Why Life in the Academy (Especially the Humanities) Sucks

I don't want to be writing this post; no matter what I write is going to feel inadequate. But I feel like I should say something about that xtranormal video "So you want to get a PhD in the Humanities?" that everyone is talking about. I've only watched it once and don't feel like reliving that particular experience again, so bitter and (horrible to have to admit) true-to-life did it feel the first time that I watched it. As, it seems from the comments on the video itself, many of my colleagues in academia concurred. But why? Why are we all so convinced that the life we have taken on is so utterly bankrupt that all we can do is roll around on the floor laughing our asses off because a (we all say) justifiably-bitter graduate student has parodied the death of our dreams so well?

The dismal job market, we say. The low pay, we say. The lack of respect in the general culture, we say. But why then do so many of us who have gotten not only tenure-track jobs but (mirabile dictu) tenure feel nearly as bitter as all of the graduate students whom we have lured into our profession with only 50-50 expectations of long-term employment? Because we feel guilty? Because we worry that we don't deserve our good fortune in making it through the funnel, no matter how hard we know that we've worked? Possibly, but I'm not sure that even that can be all. Because we feel cheated of the (financially-remunerative) careers that we might have had, being the good students that we all, by definition, once were? Again, possibly, but then, again, I am myself not at all certain that I would have been any good at any of the other careers someone with my academic credentials might have gone into.

Law? You've got to be kidding. Medicine? I'd be terrible after only one night on call. Business? Don't make me laugh. I don't know anything about making money. No, the sad truth of the matter is that this--being an academic--is the only thing that I could have conceivably done. Which may, in part, be some explanation of why, having become an academic, I feel so bitter at times. But it still isn't all. Yes, I wish that I had had some choice about what I became, but the only thing I was ever good at was school. What else was there for me to do? If only I had had some real talent in writing, I might have made a career as a "real" author, not just an academic. If only I had been better looking/smarter/less of an introvert, think of all of the careers that I might have had. But, alas, I am a scholar. Great.

See, being a scholar is supposed to be this wonderful gift--or so it feels when you are a student and that's what you are being rewarded for. But out in the real world after age 40? Being a life-long student doesn't sound quite so rewarding anymore. Because guess what? Being a scholar means, yes, not only do you spend your life grading other people's work, but you get to spend your whole life being graded yourself. Tenure? Don't make me laugh. It's just another hoop. First there was graduating top in your class in high school--that felt like an accomplishment, right? Ha. Then there was graduating with honors from college--again, felt good, didn't it? Then there was passing your orals, proposing your dissertation, writing your thesis and getting your Ph.D. As my dad always used to say, that and a dollar (now, more like three-fifty) will get you a cup of coffee.

And that is only the beginning. Never mind the job applications, even if you get a job, there are still the fellowships to apply for in order to get the funding that you need in order to do your research. You will be applying for these for the rest of your life--if, that is, you ever hope to get a promotion. Oh, yes, and promotion: renewal (if you're lucky), tenure (if you're even luckier), promotion to full professor (oh, the ecstasy!), maybe even to a named chair (nirvana!)--every stage marked by, you guessed it, more grading (a.k.a. peer review). You want to get something published? More grading. You get something published--guess what? You get reviewed. And on, and on, and on. And when you aren't getting graded, you're grading somebody else. Never do you get to say, "I've accomplished something," because there is always The Grade.

But, okay, people in other professions have to go through peer review. And it's a good thing, right? We wouldn't want shoddy scholarship out there, misleading our readers, making false claims about the truth. Except, of course, that there are plenty of writers and thinkers out there who don't have to go through peer review in order to get something published. They just have to convince an editor that they are on to a good thing. This is probably harder than I am imagining it to be at the moment, but the truth of the matter is, you don't need a Ph.D. in order to publish, even in history. Even in most of the fields that we consider the humanities. Indeed, given the way the job market sometimes works, you might actually do better simply spending your 20s and 30s writing brilliant prose (like, I don't know, David Foster Wallace), thus guaranteeing that some university will come after you in your 40s and promote you above all those tortoises who slogged their 20s away as grad students.

