Category Archives: academe

Just Glad to Be Working

“He came from a working-class background – his dad drives a truck for Coca-Cola, and he himself has had jobs like warehouseman and forklift driver. Because of all that, he possessed a psychological profile that made thriving in academia difficult: namely, he is self-possessed, confident and utterly lacking in the other-directed brown-nose-itutde that is the mark of the modern professional managerial class. When he realized that most critical theory wasn’t to his taste, he avoided it – except when he had to parrot it back to his professors to pass his field exams. He also didn’t frantically seek lines on his curriculum vitae, grinding the same research into half a dozen all-but-identical conference papers. He didn’t suck up. Instead, all he did was write a brilliant dissertation with a timely and politically relevant theme, in elegant, readable prose. All the while he feasted upon books about every subject under the sun. An insatiable auto-didact; his love of knowledge burns more brightly than that of just about anyone I’ve ever met, and outshines every professor I know. A natural-born teacher, he simultaneously and joyfully practiced the arts of citizenship just about every day of the week…. In a better world, academia would beat a path to this gentleman’s door. Instead, he knows tenured employment is almost unimaginable. So he’s applied to about a hundred jobs this summer, desperate to keep up with his mortgage – every kind of job, including one as an on-campus building manager. He finally ended up with a year-long contract at a private school teaching science to eighth graders. Though he has no particular interest in and no experience with science, he’s glad to be working at all.”

—Rick Perlstein, “On the Death of Democratic Higher Education


Be Bold

Be contemporary. Have impact. Strive for it. Be of the world. Move it. Be bold, don’t hold back. Then the moment you think you’ve been bold, be bolder. We are all alive today, ever so briefly here now, not then, not ago, not in some dreamworld of a hypothetical future. Whatever you do, you must make it contemporary. Make it matter now. You must give us a new path to tread, even if it carries the footfalls of old soles. You must not be immune to the weird urgency of today.

Ian Bogost, who’s addressing graduate students here, but whose advice, I think,   has broad applicability


He told me about attending a party of Columbia graduate students in sociology, and his account of it seemed to sum up the impasse he had reached with the academic side of his profession. ‘I simply sat in a chair in a corner,’ he said, ‘and one by one these guys would come up to me, sort of like approaching the pariah – curiosity stuff. They were guys working on their Ph.D.’s, you see, and after they’d introduced themselves I’d ask, “What are you working on?” It would always be something like “The Impact of Work-Play Relationships among Lower Income Families on the South Side of the Block on 112th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway.” And then I would ask –’ Mills paused, leaned forward, and his voice boomed, ‘Why?’

Dan Wakefield on C. Wright Mills

Related post: Do It Big.

A Half Millennium of Academic Tenure

The ambitious teacher can only rise in the academic bureaucracy by writing at complicated length about writing that has already been much written about. The result of all this book-chat cannot interest anyone who knows literature while those who would like to learn something about books can only be mystified and discouraged by these commentaries. Certainly it is no accident that the number of students taking English courses has been in decline for some years. But that is beside the point. What matters is that the efforts of the teachers now under review add up to at least a half millennium of academic tenure.

Gore Vidal, Times Literary Supplement, February 20, 1976

Kick up that money, ho. Oh, I mean tuition.

[David] Graeber relates the story of a women he met who got a Ph.D. from Columbia University, but whose $80,000 debt load put an academic career off-limits, since adjuncts earn close to nothing. Instead, the woman wound up working as an escort for Wall Street types. ‘Here’s someone who ought to be a professor,’ Graeber explains, ‘doing sexual services for the guys who lent her the money.’

—Thomas Frank, “The Price of Admission,” Harper’s Magazine, June 2012

(Via Boston Review.)

As KRS-One put it on “Questions and Answers” in 1992, “Kick up that money, ho. Oh, I mean tuition.”

Deprived of Ground

I have no theories whatever about anything. I make observations by way of discovering contours, lines of force, and pressures. I satirize at all times, and my hyperboles are as nothing compared to the events to which they refer. If you study symbolism you will discover that it is a technique of rip-off by which figures are deliberately deprived of their ground.

Marshall McLuhan

(Via Michael Sacasas.)

What Kind of Mind Is This?

From New York magazine’s profile of/hit piece on Cornel West:

He famously reads for two or three hours before bed, and he has astonishing recall. Even in casual conversation, he uses ‘every intellectual resource at hand,’ says Obery Hendricks, who is now a visiting Bible scholar at Columbia University. In private-study sessions with West at Princeton, Hendricks remembers, ‘He was able to seamlessly incorporate black vernacular, black music, with the deepest Western philosophical thinkers. Once we were talking about jazz, and he extemporaneously wanted to talk about the similarities between bebop and a particular moment in the Italian renaissance. I thought, What kind of mind is this? I couldn’t believe it.’ West’s protégés describe seeing themselves, under the tutelage of their mentor, not as intellectual piece workers, toiling in small antechambers, but as heirs to a great, broad tradition.


Do you think that, year after year, you will be able to stand to see one mediocrity after another promoted over you, and still not become embittered and dejected?

—Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation” (1917)

Key to the Whole Thing

If you don’t take the money, they can’t tell you what to do. That’s the key to the whole thing.

Bill Cunningham

Question You Already Know the Answer To

In a rotten economy, or really in any economy, how many people with PhDs in American cultural studies do you think we actually need?

Josh Wimmer

Related post: “An Important Lesson.”