It started when Amy Pistone, a Classics Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan posted this article (under the official U of M grad school masthead! Neato!!), instructing all of us in the postacademic world (and particularly those in the humanities) to sit down and shut up and stop talking, because she really really loves her work and that's all that matters. Not the crappy academic job market in the humanities, not the fact that grad school is something that a lot of people find depressing and demoralizing, and not the fact that there are a huge number of people out here who are reading and commenting (note: check out the years-long comment threads after each of those posts) and obviously gaining some value from those of us who are out here "writing these sorts of articles about grad students" that she doesn't like.
When I first noticed the traffic coming over from her article and skimmed it, I wasn't going to bother to respond. We postacademics get pushback from time to time, and I've got thick skin. And I'll be honest - when I glanced through Pistone's piece, my thoughts were basically: "mmmhmmm ... sure. Go ahead and vent, my dear ... but let's revisit this in five years and see how you feel then." Then I went on about my day.
But yesterday, I saw Rebecca Schuman's open letter to Amy Pistone, in which she expresses similar feelings to mine:
Do I dislike you, personally, Amy Pistone, even though you have misunderstood the dark humor in an article I wrote [...]? No, on the contrary, you remind me of a far more earnest version of myself at your stage (I’d say “at your age,” but I spent seven years working in the private sector between college and grad school, which is more than two, in case you’re wondering).
No, my reaction to you, personally, is “Oh, bless her heart—she’ll learn soon enough.”(It was apparently Schuman's piece in Slate from earlier this year that inspired Pistone's university-sanctioned* temper tantrum.)
Reading Schuman's response inspired me to go back and read Pistone's article more closely. And boy, am I glad I did. Because now that I've read her post in full, I feel compelled to respond to what are clear and notable misrepresentations of my writing on this blog.
(Before I defend myself, I'd also like to take a moment to note how laughably off-target the rest of her article is, as well. I have read widely in the postacademic blogosophere, and I have rarely (if ever) seen anyone out here "disparaging the choices" of humanities students "en masse," as Pistone asserts. What I do see are a bunch of people telling potential Ph.D. students about the realities of the academic job market or advising potential grad students to do their research and to consider multiple career paths after graduation. We are trying to help people become informed and to get the best possible outcomes for their grad school investments. If she is seeing attacks on grad students in what we write ... well, I'd suggest that that reveals more about her own biases than anything we postacademics are writing.
I'd also like to take a moment to note that William Pannapacker is a tenured professor of English who is very active in his field and in broader conversations about academia and the humanities. So for Pistone to lump him in with the people she asserts are "unhappy with their career choices" and therefore attacking academics out of resentment seems to be a biiiiiiiiit of a stretch.)
Ahem. Okay. Back to me.
I wasn't a grad student in the humanities and I haven't corresponded regularly with either Schuman or Pannapacker. I also haven't written much here in a few months, so it struck me as a bit odd that I'd be singled out by Pistone and the University of Michigan for criticism.
But apparently it was my post (and series?) on privilege in academia from a year ago that got her hackles up.
When I wrote those pieces, I always assumed that there'd be some pushback. However, I did assume that when the inevitable backlash came around, the critic would at least correctly interpret and represent my arguments about privilege.
But of course, that is not what happened.
Instead, Pistone (linking directly to my first post on privilege) implies that I think that all grad students are privileged, and that that interpretation is at the root of my criticism of privilege and academia. Note the following direct quote from her piece (emphasis added by me):
And that sort of leads me to my next point--namely, the claim that grad students are a privileged lot. I will gladly admit to being fortunate. Not everyone gets to pursue a Ph.D. and spend their time studying things that they love. We do, and I'm acutely aware how fortunate that makes us. That does not, however, make us all a slice of the 1%.Okay, Ms. Pistone. Please, go back to the blog post you linked to (as well as my other posts on privilege and academia), and find me the sections where I argued that all (or even most) grad students are a "privileged lot." Show me where I wrote that they are "all a slice of the 1%." I'll wait.
Don't see it? Yeah .... that must be because I never wrote, implied, or even thought such a thing.
