Walmart with PhDs: Talking Academia with Rebecca Schuman

After writing a doctoral dissertation on Kafka and Wittgenstein, Rebecca Schuman hoped to join the ranks of tenure-track scholars. Instead, she found herself become one of the most outspoken critics of the entrenched — and largely unsustainable — habits of American academia (and certainly the most scathingly funny one).

A columnist for Slate, Rebecca also writes frequently for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae site, as well as on her blog, pan kisses kafka. Her memoir, Schadenfreude, A Love Story is coming out in February 2017. I chatted with Rebecca about 21st-century universities, the emotional pull of teaching, and life after academia.

What’s the most useful way of conceptualizing academia today, especially for people not in it — is it a profession? A vocation? A dysfunctional family? Something else entirely?

Academia is all of those things depending on your perspective, plus one more important one that you didn’t mention: an industry. More and more institutions are being run like for-profit corporations these days. There’s a huge emphasis on the student as “customer” and on “customer service,” on the course as a transactional rather than an intellectual experience. It’s pretty demoralizing for almost everyone involved.

rebecca schuman author photo

For those actually treated like professionals, academia is a profession (some call it, with no trace of irony, “The Profession,” as if it’s the only one in the world). For those who are mistreated but have a martyr complex about it, it is a vocation. For those at the bottom, it is a feudal-type system rife with inequality.

I prefer to think of today’s “academe” as Walmart with PhDs: for those at the top it’s probably a pretty good career, but that comes at the expense of many people’s subsistence and dignity.

You’ve addressed several of academic culture’s most entrenched rituals, from the obsession with peer-reviewed articles to undergraduate term papers. How do you explain the presence — and endurance — of so many strange, outdated practices in the academic world?

I cannot in any way explain why so many academics are so invested in a status quo that so few of them benefit from. It truly boggles my mind. I’ve thought about it for years, my readers have thought about it for years, and the only thing that any of us can come up with is that there is some sort of Stockholm Syndrome / down-and-out Republican voter situation, wherein every academic thinks her big break is right around the corner, so doesn’t want to do anything to offend those who are sure to soon be her trusted, equal colleagues. (Similar to how most Republicans make very little money but assume their next million is impending, so oppose higher taxes on the rich.) Honestly, to paraphrase one of my favorite philosophers, it’s one of life’s greatest mysteries. Everyone must stand alone.

I’d love to know which of these rituals you’d most like to see disappear, if you could make it go away.

If I could disappear an antiquated practice tomorrow, it would be the entirety of the current hiring process, from the voluminous (and different for every institution) dossier application to the campus-interview gauntlet, and everything in between. Especially the conference interview process. Many fields, especially humanities fields, hold their first-round screening interviews at conferences in expensive cities that the candidates often must attend at their own expense (expenses that usually go into the four figures, often for people who live on adjuncts’ wages, where the $1700 the conference costs also happens to coincide with how much they earn per course per semester).

Why do you think university departments continue to support this madness, despite all the money and time it requires?

Many departments don’t support the madness at all, and neither does the Modern Language Association itself. There are at this point some holdouts, and some of their reasons come from good intentions, and others don’t. Back in the dark ages of the 1970s and before, academic hiring took place largely behind closed doors, between established Old Boys and their favorite sons (all male, almost all white). The conference interview was actually instated to democratize the process. But in the intervening decades, the conference became the province of the elite in its own way.

One of the most freeing things about not being an academic anymore is that you don’t have to hang around other academics or talk about academia ever again.

Considering how visible professors are on campuses and in popular culture, it seems shocking how little students — and, crucially, their parents — know about the professional and financial environment within which they function. Where does this ignorance come from?

It is diametrically opposed to most administrations’ “best interests” (by which I mean their corporate bottom lines, not whether or not they actually educate students) to be transparent about their labor practices, whether that be with faculty or staff. Combine this with the prevailing anti-teacher / anti-intellectual attitude in this country, and combine this with the also-prevailing Atlas Shrugged-type “don’t like your job? GET ANOTHER ONE!” bootstraps rhetoric, and you have people never caring ever. And then, when their children have substandard learning conditions, they do not make the connection and often just blame the overworked, underpaid prof for having “summers off.” I would say there is absolutely no hope whatsoever. Sorry.

There’s a wide spectrum of experiences among people who’d trained for an academic position and ended up not being employed in one. How would you characterize your own experience along that range?

It began with a profound sense of failure combined with a sort of all-consuming rage at anyone who insisted that it had still been worth it for me to do the work I “loved” for all those years, and that the “love” of the work should have been enough. That’s where “Thesis Hatement” came from. The first year of my blog after “Thesis Hatement” was basically me working out that failure and rage in public. Then I pretty much got it all out, and at the same time I got hired under contract at Slate, so I had to kind of straighten up and act a little bit more professional, and go at my “beat” with more nuance.

You raise a really important point when you talk about the way the “‘love’ of the work” is used to justify all the negative aspects of the academic labor market — this often functions as highly effective emotional blackmail. I wonder what you think makes it so powerful.

Well, for starters, most people who enter PhD programs are extraordinarily dedicated to their subject matter, so much so that they are willing to devote 13 hours a day to it and write a dissertation, which is quite difficult. In order to push a dissertation through, you really do have to believe that your ideas are important, that they matter in and of themselves, over and above the monetary rewards.

Then there are also some nefarious actors in there, who themselves make plenty of money and haven’t had to worry about solvency for decades (if ever), who insist to their mentees that “love” is all that matters. And these mentees are highly impressionable and often live very isolated and isolating lives during graduate school (see above re: 13-hour study days).

