Is the Academy Good?

I’ve had two huge changes in my life in the past two years.  The first is, I’ve started dancing in earnest. The second is, I’ve started meditating.  These have both completely transformed my life.  Dancing has allowed me to move from my brain (the natural habitat of the Ph.D., whether in the academy or not) to my body.  And meditating has allowed me to move from my brain to my spirit, by way of my emotions, which I’m learning to observe in a mindful fashion as they come, wreak havoc, and go.

It’s hard to explain how transformative this process has been.  It’s been wonderful.  And it’s been terrible.  Because, it has required me to acknowledge how much time – how many years and decades – I spent out of touch with my body and my spirit, and repressing/ignoring/condemning/acting out from my emotions.

As a post-academic person, I can’t help but relate this to my life in the academy.  I ask:  was I drawn to the academy because I was so emotionally stunted?  Or did I become (more) emotionally stunted by being in a spirit-crushing academy?

Either way, the academy in this equation is the same:  a place that denies the body, the spirit, and the emotions.

Is this a gross generalization?  Yes, it is.  But I don’t see much that contradicts it.  I look at my life in the academy, at my former colleagues, at my current academic friends, at my clients and readers and Facebook and blog commenters, and I see a universe of people in pain but unable to speak openly about it, because the academy requires distance, logic, and irony, and deflects and sometimes openly mocks feelings, intuition, and any admission of weakness.

I mean, think about it! The Professor Is In core principle of job applications is: facts not feelings!  And I stand by this completely, in terms of job applications.  You want to have a job in the academy, you had damned well better learn to make your case on the facts of your record, not your feelings, desires, hopes, aspirations, wishes, and dreams.


Feelings, desires, hopes, aspirations, wishes, and dreams are also the stuff of life.  So I juxtapose the academic job market advice that I give – which works! – and the values that I increasingly see as necessary to a whole and meaningful life.  And I ask:  is the academy destructive, in its premises, to a whole and meaningful life?

I am not implying, just yet, that it is.  I might argue that, someday, but I’m not now.  But right now I am completely absorbed by a question: is the academy good?

This is a shocking question to even contemplate for me.  Of course the academy is good!  The academy is what we fight to preserve from corporatization, and cost-cutting administrators, and vengeful, ignorant Republican governors.  It’s the source of so much knowledge.  Life-saving knowledge, even.  And life-enriching knowledge absolutely.

I love the academy. I’ve always loved the academy since the first time I understood what it was, when I was about 10. I set out to be part of it. Now, outside of it, I still spend every day talking to it, and about it and caring desperately about its welfare.


Is the academy good?

In some ways it’s a terrible time to ask that question, when it plays into the hands of the anti-intellectual, budget-cutting impulses of the present moment.

But in some ways this is exactly the time to ask this question.  Because if we can’t make a case that the academy is good, not just because it feeds our brains, but because it serves a deeper and wider purpose, then there is no hope of defending it against ideologues.

And right now, I don’t know that there is space to talk about its deeper, wider purpose, when so many individual academics (especially in the humanities, which I know best, and especially the tenured) are dedicated to maintaining an ‘ironic distance,’ and productivity above all, and hiding weakness or pain.

Never fear, I will keep giving advice about how to play the academic game according to its rules.  You need a paycheck, and I can help.  Some readers have accused me of reinforcing the academy’s spirit-crushing rules.  But that’s actually not the case.  My entire project of naming the academy’s rules AS rules makes the values of the academy explicit, and thus easier to critique, manage, and reject if you so desire.  I find myself constantly saying, in my talks around the country:  “So, that is the basic rule.  Break it if you want!  But break it intentionally!  Know that you’re choosing to break the rule, and understand the risks.  And then do what feels right to you.  Do you!  Just do it from knowledge, not from ignorance, or delusion.”

I’m so grateful that so many readers have recognized and responded to this.  Countless have written over the last 5 years to tell me that they love making their job documents and interviews better and more effective, and they love doing better on the market. But that what they love most of all is knowing they’re not crazy. The system is what it seems, whether advisors admit it or not. By knowing that the academy has a rigid set of cultural rules and norms and values, you can both learn those rules, and choose the ways that you are willing to engage with them.

When you can separate the culture of the academy from your identity, then you have space to move!  Space to critique.  Space to act.  Space to say no.  That is empowering.

But now I want to take the next step, and ask:  what do we think of those rules?  What purposes do they serve?  What damage might they cause for us as individuals?  And how does that play out in our wider lives, out into “society” as a whole?