Here's the Cliffs Notes version of what I was arguing in my posts about privilege and inequality, for those who are curious:
Grad school exacerbates existing class inequalities.
That's it! That was my whole point.
I'll flesh it out a bit more for people who are newly discovering this blog:
Grad students who are "children of privilege" (note to Pistone: not all grad students fall into that category) have an easier time getting through grad school without taking on additional debt or having to work side jobs for additional money. This makes their path to a tenure-track job easier, since they are able to devote more time to research and are able to attend conferences and meetings and network with prestigious folks in their discipline, because there are no financial barriers in their way.
And the privilege that (some of!) these students enjoy also makes their post-graduation life choices easier to navigate, since they will not have to contend with a pile of debt when they graduate (and might even have family members who could help them with day-to-day expenses).
Meanwhile, less privileged grad students (like yours truly!) have to take extra teaching positions or side jobs or student loans in order to get through grad school and not get evicted. Therefore, folks like me have less time to devote to research and therefore are less attractive on the job market. They are also limited in the jobs they are able to take after graduation, since working as an adjunct in a high-cost-of-living area won't allow you to pay rent, buy groceries, and deal with $500 a month in debt payments.
So the formerly privileged grad students (again: not all of them!) who graduate with no debt can linger in marginal academic employment for a few years, taking multiple stabs at the job market. Meanwhile, others have to bail from academia altogether or work so many adjuncting gigs that they have no free time to publish themselves into a better or more prestigious position.
And in the end, then, it's far easier for children of privilege (do I need to add my disclaimer again, Ms. Pistone?) to get ahead in the academic world than it is for people from more meager backgrounds. Therefore, the low wages and lack of support for outside employment in grad school often exacerbates existing inequalities.**
How that argument, in Pistone's mind, got twisted into me saying or implying that I think that all grad students are (directly quoting from her piece):
-"a slice of the 1%"
-lifelong students who "have no skills and no need to hold down a real job"
-"a terribly homogeneous [privileged] group" or
-[all] "children of privilege"
...is beyond me. If you ask me, such a misrepresentation of my words reveals a lot more about the person doing the reading of my posts than by anything I actually wrote.
I'm going to close this out with a direct quote from the post of mine that Pistone linked to, to further defend myself against her assertion that I have been sitting out here, railing against wealthy people or screaming about how all grad students are apathetic privileged snobs (emphasis in original):
My problem does not lie with people who were born into affluence. My problem lies with the structure of academia, yet again. Academia assumes you will come in privileged, and that you don't need any extra money to make ends meet. If you do, it's your own moral failing and not anything that is wrong with the system.
Grad school and academia exacerbates inequality, and like any other industry in the world, is invested in keeping salaries low. And ultimately, it values the privileged over the non-privileged. But because they give lip service to "reducing inequality" in their research and their seminars, no one notices until it's too late.How you get from that to where Pistone went in terms of misrepresenting my arguments, I don't know. But that's what I actually wrote.
When I was in grad school, I remember being instructed on several occasions that we academics need to be careful to stay objective in our research and writing and to be careful to not let our own biases leak through into our written work. I would like to note that I think the same caution needs to be given to the folks who write under the masthead of university graduate schools in general, and the University of Michigan's Rackham Graduate School in particular.
I'll end by echoing Rebecca Schuman once again: "the articles will stop when the exploitation stops."
* The fact that this was published under the official masthead of the University of Michigan's Rackham Graduate School is pretty appalling. I'm not sure that an article which argues that writers who are trying to encourage grad students to make smart, informed choices about their academic careers should "shut up" is a great use of their university bandwidth. But what do I know ... I'm just a grad school dropout. :)
** I want to take a moment to acknowledge two people (Tressie McCombs Cottom and Annemarie Pérez) who have made slightly dissenting arguments to mine at this blog - not saying that inequality doesn't exist in grad school or that grad school is a universally wonderful choice ... but that despite that inequality and the problems that exist in academia, the decision to go to grad school may still be a wise one for nonwhite students who are navigating through a white world.