But even this (the constant assessment, the capricious criteria for promotion) doesn't get to the heart of why academia sucks. There's more. For starters, there's the awful, perpetual juggernaut of the academic calendar. Sure, you get those "long" holidays during which, oh, right, you can catch up on your research. Because, of course, teaching doesn't count except that it's what you are (ostensibly) being paid for. Except, of course, it won't earn you promotion because it doesn't count, not really. Not when you could be publishing more. Except you can't because you are spending all of your time teaching, which doesn't count, except if you don't do it because it is, after all, what the students are paying tuition for. And, oh, you didn't get that article finished this summer? Well, you won't have time to work on it again until next summer, but don't worry, by that time you will have lost the thread of what you were saying and have to start all over again because all of the thinking that you've done over the past year will have changed your mind about what it was that you wanted to say.

I'm whining. I know I'm whining. Here I get to spend my life reading and thinking and having great conversations with some of the smartest students in the world. What could I possibly have to complain about? Nothing. Everything. Because, you see, somewhere along the way I lost my soul and I'm trying to figure out where. My colleague Lisa Ruddick thinks she knows where: contemporary training in the humanities, she has argued, is soul-destroying because it requires students to dissociate themselves from their own aesthetic and moral responses to what they read. I think she's onto something. I know she's onto something. But I am still not entirely sure how it applies to what has happened to me. All I know is, I went into academia believing that there was something I needed to learn and now, having learned it, I feel empty. Cheated. Sucked dry.

Perhaps it is simply the nature of learning. "Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring." I have drunk deeply and now I am sobered, no longer intoxicated as I was in my youth, when the mountain rose before me in all its majesty and I wanted nothing more than to be able to climb it. But you know something about that mountain that no one ever tells you? It's damned lonely at the top when you're the only one who's ever climbed it. So what if I pushed the frontiers of knowledge out that little bit further? There are, like, three people in the world who can fully appreciate what I did. Nor does it seem that there are ever likely to be all that many more because, you know, the cutting edge cuts both ways: it cuts you off from conversation even as (purportedly) it creates it. And guess what? It still doesn't really count because the whole point of scholarship is to show how one's predecessors as scholars got everything wrong. Which means, once you've published, yourself.

I wish I could figure out where, as a culture, we went wrong. Because I don't think that this is only myself speaking. There is something rotten at the core of our very profession. And it is this rottenness, I think, that we sense when we complain about the exteriors of our work--the pay, the hours, the thanklessness of it. If only the work itself were its own reward. If only we actually believed in our work. This is where I think my colleague Lisa has hit upon something extremely important: we have lost our selves, our souls, our joy, but we aren't entirely clear where. And so we acquiesce when our departments are closed down and our funding cut. We don't actually believe we deserve to be funded in the first place. Because if we did, we would be out on the streets--or, at least, in our classrooms--fighting for ourselves, not whining on our blogs about how hard our lives have become.


  1. This is a quick, late-night (for me) thought: I watched that video too and found it painful, but I've just been teaching Erasmus's Praise of Folly, and I think there's a healthy dose of Erasmian spirit in there.

    What made me laugh (and cringe) at that video was neither the bitterness of the prof nor the idealism of the student, but rather the contrast of the two: the student has no idea of what the life of a professor is like (and why should s/he, unless we tell him/her? I've started to talk more with my students about what it is I actually *do* outside of the 6-9 hours each week I'm in class and office hours), and the prof has either forgotten or no longer identifies with the naïve idealism of the undergrad. The latter might be a sign that the video was done by a grad student: no one is harsher about naïve idealism than the nth-year grad student--except, as Matt Groening once pointed out, the grad school dropout.

