Category Archives: Academic History

I Quit

I did it.

I told my department chair that I plan to resign at the end of the semester. I’ll actually take an unpaid year of absence first so that I can wrap things up with grad students who are finishing soon and continue writing recommendation letters. But after a year, that’s it. I told myself five years ago that my life was half over, and that I had to start using and spending all that I accumulated in the first half of my life. This is it.

I’ve been prepping for this for so long that I thought it would be a much bigger deal. A couple of months back I even started writing a draft post of reasons why I should resign. I planned to read and revise it as a way to motivate and persuade myself. I looked at it this weekend and wasn’t inspired at all—peppered with clichés and strained justifications. I realized that I’d already made the decision a long time ago, and I don’t need to persuade anybody else. I wrote a post about boners instead.

Unhappy Professors Should Quit

Here are three reasons why unhappy professors should quit:

1) We are the ones most likely to whine and be envious, making academia unhappy for the others.

2) To get smart people back into the world, rather than neutralized in academia.

3) So we can stop whining and face other challenges. Maybe we can learn something. Maybe we can recover the more effective and enjoyable parts of ourselves, the parts that look forward to life.

When is the best time to quit? Probably before tenure, before we are too entangled in commitments and responsibilities. Although a post-tenure departure is a good way to fold departure into a mid-life crisis, and perhaps make something out of the crisis. The problem is that a pre-tenure departure will feel too much like failure for many people. That is why so many advanced graduate students are unable to opt for a more appropriate career despite their boredom and bitterness–because change feels like failure.

Of course, it takes a lot of self-awareness and some courage to quit. That is why unhappy professors rarely do it. . . . . I actually find that my motivation to resign is much stronger when things are going well. I feel less less constrained and emotionally constipated, with a clearer mind and a greater sense of possibilities. Whining (or even the temptation to whine–I’m actually not much of a whiner any more) is a space of retreat from possibilities.

My Colonialist Students

My students all sound like junior colonial officials. Formal colonialism has largely disappeared as an institution, but idealism that justified it still flourishes.

My students want to help people develop. They want to educate people. They want to find victims and rescue them. They want to teach them sustainable development, encourage good governance, provide assistance, bring justice. They have ideas about how people should behave. They know what is better for people. They have something to teach people. They want to preserve their cultures. They want to develop local knowledge. They want to show people how to interact with the world. They want to create programs to organize people. They want to bring medical service and sexual morality. They assume people will want to learn what they have to teach. . . . These are the same sentiments that can be found in the correspondence, diaries and public pronouncements of colonial officials for over a century.

And the students can believe all these things, because they are so sure they are not colonialists. Colonial officials (and their descendants in the World Bank or other foriegn aid institutions) were racist, arrogant or clueless. They did’t understand local conditions. They believed in absurd theories, or were impractical and utopian. Their claims help were a cover for exploitation and self-aggrandizement. First and foremost, they served their own nation, their own class, and their own egos. They spent more effort on presenting media images and replicating their own administration than in helping people. . . . But we know all of this now. Our motivations are different. We are thoughtful and we can act differently. Colonial officials both created stereotypes and can be described by stereotypes. We don’t do that.

My students insist it is urgent. We have to act now, the world is changing too quickly. No time to slow down, live with those people for a couple of years, make friends, perhaps get laid and get married. We can’t take the time to learn about the world from their perspective first. The world is threatening, and we have to help people who don’t have the means to understand it themselves. We have to organize them, educate them, save them.

My students won’t join colonial administrations. But they will join and eventually run INGOs, international agencies, multinational corporations, social service agencies, courts and governments. They will become lawyers, doctors, administrators and university professors. And the more they become seeped in their professions, the less they will be able to see the world from any other perspective, the more they will insist that other people live up to their vision of how people should be.

I work in a university designed to seep students in a certain understanding of the world, and to prepare students to carry those ideals to the world.

I don’t want to be part of it any more.

The Acronyms

Wisdom passed on to me by my dad:

BS: Bullshit

MS: More of the Same

MA: More Accumulation

PhD: Piled Higher and Deeper

The first one’s not difficult to decode. But the higher you go, the less you are able to see through it all.

Gooble Gobble One of Us

I went to an academic inaugural lecture in the Netherlands a few months ago. Being inaugurated is more or less the equivalent of tenure in the United States–the final stage of initiation into the highest circle of mystery (although there is still a ladder of post-initiation ranks that can be attained). But the Dutch do it much better. The departmental faculty all dress up in their archaic robes and walk solemnly down the aisle of the lecture hall while rattling ritual objects. Friends and family are invited to sit in the audience. The inauguree gives a brief (yes, brief!) overview of his or her research, a bit of personal biography, and then thanks friends, family and colleagues. The inauguree often ends up in tears, or at least a bit choked up. A party often follows. At this party, the entire deparment had even written and jointly performed a song for the inaugurees.

