Academia Deserves Its Crisis

I was recently invited to be part of a student panel to welcome all new Ph.D. students to the large research university I am currently attending and to share with them my words of “wisdom,” so they can learn more about the upcoming challenges of graduate student life. The student panel was the last on the hierarchy of speakers, so we had to wait for and listen to people with big titles—titles like “provost”, “associate” with this, “assistant” for that, “co-director” of this center, and “under-secretary” for such and such affairs. It was clear from these presentations that graduate students are being encouraged to think of themselves as at-will employees who are expected to do the job “well,” … [Read more...]

Let’s Talk about Comps Exams

When I read @philommeides_’s tweet about grad-school comps, my heart sank.  The author expressed how her extremely difficult experience with PhD exams had caused her anguish and self-doubt.  The tweet elicited a large number of responses from people in academia about their own bitter encounters with the hazing ritual of exams, as well as thoughts about how to reform a broken system. And it’s no surprise: hardly anyone likes the way that PhD students (in the humanities at least) are tested on their field knowledge before moving on to the dissertation.  My own experience with the process was, frankly, traumatic, though perhaps not as bad as what others have gone through.  And as a faculty … [Read more...]

A Dirty Guide to Academic Publishing

In one of my favorite 30 Rock episodes, Tracy Jordan refers to his son as “this little d-bag.” Tracy Jr. says, “I know what that means.” His father’s response is, “And yet you won’t tell me!” Academic publishing reminds me a bit of this bit. Everybody sort of knows what it is but we often aren’t exactly sure how it works. (Like sex, or the Internet.) And like most things in academia, from graduate admissions to comps to the job market, it seems opaque, mysterious, governed by unspoken rules and norms that it takes an Indiana-Jones-style quest to find out about.  As Oxford University Press editor Susan Ferber once put it: Perhaps the most critical step in the professional lives of … [Read more...]

Duke Contingent Faculty Speak Out for Fair Wages in Open Letter

We have been asked by organizers from Duke University's union for contingent faculty to publish this open letter, which speaks to Provost Sally Kornbluth about their frustration with ongoing negotiations with the university administration. Many of us at Tropics of Meta have experience with the labor movement, including the efforts to gain union representation for graduate student employees and adjunct instructors at a number of universities.  We believe strongly that the crisis of both academic employment and quality higher education can only be solved by workers themselves having a strong voice.  Otherwise, college and university administrators will continue to take advantage of academic … [Read more...]

The U of C Way: Safe Spaces, Trigger Warnings, and Publicity at the University of Chicago

In a possibly, and very likely, apocryphal story that circulated among my social circle at the University of Chicago, one of my friends claims to have asked a wizened older professor what the school was like during the tumult of the 1960s. “A hot bed of inactivity,” he responded dryly. At least, that’s how the story went. Admittedly, no means of authenticating that anecdote exists, but the fact that it pervaded my notably non-political milieu says something about how at least a segment of the university saw the school’s history of social activism: limited to moderate, at best. Truth is, the school witnessed its share of protest. Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid uncovered some of this … [Read more...]

Newt’s Predictably Gonzo Dissertation: Belgian Colonialism For the Win!

Eric Foner once said that the worst possible form of government would be government by academics.  Anyone acquainted with higher education and academe knows in their bones that this is among the truest statements ever uttered by man. The typical faculty meeting is enough to prove the point, but look at the facts: America has only had one president with a PhD, the political scientist, former Princeton president, and priggish racist Woodrow Wilson.  That went well.  (As the estimable W.E.B. Du Bois put it in 1918, watching Wilson preen before the fawning masses of war-torn Europe, “He smiled and bowed right and left and seemed to have no apprehension of the difficulty, perhaps the … [Read more...]

The Sham of “Knowledge Philanthropy”: WikiHow and the Rise of the New Precariat

WikiHow claims to be a community of “knowledge philanthropists.” It’s a for-profit enterprise founded by Jack Herrick in 2005 that is designed for a social end: teach people how to do almost anything. To this end, Herrick and the staff at wikiHow wanted to create the best content possible, so they hired and are hiring Ph.D.s and Ph.D. candidates on a contractual basis for around $15 an hour to edit their website, to develop content, and to root out utter nonsense planted by internet trolls. They hired me on for a period of time, but don’t be mistaken—I was no philanthropist. I was a laborer in the internet mines. WikiHow’s pitch to potential editors is well-crafted, persuasive, and … [Read more...]

From South Gate to L.A. Live: Demographic Change, Homeowner Ethos and Redevelopment in Southeastern Los Angeles

When Becky Nicolaides chairs or comments on a panel, people show up. The author of the now seminal My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 always draws a crowd. As her book has assumed a sort of Crabgrass Nation status, the suburb at the heart of it, South Gate, has become an ur-text for Southeast Los Angeles more broadly. Nicolaides ended her study in 1965 but in her epilogue noted that twenty-first-century South Gate now served as a predominantly working-class Latino American suburb, representative of larger structural shifts in economics, demographics, and perhaps even immigration (though commentator Philip Ethington might differ on this … [Read more...]

How One Tenure-Track Prof Left Academia: A Beginner’s Guide

I’m a former tenure-track professor of world and postcolonial literature now pursuing a career as a nonprofit communicator and fundraising professional. After 13 years spent in academia, not including my undergraduate degree, I made my career shift in 2013. I made the switch for a number of reasons, among them a desire for greater geographical autonomy and a longing to find a career in which I could be part of a team working towards a common cause, rather than a “lone wolf” researcher and professor. The most common refrain I hear from people in academia when I talk about my transition is along the lines of “that sounds great, but I’m just not qualified to do anything else but analyze … [Read more...]

Working for the Man?! Turning Your PhD into a Meaningful Job with the Federal Government

When I entered graduate school at the University of California San Diego in the fall of 2008, I knew I was taking a chance. Previous to my enrollment, I had taught for nearly 10 years in the New York City public high schools. Had I continued doing so that Autumn, I would have received a healthy pay bump for a decade of service and been one more tantalizing step closer to being a vested member of the union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Instead, I moved to Southern California and walked into a PhD program in U.S. history with my fingers crossed. Then again, I also knew the nation's public schools, especially in urban areas, nearly always need teachers. As a recent story in the … [Read more...]