Academia Is a Cult
November 5, 2018 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Andrew Marzoni grew up in the Living Word Fellowship, but left the church to go to college. He would eventually earn a PhD before leaving the world of academia, which he now likens to the cult he left behind [SLWaPo].
posted by Etrigan (61 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ugh. As a PhD holder, this made me cringe.
A single analogy isn't going to cut it. There may be some abusive relationships and they should end, but it isn't the norm. Cult is a ha-ha analogy, noting some of the cultish elements but isn't a Washington Post oped analogy.

I don't know Wtf is going on in his department or field, but I've never remotely heard of the sort of power-oriented behaviors he expresses here. The sexual and financial exploitation he describes is, in my experience, highly unusual.

The sort of obsession with progressive ideology may be there but isn't baked into the syllabi or anything that would result in the sort of zeal he describes.

I do agree that it is hard to leave and hard to leave gracefully. It does warp your way of thinking.

I try very hard to present the down sides of academic to my students and prospective students. I'm not a promoter of the system. But this oped made my skin crawl.
posted by k8t at 9:07 AM on November 5, 2018 [19 favorites]


Having read the piece, I have to say that his analogy is over-generous.

But this oped made my skin crawl.

Yep, but for what it describes as opposed to what it is.
posted by No Robots at 9:14 AM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


Also, I don't wanna be a jerk but nowadays, I'm constantly surprised to learn of potential humanities graduate students who are not aware of the job prospects. (In my field, there are enough jobs for PhD graduates, although perhaps not in the parts of the country they'd like.)
As opposed to when I started thinking about graduate school over a decade ago, there are so many blogs and things telling people to not go. Yes, I realize that my feed is heavily influenced by following scholarly trade journals, but still.

About 7 years ago, I was at a family gathering and someone's significant other's college aged son was saying he was going to go for a PhD in English. I firmly told him why this was a terrible idea (few jobs, must get into a tip top department, years of low wages and no retirement, if job is possible, maybe in a place he wouldn't like, etc.). Later my mom was like, 'Why are you so negative? He just wants to follow his dream.' I wanted to scream at her too.
posted by k8t at 9:16 AM on November 5, 2018 [28 favorites]


IME the abuse gets worse the more prestigious the school is, especially with regard to sexual harassment.

Also, the abuse takes different forms for different disciplines; overwork and naked abuse in the hard sciences, gaslighting and related headfucky power games in the humanities.

That said, academia’s not a cult and describing it that way is a not-great argument by analogy. Really the underlying abuses deployed both in academia and in cults are a hallmark of hierarchical systems in general, especially hierarchical systems that work by somewhat different rules than the dominant hierarchical system (in this case, standard capitalism).

Indeed, the structure of the game in academia — privilege and power for a lucky few, who assign for themselves as work the task of making all the decisions, and grinding poverty and misery for the folks who do the work, who get socially ostracized specifically because they do the work — closely match the rules of capitalism itself.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:18 AM on November 5, 2018 [32 favorites]


I feel like it would be more correct to merely assert that cults and academia share a common ancestor
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:24 AM on November 5, 2018 [20 favorites]


And likewise in my experience the only way to really “leave the cult” on an individual basis is by doing something that can get you enough money or social status to opt out of participation in all overt power hierarchies. In my case I managed to leave the game by writing a few highly respected novels; I think the tech industry might be a more plausible escape route for most people today.

Unfortunately, in most cases the only way to take the individual path out of the oppressive hierarchies that rule our world is across the battered backs of your fellow human beings. Which is not a particularly morally sound way to travel. Even more unfortunately, our dominant hierarchies are very good at suppressing or subverting any collective escape from the world they’ve made for us.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:25 AM on November 5, 2018 [22 favorites]


> I feel like it would be more correct to merely assert that cults and academia share a common ancestor.

It’s not by chance that so many of the job titles for people in the academic hierarchy resemble the job titles of people in the church hierarchy...
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:26 AM on November 5, 2018 [7 favorites]


Yeah, I can see it. Kind of a cross between a cult and a MLM-style pyramid scheme, really. Glad I got out when I did, wish I'd gotten out sooner.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:28 AM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


Boy oh boy, this article does not describe my experiences in academia *at all*. It's possible I'm lucky, or oblivious. It's also possible that academia is not a monolith, and this person's experiences, while awful, are not the norm.

