Great Minds Leave Academia

Outdoor Conveyor Belt


Jenn Shapland

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Correction: In response to a stream of contradictory emails that seek to clarify specific policies regarding graduate fellowships and insurance coverage, I have decided to remove all mention of said policies from the following post.

This post is not, explicitly, about visual rhetoric. It is, however, about the fact that I write for this blog, and it's about the institution that requires me to fulfill this responsibility (without pay), and it feels important to start talking about this stuff, instead of pretending that we do all of this for fun.

I’ve been having a rough couple of weeks in academia-land (I find that sometimes it helps if you call it “macadamia-land”). I started to make you a list of all the things that went down, but it was getting pretty screedy, and honestly who cares, so I’ll spare you. I did post a complaint on Facebook that launched a discussion among members of the department about our shared concerns—I’m hoping that a revolution is afoot.

But, while we continue to wait around for revolution (le sigh), I want to talk about the realities of academic life in this strange moment. Universities are churning out more degrees than ever, but being in a PhD program right now feels a little bit like being on a conveyer belt from which you will soon be catapulted. Into a brick wall. Anne Helen Peterson, a UT PhD alum in Media Studies, puts the problem this way: “‘academia is drunk’—not belligerent or irresponsible so much as single-sightedly focused on things that may or may not ultimately matter.” In an interview that went up on The Hairpin earlier this week, Peterson announced her new position as Features Writer at Buzzfeed (which yours truly may have once called the Comic Sans of websites). Despite my feelings about Buzzfeed’s typical content, Peterson's new gig sounds very promising, allowing her to incorporate research and cultural criticism into pop culture analysis—all good things, all things the internet could use. (If you’ve not yet read her stuff, give it a try. It’s fantastic.)

Reading her interview, I couldn’t help but think of all the incredibly intelligent people I know who have earned graduate degrees—MAs or MFAs or PhDs, or some combination thereof—who have left academia for other work. Some of these people work in archives or libraries; others, like Peterson, write or teach for other venues; some become yoga teachers or massage therapists or postal workers; and many (most) take high-paying jobs at tech companies. I’m starting to feel a great sense of loss here. The best minds of my generation do not work in the university system. Stop for a second and think about what that means. 1

In part, this exodus is due to what Peterson expresses so adroitly when asked about pursuing a degree in a “fully-funded program” (which the UT English department purports to be): “'fully funded’ is a myth,” she says,

especially at state schools, even “state Ivies” like the University of Texas. You have a salary, but that salary just about pays your rent, and then you get nickeled-and-dimed for all sorts of fees, insurance, buying food that’s not rice, and somehow surviving the summer, when you’re not getting paid but are expected to do scholarship and research.

Sing it, sister.

In an attempt to redirect my rage, I decided to add up the hours I work for UT and compare it to my salary. During an average week, I work six hours in the DWRL, teach for three hours, hold three scheduled office hours, spend at least fifteen hours answering program-related and student email (most of these are program related), and spend fifteen to twenty mostly blessed hours on my writing, research, fellowship applications, &c. Some weeks we have to add at least three hours in for writing a viz post, like this here. That’s means that in an average work-week of 42-50 hours, I’m paid between $6 and $7.50 per hour. I could make more money working fewer hours at most shift jobs (7-11 pays $10 an hour, e.g.). So it’s no wonder that flocks of intelligent people are seeking work elsewhere. Despite the fact that the university could not function without our insanely cheap labor—especially that of English grad students, who teach ALL the university's basic comp classes, plus TA its one required literature class—our work is simply not valued. None of it. And for some reason, as long as we're in the program, we're not supposed to say anything about it.

Many people have written about the plight of underfunded, overworked graduate students, but there’s often the assumption that the people writing about this aren’t at the good programs, or they shouldn’t be in grad school, or they’ve betrayed the monastic code of scholarly life, or good riddance! we don’t need more professors, anyway!—somehow, it’s easy to disassociate yourself from the exploitative reality in which you take part. (Isn't this what most of us spend all our time working to critique?)

So. All of that is the dreary side of things. But here’s the part that’s hopeful. Peterson writes that this movement of intellectuals—by which I mean people who have had, if nothing else, a few years to research and read and think really hard about the world that we live in—could create new models for teaching and dialogue outside the elitist, patriarchal, anti-feminist, often discriminatory, increasingly corporate university campus.

The collapse of the PhD market, combined with the rise of digital publishing, has ironically yielded an exquisite, flourishing community of public intellectuals—people who write for places like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, sure, but also those who write for places like Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Inquiry, n+1, Avidly, and, of course, The Awl and The Hairpin. As more and more people with PhD behind their names find themselves in situations similar to mine, we’ve been forced to radically reconsider what we thought “teaching” and “dialogue” looks like. But I think that might ultimately be for the best?

I like to think that she’s right. I love it, actually. Because the internet can respond with much greater alacrity to issues of urgency than a bureaucracy that operates slow-as-molasses. But I’m suspicious, too, because, as a brilliant colleague just put it, there’s only so much money you can make on the internet. And this ties into another topic on my mind lately, that of undervaluing intellectual and critical work. Again, none of this is news, people have talked about it for ages, but I think, just maybe, it might be coming to a head.

Either that or, four years in, I’m simply at my wits end. This week I am, in the words of my own grandmother, “so mad I could spit.” The problem for me is that I love teaching. I love writing. I think it’s hugely important and it’s work I feel cut out to do. I don’t want or plan to leave academia. But that doesn’t stop me from imagining all the ways it could be better, that it could function more fairly and effectively.

What do you think? What do you envision for the future of higher education? How can we imagine new platforms for conversation and critique?

1. And what does it say about the people who stick around? Is that why newly-tenured faculty get so condemnatory when anyone gets a job outside the hallowed halls (I refer specifically to the backlash against Peterson this week—it's been ugly, even from members of my department) because the more critical thinkers at large outside the university, the less powerful the institution becomes? Let's call that a hypothesis.


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