Trainwreck-spotting: How We Insist on Not Working on the Railroad and Instead Tie Ourselves to the Tracks

Stressed scholar

A few days ago, my Facebook feed lit up with various threads all linking to the latest academic critique of the academy.  The discussions that afternoon amounted mostly to well-intentioned and kindly commiseration based on the various levels of dissatisfaction among my scholarly nears and dears.  Now, the fact that we were all chatting on our computers through Facebook in the middle of a weekday (myself sipping hot tea in the process) is not unimportant.  But I’ll come back to that after telling you about the piece.

It is the most recent Slate post by Rebecca Schuman, a disgruntled self-described “emotional trainwreck” whose experience with the academy has left her with a fear and loathing she feels it incumbent upon her to share with as many who will listen.  Not that she’s done badly for herself.  After all, as her blurb states, she’s the author of an academic book under advance contract with an esteemed university press (Northwestern, to be exact).  And that book isn’t bound to be what I’d call a mass-market bestseller.  It’s entitled Kafka and Wittgenstein: The Case for an Analytic Modernism.  She’s thus been successful at navigating the tricky terrain of academic publishing—no small feat for those in early career stages. Further, she’s got quite a mighty soapbox in Slate, which, despite the fuzzy math of web traffic, boasts millions of readers.  Millions.  How many folks will wade through her case for an analytic modernism?  Who knows—maybe a bunch.  But not millions.  So, the writing skills she gained in the system of higher education against which she now rails have given her the platform of Slate to help her launch these critiques.

So what’s the latest piece about?  It adds Zachary Ernst’s recent “Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower” to the growing list of an “important subgenre” of academic writing to which she refers as the “I Quit Oeuvre.”

What makes Ernst interesting to Schuman is that he left an already-tenured post as a philosophy professor.  In this way, he joins the company of others who were willing to give up tenure.  Schuman cites Terran Lane and Anne Trubek as ones who share this dubious distinction.  Academics leave the job because, according to the piece, “Academe is a profession full of erudite free-thinkers who feel disillusioned by a toxic labor system in which criticism is not tolerated.”  She goes on to compare academe to “a fundamentalist religion (or…cult).”  Ultimately, her conclusion is that “Ernst’s farewell should offer those outside the university a powerful glimpse into why a successful academic would want to add another entry to the I Quit Canon.”

While part of a recent trend in writings by what many perceive to be brave academics, willing to spread the real truth and expose the maniacal wizard behind the curtain of academic labor, the critique is not a new thing.  In the chorus of complaint about professional woes—finding a “work/life balance;” juggling the triad of research, teaching, and service; and pitching oneself on the competitive job market in the first place—Schuman and those offering similar writings try to warn up-and-comers from making what they see to be the huge mistake of pursuing a graduate degree…especially in the humanities.

In our worry and (in Schuman’s case, outright anger) over the current state of academe, though, it’s easy to lose sight of a very important fact: professional academicians have it pretty darn good.  I’m not at all suggesting that the increase in and reliance on adjunct positions and lectureships isn’t a lamentable fact of the institutional matter.  And I’m not saying that the market isn’t a difficult territory to traverse.  But difficult according to whom and compared to what?  Is it as difficult as collecting garbage during hot Alabama summers?  Is it as difficult as working the graveyard shift as a 911 operator?

But wait—these are unfair comparisons, right?  Those people made choices to follow other careers or were unable for one reason or another to access the academic institutions that would suggest the professoriate as a possible path of professional development.  We, on the other hand, are hapless victims of an exploitative system that manipulates us for its own gain.  Right?  Nah, I don’t buy it.  We’re making choices, too.  And, by bemoaning the long hours and small pay in the name of pursuing some nebulous idea of personal fulfillment, we imply not so subtly that we are special and that we deserve to experience a kind of happiness that apparently comes only when we are debt-free and when the academy thanks us for our sacrificial service to the greater good.  Two things about that.  First, our seeming specialness as academics carries with it the notion that the cashier working multiple shifts at the local grocery store is not wrestling with the same questions of workload and self-worth.  Or, if she is, it somehow makes sense (or at least, it doesn’t bother us nearly so much) for her to do so.  Second, clutching the proverbial brass ring—getting a job and/or earning tenure—is not what will make a person happy.  Frankly, I don’t see what’s so provocative or strange about that.  Of course it’s not what will make someone happy.

As my colleague Russell McCutcheon noted in a post elsewhere responding to a different web article on the same subject, the idea that the academy should work to make us happy bears a remarkable degree of entitlement.  After all, no job or degree or work environment is in and of itself more or less interesting or fulfilling than any other.  To suggest as much would be appealing to a series of essences inherent to various career pursuits.  And didn’t graduate school teach us to be wary of essentialist claims? Scholars like Schuman strike me as akin to Tennyson’s Ulysses, fancying themselves far too important for the quotidian drudgery that greets them upon completing the graduate school gauntlet.  They find, like he does, that the arch of experience and uncharted adventure seems only to fade as they move closer to it.

a woman sipping tea

Sure, that can be frustrating, if not disillusioning.  But, you know what?  It’s 12:55 on a Tuesday, and I’m sitting here with my laptop and another cup of tea comparing contemporary frustrations with those of literary lore.  And, yesterday, I was able to steal away an hour’s coffee klatch with a historian colleague of mine to catch up and trade descriptions of our busy lives.  I didn’t even have to punch a clock.  I got paid that whole time.

Those tenured folks Schuman mentions who got fed up with academe aren’t doing so terribly themselves.  Terran Lane kissed the U of New Mexico goodbye for Google.  Anne Trubek found that freelance writing could float her.  And our Odyssean hero Zachary Ernst is now enjoying a nice salary in the private sector.  To suggest, as Schuman does in the blurb for a piece earlier this year (called “Thesis Hatement”) that “getting a…Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor” is not only to (quite arrogantly) extrapolate from one’s one experience a universal claim about others but also to give ultimate power to the very system one seeks to subvert.

In other words, I would never be so bold as to say that the academy made me neurotic, pessimistic, or cynical.  I already watched Woody Allen movies and had a heaping spoonful of those traits in my personality without the academy’s help.  I also like to think, though, that I’ve learned that we never ultimately move through the ever-receding arch of experience—that happiness is not a by-product of a certain fate (“once I get this or that job, then…” or “once I publish with this or that press, then…”).  But the academy didn’t show me that.  Adulthood did.  I’m grown and get to make choices about what I do with myself.  Sometimes those choices come with fortuitous outcomes.  Sometimes they come with unfortunate ones.  Isn’t that kinda just Life 101?  The old shooting-for-the-stars-and-feeling-anxious-about-the-outcome routine isn’t a narrative that should continue to rivet us in our career pursuits.  It’s best left to the folks on the set of Fame.  Or Glee.  It works for that show, too.  Know why?  Because they’re both set in high school.  When you’re 18, it’s easier to play Streisand.

After a while, we have to stop insisting that no one rain on our parades and start admitting there are no guarantees.  A Ph.D. in literature resulted in my working—very happily but very unexpectedly—in a Religious Studies department.  Schuman’s Ph.D. landed her with a book contract and a Slate readership.  And my friends who shared her work on Facebook have, despite a wide variety of professional circumstances, been able at the very least to participate in discussions that interest them on computers or smart devices.  That is a level of privilege that, while not suggesting in its own right some universal law or categorical imperative, might allow us to pause in our busy day doing whatever we did or didn’t expect to be doing with our careers and think about what vast number of things had to fall exactly into place for us catch a reference about Kant’s categorical imperative.

Read the follow-up post.

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