3 Ways In Which Academia Is Your Abuser – Langer #Postac Post

by Jessica Langer

Jessica Langer

Jessica Langer

Here’s something most people who know me and who know my work at TPII wouldn’t guess:

This year, I went on the academic job market.

No, I didn’t do a full search. I didn’t even do a halfhearted search. I applied for one single solitary job, because the combination of sub-sub-subfield (exactly mine) and location (in Canada) seemed to match perfectly. And, I suppose, because I wanted to take one more swing at the fences to see what would happen. At this point, I’m five and a half years out from my PhD, but I’ve been publishing as if I’m in a TT position mostly because I enjoy it… and I also have a very well-received monograph from a very well-regarded publisher in my subfield. (Postcolonialism and Science Fiction, if you’re interested and don’t feel like Googling.)

Reader: I got an MLA interview. I actually went to MLA for the interview instead of doing it by Skype, in part because I love to travel and in part because I wanted to see my friends, and in large part because I know that meeting people in person gives one a leg up.

And then I was invited for a campus interview. And I went. And it went extraordinarily well.

And then they offered the job to someone else.

(Please don’t get me wrong, especially if you know which job I’m talking about, which isn’t hard to figure out; I was treated impeccably through the entire process, and nearly every person I encountered during the search was lovely, friendly, intelligent and welcoming. This is not a post in which I denigrate the university that invited me to interview; quite the opposite. They are wonderful, and I wish them well. This is a post about academia as a whole, and the unhealthy dynamics that happen in academia.)

This has been an interesting experience, because in my post-ac life, I am basically rocking it. I have a really successful little business that affords me and my family a lovely house in a beautiful neighbourhood in my favourite city, and plenty of time to spend together. I have a husband I love, two little kids, and a great community. I have work that I love doing and am excited to do every day, both in my business and here at TPII. I have essentially everything I want.

And yet? Going through the process of post-interview anxiety about this job brought me right back to feeling not good enough. To feeling stupid, worthless, pointless, and like an abject failure. Because somehow, none of that good stuff mattered to my psyche while I stared down the barrel of yet another academic job interview that turned into no offer. What’s wrong with me? I thought. Why I am I good enough for everyone else in my life, but not good enough for academia? Does this mean I’m just not smart enough, just not good enough, to be a real scholar, a real intellectual, a real person who’s doing good, important work?

Spoiler alert: it means none of those things. It means that academia is capricious. But as I wrote to Karen and Kellee – with whom I did some interview prep for my MLA interview that turned into a campus invite; they really do work wonders! – more than anything, it felt like I had escaped a dysfunctional relationship, turned around and given the person one more chance, and gotten burned again.

Having thought about it a little more, I’ve identified some of the ways in which academia really is like a dysfunctional, perhaps even abusive, interpersonal relationship:


  1. Academia has a Madonna/whore complex.

I am going to expand on this in a future post, I think. But the short version: academia greatly privileges both pedigree and lack of experience. That is: research universities in particular, but most universities and colleges in general, tend to choose candidates who are ABD or new PhDs and who have a lot of “potential” rather than a lot of experience. Candidates who are virginal, if you will.

This is why internal candidates and current adjuncts so often lose out on tenure-track positions to new, exciting outside candidates. This is why adjuncting in a department is usually a disadvantage, rather than an advantage, in getting a tenure-track job there. And this is why, the more teaching experience you get as an adjunct and the more varied that experience is – especially if you teach at the community college level, which far too many universities denigrate for reasons that have little to do with quality concerns and much to do with classism and implicit racism – the less likely you are to get a full-time job as a professor.

Once you’re an adjunct, it’s not just that you’ve failed to get a TT job immediately. You’ve now been around the block one too many times. You’ve had too many students. You’re sullied, in a way that echoes the Madonna/whore dichotomy to an extent that’s actually pretty disturbing.

  1. Academia isolates you from family and friends.

One of the hallmarks of a dysfunctional romantic relationship is a partner who seeks to isolate you from your support network: your family, friends and wider community. Sometimes they do this by claiming that they don’t like those people, or that those people don’t like them, for a good reason; sometimes they decide that it’s “us against the world”. Whatever the reason or motivation, the effect is to create a scenario in which you are cut off from the people who have your best interests in mind, and are more easily controlled.

The cultural bias in academia towards career at all costs and against life outside of work, which very often becomes material discrimination against people (generally, but not always, women) who choose to prioritize or even participate in family and social life, has this effect. In academia you are, on pain of failure, coerced into a culture in which the influences and requirements of outside life are not welcome. And, of course, this makes it much easier for academia’s constant drumbeat of anxiety and what Aimee Morrison calls “systematic infantilization” to inculcate itself deep into your own sense of yourself and your inherent worth.