If it’s so easy for huge swaths of the population to hate us and think we have no value…  what does that say?  Let’s pause, and take the challenge seriously.  What exactly are we doing? What do we stand for?  What do we deliver?

These are the questions that I think about. That I can’t stop thinking about.  What do you think? I want to know.  If you’re reading this, I want to hear from you.  Let’s make a space where it’s ok to talk about ourselves as whole people.

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Is the Academy Good? — 31 Comments

  1. As a former mentor of mine once said, you can never ask, Is X good. You can only ask, and must ask, Is X good for what? good for whom? And I suspect that academia, like almost every institution, is good for some things and some people, and bad for some things and some people.

  2. Unforunately academia has become a toxic place to live and work. The perfect academic c must be hyper stressed disembofied and cynical. Where is the space for critical knowledge production and transformation? Universities have turned into factories sustained by a nomadic flexible and under paid academic proletariat. It’s time to acknowledge this fact and reflect upon the lives of academics and also the life of academia itself. We need to build new ‘academic politics’. I am an adjunct lecturer who finished my postdoc a few months ago.

  3. Karen,
    I love you. But…is this a drunk post?
    “feelings, desires, hopes, aspirations, wishes, and dreams”? Of course these are real and good and part of the human experience. And we ignore them at our own peril.
    BUT. The academy exists, and science exists, for one reason: to discover truth. Feelings, wishes, etc. are in a different category. They don’t help us discover truth. As much as I hate to invoke Gould’s “non-overlapping magesteria” here, it is an appropriate analogy. Truth-seeking is one thing. Emotional well-being, and a fulfilling human experience, are, to quote Freud, a whole ‘mother thing.
    Don’t confuse them.

    • Part of what’s wrong with the Academy today – specifically, the organization of disciplines as a reflection of epistemological vogue – is the idea that science can’t be content to be a body of knowledge unearthed in methodical fashion, but rather that the scientific method is the sole arbiter of what is legitimately considered “knowledge”, or even worthy of intellectual study.

      If she hadn’t used normative lingo and instead had externalized her real subject of interest by discussing motivational science in different organizational settings, would the positivism comfort you?

    • Given that everyone who has “discovered truth” is a human being with feelings, desires, etc, etc, then obviously all of those human components have been used to discover truth. As a trivial example: humans *use their emotions* to decide what questions to even ask. There isn’t some purely rational, logical algorithm out there that every academic consults in the morning to decide how they will go about “discovering truth” that day.

      Setting that aside, let’s assume that “discovering truth” and “feelings, wishes, etc” are actually “non-overlapping.” What’s your point? You seem to be saying either that (1) in order to seek truth, we have to be emotionally damaged, unfulfilled humans or (2) that these categories have nothing to do with each other. The former is repugnant, and you will have to provide a huge pile of evidence before I believe it. To the latter I would respond: “Excellent! Since these don’t overlap, we can create any combination of them that we wish. Let’s build an academy in which we can all be emotionally whole and fulfilled *and* in which we can all discover truth.”

      Also, the academy != science. There are other equally important parts to it (and I say this as a physicist).

      • Well said. I am more struck by the shaming agenda (“are you drunk?”) than the arguments per se, but thanks for responding to the arguments.

      • I encountered many unexpected things when I left my pre-post-ac career. Most surprising, welcome, and sometimes hard to believe, is how physical, mental and emotional aspects are stressed as important to a balanced life and productive work.

    • Feelings are not arguments. But, (I have learned, as a psychiatrist) they point us toward important data.

      Truth-seeking is an essential activity of my well-being.
      Science is my mode of worship, and it is still not my religion. Neither are feelings religion.

      Truth can be discovered only with attention, and Karen is exercising it.

      Work and love, love and work.
      But work is love made visible.

  4. No, the academe isn’t good. It says something that when my college tried to get faculty and staff to tell their stories and experiences with mental illness, either personal or adjacent, in order to reduce stigma, I was the only faculty member of 200+ to come forward. Lots of talk, very little action. Calls for social change are just those, for a large swath of academics. It makes me sad.

      • I am in the middle of qualitative dissertation research right now on urban forestry in disenfranchised neighborhoods and working through very difficult anxiety and depression that kicked into high gear during my fieldwork. Through professional help and lots of yoga and meditation, I am healing. There is so much that I’m experiencing and learning as a person and a researcher that I think will be very valuable to include in my dissertation through reflection on my field notes. I know I am not the first, nor will I be the last to experience such internal difficulty while engaging in research, so it makes sense to include it and maybe help others in the process. From what I can tell, the value is in being able to reflect on what is happening internally as you go through the process of scholarly inquiry and therefore find empowerment to respond more thoughtfully to your reactions to the knowledge gained. In this way, I believe the academy, and many other professions, can be “good”.