In the United States, on the other hand, all we get is a letter and a few congratulatory emails after tenure. Then it is back to business as usual: a random interaction of self-absorbed individuals who happen to share offices on the same hallway. Perhaps something more happens in science and social science departments, where collaboration is more the norm. But U.S. historians live out the fantasy of self-reliant individualism with gusto. (I was reminded of this inauguration, by the summerschool I am currently teaching. The students are mostly social scientists, and I have been very impressed by their great enthusiasm and skill for small group work, even an assignment that asked them to design a joint research project. I’ve done similar assignments with historians, and they are completely perplexed and nonplussed at the prospects of designing joint research with others).

I have to confess, that while the Dutch ceremony was impressive, I am much too habituated to the practices of U.S. history departments to want to adopt a similar ritual. I don’t want to bond.  To be sure, historians do frequently reiterate a communal fiction that we are all members of a common department and discipline that shares common goals and ideals. But any commonality is usually achieved through relentless self-policing, selection and peer review. Emotional bonding (whether ritualized or not) is not part of the program. And so many of us nurse such powerful bitterness and emotional defenses that any attempt to inject positive emotional substance through ritual seems either doomed to failure. Either the ritual would become hollow, or we’d have to undergo the trauma of rethinking our adamant individualism.

That said, there is one ritual I’ve always thought might effectively channel the emotional realities of a U.S. history department:

There’s the superficial resemblance of comparing historians to a collection of perverse individualists creating a happy community of outcastes. But the real emotional effect of this ritual comes when the tenure recipient yells, “Stop it! Freaks! Freaks! Freaks! Get out of here.” She still thinks she is beautiful and pure, not truly one of them. But this very act of rejection makes her the most perverse individualist of them all, the one who is unable to accept any acceptance and community. Thus, in the very act of rejection, she confirms that the freakish community of historians is the one place that she belongs.

Unfortunately, this ritual does not yet include any final rite of reincorporation–it is not a full rite of passage. I know that I am still yelling, “Freaks, freaks, freaks! Get out of here!” But in the absence of any rite of reincorporation, I am the one with nowhere to go, not them. (In the film, Freaks, the freaks just wander away sheepishly. They don’t appreciate her outburst and eventually hunt her down in the mud and physically transform her into a human duck. I suspect that historians would be satisfied with a more gentle and symbolic embodiment of their post-tenure fate.)

Swigging the Koolaid

Getting a PhD in history has many of the characteristics of mind-control or a cult. Here are some common techniques of mind-control as described by a Berkeley professor, with parenthetical comments about how they apply to academia (see here for more detail).

  • Use strong in-group language that shapes the way we can think about things. (Jargon)
  • Cause members to think about the group most of the time.
  • Give rewards for conformity in language, dress and behavior. (Academics certainly watch what we say. And while the [dowdy] norms for dress and behavior are relatively loose compared to the army or a lawyer’s office, we still very rarely diverge from those norms.)
  • Attack members’ old concept of self, and encourage a new concept. (This is what we call ‘education’: making people think differently about the norms they grew up with, ‘opening their horizons,’ and  implying that old patterns of thinking are racist, sexist, chauvinist, elitist, uneducated or otherwise lunkheaded.)
  • Offer members something they want, and say it can only be achieved through commitment to the group. (Life of the mind, search for knowledge, summer vacations, tenure, full professorship).
  • Instill a sense of powerlessness. (Talk to anybody going through a comprehensive exam, a job search or tenure process about how they feel.)
  • Strong peer monitoring with feedback to the group. (Academia is an endless process of self-policing: applications, exams, reviews, defenses, comments, discussants, question-and-answer.)
  • Have people in power who are skilled at never losing an argument or admitting wrongness. (That is what we are trained to do.)
  • Get members involved in the initiation of new followers, giving us a stake in the group. (Our students! And even students initiate other students.)
  • Establish an endless structure of rungs and initiations, and insist that the great revelation will come if we only stick to it with faith and determination. (Admissions, exams,  defenses, job applications, grants and promotions. As if liberation will finally came with tenure. But what we get instead are new anxieties and a personality that is so habituated to anxiety that we can not even admit it to ourselves).
  • Make people feel guilty for questioning the structure. (Any questioning of academia itself only proves we are not smart enough or don’t work hard enough. And we have plenty of outlets for our frustration in our constant criticisms of each other, and of those who gained success only by gaming the system.)
  • Exert control over multiple dimensions of a person’s life–replacing family as the main locus of security (income, health insurance, housing, schooling for children, vacation time, retirement funds).
  • Reduce ties to outside relationships. (How many families ever really understand what you are doing and why for so long when you get a PhD? So few of us feel we could ever go back to a ‘real’ job.)
  • Instill a fear of leaving the group. (Failure! Incompetence! Impossibility of reintegration into society!)

It is not perfect mind control. There are a few things the university is not very good at. We don’t induce trances, chanting or other altered states, however hard we may try in seminars and lectures. Our concentration of power and leadership is also imperfect. Too many of us don’t take university administration seriously. And within a department, we are all rampant egoists and individualists (although our constant struggles against each other can obsessively bind us to each other nearly as much as group-building activity).