I note that the author claims their field as American Literature; I've heard tons of anecdata about issues in that field specifically. It's the source of some well-known tropes for sure; the lonely alcoholic literature professor and the young naive grad student is a cringey cliche in literature. But it's not that way everywhere, which provides a nice proof that it doesn't have to be that way, and also a nice proof that academia itself isn't the problem.


On preview: job titles in the academic hierarchy are limited mostly to: professor (various flavors), lecturer, and the occasional dean. I don't see much connection to Father, Reverend, etc. And I certainly don't see any connections in the roles in their respective organizations.
posted by dbx at 9:29 AM on November 5, 2018 [11 favorites]


I.... also do not recognize this person's description in my own experience of academia. I, too, am frequently highly critical of academia and the structural incentives in the system, but a lot of these are things I've watched faculty vociferously oppose, such as expecting graduate students to pay for faculty meals--the norm is very strongly the opposite everywhere I've ever worked. Or the focus on impenetrable language he describes, which is not the norm in my field, or the description of my workplace as a "an absolutist institution, a promoter of sycophancy and an enemy of dissent."

I'm actually kind of pissed off about it, in part because there is so much to criticize about academia, but at the same time it's so hyperbolic and distorted that it doesn't feel remotely real. It feels like it's demanding that either I agree with the author's assertion that I'm a brainwashed cult member or that I defend academia against all of its charges, some of which I agree with (e.g. the distorted job situation). It feels like it's so all-or-nothing that it takes the discussion about how academia is broken and in which ways it can do better--a discussion that has been roiling powerfully over the course of the past seven years of my PhD--and washes it over with an oversimplified analogy that will generate much more heat than light.

I must wonder: has his upbringing as a member of a cult encouraged him to lunge for all-or-nothing assessments of important institutions and figures in his life? I ask because his previous embracing of academia is similarly binary--"Simmering with smug resentment, I was certain that I, an intellectual, was on the right side of history, a sworn opponent of the oppressive ideologies I ascribed to organized religion."
posted by sciatrix at 9:51 AM on November 5, 2018 [46 favorites]


Perhaps cults and academia have - say - a family resemblance...
posted by wittgenstein at 9:54 AM on November 5, 2018 [14 favorites]


A single analogy isn't going to cut it. There may be some abusive relationships and they should end, but it isn't the norm.

Apart from the rampant sexual harassment and related concerns, and the generalized privileged-flakiness of faculty, which I assume are endemic, I get the feeling that this varies a lot by discipline. With those (very serious) exceptions, there's certainly not much there that I'd recognize from my own graduate-school life or those others I'm familiar with.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:56 AM on November 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


> job titles in the academic hierarchy are limited mostly to: professor (various flavors), lecturer, and the occasional dean

The specific titles I was thinking of were “dean” (inherited from the church) and “provost” (inherited from the church)

If you look to schools in the UK, you can find a number of other academic administrators with archaic titles inherited from the church; i.e. you’ll still see beadles beadling around.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:59 AM on November 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


No, I don't think they do. For example, in academia, the whole structure is deliberately designed so that students study with a variety of PIs, so that they are exposed to other viewpoints within the field. That's the point of postdoctoral appointments, and in many fields it's also the reason that undergraduate research is highly encouraged in a different lab from the doctoral lab. It's also one of the original reasons for Masters' degrees before PhDs in many fields. By contrast, cults are specifically designed around the whims and desires of single, influential gurus, with disagreement meaning exclusion from the community. Faith is not an academic tenet, either.

There are significant structural differences between academia and religions. I would argue that a cult is what happens when a religion becomes a sick system. While academic communities and workplaces can also become sick systems, that doesn't mean that they're both the same thing just because both of them have become warped from their functioning aspects of themselves.
posted by sciatrix at 10:01 AM on November 5, 2018 [15 favorites]


It's possible I'm lucky, or oblivious.

Maybe both?

Having been raised evangelical and later done the PhD in the humanities, I definitely see where he's coming from-- almost all of the anecdotes he's telling match experiences I've had or fellow grad students had. I escaped most of the worst abuses, but they were common enough. Even if your own department was safe, you'd go to conferences and hear about other departments. I was once at a conference where there was a "passing of the hat" to raise money for booze to supply to the professors. I refused to give (more) money, and I got professional blowback for it.