  5. Thanks for this post. Fair, balanced, and brave to acknowledge such things publicly — and doing so will help many individuals as they try to navigate the shoals.

    My experience — earning a PhD in midlife after 20 years outside academia — was that the deep core of toxic and stunted culture within the academy (once you experience it at the doctoral level) provoked me into asking lots of questions about myself, too. I went to graduate school to pursue a research project that I was driven by — i.e., almost a “pure research” motivation, totally naïve to just how political and mannered it would all be. At first, I was victimized by it — or allowed myself to be victimized by it, because I just kept trying to adapt myself to what everyone around me seemed to think was how we should all behave.

    But eventually, I began to ask the right questions — primarily, for me, about the way the system is based on “measures of esteem.” That was, in fact, the way the UK university where I earned my PhD structured their faculty member’s web bios (Education, Teaching, Research, Publications, Measures of Esteem). I decided that I needed to avoid internalizing this assumption — that my value is not internal to me, but a factor of quantifiable evidence of what other people think my value is. It’s a subtle shift in mindset – not arguing that measures of esteem are of no value, or fundamental to the structure etc. But working within that system (so that I could pursue the intellectual questions that were – are – near and dear to my soul and spirit) without internalizing it.

    And – surprise – in trying to walk that narrow path, I discovered meditation and it was the primary thing that got me through. And I have told many people that the very best thing I got out of my four years of full-time graduate school was that I learned how to meditate and why that practice is important.

    But I don’t think I would have had the ability to recognize the danger of internalizing the deadening aspects of academic culture had I gone right into graduate school from my bachelor’s degree, which, of course, is the pathway 95% of the professoriate. Not only did I have 20 years of life experience, and therefore some maturity and different perspectives. I also was (realistically) confident of my ability to make a living outside of academia, and I made a point of keeping my non-academic resume from getting stale (part-time work outside of teaching, for example). So, when I started to feel trapped or victimized, I eventually was able to step back and recognize the space between how I was feeling and the reality. That little bit of distance played a big role in my ability to draw a line, beyond which I wouldn’t be pushed. So, in the end, I got what I wanted from my return to graduate school and I continue to keep one foot in academia and one foot out.

    But I have a lot of sympathy and empathy for those who are trying to navigate academia in their 20s — including those who embrace the toxic undercurrent of the culture and those who are destroyed by it, as well as those who manage to find a middle ground but who live under the burdens without realizing why it can be so emotionally burdensome to pursue higher truths in the modern university.

    But, as a practical matter, I think the recommendation to incorporate a formal practice of meditation into one’s research career should be advice given at orientation and repeated over and over and over again, so that individuals will hear the message when they are open to it. That’s what my university’s “Professional Development” program did. They had 8-week courses in “mindfulness” on offer several times each academic year. At one point, I signed up for one and that little push was the spark for what became daily habits that saved me from being *too* damaged by the culture of “esteem,” either by buying into it too fully or letting my personal bullies make me question my value.

  6. From my limited experience, I’m going to suggest that so much depends on three key points; two of which are: local institutional culture and the social fabric stitched (covertly or not) to bind those who don’t feel the need to eschew any non-detached engagement of each other and the larger world. The third consideration just gets more specific: how much is the institution focused on publishing at all cost. All else equal, if external stakeholders set more of your agenda than internal, then that’s going to hone a very distanced perspective!

    Personally, I wonder how not to let the culture get “brought home” – if you will – in how I interact with those in my private life. I find academia to have a certain “atomization”, and I’ve found it difficult not to return to private relationships a bit deadened. In fact, if you have advice here, for work-life balance in an alt-ac setting, please do share.

    • I agree with this comment. I think that that science and the research and the logic is good; I also think that the manner in which it is discussed, presented, and evaluated is deeply flawed. Younger professionals (older ones too, I know age groups are over-generalizations y’all – I just see more younger ones using the resources effectively) being hired are already changing these methods by using social media and other resources to engage with many other groups of people in the world. You get called on rudeness much more quickly on Twitter than in a department meeting. I know, very different situations, but I think that is helping some academics at least to get out of their own heads and learn behavior that is appropriate.

      TL;DR: Bad behavior ruins good science.

    • Have you read my book? The last chapter is about finding your motivation within, and rejecting external validation!

      BTW, I love this: “those who don’t feel the need to eschew any non-detached engagement of each other and the larger world.” That’s it! If a little convolutedly phrased!