  1. Academia forces you into financial dependence upon its own structure.

This was one of the important points of contention in the recent strikes at the University of Toronto (my undergraduate alma mater) and York University (where, full disclosure, I am a member of CUPE3903 Unit 2 when I am teaching there, though I am not currently a union member). Very often, contracts for graduate assistantships pay very little – at U of T, the minimum is $15,000 per year, literal poverty wages in the city, and this amount is what is normally given to humanities grad students.

However, that’s not the most insidious part: these U of T contracts bar students from taking any outside employment whatsoever, and from making any money outside the bounds of the contract. In short: graduate students at U of T, and at hundreds or thousands of other universities, are literally forced into poverty if they choose to be in their programs full-time, because they are made entirely dependent upon the university for their financial well-being. And in this way, the university is able to control them more easily.

We have a word for that when it happens in interpersonal relationships, and it’s not “graduate assistantship”.

So, in short: this experience has given me a lot of clarity about why I wanted to be an academic so badly, and why I have never been more glad to be happily post-ac.


About Karen

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


3 Ways In Which Academia Is Your Abuser – Langer #Postac Post — 32 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. I have recently returned to academia after 2 years away–was lucky enough to get a job that I really like, that pays me a decent salary, and that (so far) has not pressured me unduly to publish, publish, publish. And yet those old insecurities are creeping back with a vengeance. I find myself questioning my self-worth on a regular basis, based on things like how much I’ve published, where I’ve published, and how engaged I am with current conversations in my field. I always come up short. It’s shocking that a year ago I didn’t care about any of this, and now it has consumed me. I have to remind myself on a regular basis that my worth as a human being is NOT contingent on how much I publish or whether my academic ideas are revolutionary.

    I’m also dealing with the paradox of being proud of my abilities as a teacher and knowing that this doesn’t count for much in academia (and can even work against me). I also have to remind myself that being a good instructor (and working hard to be better) is a worthwhile use of my time, even if the powers that be would have me think that it makes me less “serious” as a researcher.

    Again, thank you for your post and I’m very happy that your situation worked out for the best!

    • You know. As a matter of fact, I was forced into the “publish, publish, publish” scheme during my last years in academia. I’m talking about industrial amounts. And in spite of working alone, I delivered. Looking back, I’m impressed of what I achieved.

      And I learned something. Publishing is like a sport or a skill. The more you use it, the better you become at it. True, sometimes you get a pain here and there. Perhaps you’re out of breath or stumble… or perhaps you’re demoralized because you’re not better than your colleagues.

      But IF you keep at it. Keep a rhythm. You inevitably get better, and better, and better. You don’t need to sacrifice (much) your social life. You need efficiency, discipline and perseverance. There’s not a single successful person that doesn’t invest countless hours at their skill. And that in spite of already being successful.

      Be tough. Be goal oriented. (In academia: be critical of yourself). And keep at it.

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  3. A truly moving post, Jessica. I stumbled happily on the work of Brene Brown recently, and her writing sheds a lot of light on academic culture. As you astutely corroborate, it’s a shame culture, through and through. Congratulations on your triumphant escape.

    Disclosure: Jessica and I attended the same grad program together at Royal Holloway in the UK. Even in those (heady, oblivious) early days it was obvious that she’d become in short order a top-notch scholar and teacher.

  4. As someone who is both an academic and has been in an abusive relationship, I find this post a bit flip. Sure, as an academic, I live below the poverty line and work really hard for very little pay or recognition, but this is my choice. I can walk away from academia. I could not walk away from the guy who was hitting me; he barricaded the door. Literally. And then he kept hitting me and pulled out my hair and called me words that I will not type. And I had nowhere to go, nowhere to turn, no one to talk to. Academics are not alone like that. You have a tribe, a cohort, colleagues. Yes, it’s a hard job. Yes, it can be isolating. But it’s not analogous to an abusive relationship, sorry. Did academia ever tell you that you were worthless and could never be loved? Did academia ever hit you on the mouth for talking while it was trying to concentrate? Did academia ever threaten you with a loaded firearm? I didn’t think so. My abuser did all those things and more. Academia is not going to break your kneecaps – yes, I have a friend who had her kneecaps broken when she tried to run away from her abuser – if you try to leave.

    Abuse is serious, it’s real, and it’s terrible. You say that you have everything you want: that’s great, and I’m happy for you. I have to tell you: abuse does not just go away. It doesn’t really fade. I will never “have everything I want” like you do, because I am now afraid of people, even many years after leaving. I can’t trust partners anymore on a fundamental level, despite many years of therapy and hard work. Abuse can easily warp you profoundly and change you. It leaves scars. Please don’t use it as an analogy for academia. It minimizes the experience of abuse and is both damaging and insulting to victims and survivors.

