Not All Humans Are Haters: A Response to Slate’s Rebecca Schuman

BLeqhEj

Editor’s Note: The author recently received his PhD in Comparative Literature.  Our bad for not updating his bio last time around.

Last Wednesday I published a piece on this website about the disdain with which many left-leaning mainstream journalists increasingly treat academic work. Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman immediately responded to the piece in anger, first excoriating me for spelling her name wrong (the error was quickly corrected), and then claiming that I don’t have the credentials to write about such topics because I am still only a graduate student. On Friday, she put up a post on her blog “inspired” by the exchange, “Grad Students: I’M TRYING TO HELP YOU, YOU IDIOTS,” in which she insists that there is no reason for graduate students to “take her down” since she is really just trying to help them. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether my piece, which makes a passing three-word reference to Schuman’s 2012 Slate article “Thesis Hatement,” is a takedown of anyone. But given that a main point of the piece was that academics need to explain themselves better, I’ll try to clarify both the intent of the piece and the problems with Schuman’s response to it.

Schuman refers to me throughout her comments and (indirectly) in her post as a “grad- student hater.” Although I wouldn’t be ashamed to have written the piece as a graduate student, I received my PhD last month, and taught as an adjunct professor at CUNY Staten Island while completing my degree. The process of finishing my dissertation and my work as a part-time faculty member were crucial experiences that helped me to develop my thoughts for the piece. I’ll give Schuman the benefit of the doubt here, since my bio on Tropics of Meta still described me as a “doctoral candidate” (I hadn’t sent an updated bio). But the fact that the article was not written by a graduate student voids almost every categorical point she makes in her post: that a) graduate students “defend” the academy only because they’re sheltered from the realities of the job market, b) once they are awakened to the “petty politics” of the market, it will shatter their souls, and c) this soul-shatter will either lead them to the “cult-like rebuilding of [their] self-hood” or to the messianic crusading against the academic system that Schuman believes herself to embody.

The irony is that I am speaking from exactly the perspective Schuman claims to represent, that of the PhD-holding non-tenure-track professor. Just because graduate school is cruel and the job market unfair doesn’t mean that their sole function is to kill graduate students. My piece was by no means a naive defense of “The Life of the Mind,” but rather a defense of a set of politically-engaged principles of contemporary literary scholarship that I believe academics can pursue if and when we are in a compromised position in the academy itself.

This is not to suggest that Schuman’s criticisms of the academy are entirely false or unwarranted. Far from it. She should be commended for her efforts at (as she puts it) “calling out institutions for needless department closures, taking sexual harassers to task, fighting for adjuncts, advocating a good long look in the mirror about antiquated pedagogy, calling out racism/sexism/elitism.” Yet she has very little to say about how academic work might contribute to changing academic practices (or any others), nor does she seem to care much about offering a historical perspective on either the current academic crisis or the crisis in general. Academic witch-hunting appears to be her primary solution. According to her view, the very number of people she reaches is justification enough, as if that argument couldn’t also be used to conclude that Rush Limbaugh is the most benevolent person in America today. It’s easy to understand why this tactic plays so well in the blogosphere and at revenue-generating websites like Slate. The question is whether it’s a constructive tactic–for graduate students, adjuncts, full-time faculty, or anyone else.

In trying to illuminate the questionable assumptions by which certain journalists disqualify contemporary literary scholarship, I was under no illusion that I could instantly change the mainstream perception of academic writing. Slate will be Slate, and I think it’s ultimately a good thing that The Chronicle, for which Schuman also writes, is opening itself up to dissenting voices, even if they aren’t always the ones I would choose. Perhaps I should have been more specific in my qualification that “clearly not all literary journalists and independent writers share [this] tout court dismissal of academic scholarship.” Al Jazeera correspondent Sarah Kendzior, also a “recovering academic” and an occasional writer for The Chronicle, seems to me to have a far more nuanced (and no less incisive) take on the relationship between journalism and academic writing. So does Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker. And as South El Monte Arts Posse pointed out in the comments to the piece, this very website is dedicated to bridging journalism and academic work. Hopefully the possibility of a less fraught exchange between journalists and academics (and academic journalists) can still take place. The debate about the public role of academic scholarship needs to happen. I just wish it could happen in a more productive way.

Comments

  1. Sarah K. says:

    In an absolutely classic Rebecca Schuman act, she deleted her own post, just as I predicted she would.

    She does this all the time: goes nuclear on someone, subtweets them for days on end to be sure her fans have started sending her target hate mail, puts up a nasty blog post about them, and then when that person responds, she deletes the post.

    It’s so sleazy. Why does Slate inflict her on this profession?

    • Alex Sayf Cummings says:

      It’s ironic because I’ve read her stuff on academia and the job market on Slate before and really appreciated it. I thought we were on the same side, but evidently not

  2. Sarah K. says:

    FYI: she also seems to be alleging that you have sent her threatening messages.

  3. Rebekka Shumann must have been pretty embarrassed if you have completely chased her off the web on this one.

  4. Thanks for letting me know. I attempted to post a link to my piece as a comment to her blog, saying that it was “not a takedown of anyone” and that her readers could look for themselves. She blocked the comment. No other contact.

  5. Sarah K. says:

    I’m sorry she treated you with such contempt. Her post, now-removed, says:

    “Go Do Something Else, Assholes.
    Decided I didn’t want this post up anymore.
    Now please leave me the fuck alone.
    (But thanks for the ad revenue nonetheless.)”