So you go in and some “love” is already there, and then that makes you really vulnerable to certain types of rhetoric.

I’m curious about your use of scare quotes around “love” — especially since you describe this dynamic as a very effective one.

It’s because I find it insulting to use a word that should only be used with other human beings to describe something that, in comparison to, say, one’s family, is pretty banal. But many academics end up sacrificing relationships and children for “The Profession,” so maybe I’m the one who’s wrong. I don’t know.

Photo by Razvan Orendovici (CC BY 2.0
Photo by Razvan Orendovici (CC BY 2.0

Do you sense that “Post-Academia” has become a sort of community? Is there any positive content to it — a way in which it’s more than a group of people united by various experiences of disappointment or rejection?

I think there is plenty of positive content already. There are sites like From PhD to Life or The Versatile PhD that help people transition into new careers. I think for many there is a valuable and supportive post-ac community made up of scholars of all backgrounds. But for others (myself included), one of the most freeing things about not being an academic anymore is that you don’t have to hang around other academics or talk about academia ever again, and so I tend to keep to myself (or interact primarily with non-academic friends) rather than seek out community. But I’m also a generally misanthropic loner, so maybe don’t listen to me?

Has anything changed in the way you approach writing academia-related articles and posts? You no longer have a personal stake in the issues.

Oh yes. I try not to generalize as broadly; I try to remind readers that my experience is limited to the humanities and I know jack squat about STEM careers, for example. I try to seek out the expertise of people in non-humanities fields for my articles. I always do due diligence and contact anyone I’m going to write about, for a chance to speak for him/herself, and at times that has resulted in me seeing things differently and either changing my angle or backing down because the situation wasn’t as I had originally thought.

Only because I’ve written a dissertation and an academic monograph do I know just how comparatively easy it is to write a narrative memoir, which requires almost no secondary research other than the plumbing of my own questionable memory.

Your memoir is going to be published in 2017. How did that come about?

I went through the traditional publishing channels (agent, proposal submissions, etc.). I love my literary agent, Alia Habib at McCormick & Williams, and I love my new editor, Colin Dickerman at Flatiron Books. I pretty much want to clock myself in the face every day to make sure I’m awake and this is my life. And I am having an incredibly fun time writing the book, like the most fun I have ever had writing anything (and I usually have a lot of fun writing, so that says a lot).

Academic and non-academic writing tend to be radically different. I wonder if you sense any continuity between this project and your previous, more scholarly ones.

My training as an academic will help this project, though not in the way anyone might imagine. (I mean, I guess since the book has many chapters about Germany and Austria and their respective cultures, my background in those cultures is vitally important, but, you know, besides that!). For example, only because I’ve written a dissertation and an academic monograph do I know just how comparatively easy it is to write a narrative memoir, which requires almost no secondary research other than the plumbing of my own questionable memory, and which has one goal and one goal only: to entertain readers. I’m not expected to prove some sort of groundbreaking discovery, and only when you have been expected to do that can you really appreciate the absence of that expectation.

I didn’t focus much on autobiographical writing in my academic work, so luckily I get to hold myself to a far lower standard than, oh I don’t know, something like Ecce Homo (though perhaps someday on my deathbed I will write Ecce Schumo and it will be just as crazy). What I learned to do as an academic was write a little bit every day, and that consistency is the key to productivity, and that the idea of being locked up in your Tower of Brilliance waiting for the Muse to descend forth upon you — the idea of needing “perfect” or even “good” writing conditions, and for needing to do a lot of output at once — is a complete myth, and, indeed, a one-way ticket to never writing anything ever.

You left academia, your writing career has taken off. Why do you think you continue to address academics and the issues that touch them?

Yeah, right now a lot of my blog audience is academics and former academics, but most of my Slate readers aren’t (simply because Slate has a very large readership, and most of the world is not in academia). The reason I won’t quite let it go completely is that, at the risk of sounding super-egotistical, I think academia needs someone to poke it in the ass and hold it accountable for some bad practices, and I happen to have struck the kind of nerve that allowed me to get the exposure that in turn allows me to keep poking that ass.

There are folks who are disaffected and outspoken, but totally marginalized, and as such their voices are often muffled or silenced or discounted as being a bunch of bitter losers.

Most people in academia are either too invested in the system to criticize it, or they benefit too much from it, or they are on the job market, and have been fed these absurd levels of paranoia about how they’re not to even breathe a word that could be construed as semi-critical in public. I’ve had readers ask me to scrub my blog of their anonymous comments because they honestly believe some search committee has nothing better to do than go on an investigative lexicography saga and find them out. I’ve had readers tell me their dissertation committees monitor their Facebook feeds and send them castigating messages for appearing critical. Every other schmuck who writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education does so under a pseudonym (and usually a dumb one with huge literary pretensions).

Or there are folks who are disaffected and outspoken, but totally marginalized, and as such their voices are often muffled or silenced or discounted as being a bunch of bitter losers. (Make no mistake, there are plenty who think of me as a bitter loser and a failure, too…)

There just aren’t that many people out there who both care about why exactly the American university is imploding, and are simultaneously beholden to nobody and can say whatever they choose, and who have lucked into a larger audience than they ever thought they’d have (and probably larger than they deserve). So there is no reason for me to shut my piehole in the near future, so I probably won’t.

Follow Rebecca on her blog, on Twitter (@pankisseskafka), Facebook, and on Slate.

December 10, 2015Academia, Education, Interviews, Publishing