    • Hi Kelly. I am sorry that you found the analogy flip, and I am VERY sorry about your experience in a violent relationship. I admire your speaking out as a survivor and I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

      I don’t care to disclose too much about my own personal history on a public blog; however, please understand that it is my own experience in an emotionally violent relationship that led me to make the comparison that I made in this post, and I feel it is apt in my case. Abuse takes many forms and survivors cope in different ways.

      So: when I say that academia was my abuser, and is a system that is structurally and materially abusive to many people in it, I am using the word precisely, and I mean it. But I do apologise unreservedly for any lack of clarity that led to your feeling offended, upset or otherwise disturbed by the post. It was not my intention.

      • During my initial reading of this article, I was put off by Jessica’s interpretations of the concepts of abuse and violence. At that point, I was not offended. When I read her reply to Kelly, and her non-reply to Erin, I was very offended. Let me explain why.

        I’ve experienced being an untenured academic, and I agree that the system materially and psychologically exploits people who are financially and emotionally vulnerable. However, I just can’t use words like ‘abuse’ and ‘violence’ to describe academia. It’s not that I’ve been in one relationship that could be described as ‘abusive’ or ‘violent’ and I consider that experience worse. It’s that if I had to list every relationship and situation I’ve lived that could be described as physically, psychologically, materially, interpersonally or structurally violent, I’d have to begin at birth and end at today. It’s the fact that, despite recognizing that academia forces people to live below the poverty line–that’s different from being forced into poverty, when it’s temporary–and gives many of them imposter syndrome, I have to reconcile my recognition with the fact that, as someone who was born into poverty and chronic physical violence, academia is the *least* violent system I’ve ever been in. In fact, when I entered the academy, it offered me a safe haven from a lot of things. Not because it’s a great system, but because my life conditions outside of academia were worse by both objective and subjective measures. I left academia with ABD-status for purely financial reasons. My support system doesn’t include a single relative with a spare couch, let alone a bed, and I found myself forced to choose between paying tuition and staying housed. But here is the real kicker: I’ve been out of academia for several years, and every system of labour I’ve been in has been more materially violent by objective measures. My jobs have also been more physically draining and psychologically difficult. I’ve managed to find ways to survive, and at this point I’m pretty happy. But I’m not ‘rocking’ my post-ac life, assuming that means having the kinds of things Jessica lists when she demonstrates that she’s successful.

        Everything I described in the last paragraph was on my mind when I read Jessica’s article. As I said from the beginning, during that reading, I was merely put off. I refused to be offended, because I told myself that Jessica was just using some words — ‘abuse’ and ‘violence’ — in ways that aren’t meaningful for me. I was hardly surprised. My peers often use language in ways I *can’t*– not won’t, but can’t–find meaningful to describe their subjective experiences of difficult situations. But I accept that people use the same words to name different things, and move on.

        However, when Jessica replied to Kelly with a public non-apology, and didn’t even bother to offer a real reply to Erin, I was offended. Jessica, when multiple women who identify as survivors tell you they have a problem with your use of the language of abuse, it would be respectful to try to hear them, considering for a moment the possibility that they *might* have a point. But you immediately asserted that your experience makes you an authority on how to use that kind of language ‘precisely’.

        I have no idea what Kelly and Erin are thinking and feeling, and I can’t speak for them. I do want to put out there that this thread reinforces the very painful realization that my experiences–and the language I use to describe them–are literally unreadable in communities of people who are ostensibly my peers–and that they just don’t care. (It was very difficult for me to write this, and I have absolutely no interest in continuing this conversation. But I really thought something needed to be said.)

        • I can’t add much to the previous critique, but I would note that people have often called exploitive labor situations abusive in the sense of taking away or impinging upon the rights of employees. So it would perhaps be meaningful, if you’re going to use “abuse” to describe a work environment, to think more about how it relates to this common sense of abusive labor relationships than to romantic relationships.

    • Oh please. You can also get abuse in academia. Getting your professional life destroyed, or threats thereof, is as good as any abuse. I’ve seen people losing their position and denigrated. I’ve seen people having to change CONTINENTS because the well was poisoned where they were!

      In both cases, be self-conscious of options that you have. Unless you’re literally chained, you have choices. That is the problem. When you’re in such a position, fear takes a hold of you and blinds you.

  5. This is a really great article. I was in an anthropology Phd program up to a couple months ago when I decided to downgrade to an MA for exactly the reasons you listed. Phew!!

  6. I also have to disagree with the assessments of this article as really great or affirming. I actually found it horribly tasteless and offensive for reasons similar to what Kelly stated above. I implore the author to reconsider this analogy as it does indeed make light of something that is devastating to those who experience it. I’m also incredibly disappointed to see something like this printed here.

  7. As someone who has also experienced domestic violence, abuse, and degradation at the hands of loved ones and academia, I am in no way offended by this post. It’s an apt analogy.