That said, to me the biggest overlap between a cult environment and the graduate school environment had a simpler root: institutions which are designed to erase the line between professional and private, and which elevate certain people into unassailable authority who demand fealty and ritualized forms of worship, and which ALSO intentionally reject systematic oversight are ripe breeding grounds for abuse and cultification. See also: theater troupes, Silicon Valley startups, that yoga entrepreneur who ended up being a rapist, USA Gymnastics and the University of Michigan, Steubenville High, the alt-right, NBC's Today Show, the set of the movie "True Lies", Miramax & the Weinstein Co, the NYPD...

So of course there are "good" departments, or universities, just like I'm sure there are good-- any of those other things. Yoga studios. High schools. Movie sets. It isn't the setting or the topic itself, it is the "this is the only person who can do this very important thing" paired with "outsiders can't understand, so we don't answer to them" that can create the same dynamic anywhere.

I must wonder: has his upbringing as a member of a cult encouraged him to lunge for all-or-nothing assessments of important institutions and figures in his life?

I think that's a bit dismissive-- it sounds like he wound up tapped in to a particularly toxic corner of academia, just like he was raised in a particularly toxic corner of Christianity (Derrida disciples are especially yeesh, as he points out). I also have to assume that at least part of why he chose the metaphor is because he knows it is precisely what his former academic idols would hate most in the world-- to have their "greatness" reduced to "your impulses are just like those of the people you despise most, whose minds you think are so small."
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:04 AM on November 5, 2018 [28 favorites]


See also: theater troupes, Silicon Valley startups, that yoga entrepreneur who ended up being a rapist, USA Gymnastics and the University of Michigan Michigan State

Citation
posted by JoeXIII007 at 10:10 AM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


This oped is a mess of cognitive distortions. I found it really bothersome to read because I could talk for days about the things wrong with academia.

I'll just point out that the author got offered one of those impossible-to-land tenure track jobs and turned it down. He wants us to think it's because he's seen the Truth about academia and can't abide it. But he doesn't actually say why.

I suspect he turned that job down because he wanted to move to New York to live with his wife who works for Vice and where he took a job as an assistant editor at Oxford University Press. Not how this oped spins that choice, though.

Again, I'm bothered because his choice to leave academia was a totally reasonable and great life choice to make! Yes, you *should* turn down that low paying, overworked assistant prof position in whoknowswhere to be able to live with your SO in NYC and have a good job that pays you money and leaves you time to write opeds. But just say that.

(Oh and how perfect that he doesn't go into the fact that *he's* now the gatekeeper to professors hoping to publish books — like lowly assistant professors trying desperately to keep the jobs they miraculously landed in the terrible system he so valiantly defies but who didn't have the Clarity to turn those jobs down.)
posted by cyclopticgaze at 10:18 AM on November 5, 2018 [29 favorites]


As a lifelong campus-dweller on both sides of the Atlantic, I echo what others say above, in that I have not experienced the hysterical excesses of abuse of power documented in the article either directly (as donor or recipient), or vicariously. Whiny op-eds of this type tell us more about the author than his purported targets, and further erode the value of academia as a learning and creative environment, and we should not be wasting our time debating its dubious merits on the blue.
posted by aeshnid at 10:42 AM on November 5, 2018


I simple search of "Academia" here "on the blue" will show plenty of corroboration for much of what the author of this op-ed states.
posted by No Robots at 10:43 AM on November 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


The venue felt wrong to me, too. I believe him when he says he had bad experiences, but having been a person complaining about academic weirdness to my non-academic family, I can tell you there is limited patience in the world for this species of complaint - the complainer just winds up looking self-involved and lacking in perspective (even when the behavior being complained about is obviously bad). In reading the piece I felt the eyes of umpty thousand nonacademics glaze over.
posted by eirias at 10:49 AM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


For example, in academia, the whole structure is deliberately designed so that students study with a variety of PIs, so that they are exposed to other viewpoints within the field.

