Editor’s Note: The author recently received his PhD in Comparative Literature. Our bad for not updating his bio last time around.
Last Wednesday I published a piece on this website about the disdain with which many left-leaning mainstream journalists increasingly treat academic work. Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman immediately responded to the piece in anger, first excoriating me for spelling her name wrong (the error was quickly corrected), and then claiming that I don’t have the credentials to write about such topics because I am still only a graduate student. On Friday, she put up a post on her blog “inspired” by the exchange, “Grad Students: I’M TRYING TO HELP YOU, YOU IDIOTS,” in which she insists that there is no reason for graduate students to “take her down” since she is really just trying to help them. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether my piece, which makes a passing three-word reference to Schuman’s 2012 Slate article “Thesis Hatement,” is a takedown of anyone. But given that a main point of the piece was that academics need to explain themselves better, I’ll try to clarify both the intent of the piece and the problems with Schuman’s response to it.
Schuman refers to me throughout her comments and (indirectly) in her post as a “grad- student hater.” Although I wouldn’t be ashamed to have written the piece as a graduate student, I received my PhD last month, and taught as an adjunct professor at CUNY Staten Island while completing my degree. The process of finishing my dissertation and my work as a part-time faculty member were crucial experiences that helped me to develop my thoughts for the piece. I’ll give Schuman the benefit of the doubt here, since my bio on Tropics of Meta still described me as a “doctoral candidate” (I hadn’t sent an updated bio). But the fact that the article was not written by a graduate student voids almost every categorical point she makes in her post: that a) graduate students “defend” the academy only because they’re sheltered from the realities of the job market, b) once they are awakened to the “petty politics” of the market, it will shatter their souls, and c) this soul-shatter will either lead them to the “cult-like rebuilding of [their] self-hood” or to the messianic crusading against the academic system that Schuman believes herself to embody.
The irony is that I am speaking from exactly the perspective Schuman claims to represent, that of the PhD-holding non-tenure-track professor. Just because graduate school is cruel and the job market unfair doesn’t mean that their sole function is to kill graduate students. My piece was by no means a naive defense of “The Life of the Mind,” but rather a defense of a set of politically-engaged principles of contemporary literary scholarship that I believe academics can pursue if and when we are in a compromised position in the academy itself.
This is not to suggest that Schuman’s criticisms of the academy are entirely false or unwarranted. Far from it. She should be commended for her efforts at (as she puts it) “calling out institutions for needless department closures, taking sexual harassers to task, fighting for adjuncts, advocating a good long look in the mirror about antiquated pedagogy, calling out racism/sexism/elitism.” Yet she has very little to say about how academic work might contribute to changing academic practices (or any others), nor does she seem to care much about offering a historical perspective on either the current academic crisis or the crisis in general. Academic witch-hunting appears to be her primary solution. According to her view, the very number of people she reaches is justification enough, as if that argument couldn’t also be used to conclude that Rush Limbaugh is the most benevolent person in America today. It’s easy to understand why this tactic plays so well in the blogosphere and at revenue-generating websites like Slate. The question is whether it’s a constructive tactic–for graduate students, adjuncts, full-time faculty, or anyone else.
In trying to illuminate the questionable assumptions by which certain journalists disqualify contemporary literary scholarship, I was under no illusion that I could instantly change the mainstream perception of academic writing. Slate will be Slate, and I think it’s ultimately a good thing that The Chronicle, for which Schuman also writes, is opening itself up to dissenting voices, even if they aren’t always the ones I would choose. Perhaps I should have been more specific in my qualification that “clearly not all literary journalists and independent writers share [this] tout court dismissal of academic scholarship.” Al Jazeera correspondent Sarah Kendzior, also a “recovering academic” and an occasional writer for The Chronicle, seems to me to have a far more nuanced (and no less incisive) take on the relationship between journalism and academic writing. So does Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker. And as South El Monte Arts Posse pointed out in the comments to the piece, this very website is dedicated to bridging journalism and academic work. Hopefully the possibility of a less fraught exchange between journalists and academics (and academic journalists) can still take place. The debate about the public role of academic scholarship needs to happen. I just wish it could happen in a more productive way.