years of pent-up creativity that had been stuffed back by my own dismissals of anything other than Serious Scholarship as wasted energy have come geysering out, for better or worse.

A few weeks after “Thesis Hatement” came out and all I saw on the Internet was hate, hate, hate, hate and more hate, I lay curled on the couch in St. Louis crying, wishing aloud that I would just die in an accident already, something that wouldn’t be my fault, quick and painless, gone. I had lain extremely bare my own failure after seven years of sacrificing my health and my happiness, I had perilous few new prospects, and I had an Internet peanut gallery making sure I knew I had no future in anything. I wanted to die. One night, I made a list of my positive attributes: I started with “Usually Remember to Drink Enough Water” and was stumped thereafter. Although in my defense, hydration is IMPORTANT. (I know now, of course, that it was far from all hate, but like so many of you, I get eighteen adulatory evaluations and one critical one, and I commit the latter’s complaints to memory forever.)

Three months later, I feel like a different person, though I am drawn sometimes into spats about the vicissitudes of the job market and academe’s cult-mentality in general. Still, now I’m emboldened by my new identity as a curse-spewing postacademic hellraiser, straight-up high on the inimitable sobriety of being able to speak aloud the truths that so many people are still afraid to whisper. I’m emboldened by the simple fact that I live another life now,  one for which I am infinitely better suited.

So it’s true—I was not “suited” to academia. But I don’t want to hear that from anyone but me, and here’s why. First of all, I still adjunct, and because it is not my primary source of income and it’s two sections of the same course I’ve taught before, it truly is part-time and I like it. So when nonacademic friends  said, in attempt to make me feel better during the “die in an accident” stage, that academia cramped my style—well, I’m still a professor, so watch it. I think like a literature professor about everything; I bring my ability to scrutinize texts and take apart issues to everything I do. I may not act like Avital Ronell (shudder), but, to paraphrase the great scholar Young MC:

I had to go to college because I’m an intellectual
I only sleep with men because I am heterosexual

I’ve called myself the “intellectual’s anti-intellectual” as a joke, largely in reference to my equal proclivity to enjoy Bertolt Brecht and The Bachelorette, but I am a goddamned intellectual, so don’t tell me that such things don’t “suit” me, because they “suit me” just fine—my way.

I sew most of my own clothes to fit my body just-so. Because if this, I don’t know what size I am. I’m 36-28-40: me-sized. I’m exactly the right size to fill out the clothes I make to suit me:

[Bridesmaid dress for my partner’s sister’s wedding, the Sultry Sheath from Gertie‘s New Book for Better Sewing. This wedding was on the day “Thesis Hatement” came out. Can you see the shellshock? And no, I didn’t walk the aisle in the Mickey Mouse flip-flops.]

I have done this with academia as well: I have taken the parts that “suit me”—teaching, reading critically, thinking philosophically, participating in critiques about the present and future of higher ed—and tailored them to fit my personality. And I have done away, for now at least, with the parts that don’t “suit me”:

Research, for example, doesn’t suit me right now. But not because I wasn’t good at it. I mean, I guess, like the hundreds of commenters on my op-eds who either didn’t read my CV or don’t know how to read a CV, you could say I wasn’t good at it, but that would be news to the editors at Modern Austrian Literature, The German Quarterly, and Northwestern University Press; to the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften and the Austrian Fulbright Commission; to the DAAD and the American Council for Learned Societies; and to every department where I’ve ever been interviewed—and even some where I didn’t make the cut, but scrawled in handwriting below the form rejection was a missive insisting my writing sample was “nothing short of amazing” (I love positive academic hyperbole on the rare occasions I get it!).

I’m taking a hiatus from academic writing for one reason only: I am sick of spending years of my life squeezing out meticulously researched and difficult academic prose—which I then have to manipulate, sometimes four times over, to placate the needs of meanie-pants anonymous peer reviewers—that maybe, maybe, seventeen people on Earth will ever read, for the grand sum of $0. I’m not saying I don’t Believe In My Ideas, your Royal Highness FULLPROF Mayhew, I’m saying I want to write things that appeal to a wider audience.

You know what else doesn’t suit me? Going on the job market. Spending months crafting individual 70-page dossiers for each school because every search committee demands something different: a three-page teaching philosophy! A one-page teaching philosophy that pertains specifically to the courses taught by that department (but not THOSE courses you like, those are the purview of Mean Senior Prof Everyone Hates, and even displaying the slightest interest in them is enough to make the committee go nuclear on you)! A five-page research statement! A twenty-page writing sample (even though all of your articles are twenty-five)! A six-page abstract of the dissertation you finished four years ago! Your three most recent evaluations and your three least recent! Your ten most negative evaluations! And then pretending not to check that goddamned baby-killing Wiki, but then checking it anyway and watching as the interviews start piling in for everyone, it seems, but you. x4! x12! xEveryoneButSchuman! And do not get me started on conference interviews, because I have such exquisite bile for them that I think someone will pay me to share it. And the waiting. And the searing, wrenching rejection that “isn’t personal, so move on.” After four years, you know what? Don’t mind if I do.

And you know what else doesn’t suit me? Politicking, preening, ass-kissing; servility, sycophantism, cowardice. I’m not saying that every department ever is filled with, or requires, these things, nor that other industries don’t run on them. I’m saying that there is enough of this bullshit in academia that I’ve had my fill, and I would rather hang out with people who don’t treat a coffee date like a comprehensive exam.

And you know what else? Getting sneered at every time I let slip that I have any hobbies besides alcoholism. “How do you have the time to sew or watch TV?” I get, over and over, from people who spend three nights a week belligerently drunk. I have time, in part, because I write very fast, and in part because I don’t drink. I spend all day, every day, 100% sober, so I lose no time to either drunkenness or hangovers. But the thing is, for a lot of academics (not ALL OF THEM, Vim, so lay off), drinking somehow counts as scholarship, as long as you’re yelling about Kant and Kleist when you do it.