This is likely due to the differences between disciplines that others have mentioned, but my experience of academia (in the humanities) was very much the opposite of this - and I chose an advisor, and a program, that had reputations for avoiding the personal and methodological melodramas within my subfield and the more egregious kinds of professorial misconduct described in the article. The idea that one would work with a series of different advisors, with different methodologies, might be palatable as one moves from a master's degree into a Ph.D. program, but once you're on track to develop a dissertation, you're more or less dependent upon one person to advance through your exams and candidacy.
posted by Anita Bath at 10:51 AM on November 5, 2018 [8 favorites]


And changing that person - or attempting to shift into an arrangement where two professors are co-advising a project - midstream is unusual enough to raise eyebrows or get one flagged as "difficult".
posted by Anita Bath at 10:53 AM on November 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


The specific titles I was thinking of were “dean” (inherited from the church) and “provost” (inherited from the church)

You know who else had a Chancellor?
posted by thelonius at 10:55 AM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


The "I have not experienced this" is nevertheless rhetoric for effectively denying the lived experiences of anyone who has. It's not a simple matter of let's compare notes in a rational fashion. Progressive leftist discourse has repeated this principle in other areas of social justice, and it extends to this too.

A cult is a misleading comparison. Structure and hierarchy aren't at all equivalent; structural critiques go far beyond analysis of social or organizational hierarchies. What a cult is, and should have been the metaphor used in a piece like this, is an environment for the production of false consciousness. Of internalized oppression and yes, of cognitive distortions. This is apt for academia, whose business is knowledge and learning.

And one type of cognititive behavioral distortion is defensiveness. I do get that these are hard conversations.
posted by polymodus at 10:56 AM on November 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


The idea that one would work with a series of different advisors, with different methodologies, might be palatable as one moves from a master's degree into a Ph.D. program, but once you're on track to develop a dissertation, you're more or less dependent upon one person to advance through your exams and candidacy.

By this logic, any system of apprenticeship is cult-like. Yes, cases arise where PhD advisors are unreasonably demanding and controlling, but in principle, students have higher powers they can appeal to (the department, the administration) if things go off the rails. Not all departments handle this well, but structures exist that at least make reform of bad departments a possibility.

Furthermore, once someone has completed their PhD, they are no longer strictly beholden to their advisor's whims. Often, a theory's most effective and insightful critics are those that came up within that theory's ranks, only to come to terms with its shortcomings later in their careers. This process may be too slow for the author's liking, but over the span of years and decades, academic consensus on a topic can and does shift.
posted by belarius at 11:05 AM on November 5, 2018


Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you go round about the sea and the land to make one proselyte; and when he is made, you make him the child of hell twofold more than yourselves.
posted by No Robots at 11:13 AM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


Lots of things can be cult-like if the top brass wishes for them to be so or is ambivalent about mid level managers setting up shop in that way, including regular jobs. I don't think it diminishes the author's point about his particular institution to say that most aren't like that. He might have even sought out a cult-like university environment because that's what he's comfortable with or maybe it was just bad luck that he fell into one.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:22 AM on November 5, 2018


He didn’t say “some academic institutions are cult-like.” He said “academia is a cult.”
posted by cyclopticgaze at 11:25 AM on November 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


I suppose it's fair to say that I'm feeling defensive about this. But the attack is a broad one: "Academia is a cult". In my experience it isn't, and in many others' as well. The assertion aims to undermine an entire way of approaching knowledge, and a vast number of individuals.

Academia writ large can be a source of really positive knowledge and change, and it happens to be functioning at the moment as a pillar holding up civil society. There's a reason reactionary right wing politics aims so consistently at academia, and it's not because Breitbart et al are concerned for the plight of adjunct professors.

We have borrowed terms from the church; of course! The church used to be pretty all-encompassing, and also used to be about the only game in town for discovering and disseminating knowledge. Modern traditions are informed by, and build upon, ancient ones, both consciously and unconsciously. One of the triumphs of academia is the collective effort to understand our history in order to improve the conscientiousness of that evolution.

Suppose the author had instead gone to work at a dysfunctional company full of the same types of abuses of power and boundary pushing described in this article (and lord knows such businesses exist). Would it be fair to say "Business is a cult"? Or would we be saying "X Company sure is a crappy place to work"? My reaction to this article is "that department sounds awful". If *your* reaction is "Academia is a cult", you may be bringing some extra baggage on this trip.
posted by dbx at 11:31 AM on November 5, 2018 [13 favorites]


Would it be fair to say "Business is a cult"?

ever had some jabroni try to talk to you about Agile?
posted by prize bull octorok at 11:34 AM on November 5, 2018 [17 favorites]


Would it be fair to say "Business is a cult"?

Sweet Jesus, yes. A death cult.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:37 AM on November 5, 2018 [14 favorites]


Wow, just about broke my eyes rolling 'em. Yes, some of the problems mentioned are rampant in "academia," for some versions of what that means. No, academia is not a monolith. Interpretations of what that term actually means vary by institution, state, country, etc.