    And of course we recognize both figures: the bitter colleague who has given up, or who at least seems to have done so in a moment of weakness, and the mediocre student whose sense of entitlement is matched only by his or her lack of judgment--the student who gets C's yet feels (not thinks) that he or she must go someplace like Yale and study with someone like Harold Bloom.

    I'd worry about any of my colleagues who could watch that video and not cringe--but I'd worry even more about those who could watch it and not laugh. If there's one thing I take away from Folly, it's that you have to be able to laugh at yourself. (Well, that, and that Erasmus really had it in for theologians and regular clergy.)

    I had a couple general remarks too but I ran up against the word limit, so I'll leave them unsaid.

  2. Thanks, Brian, I appreciate your taking the time to comment--especially so late at night. Yes, you are right, we need to be able to laugh at ourselves. And yet, I don't think that everyone is laughing for the same reasons. Perhaps it is the theologian in me that makes it difficult for me to join in with the Erasmian laughter, but I do think we have lost (or abandoned) something essential. What I don't know is when. It could be in the 1970s and 80s with the new theory and the triumph of irony. It could be in the 1960s with the student revolts against the curriculum. It could be in the 1870s (or thereabouts) with the introduction of the Harvard system of electives and credits. Or it could be in the 1170s with the origins of the university itself--complaints about careerism in the arts go back nearly to the day the universities were born. But there has got to be a reason that all of our colleagues' excellent arguments for the humanities consistently fall upon stony ground, thus the persistent crises in which our fields have found themselves. Perhaps it is good for us to be in consistent crisis, like J.S. Mill said. But perhaps, too, it is our idealization of competition and survival of the fittest that makes us happy with the system as it is--until, that is, we discover that there are others, like DFW, who are even fitter than ourselves.

  3. There is a bitterer video for historians: "So you want to be a historian?"

    Apparently, we are especially miserable even compared with other humanities and deserve a specifically-made video...

    Sometimes I comfort myself that being a "scholar" may have never been less miserable. The humor in the Cisterican Everard's account of the twelfth-century scholarly life is no less darker than these videos...Writing history used to be the business of monks, who took poverty and self-sacrifice for granted. Also, it used to accept only the most brilliant minds or the very rich gentlemen-amateurs (like Henry Charles Lea). Now, the "democratization," or rather, "industrialization" of this discipline has more or less made writing history like any other job, but sometimes I feel grateful to this process -at least now I'm paid to read even given my intellectual mediocrity...

  4. @Luo: OMGoodness, that video is even worse. I do think that there is something wrong that goes beyond the money and (lack of) status that we feel we suffer. The "industrialization" that you mention is definitely a part of it.

  5. I wonder if the cynicism comes from people who would much rather just be writing, but teach and pursue degrees in the hopes that will afford financial security.

    It seems there is a conflict between wanting to write and wanting to live comfortably. I wonder if anyone knows how tenuously we all live.

    How often does the life you escape to differ from the life you escaped? I guess it depends on how good you are at lying to yourself and to others. You're still the one living it.

    (In that last paragraph, "escaped" could just as well be read as "worked very hard to improve". I don't know that there is any functional difference.)

  6. @Ryan: Very likely. There is also the problem that teaching is not typically accorded the same level of credit that publications are, so one is perpetually left with a two-tiered community rather than a community in which two activities are equally valued.

    Academia is not the only profession that would-be writers go into in the hopes of financial security. There is also, of course, publishing and editing, as well as journalism (writing on demand for others). I'm sure there are others as well. It would be interesting to know whether there is the same degree of disillusion with these careers.

  7. I think the problem with the humanities is that they've lost sight of their purpose. Humanities were originally designed to make people more capable of finding truth and doing good. Today, most humanities scholars aren't willing to say that there is such a thing as "truth" or "goodness." All too often, the humanities become a game, rather than a vocation.


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!


Popular posts from this blog

Unauthorized Study Guide

Prayer Request

God's Vagina

Make the Middle Ages Dark Again

The God Above, We Love!