Sunday, May 5, 2013

I Don't Think We're Saying What You Think We're Saying

So ... while I've been away taking care of work things and life things and computer things, it appears that my blog has gotten tangentially caught up in an academic/postacademic brouhaha.

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" 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 PĂ©rez) 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.


  1. Let me be the first to say Bravo! I'm a current Masters student in science, just beginning my *hopefully* last semester. I've made it so far because I'm too stubborn for my own good. The past two years have been the biggest dose of reality I've ever had and I've completely re-evaluated my perspectives on academia.
    The more people who read wonderful blogs like yours and pause before signing up to grad school, the better. Even if they do sign up in the end.
    As an academic, particularly in the humanities, I'd hope that your critic would understand that there is benefit in open and frank discussion; on all topics.

    1. Thanks for reading!

      I've never argued that no one should go to grad school. Never. In fact, I don't even regret enrolling and going myself, even though I ultimately dropped out.

      All that I - and I believe most of the other postacs - want is for people to be informed. To understand the long odds they're facing for a tenure-track job and to make an informed decision about whether or not to enroll. To think about other types of jobs they could do with their Ph.Ds. To periodically reassess whether they're *really* happy in their programs or if they'd be better off doing something else instead.

      And yet apparently this is considered bad advice? I don't get it. I've always thought that encouraging people to make informed decisions was a good thing. Apparently certain voices in higher ed disagree.

  2. The 2 Year Life of the MindMay 5, 2013 at 7:21 PM

    The conspiracy theorist in me believes that U of M doesn't want to "shield" their students from the realities, but rather approve of Ms. Pistone's writing as plain 'ol good PR for the college and the graduate school system as a whole. It's like a company spinning the natural disaster they are fully responsible for into a positive benefit for the community. "Stop picking on us (graduate students" they say, "because YOU want to stop our further education with your angry agenda of anti-academic propaganda".

    The reality is that even if someone is in opposition to her, I find it odd that Pistone feels threatened by the post-alt-ac community. If she's truly free to do what she wants (and she is) this should be a non issue because U of M welcomed her with open arms and nobody is trying to stop her. If this anti-academic chatter is just that, then what's the problem? Or rather, what is HER problem?

    You know, denial is the first step......

    1. I had the same thought re: the post/alt-ac community. If she doesn't want to see these articles, then don't read them! It's not like we're emailing what we write to departmental listservs or something.

      Given that, then, it's interesting that she couldn't just let it go.

    2. U of M doc student/wannabe grad school quitta here- because I can speak to institutional efforts to provide support in considering/finding non-academic jobs, etc., even as someone on JC et al.'s "side" in this case and in the bigger picture I'd tend to disagree with JC's footnote and to agree on your PR point. It looks like she has a semi-regular blogging gig on the website; the non-conspiracy theorist in me thinks that to the extent that anyone really thought about the piece at all before okaying it the reaction was probably 'oh good, defending grad school, yes, that's nice.' (These are, after all, people who work at Rackham Grad School for a living- would we not expect them to be generally pro-grad school?)

      TL;DR- I think the institutional angle is both totally unsurprising and largely incidental.

    3. K, thanks. I'll edit my footnote accordingly. I still don't like that this kind of "sit down and shut up!" article appeared under U of M's masthead ... but you've convinced me that there's no reason to assume anything malicious.

      If I learn otherwise, I'll edit again. ;)

  3. A couple thoughts -

    First, U of M would only post that if they are feeling insecure in some way, which would mean that post-academics are accomplishing something in changing the decision-calculus of graduate school from a purely idealist decision to one that is more practical.

    Second, Pistone's complete misrepresentation of your essay doesn't bode well for her ability to put together a dissertation. Either she's not so great with reading comprehension or she's deliberately painting a false portrayal. I hope that's not typical of her academic work.

    1. "First, U of M would only post that if they are feeling insecure in some way, which would mean that post-academics are accomplishing something in changing the decision-calculus of graduate school from a purely idealist decision to one that is more practical."

      I really, really hope you're right.

      Not because I don't want anyone to go to grad school. But because the practical stuff matters, and I'm getting really tired of people arguing that it doesn't.

  4. Well said, well done. Too many graduate programs are ponzi schemes and too many institutions of so-called higher education are exploitative caste systems. No, we won't stop talking about it. Why would we? Something is very *wrong* here, from the point of view of people who care deeply about higher education. Something is broken and the most heartening thing: I'm seeing a growing level of examination of education institutions and growing calls for significant reform. This is a good thing. It is not a bad thing. I understand it's causing a backlash among the powerful beneficiaries of academia, and among those who fantasize about joining their ranks. But backlash, it seems to me, is an indicator that the critiques are hitting a nerve. Onwards.

    It's interesting that Amy Pistone wrote her essay on an official University of Michigan webpage that didn't allow feedback, comments, or debate.

  5. Amy Pistone's interpretation of your blog is indicative of her misunderstanding of the postacademic movement in general. (Can we call it a "movement"?). I don't think most postacademics are asking graduate students to leave their PhD programs. Rather, we're asking grad students to think more critically about the decisions they're making and showing them that they have other choices. I don't buy her argument that many graduate students thought carefully about the decision to get a PhD program. My word against hers, but I know plenty of grad students who haven't thought about it - and I went to an Ivy League for grad school! If someone wanted to continue pursuing a PhD with full awareness of the risks they're taking, I don't think postacademics would have a problem with this. At least I wouldn't.