  8. I am wondering whether you could elaborate on Morrison’s concept of systematic infantilization in academia. It sounds rather interesting and important, but I didn’t manage to find anything about it the accompanying link to the Digiwonk blog.

    • Hi Mathieu. Morrison used the term on a panel discussion in which we were both participants, and has used it as well in print, though perhaps not on her blog. I am not sure whether she’s expanded on it much in her work in print; however, perhaps she’ll write a guest post for TPII about it, because it’s worth exploring and I know she has lots to say about it.

  9. Why would anyone sign, much less honor, a contract that promised such low wages and forbid other work–even on weekends and non working hours? How were these contracts enforced? Were people kicked out of school for moonlighting? It seems like the kind of think a shady operator might do to try and intimidate the naive. Which I guess is the point.

    • They signed because it is the standard contract for graduate student workers. I’m not sure how or to what extent those contracts were enforced – my guess is that it varied. But one certainly COULD be kicked out of the program for taking on other work.

      • Standard or no, it is a big mistake to sign something so restrictive without consulting an attorney. I’d want to know exactly what the law says my obligation is and not just trust the employer. Even in Canada there’s no more indentured servitude. Overall I think this strengthens your point about infantilization.

    • There is plenty. My suggestion is to read Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education’s archives for the past two years or so.

      • Generally, the burden of proof is on the individual making the claim. Are there peer-reviewed publications that suggest that academia emphasizes work productivity more than other fields? Data that adjunct experience is a disadvantage in hiring?

        • Per the University of Toronto website:
          “Can I be employed in another position while holding a GA?
          Yes, you can be employed in another position while holding a GA as long as it is not an OISE TEPA/TA, Sole Responsibility Position, or Major Research Assistant.
          Please note, if you hold a graduate student funding package you will be considered ineligible for a Graduate Assistantship if you are employed full-time.”

  10. Oh, that last one. Ugh. I got that done to me just before leaving academia.

    I had my own research field, which my boss didn’t personally like. However, to his chagrin, I was fairly successful. So… he kept me for one entire year on two month contracts. And this is in an institution that collects Nobel Prizes and the profs are earning six figures.

    And still I did the last three months there in spite of having landed a job… only for finishing it.

    Point being (besides letting off steam), the people in academia like to portrait themselves as awesome and “the only intelligent choice you have, otherwise you’ll land in hell and burn FOREVER!”.

    Be aware that this is a LIE made out of smoke and mirrors. It may be tough but you always have the freedom to choose greener pastures. Do not be fooled. (But also don’t burn bridges and piss in the ashes if you decide to go away)

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  12. Thought provoking article and replies, but in the end this turned out to be just what it claimed not to be: a denigration of the university (system), though not directly. While the competition factors and personality prima-donna dynamics are real, I don’t really feel, like others who voiced opinions, that the chains of abusive relationship are an accurate or helpful.

    Firstly, the poverty wage argument is simply wrong, though the opinion is held by many. There is no servitude here. That is a grossly inaccurate characterization that is being perpetuated.

    Most graduate assistantships include ALSO a full tuition remission, worth anywhere from $15k-$30k/year, good health care coverage, and requirement to teach only 1 course per semester, so effectively 1/2 time. To be a fair comparison, then, the graduate assistantship is valued equivalently to a $60k/yr job ($30k for 2 classes/semester, plus $30 for tuition & healthcare value paid by the employer). By being a graduate assistant, you are choosing to use at least 1/2 of that job value as tuition for your classes. That is hardly abusive, nor is it chains.

    Secondly, the “publish, publish, publish” and “holding me down” complaints ignores the real competition in other professional careers. Care to work for Facebook, Google, Apple? How about GE, Boeing, Pfizer, or Amgen? Want to work as an ER doctor or an OB/GYN? How about starting as a Jr. member of a big accounting, finance, law or management consulting firm? There are similar or worse competitive pressures in nearly every other profession for which similar education demands are made. Many of those career choices do not offer the GA packages that humanities include, so you’ll be walking away with $200k+ in debt.

    I returned to school after a 20yr career in engineering and management. Ten years into it, I do not see the prima-donna dynamic as any more difficult or petty than in any of the many corporations I worked in and with, either as a consultant or employee or executive. I think there is a lack of perspective regarding the very real competitive world. Yes, there are problems in ‘academia,’ but they are really no different, materially, than in almost every other discipline.

  13. Of course there are egos and extreme competitiveness in the private sector. But many if not most institutions of higher education in the United States (I will stick to what I know) are public, which means that they must carefully follow federal laws such as those with regard to employment and civil rights. If they are found to not do this, then their funding can be negatively affected. As a professional public servant who has worked in capacities and institutions other than as an instructor in academia, I feel that these attitudes and abuses are wrong. There are actually public institutions that try to get around federal laws. That is hypocritical, and abusive.

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