My first semester in graduate school, one of my professors told us a little story. This was from his own days in graduate school, at UCLA. A classmate had failed his orals. Now he was trying again; if he failed a second time, he’d be out of the program. My professor ran into him on his way out of the building after the exam. The guy had a big smile on his face.
“How did you do?” my professor asked.
“I failed!” he said.
“Then why are you smiling?” my professor asked.
“I’m going to the beach!”
It took me 15 years to understand that story. I thought it was about those silly Southern Californians. They’re always happy, no matter whatever else is going on, as long as they can make it to the beach. It was only once I had survived my own oral exams, humped my way through a dissertation, played the game of Russian roulette known as the academic job market, endured a couple of performance reviews, ventured back on the job market, and thought about the endless succession of humiliations still stretching out in front of me that I understood what the story was really about. He was done. They couldn’t touch him anymore. He was going to the beach.
I wrote, a couple of months ago, about the ways that being exposed to the free market as a professional writer has helped bring into focus some of the injustices at work in academia: the dishonesty, the cronyism, the hidden agendas. What I didn’t say is that they also treat you like an equal in the market. It isn’t just an endless series of hazing rituals. You’re a potential partner, and there are always other people you can work with. But in academia you are forever trembling, like a figure out of Kafka, before the next tribunal: graduate admissions, graduate courses, orals, chapter conferences, dissertation committee, hiring committees, peer reviews for publications and grants, promotion reviews, tenure review, more peer reviews and promotion reviews. And because it’s always up or out—you can’t just muddle along at the same level, the way you can in other occupations—everything is always on the line; every test is existential.
They say the politics in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so low, but that isn’t entirely the case. The power over students and junior colleagues is quite complete, and quite routinely abused. You are at their mercy, and mercy is in short supply. (The stakes for the decision-makers, to be sure, are small. They have tenure, and no bottom line to worry about.) The longer you’re in, the worse it gets, at least until the moment of tenure, because the fewer options you have outside the walls. The more the academic job market continues to implode, the fewer options you have in any case. One thing is certain, as the crisis in higher education proceeds: the way that people treat each other’s only going to get worse.
For graduate students, though, the barrier to leaving the profession is more psychological—“I’m going to the beach!”—than anything else. You’re made to feel, if you even contemplate it, as if you’re going to be renouncing holy orders—another survival, like its feudal hierarchy, of academia’s origin in the Middle Ages. I saw it many times, in my department, with students who had chosen, usually with many agonies of self-reproach, to drop out of the program: the shame, the sense of failure, the sense, even, of pollution, as if these decent young people—diligent, earnest, goodhearted—were descending from Parnassus to the dirty world. But academia already is the dirty world. What judgment shall we pass on a profession that, in the name of high ideals, so betrays the trust, so trifles with the conscience, of its children?
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