Exquisite Sheep

Who, US?

Sometimes, it’s just more than you can bear, you know?

Every week, the news-based Chronicle of Higher Education also includes its features magazine, The Chronicle Review. I have a fondness for both: the first, a newspaper about the workings of a massive industry; the second; a series of provocations to that industry.

Last spring, the Review published an absolutely brilliant account of Andrew Kay’s return to the conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA) as an exile from the academic community. Bitter, bewildered, longing, and raw, Kay’s essay was one of the most broadly read Review essays of the year. Early in his essay, he likened the MLA conference to a photograph of golfers getting in one last round while a wildfire illuminated the sky just behind them. “The conversion of this Edenic place into Dantean incandescence won’t interfere with the genteel game they know and love — or, if it will, they are determined to get in one last round before the region is razed,” he wrote.

Well, the golfers are back on the course again this year, and the Review has live coverage, an interview conducted with five attendees of the current January 2020 MLA. And it’s absolutely excruciating, five lucky winners of the academic lottery discussing how interesting it is to have won the Powerball and be allowed to ask such interesting questions at such an interesting moment in history.

When demanded to directly address the working conditions that their colleagues face, they say things like this:

I’m not sure we need to criticize ourselves for not paying enough attention to adjunctification. I think a lot of people have been talking about that for a long time. But asking us to advocate on behalf of our discipline both in terms of wanting more jobs for our graduate students and also, especially, for the epistemic good standing of our discipline, is all a good thing.

— Jonathan Kramnick, Professor, Yale

Oh, yes, it’s especially important that the epistemic good standing of our discipline is sustained. And we’ve been talking about adjunctification for so, so long! What more can we possibly be expected to do? I’m not sure we need to criticize ourselves for that…

Jesus Pete. This whole interview is so powerfully twee and self-congratulatory. It reduces the New Yorker writing of people like Jill Lepore (a tenured faculty member in American History at Harvard, by the way) to “trade work” that doesn’t address the precious capabilities of humanists to engage in the world on their own terms; it bemoans the interest by undergrads in the work of someone like Atul Gawande, who knows how to reveal the ethical concerns of a profession to outsiders. (Which, by the way, is exactly what Andrew Kay’s essay did last year.)

It assumes conditions that don’t broadly exist, like this:

It’s really important that there are not such big opportunity costs to going to graduate school. You’re paid a salary — it’s obviously less than you should be paid. But it is a salary, it is health care, it is defined work, it is phenomenal work: to be able to learn and think and teach all the time. Part of what people are signing up for is five years of doing something that is most likely better than what they would be doing otherwise, given what is available.

Anna Kornbluh, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago

The National Center for Educational Statistics reported that, in 2017, the average new PhD graduated with roughly $108,000 in student loan debt. In my five years of doctoral education, I got a fellowship one year, a teaching assistantship one year, a research assistantship one year, and a dissertation fieldwork assistantship one year. Each of them was exactly equal to my tuition. None of them carried health benefits. They were, basically, tuition waivers, not unlike the company store knowing exactly what its workers’ wages were and taking it all back every Friday. This notion that graduate school enrollment inevitably carries a “salary,” and “health care,” and carries no significant opportunity costs, is just lunatic, a complete misreading by the comfortable of the conditions endured by their less privileged colleagues. I mean, these five got their PhDs at Yale, and UC Irvine, and Hopkins, and Carnegie Mellon, and Yale again. So yes, they’ve had the charmed life that pays someone to go to grad school (and gives them the CV cachet necessary for tenure-streamed faculty life, and entry to interesting conversations that their institutions pay them to attend). But there are lots and lots of doctoral programs that just aren’t that way, and which offer far less reliable keys to the mansion.

How can such intelligent people be so clueless about their own industry? It’s agonizing, a lesson in what Sigmund Freud called the narcissism of small differences, the ways in which precision about trivial concerns leads us toward infighting and away from actual influence. It is an essay which exactly proves the point being made about the humanities that they wished to dispel. Lepore, in her own Review interview, noted that “The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.” This is a more precise (and more readable) version of exactly what Kramnick was tripping over his own vocabulary to ask for in that first quote, to “advocate… for the epistemic good standing of our discipline.” But instead of doing that public work, it’s so much easier for the protected to gather around tavern tables at the MLA, and reassure one another that they have the truth.