"Religion" is a far more apt analogy - although that also requires a bit of a stretch, "cult" is just lazy.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:39 AM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon: In my case I managed to leave the game by writing a few highly respected novels

Are you... my creator?
posted by Slothrop at 11:40 AM on November 5, 2018 [16 favorites]


>>Would it be fair to say "Business is a cult"?

> ever had some jabroni try to talk to you about Agile?


dominant power systems are cults with majority buy-in (examples: bolshevism 1917-1989, capitalism today). residual power systems are cults with some of the rough edges smoothed off by time and hard-won experience (examples: the established church, academia). emergent power systems are cults that grew faster than the leaders expected (examples: the tech industry, american megachurches).
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 11:42 AM on November 5, 2018 [4 favorites]


in principle, students have higher powers they can appeal to (the department, the administration) if things go off the rails

In principle, sure. In practice, almost every graduate student who ever tries it ends up disappeared from the department and the field of study.

Just look at all the stories of sexual misconduct by powerhouse professors in departments around the world-- the overwhelming pattern is that students follow the correct reporting procedure, and they end up dropping out of programs with their professional reputations in tatters while their abusers get tenure, even when everyone knows those abusers are guilty, even when they brag about it, even when they write thinkpieces about why they were justified. We keep finding out after the fact how many other professors and administrators are willing to smother these attempts to appeal to higher authorities in the interest of protecting grant money, or even just "not making a fuss".

Also, in case you don't know about the case that inspired this piece, the evidence is pretty awful. The many scholars who wrote a letter saying "we haven't seen the evidence but we know our colleague did nothing wrong" is upsettingly full of big names who should know better.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:43 AM on November 5, 2018 [12 favorites]


Of internalized oppression and yes, of cognitive distortions. This is apt for academia, whose business is knowledge and learning. And one type of cognititive behavioral distortion is defensiveness. I do get that these are hard conversations.

I would put myself down as less "defensive" and more "He is conflating his discipline with the entirety of academia, which is silly."
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 12:19 PM on November 5, 2018 [4 favorites]


Just look at all the stories of sexual misconduct by powerhouse professors in departments around the world-- the overwhelming pattern is that students follow the correct reporting procedure, and they end up dropping out of programs with their professional reputations in tatters while their abusers get tenure, even when everyone knows those abusers are guilty, even when they brag about it, even when they write thinkpieces about why they were justified.

Can we not agree that sexual misconduct tends to be rife wherever there is a long-term power dynamic (including academia, for sure)? I doubt that makes everywhere a cult.

I must say it would never occurred to anyone in my department to have the grad students pay for anything for the professors.
posted by praemunire at 12:21 PM on November 5, 2018 [8 favorites]


What is a cult? Is there a definition beyond "toxic system," or do we all get to just sling it around at any social structure we think is irreparably flawed?

Because I can list the flaws in academia until the cows come home, and I'm happy to do so--but I am not convinced that this isn't muddying waters to make reform harder, not easier.
posted by sciatrix at 12:27 PM on November 5, 2018 [8 favorites]


I also found this hard to stomach. I think my issue is that the critique—as the cult analogy implies—attacks the entire enterprise, and anyone who participates in it, as either deluded or evil, either a victim or victimiser. This is not true. Academic work is good work and worth doing. The problem with academia is not that academic work is secretly worthless and its value is a hoax. The problem is that academic institutions are not as well-designed as they should be, in order to facilitate their valuable goal (the doing of excellent academic work, under civilised conditions, by anyone who wants to and is good at it).

The rational critique of academia is an argument from a hundred boring legal and political and social details, ranging from problems of work/life balance, problems with the incentive structures of academic publishing, problems of lack of accountability in management structures, problems arising from the absence of job security for junior academics, problems of systemic racism and sexism etc. The force of these arguments really depends, though, on the belief that academia itself is an enterprise worth preserving. If it isn’t, if the pursuit of knowledge is not a real thing but only a mask for a cult, then it’s silly to talk about painstakingly reforming the state of peer review and sorting out job security for junior academics or making sure women and minorities are not discriminated against. The solution is to burn it down and run away. No one thinks the problem with Jonestown was that it wasn’t being as good a version of a death cult as it should be.
posted by Aravis76 at 12:30 PM on November 5, 2018 [14 favorites]


The NYT article linked above is full of the terrible framing that people have been pounding them over. Ugh.