    On occasion she has smart things to say, but in general she’s unbelievably petty. I expect better from mean girls in middle school.

    • Sarah K. says:

      But I would seriously suggest you just be very careful around her. One person on Twitter this morning said something to her and she accused him of being a pick-up artist who was trying to lay groundwork to sexually assault her.

      She will try to blow up your career.

  6. Rebecca Martin says:

    Did Schuman ever apologize for trying to publicly humiliate you while gaslighting everyone?

  7. Alex Sayf Cummings says:

    FWIW, Rebecca Schuman likes using lots of ALL CAPS and italics to make her point. Here’s the post she took down, for historical posterity:

    (Please picture the above headline in Dr. House’s voice. I spent like half an hour on a fruitless search for a GIF of Dr. House saying that and I couldn’t find it. I do not think all grad students are idiots–but many grad students unwittingly ACT like idiots when they think I should be ignored or ridiculed instead of listened to.)

    Dear Last Remaining Straggle Of Grad-Student Haters,

    “Thesis Hatement” was 15 motherfucking months ago. That’s nine decades in journalism time. I have since then leveraged my (RELATIVE and SMALL) notoriety into using my (COMPARATIVE) “powers” and (LUCKY) position for good: shaming for-profits (and those who act like them), mocking MOOCs, calling out institutions for needless department closures, taking sexual harassers to task, fighting for adjuncts, advocating a good long look in the mirror about antiquated pedagogy, calling out racism/sexism/elitism–and that is why the vast (and I mean vast) majority of established academics are smart enough not to hate on me openly anymore (and indeed, when they do contact me directly, are generally fairly effusive with praise, even if it’s insincere). This is because they–and you–may well need my help someday, and I am here to give it. The purpose of my column on Slate is to bring attention to issues in higher-ed that deserve an audience beyond the higher-ed blogs and publications, but wouldn’t otherwise get one. This is a fairly (for me) noble undertaking, and I couldn’t take it under without the constant flurry of tips, stories and pleas I get from academics of all stripes. Well, most stripes. There are still a lot–a lot–of graduate students that fucking hate my guts.

    It’s really funny at this point. Nobody else thinks that “taking me down” will get them anything or any favor with anyone, because it won’t. Now I’m not saying I deserve this in any way, because I don’t, and I’m just lucky, and every single day I have to pinch myself and realize that this really is my life, but, here’s a fun fact: My dear grad students, more people read a single one of my articles in one hour than will read all of your (or my, or anyone’s!) academic output for our entire lives. You might think that “going after” me is going to get you something good in The Profession, but it won’t. At this point most of the Profession has either resumed ignoring me, is a fan, or begrudgingly admits that I do more good than harm.

    Grad students: I am TRYING TO HELP YOU. I DO know more than you about academia–a lot more–because when you’re a grad student, you’ve really only seen the movie halfway through. People treat you differently. Your relationship to the academy is different (and in many cases, better than it ever will be abain). You get to concentrate on the content of your work, because most of the petty politics are either unknown to you or don’t apply (Plus you don’t have to adjunct 5 courses at 3 schools).

    And what happened to me WILL probably happen to you, regardless of anyone’s attitudes about the relative purpose or importance of academic scholarship, mine or yours. I used to think that attitude had a lot to do with success in academia, and that if I just kept my head down and worked harder than everyone else and loved, truly loved, the work that it would all be OK. It wasn’t, because the jobless hellscape doesn’t care how you feel, or I feel, or anyone feels. The labor crisis is a cancer that has already spread to the entirety of the profession. There is nothing you, or your attitude, or me, or my attitude, can do to stop it. Failure on the academic job market–and totalizing existential misery as the result of the cult-like rebuilding of your selfhood while in grad school–are real. They are the norm. They will happen to you, unless you guard yourself mercilessly and constantly, and that has nothing to do with your attitude toward your work and everything to do with your attitude toward the equality of all professions, more or less.

    My writing is there to help you survive, not to attack the Life of the Mind. The only people who don’t see that at this point are directors of graduate studies whose entire lives and jobs depend on getting more grad students (and fuck what happens to them later), and grad students themselves, who want very badly and very desperately for me to be wrong. I am sorry to say that I am not wrong.

    If you don’t want my help, if you think I’m just deceptive and disingenuous, then you are obviously free to keep screaming and kicking and going LALALALALALALALALA and plugging your ears.

    All best,

    Rebecca

  8. Rebecca Martin says:

    OMG.

    “At this point most of the Profession has either resumed ignoring me, is a fan, or begrudgingly admits that I do more good than harm.”

    The narcissism is unbelievable.

  9. Larry Grubbs says:

    I thought I needed a lot of attention.

  10. I read her earlier work with an open mind, but her writing has really jumped the rails of logic and fair-mindedness. I now refuse to click on *any* Slate article, lest some sneaky algorithm conclude that I’m coming there because of her. Maybe if we stop providing the ad revenue, she’ll stop laboring under the assumption that she’s the noble Robin Hood of academia, and that everyone else involved in that world must either be her camp follower or her sworn enemy. (Yawn.) FWIW, Jeffrey, I enjoyed and agreed with your article.

  11. She just landed a book contract because of her vitriol. So she’s hating all the way to the bank!

  12. Geoff Worsley says:

    Wtf!

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