    I have to admit that I'm somewhat perplexed by Pistone. I'd think that a PhD student, especially from University of Michigan, would know better when criticizing texts. If she had done a more careful analysis, she would have discovered that so many postacademics are speaking out because there wasn't a space for them before. Their primary motivation is to reveal another side of the academic world that has been hidden for so long, not to say that academia is wrong for everyone.

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  7. Hmm...I must be too tired to comment on blogs since I managed to delete my comment somehow when I was just trying to add a response to another comment. So, I'll say this again: Thank you for this response! Her misunderstanding of your criticism of privilege was particularly appalling. So many ECRs and grad students, myself included, worry all the time that we made the wrong decisions, took on all this debt, and won't be able to survive this seemingly mandatory adjunct service long enough to get to a FT job offer, which might never occur. It's nice for her that she can pay rent and buy groceries right now. I could, too, until I couldn't. That doesn't mean the system is not broken or that it should be blindly accepted, without criticism or attempts at instituting change. It simply means she is lucky enough to be able to pay rent. Not everyone is.

  8. Hey, I am sorry man that you had a less than pleasant graduate studies experience. I guess it differs from school to school too. Getting to the Amy's article you refer to and you arguments - look, grad studies, and specifically PhD is something that does not fit everyone. This is there have been written tons of books and shorter articles like this ( which try to help people decide whether it is worth starting a PhD or not.

  9. A classics PhD student, eh? At a State school? Too funny. Best of luck to her!!

  10. wow. I hadn't read Pistone's piece either. (just did). It does sound incredibly naive. And I also find it notable and irresponsible that she doesn't link to your article (unless I missed it). I have a feeling she'll regret putting that out there eventually. It's great for her that she enjoys grad school (I actually did as well). The problem is that it eventually comes to an end. That's when the shit really hits the fan...

  11. May 14 anonymous: I'm completely on the anti-Pistone side, but Michigan (like Virginia and North Carolina and Wisconsin and California) is one of the most highly regarded universities in the country, not a cow college.

  12. What troubles me the most about academia is that many of my friends are stuck in the postdoc holding pattern. They privately express to me how they'd like nothing better than to get a real job that pays real money, but with every year they put that decision off, they become less viable in the real world. Their inertia drives me nuts, yet they are only following the nice linear course that's been charted out for them. Only, that course is dilating to a point where there's no visible finish line.

    Most grad students are at an age where their friends are buying homes, starting families, planning their future. Yet so much of this is beyond the reach of grad students- where even if it's barely affordable, pregnancy, maternity leave and career implications force that decision for them.

    So glad I'm now in 'industry'. And amazingly, the breadth of work I do here beats anything I ever did in grad school. I am constantly intellectually stimulated at work, earn 5 times as much even at the start of my career, and no one questions me when I dare to *gasp* take my paid time off, or occasionally leave work at 5. Did I get really lucky? Sure. I was in a STEM field, that helped too. But I went into grad school imagining I was above needing to make a good living and that my passion for research would be all I'd ever need. I was laughably wrong on all counts, and admitting that to myself was what got me on the path to fulfillment, disruptive (and bordering on catastrophic) as it was to my mental health.

  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Deleting this comment because it is not helpful to the people who read my blog, and may in fact make them feel worse.

      If you have questions about why I keep this blog or why I react strongly to criticism from the academic community about said blog, please feel free to email me at the address above.

  14. First off I have a Ph.D. in the Sciences from the University of Michigan. I can tell you that academic careers are extremely difficult to come by, not just for humanities. Secondly, Amy Pistone doesn't speak for even a majority of the students at U of M.

    The question I have to offer is why would you get a Ph.D. in the Humanities to begin with? What transferrable skill set does it leave you with that you couldn't already have with a B.A.? In STEM you obtain a lot of skills from doing hands-on research that goes well beyond what you received in undergraduate (not to say someone with an undergrad degree is less intelligent than a Ph.D.; I've seen plenty smarter).

    A Ph.D. in Humanities prepares you to teach about the subject you're working on, lets take Literature for example. What else can you do besides teaching at a University, that you couldn't already do with your undergrad degree? The Answer is nothing. Humanities degrees are a Ponzi Scheme at best. Humanities are the intellectual entertainment of the world, which ironically makes you a more intelligent version of the Kardashian's. Who wants to pay to watch that, especially since I wouldn't trust most of society to understand it?

    I'm not going to tell anyone to shut up about their opinions, frankly because 1) I don't care enough and 2) you're entitled to them. I think posting about how poorly the academic job market really is, is beneficial. However, while I do not agree with most of Amy's points, her point about making adult decisions is 100% true. You made an adult decision to choose a career path that is solely for the purpose of intellectual stimulation and doesn't add innovation or value to our society (not that the current entertainment market does either, they just get paid better; see the Kardashian reference above). So back to my original question, Why did you get a degree in Humanities in the first place?

    -My $0.02

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      If the "you" you are directing this comment toward is supposed to be me, I invite you to read the rest of my blog. I wasn't in the humanities and didn't even finish my Ph.D.

      Also, my commentary re: Ms. Pistone has nothing to do about whether or not someone should get a humanities Ph.D., or whether such a decision is smart. It has everything to do with the fact that she misrepresented my arguments about privilege and academia. I would not have even responded if not for that.

      Finally, I strongly disagree with your comments about whether the humanities add anything of innovation or value to society...but I suppose that we will have to agree to disagree on that, since I have little to no desire to get into a STEM/humanities debate on this blog.