(What if MeToo, but backwards.)
posted by sjswitzer at 12:34 PM on November 5, 2018


I agree with what others have said - the general problems pointed to by the op-ed are existant and pressing. However, framing the larger academic domain as a cult (or even monolithic at all) also presents a solution to the problem that one would take to a cult: destroying the whole thing. As others have said, the problems of The Academy are not unique, since higher education is a social institution. It may seem like a dodge to say that abuses of power, capture by capital, and exploitative labor are all endemic in larger society, but it's true, and it's also useful in terms of thinking how Academia can be reformed to serve the stated purpose of producing and teaching knowledge. The framing of Academia as a cult is the sort of "evidence" that people who want to dismantle higher education (namely: the far right) can use towards their various specious arguments about free speech, safe zones, indoctrination, and whatever other bullshit they're trying to sell in order to get rid of an institution that they despise. I can't say I'm surprised that the modern NYT decided to publish this article, which is poorly argued and of little worth if you have any actual knowledge of the domain.
posted by codacorolla at 12:43 PM on November 5, 2018 [6 favorites]


No, I don't think they do. For example, in academia, the whole structure is deliberately designed so that students study with a variety of PIs, so that they are exposed to other viewpoints within the field. That's the point of postdoctoral appointments, and in many fields it's also the reason that undergraduate research is highly encouraged in a different lab from the doctoral lab.

I think many in this thread and the article are talking at cross-purposes.

The humanities don't have PIs, labs - and only recently started to have post-doctoral fellowships. You're speaking not only a completely different language, but describing a very different culture.

Overall, the experience of academic changes profoundly depending on your discipline and/or institution. It's very hard to generalize. I've seen situations where professors in the humanities were much more powerful than in the sciences (as you describe), but then often seen the opposite: for my graduate training, my funding was completely independent from my adviser and I was free to choose whichever person was interested in working with me. This was very different than for my friends who were accepted into specific labs.

I think as well that certain fields and sub-fields are more prone to the 'star-system' and people interested in power. I was working in demographic and socio-economic history. I wouldn't claim there are no academic politics there, but certainly it seemed blessedly light on the power-seekers or self-aggrandizers (as opposed to cultural history or international relations). Maybe it's just something about sitting around counting births and deaths and how many cows people had that is utterly unappealing to that type of person.
posted by jb at 12:46 PM on November 5, 2018 [10 favorites]


in principle, students have higher powers they can appeal to (the department, the administration) if things go off the rails

In principle, sure. In practice, almost every graduate student who ever tries it ends up disappeared from the department and the field of study.


And it depends on the university. I know of at least one university in which
- your thesis committee is chosen AFTER you submit your thesis, and
- there is no appeal as to their decision, even if there is evidence that they DID NOT READ your thesis before rendering their judgement.
posted by jb at 12:52 PM on November 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


Academia can feel cultish because it’s also one of those institutions where the job is also a person’s identity. Sometimes this is good — a doctor is a healer. Sometimes this is irrelevant — plumbers rarely think that plumbing defines themselves as persons. But sometimes, academics can see themselves as holding special knowledge or a special worldview that’s fully entwined with their jobs. It’s not a job. It’s an identity. It’s everything.

They say that engineers have “engineer’s disease,” where they think every problem is solvable by simply inserting Tab A into Slot B, who cares how you feel about it. We should have the same view of academics. You can’t solve every problem with a symposium.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:10 PM on November 5, 2018 [6 favorites]


The conditions for what the article describes are predominantly restricted to the 100+ or so academic institutions that produce doctorates--large #s of graduate students, at least some money swimming around, grants enabling faculty to buy themselves out of teaching, "institutes" and "centers," etc. I don't mean that none of it exists outside of that environment--sexual harassment, hoo boy--but you cannot support an Avital Ronell or Judith Butler at a regional comprehensive with a 12-hour teaching load, no course releases except for administrative work, and a teeny library. Most of us do not "have" graduate students, have little to no control over aspiring job candidates' careers (beyond hiring them), have insufficient funding to do anything that resembles conference-hopping, and even if we do publish quite a bit, have no way of becoming stars. (It's in nobody's interest to buy me dinner. As I'm teetotal, drinks are right out.) Similarly, although you wouldn't know it from the rhetoric about publishing, most faculty do little or no research, in large part because their teaching loads won't permit it. (Three to five courses per semester or quarter is much, much more common than the four courses per year you see at Chicago, or the 2-2-1/2-2 of a University of California campus.) If all of your experience is at a doctoral campus like an R1 or R2, your understanding of academia's problems will be noticeably different than that of someone who teaches at a high-end SLAC, which will in turn be different than that of someone who teaches at a low-end SLAC, or a religiously-affiliated college, or a regional comprehensive, or indeed a community college...
posted by thomas j wise at 1:43 PM on November 5, 2018 [11 favorites]