Our group work with disciples is excellent, however. I once saw a documentary about U.S. prisoners of war in Korea that (for me at least) drew out the similarities between ‘brainwashing’ and the university. They prisoners were first held in a North Korean camp, where they were beaten and starved. Then the Red Cross intervened, and they were moved to a Chinese camp. They said they were well-fed and never beaten, but it was even worse. “We had to go to school every day. We learned how American imperialists were hurting the world, why people resented us. We began to internalize it. We started to doubt our own identities.” The documentary called it ‘brainwashing,’ but the techniques were not much different than university seminars. We encourage students to talk about what they have read and how it is relevant to them. We then reiterate what they said, in the context of our preferred words and theories. Over time, they learn to say what they want in phrases that approximate ours, and in the essay format that we require. And once they have developed an ability to regurgitate in an effective manner, we praise them for having learned, for having expanded their minds. There is pressure to do this, because they have to write papers and want good grades. There is pressure to do this, because they have to write papers and want good grades–but many students embrace the new identities willingly. Over time, the new ways of expressing and understanding themselves and the world around start to get internalized, and the old ways of thinking slip away, remnants of an uneducated youth.

It turns out that really effective mind control is hard work, and most of us—be we communist cadres or professors or priests—aren’t that good at it or don’t have ideal circumstances in which to do it. It works best in small groups in nearly constant contact, isolated from the larger world, and under the guidance of a very charismatic personality with a few devoted assistants. So our successes are partial, and the priests complain that that the parishoners keep backsliding, the professors complain that the students aren’t serious, and the cadres complain that the reactionaries are still subverting the revolution.

So why do we demonize some brainwashing/educational institutions as cults, while praising others as the cornerstones of our societies—teams, corporations, armies, political parties, families, universities? It can not be because cults demand near-exclusive devotion and even self-sacrifice. Would a good football team, military squadron, wife and child, nation, or 70+ hours-per-week professional job demand any less? Nor can it be that they shut down free thinking. The techniques to shape thinking and emotions are the same across cults and non-cults. It is more likely that cults promote skepticism of conventional norms. But universities and even political parties do that to some extent–and internal corporate and military documents often express contempt of those norms. No, that is not it.

I think the big difference is that cults promote withdrawal from the larger society, and encourage members to look inward.  Rather than engaging with or trying to control society, they encourage members to look into their souls, or at least to look no farther than the exclusive knowledge of the group.

Because, in the end, the techniques used by cults and for mind control are just the standard techniques used everywhere to promote group cohesion and strength. And the one thing that can not be tolerated are those who don’t want to go along with the group.

Swigging at the Teats

I once read—probably in some Jungian book—that for professors the university is a substitute for mother. We think we are breaking away from mom by getting an independent career, thinking daring thoughts and doing things she never taught us to do. But we are just slipping right back into the bosom, into an enveloping presence that takes care of us, plans our lives, and follows gives us that same familiar structure we have lived since we started school at 5, if not earlier. For other students, the university was a rite of passage. But we never passed.

Fair enough. Even if we disregard the psychoanalysis, the phrase “incestuous insularity” seems to fit the academy just right. And family is even a better metaphor than mother. A totalizing institution that has the sanction of time and tradition, with an ideology that claims to connect us to the basic truths and structure of human life. “Education” is the only thing that comes close to “family” in its claims to be a core necessity of modern life.

The internal dynamics are certainly similar. For people immersed in the academy, everything seems vibrant and meaningful. We treasure our genealogies, curate our legacies, speak of our trivial competitions as if we were conquering the world. It is an intense love-hate relationship, an attachment that both drains and sustains us emotionally. Petty arguments prevail, and chance comments generate excessive, over-emotional reactions. And the substance of the arguments just repeats, over and over and over again.

One big difference it that academia and families have different entrance requirements. We are not born into academia nor do we get swept in on a romantic wave leading to marriage. Instead, we undergo a long, painful & selective ritual of PhD, job search and tenure. And once we are in, nothing engages or time and interest than more than the selection of new initiates. It is a long and interminable process of continual self-reproduction. It generates enormous anxiety, bitterness and fear of rejection. With relatively easy barriers against exit (as compared to the family), one would think that defection would be common. But academics rarely cut ties of their own volition. As with family, such a break is almost inconceivable. It would mean failure, emotional castration, rootlessness, the pointless rejection of all that is valuable, the void.

Like family, academia carves out a tiny section of society and makes it seem like a universe, imprints itself on our personalities, provides material security and familiarity, shapes our social ambitions and fundamental sense of reward and failure. Most institutions probably do much the same–and some, like the army, a monastery, Google or a sports team are probably even more effective than the academy. But unlike them, we academics claim to be individualists, following truth (or our hearts, or love of the subject, or whatever), hostile to group-think, hierarchy and exploited conformity. But every time we insist on our intellectual freedom or speak truth to power, we’re just looking for approval from mom, jockeying for another big swig from the teat.

From the outside, on the other hand, the academy looks, well . . . . well, we don’t really know much about that. Everybody out there seems just a little bit wrong. We’re here to teach them. Anyways, we’re really busy. . . .