I am fully, painfully aware of the ways in which academia doesn’t suit me—but that doesn’t mean that I like it when FULLPROFS and others say this, because it smacks of that heartbreaking dismissal so many disillusioned PhDs get when they fail to become adequate replicants of their mentors: “Well, not everyone is suited for academia.”

What they mean is this, and this only: you weren’t good enough. You weren’t cut out for it because you aren’t smart enough. You failed. Academia’s only for winners like me, and you’re a loser. Academia is only for the best—like me. This is an unbelievably cruel thing to say to someone who already feels like a failure. It is inexcusably, searingly cruel, and I really wish that people would stop.

If I had been willing to squelch my natural “pluck” and remain servile, to lose my wonderful relationship while I moved, alone, from one Midwestern town where I didn’t know a single goddamned person to the next, to withstand (or even enjoy) departmental politics and conferencing, then academia would have “suited” me fine. I am coming to terms with the fact that those sacrifices weren’t worth it—but that is my journey to take, and my conclusion to reach.

Good God, Now ‘Just Shut Up’ is a Thing: An Open Letter to Paige Ambroziak & Co.

It’s sort of bad enough that Just Don’t Go is a thing—despite my active and continuous participation therein. Because like the vast majority if PhDon’ters, I wish that the academic labor market were different, and that I had not unwittingly become the curse-spewing voice of the disaffected literature job marketer (and I realize that I do not speak for all of you, or even most of you—but to that I say, speak the fuck up then).

But I do this because I cannot stand by while self-professed Marxists behave like feudal lords/Ayn Rand fans at the top of their “meritocracy,” equal parts breaking down their progeny and coddling them into believing that “there are always jobs for good people.” Although, of course, “there are no guarantees,” but the important thing about the Life of the Mind is that you, in the words of my #1 Fan, FULLPROF Jonathan Mayhew of the University of Kansas, “believe in your ideas,” that you recognize the dire importance of your treatises on the subaltern and atavism in The Adventures of Simplicissimus (a seriously bananas picaresque novel that is truly amazing in its weirdness), that you love what you do.

I’ve talked about love before. As have I called out mid-indoctrination grad students who have never been on the job market for not knowing what the fuck they’re talking about. I thought I didn’t have anything new to say on either of those topics, but then my very own sometime employer, the Chronicle of Higher Education (see samples of my august work mhyeah, mhyeah and myheah), published this today, wherein an ABD who has never been on the job market, Paige Ambroziak, decided to tell me, and William Pannapacker, and other people who actually care very deeply about her and what is going to happen to her in a few years, to STFU, because don’t I know that just having the PhD degree doesn’t entitle me to a job? And professional hockey players? AND JOHN GALT HOWARD ROARK BOOTSTRAPS?

I will admit that what I want to say to her, and to anyone who finds her rebuttal to the Just Don’t Gouevre compelling is FUCK. YOU. But that’s immature and obscene, so I’ll leave it implied, and instead just put it this way:

ATTENTION ALL MID-INDOCTRINATION GRAD STUDENTS. It may seem like a very good idea to publish sycophantic, denialist op-eds for wide audiences that endear you to your advisers and their cohort. And indeed, it may help you get a few interviews, and you’ll look like a good little servile Life-of-the-Minder in a few years’ time when it matters. I can’t say it’s really a bad career move, because that would be disingenuous. But here’s the trouble:

Paige Ambroziak, Nicholas Barber, Freddie DeBoer, Amy Pistone…you keep raving about a movie that you haven’t seen to the end. A story whose last chapter you haven’t read. I read your full-throated endorsements of academia, and this is what it looks like to me:

“I’ve read forty pages of The Great Gatsby and I love how positive it is about the might of wealth. And NOTHING YOU CAN SAY will change how I feel, so shut up!”

“Keyzer Soze? We may never know who he is. I declare this the most unsolvable enigma of ALL TIME.”

“I don’t care what your opinion is about ‘sad’ or ‘tear-jerker’ or whatever—I’m 45 minutes through Old Yeller, and it’s an adorable movie about a cute dog.”

I’m not saying that everyone’s academic movie will end in the kind of carnage mine did. All I’m saying is that while in graduate school, if you are a favored student, you are being embraced very warmly in what seems like the loving arms of the greatest profession ever—I mean, to spend all day reading and learning is pretty spectacular. It is.  And because graduate school is your only experience of academia, you have no reason to believe that you won’t always be in the club, that you won’t always “love” that life as much as you now do, with little to no teaching responsibility and a seminar paper or diss chapter that doesn’t have to pass peer review. But the part of the movie you’re in now is the “we’re flying high” montage in Act II—you’re puttering through Central Park on a bicycle built for two, feeding each other Mister Softees, coming up with witty comebacks to “salon” hucksters on the street who ask, “Who does your hair?” (In my version of your movie, it takes place in Woody-Allen-heyday-era Manhattan—you’re welcome).

But you haven’t seen the third act yet. You don’t know what challenges await you on the job market, or in what will almost certainly be a perilously unstable “temporary” VAP or adjunct gig after you finish.

So I’ll make all you motherfuckers a deal: maybe adjunct for $7000 a semester while spending your “spare time” kowtowing to scathing “revise and resubmit” peer reviews and forking out $1000 you don’t have to spend Christmas away from your loved ones begging for the same 25 jobs as 500 of your best friends, and being treated, suddenly, like a second-class citizen in a department that isn’t even as good as the one that graduated you (the horror! don’t they know you BELIEVE IN YOUR IDEAS?).

Maybe see how the movie ends before you publish that rave review.