One thing I'd be curious about: Does average class background vary across disciplines? Everyone I know in comp lit/cultural studies is very posh - some from extremely elite family backgrounds - and very much used to receiving deference, being treated like the most important person in the room. I've met people who grew up with multiple servants, for instance, and who would have automatically been high up in government had they followed family tradition.
posted by Frowner at 1:44 PM on November 5, 2018 [7 favorites]


Does average class background vary across disciplines?

That is an interesting question. I've heard that there are a lot of very wealthy people in Art History and Classical Archeology, but I do not know if anyone has done a proper study of this.
posted by thelonius at 1:51 PM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


Somewhere there is a study of backgrounds of academics by discipline that at least indicates what proportion of academics in each discipline have a close older relative (parent, aunt, uncle, etc.) who is also an academic. Association of Working Class Academics might have a link to more research?
posted by eviemath at 1:57 PM on November 5, 2018


Also, it needs to be said:

Metafilter: not as good a version of a death cult as it should be.
posted by eviemath at 1:58 PM on November 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


One thing I'd be curious about: Does average class background vary across disciplines? Everyone I know in comp lit/cultural studies is very posh - some from extremely elite family backgrounds - and very much used to receiving deference, being treated like the most important person in the room. I've met people who grew up with multiple servants, for instance, and who would have automatically been high up in government had they followed family tradition.

I believe that the NSF keeps these statistics nationally: here. A quick glance at the 'parents educational attainment' field (which I think is a decent proxy for what your asking) does indicate that humanities seems to have higher generational academics than more science oriented fields. I don't particularly feel like running the analysis now, but I'd be curious to see how that maps to the economy.

This is also only earned doctorates. I wonder what that looks like if you factor in abandoned doctorates as well.
posted by codacorolla at 2:55 PM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


Also, I've was talking about this op-ed with other academic friends today, and we all sort of agreed: academia (if you want to take it as a monolith) is less of a cult, and more of a bad working environment. With that framing it's less a reaction of 'salt the earth' and more a reaction of 'empower the workers through unionization and political action'.
posted by codacorolla at 2:58 PM on November 5, 2018 [7 favorites]


Coming late to this party: the article irked me for many of the reasons people have cited.
American higher ed (the linked piece seems to just be about the US) is extremely diverse and decentralized. We're talking roughly 4500 institutions across 50 states, ranging widely in scale, religious affiliation, geographical focus, heritage, strategy, funding (public vs private vs for-profit) and more.
Then within each one are such variations by discipline and school.
As others have said, the writer seems to be talking about one discipline and one slice of post-secondary ed, and generalizing therefrom.
posted by doctornemo at 3:09 PM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


There is an enormous power imbalance between an advisor and an advisee, and I think one problem with academia is that the story can vary from one college to the next, one department to the next, one lab or group to the next, and one advisor to the next.

Are there consistent professional standards applied to advisor conduct, consequence-free ways for an advisee to flag a problem, and ways to address problems and resolve them that everyone, including the school, buys in to?

My experience is not this author's experience, but there's no way I could guarantee that other people had the same experience as I did. And that's a problem.
posted by zippy at 3:49 PM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


I don't think the author thinks the answer is to do away with academia. The last sentence he wrote was to point out that academia bears a responsibility to society in its portrayal and transmission of truth. He wouldn't write that if he thought otherwise.

