Self-loathing Scholarship

Self-awareness is hard. Because, let’s face it—a lot of people don’t like themselves. And in academe, where social ticks and neuroses are disproportionally high per capita, we are bunch of Woody Allens walking around with all of the hang-ups and none of the jokes.

Well, okay, not none…there are parodies of the profession galore. The video that circulated on youtube and about which my colleague Russell McCutcheon recently posted on this very blog comes to mind.  It made my academic friends and me roar—a student asks her professor for a letter of recommendation because she wants to get a Ph.D. in the humanities and is met with a scowling litany of the ways in which the profession is a thankless and unfulfilling one, that the life she’s facing is one of misery and exhaustion, and that, of course, she’ll get a letter. Get it??  Professional desperation is really funny! Another knee-slapper is the brochure left anonymously in the common areas at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association a few years back.  Along with being a huge conference, the MLA is where a lot of graduate students in the English discipline interview for university jobs.  It gave information on the conference that I eagerly snatched up (I was still on the job market and was thinking of eager beavers and early birds and other conscientious woodland creatures).  My close and studious reading rendered bits of information like, among other things, directions to “Adjunct Alley,” where someone arrived after taking the subway to “Anxiety Blvd” (I think it was the second stop after Depression Lane). It also provided a diagram of the layout of the floor of the big hotel that held the job information center (schools conducted interviews here in a large room full of tables with little numbers…it was like academic speed-dating). The diagram took the shape of a man pointing a gun to his own head.  See??  Suicide may not actually be painless, but it is apparently hilarious!

One might wonder what the drama is—why people inside this profession would make these kinds of jokes…why, if we’re so miserable, we would laugh at the misery.  Are we gluttons for punishment? A whole community of Debbie Downers?  The people making and laughing at these jokes are the people who participate in the very system they condemn.  Meanwhile, ironically, we roll our eyes at politicians who chastise academicians, and we scoff at students who don’t seem to get why Proust matters so much.  If we take ourselves so seriously, then what’s going on with the giggles? Are we in the Ivory Tower…self-loathing scholars?!?  Enter again Woody Allen.  Or, maybe Larry David:

It would appear that the gravity that we grant to various issues of the profession and how it’s run depends largely on who’s raising these issues.  If it’s “one of us”—a fellow academician battling in the trenches of competitive job markets and slumping student interest in the wake of renewed pressures to succeed in a stiff economy—well then, we get the joke.  We grant authority to the voice who knows our code and speaks our language.  If, however, it’s “one of them”—an outsider disguised as a political talking head or parent of a student who’s asking us to answer for ourselves and what we do—then, we take offense at the perceived insult.  I don’t disagree with much of the ideological stance.  I think it was ridiculous for The Tuscaloosa News, for instance, to publish the salaries of every professor at UA making more than $100,000 per year.  But then…why do we level such harsh critiques against the very structure in which we participate if we hold so firmly to our participation?

Here’s my take: when people feel embattled and insecure, we get defensive.  We feel the need to make everyone understand that we matter, that the stakes of what we’re doing are high.  “I don’t work a 9 to 5 because I work 24 hours a day!  I am very busy and important!!!”  Being browbeaten professionally makes us feel validated personally.  In other words, in critiquing the profession of which we are a part, we create an exceptionalism narrative for it.  Why are we wringing our hands about the seeming lag in the interest (economically and otherwise) directed toward the humanities?  Why are we freaking out about the lower numbers of available jobs?  After all, the country has been feeling the effects of the recession for years now, and these effects have been felt across a spectrum of careers.  On a basic level, one might wonder why anyone should be surprised to feel a bit strapped professionally right now, no matter what kind of job that person does.  Somehow, though, it makes sense to us, as people working in the university system, that factories have to close down and blue-collar workers have to change careers.  We’ll show our solidarity by holding a sign with our local Occupy community in their names while they look for new jobs.  But we are scholars!  I just told you that we are very busy and important! We proud and tenacious members of the humanities professoriate—indeed, those in various strands of the academy in general—are supposed to be immune…at least, that’s what we’d like to think.

We find it hard to admit the simple fact of the matter—we’ve got a good gig here in the academy.  Things could be better, but things can always be better.  We can all work to do what we are able to do as we identify cracks in the system where change might happen.  But the more general outcry that would see the job market as reason to hold a gun to one’s head, ironic or no, is disingenuous at best.  After all, we’ve each paid hundreds of dollars in conference dues and airline tickets and hotel reservations just to make it to the meeting that apparently makes us want to kill ourselves.  Let’s face facts and admit that we want to be there.  We might even (*shudder*) like what we do.  We worry that if we admit to being lucky, we won’t feel quite so valorous, perhaps.  But we don’t need to worry.  It’s okay!  We don’t have to convince people we’re important.  We can instead invoke our inner Stuart Smalleys:

We’ve already got the cabled cardigans anyway.

Academe doesn’t really make us want to die.  That’s an exaggeration.

Maybe a more honest response to the discomfort with the slouching job market and seemingly increasing demands on the professoriate once we do get jobs would be a paraphrase of Larry David: “I do hate myself, but it has nothing to do with being an academician.”  Now that would be funny.

2 thoughts on “Self-loathing Scholarship

  1. Thanks for the correction, Jen. Custodians and campus police make over 50-grand a year? If that’s true, I’m not sure that I mind, really. Why do years of university training necessarily suggest that we should make more than those without? We make that choice (for all the pre-career training) when we sign up for this, right? Local interventions can be made as we identify cracks in the system, but I think critiques of the institution are even more effective when we are vocal about our own complicity in that system. If I’m standing in solidarity with the blue-collar non-professoriate, for instance, why would I think it natural that I should be making more than they do?

  2. Slight correction: The Tuscaloosa News publishes the salaries of anyone at the university who makes $50,000 or more, not $100,000. This means that many Assistant Professors in Arts & Sciences do not make the cut, but they see that some blue-collar and white-collar non-professors, such as custodians and campus police, do. Making it onto the newspaper’s entirely ill-conceived and problematic list therefore becomes something for those of us with of 13-years university training prior to obtaining our jobs to aspire to, as we strive to catch up economically with those who may have little to no university training at all (and, of course, instructors who hold PhDs see the list each year and know they will never ever be on it). Self-loathing inspired by our own sense of elitist entitlement, sure, but those feelings are not entirely unfounded when those charged with the university’s primary mission (educating the students) find themselves making less than 1 / 100th of the top person on that list, the football coach who comes at $5 million with benefits (and a load of uncounted endorsements on top of that). Yes, we are privileged, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be critical of other forms of privilege or of the inequity to which we are subjected. At unionized universities, for instance, there is one salary scale across the board for all professors so that there’s not the situation there is here where business school profs, law school profs, or even profs in other A&S departments are not making double or triple what their humanities colleagues are. We can both acknowledge our own privilege as professors and be critical of the free market capitalism that has no place in an institution of higher learning.