      About advice… well, I’m working on that now. Stay tuned.

  7. Thank you, Dr.Karen for this post and your services. At one point, when I was both job hunting and finishing my dissertation, I heard you talk about the depression that is rampant in graduate school. I felt intense relief knowing that it wasn’t just me.

    Like the previous commenter, I entered a Ph.D. program at age 42, not realizing that the Academy is in the process of destroying itself. Higher education is one of the few fields that produces both the supply and the demand in its workforce. Full-time employment is steadily decreasing. How long will it be before graduate departments close because students have wised up to the realities of the job market and chose not to attend? Without graduate departments, the need for full-time professors will shrink even further.

    Adjuncts now teach the majority of classes. Both teaching and research are severely affected by this trend because adjuncts do not have the luxury of time and funding to do research or plan exciting, intellectually engaging classes. I currently teach as an adjunct, but this will be my last semester. According to my students, I am a great teacher, but I am working myself to death for no reward other than my students’ appreciation. I am tired of being exploited by the Academy.

    So I’m sorry to say that I feel that The Academy is no longer good. It has lost its focus and is floundering. The Academy has become a horrible employer, exploiting the majority of its workforce, and destroying both teaching and research in the process. College was not supposed to be about building the best swimming pool and then appointing a Director of Student Engagement with the Swimming Pool for $125,000 a year while the people doing the actual work of university need food stamps to survive.

  8. Great post. Sorry for the anon, and it is ironic that I feel necessary to be anonymous given the fact we’re talking about how pressured we feel not to talk about so many things…

    Re: the comment above about the academy only existing to pursue truth. That’s not where most parents, tax payers, legislators and students think their tax dollars and tuition money is going.

    We can disagree with those sentiments, but the stakeholders make a difference. At some point there’s a real possibility that too much of society is going to wonder if the prof/TA/VP/adjunct who needs to get back to seeking truth, and finding grant money to do it, to keep or find a job, could be replaced by something else.

    We’ve already got free MOOCs + equivalency testing, high schools providing combined AA degree/HS diploma programs with transfer from HS right into the last two years of a four-year university, and AP classes taught by secondary school teachers that can replace over a full year of college tuition. When undergraduate enrollment falls, so does truth-seeking money.

    The education model is changing but changing the academy to avoid catastrophe is like turning the Titanic. Burnt-out, stress-filled academics manning this ship around the coming iceberg is not going to be good for anyone.

    Also, on a different subject, a lot of cool truth gets lost when bright grad students, new assistant profs, visiting profs, and adjuncts are chewed up and spit out by the structure of the system. I personally don’t think the best truth–always or even mostly–wins out here. The truth from the people who play the best dysfunctional politics appears to have an edge.

    To continue the Titanic analogy, the ones manning the lifeboats are not giving up their places. And they are not necessarily working for the greatest good while holding their ground.

    Sitting in a rather wobbly lifeboat

    • Very eloquent.

      I myself don’t feel that emotional awareness and the pursuit of scientific knowledge have to be mutually exclusive. I think the structure of the academy, as you point out, has made them so.

    • To continue the boat analogy, here are two of my favorite thoughts when I am frustrated at work: ‘Every man for himself’ (Titanic). ‘We keep you alive to serve this ship. Row well and live’ (Ben-Hur).

  9. I’ll add another comment here to say that yes, it is scary to talk about this in a Facebook post where peers can see it and/or Facebook itself shows your commenting activity to others who may have the power to make decisions about your employment, dissertation, etc. I’m out of my program and in the process of leaving the academy, and even I am scared to post there. And, to me, that also is an indicator that the academy is not good. The powerless feel forced into silence.

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  13. Hopping onto this delightfully honest discussion late – for it brings up a few points. I left academia a generation ago, and now watch my son enter the glitz and draw of highbrow intellectual fulfillment, joining the separate seekers. (No, I don’t believe that the goal is truth, but an asymptotic journey toward potential meaning.)
    As many of us have learned, indoctrination into the system is full of self-pride and elitism, with hazing and hierarchy designed to breed a sense of “finally making it” in the often bitter world of academic competition, insatiable stress, where many aim for privilege and perks due those at the top rather than the ambition of knowledge.
    That the societal purpose of these institutions is to combine tuition and taxes for the development of patentables to feed corporations has been well described, most eloquently by Noam Chomsky.
    Lastly, emotions unrelated to passion for one’s academic topic distract from power-over dynamics that keep students and faculty manageable and subdue free thinkers who may upset the cart.

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