There's a lineage of pretty profound criticisms of academia, ranging from sociology/education studies to critical theory. But none of that is much articulated in pieces like these. I think it's worth pointing out that The Washington Post has its own editorial slant and it's worth contextualizing this sort of open letter given that. I think there's a saying that white collar academics read the New York Times on the amtrak, whereas the administrators/policy people tend to favor the Wapo.
posted by polymodus at 4:04 PM on November 5, 2018


Does average class background vary across disciplines? Everyone I know in comp lit/cultural studies is very posh - some from extremely elite family backgrounds

This probably varies a lot, program-to-program, but this doesn't match my experience too closely. We were a pretty hardscrabble lot at my R1 -- on average we had one or two very well-off people per cohort, but everyone else ran the gamut, from students totally on their own economically speaking to lowerclass/maybe middle-class backgrounds. A lot of cultural studies work gets into intersectional class-race-and-gender-based systems of oppression, and this seemed to attract a fair number of people affected by those systems, at least at my institution. Same at the other well-respected public university system nearby. I didn't know people at the well-respected private university nearby quite as well; those I met did tend to be more "posh" (and definitely more likely to be white and from well-off families), but as I didn't know them as intimately this could very well have been learned adaptive behaviour.

Most of us have failed to get tenure track positions, though. In large part because we were busy adjuncting, working, and scrambling to get by instead of publishing. Choices that advisors often criticised because they didn't understand why their students couldn't just go live with their parents rent-free for a year and bang out the rest of the diss uninterrupted and devote themselves to a full-time job search. Which probably goes to the statistics varying when you look at "failed" PhDs or those who didn't manage to stay in the academy.
posted by halation at 5:07 PM on November 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


Academia is a cult.
Corporate America is a cult.

Capitalism is a death cult.

(All of these things are going to make those who are successful in them uncomfortable but it should be examined why a non-zero number of people think this, even those who are successful at playing the game.)

I wanted to make this the first comment but didn't want to de-rail the thread. Please continue to talk about the article at hand, but don't feel like us going after academia here means that we think it's the only occupation-based cult we're dealing with.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 6:45 PM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


Can we just pretend he meant academia is eighties pop-goth band "The Cult?"

it should be examined why a non-zero number of people think this
I don't agree with that reasoning. A non-zero number of people believe surprising amounts of BS--from "staring directly at the sun will make me superhuman" to "the Jews control the media." Must we examine each of these, forever, every time it comes up? Sounds like the same kind of navel-gazing "academia" gets accused of.

There are cultish aspects to academia, along with all its other problems. It's been pointed out, ad infinitum, since the idea of the academy. There are some newer cultish aspects that aren't clearly separable from the ways corporate America and Patriarchy and Capitalism are cult-like. Perhaps that framing is even useful. To me it's dismissive and imprecise and lacking in nuance.

This op-ed certainly is all of those things. What does the author feel about STEM? Is it the same cult? It has a lot of the same problems, but also different ones! Is community college part of "academia" or not? Police academies? I mean it's in the name.

I give particular side-eye to attacks on "the academy" at a time when research institutions are seeing their funding slashed left and right while populist anti-intellectualism explodes yet again.

Of course Derrida is his example cult figure. Dude should just go hang out with Jordan fucking Peterson and Alan Sokal and they can sit around eating salted beef and hating the academy together and comparing foreskin scars or something. Ugh am I sick of intellectually lazy run-downs of complex institutions. There are seriously incisive critiques of American academia. This is not one.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:44 PM on November 5, 2018 [11 favorites]


Maybe it's because I've been listening to The Dream podcast, but I think academia is more of an MLM than a cult. But for sure has the culty abusive aspects of any hierarchy.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:03 PM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


One thing I'd be curious about: Does average class background vary across disciplines?

I don't know, but I think the economics of grad school and the post-doctoral career path are a significant factor. Grad students in the sciences at respectable institutions are generally paid a stipend for their research work, with comparatively light or sometimes no teaching responsibilities to take time away from their dissertation work. Grad students in humanities may be funded by relatively heavy teaching loads, or need to take student loans. Postdocs in the sciences are typically paid a reasonable salary for the work they do that advances their careers. Adjunct faculty in the humanities may not even earn a living wage for the teaching work they do while they try to publish the work that will get them a tenure-track job.

If you're in a discipline that incurs a significant economic cost to anyone attempting to enter, only the wealthy or exceptionally committed will make it past that filter. If you're paid a living salary for the work you do during your training, the children of the middle or working class are going to be better represented in your discipline.
posted by biogeo at 9:19 PM on November 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


> If you look to schools in the UK, you can find a number of other academic administrators with archaic titles inherited from the church; i.e. you’ll still see beadles beadling around.

As one would expect, given God's inordinate fondness for beadles.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 7:32 AM on November 6, 2018 [4 favorites]




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