The Rhetoric of Exceptionalism

Picture 3The other day Inside Higher Ed posted an article that has now been re-posted at Slate. It’s one among many recent blogs that chronicles the longstanding difficulties of the academic job market, making evident the personal, social, and economic prices many people pay while trying to find work after earning their Ph.D.

A much quoted line when friends post links to it on Facebook, from its second paragraph, reads as follows:

Yet of all the machines that humanity has created, few seem more precisely calibrated to the destruction of hope than the academic job market….

Reading that lined stopped me dead in my tracks. Regardless how bad the academic labor market now is — and I get it, it is bad, really bad — I had trouble making sense of what I read as utter hyperbole. Slaves building pyramids or picking cotton came to mind as, I would say, rather more finely tuned human-hope-crushing machines, no? Do I need to start listing more…? Perhaps the planned extermination of Jews, and gypsies, and homosexuals in Word War II? Child soldiers…? Trade in so-called blood diamonds…? International sex trafficking…?

So while not wishing to diminish the very real troubles, and very real prices, job candidates very often have and pay in academia — prices I’m personally all too familiar with, by the way, as I know many readers are as well — I really have to stop and ask: What is it about academia that justifies this level of rhetoric when it comes to talking about our own situation?

2 thoughts on “The Rhetoric of Exceptionalism

  1. Nothing about any field justifies such rhetoric. But I’ve noticed that over the top hyperbole is typical of the style of “popular” public blogs. I tend to read a lot of blogs related to the fitness industry, and occasionally read them in the “executive life hack” genre as well. One thing the most popular posts and writers tend to have in common is a style that combines plain, straightforward language with often inappropriate, “full color” catchy sloganeering much like the one you quote above. Call it “blog-style,” if you will.

    Maybe this “blog style” is yet another result of what Clay Sharkey might call “filter failure.” In recent years there has been a vast proliferation of potential sources of information and analysis. Whereas publishers used to bear the cost of dissemination, and editors used to have the burden of selection and winnowing (filtering) the content so it would be worthy of a reader’s time, today the zero-cost situation of publication has reduced the work and financial risk of publishing and editing towards zero, and the burden for selection of worthy content falls more and more on readers. Writers who wish to get through to an audience have to do more to attract that audience and part of that is through use of careless, and inappropriate, but “fun” hyperbole and overstatement.

    The joys of the internet age.

  2. Naively, perhaps, I would expect more from those who say they are scholars and who wish to work in academia…–I’d expect, at minimum, that they would know how to situate a local or personal anecdote, for example, as illustrative of a structure-wide issue that deserves attention rather than leave the impression of the anecdote standing on its own feet as self-evidently worth our attention. Instead, they ought to be seen as rehtorical techniques, ways of personalizing an issue, yes, but in an effort to move beyond the personal, the local, the seemingly ad hoc, to a widely relevant issue that impacts people regardless of their situation. And that’s the problem with these posts, to me: they too often start and stop with tales of personal woe, providing a moment of affinity for fellow sufferers, yes, but not much else for the other people who too must become involved if something is to change.

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