The grifter accusations popped up again on social media last week. Find one post here and then scroll up and down for a bit more commentary about it. I still need to write the blog post that unpacks all of that and what it says about the gaslighting and toxicity (and exploitative nature) of the academy.
For those who haven’t kept up (or who are new), here are a couple previous ones:
But for now, I want to share the backchannel messages that poured in over the last few days. These are anonymized and shared with permission. These words do a great job — in some ways, I think, better than I can do in my own words — of showing how:
“I am writing in response to your post about “grifter discourse.” I don’t feel comfortable posting publicly, but I want you to know that your words illuminated a discussion I had with the principal in my school, one that I’ve been struggling to let go of for over a month now. I work in a private upper school 9-12), but have a PhD and wanted to teach in higher ed. About a month ago, the principal asked me to cover the class of a colleague of mine who has been given permission to teach virtually because of a preexisting health condition that increases her chance of contracting COVID. I was asked to use my planning period to sit in and keep track of her class (take attendance, monitor mask wearing and social distancing, manage desk cleaning and dismissal) for a few weeks. When I asked for extra pay for covering her class (a substitute would make $100 per day), the principal told me it “stung” him, and questioned whether I was cut out for this “vocation.” Your words helped me to understand that his response to my request for payment for my work is in fact a type of gaslighting, an attempt to silence me into submission over what is in fact an unjust labor practice. I’ve been ready to leave education altogether for a long time, but this really has sealed the deal for me. Thank you for helping me make sense of what happened to me.”
“Hi, Karen! I feel compelled to reach out because of the “grifting” conversations going on. They’ve been on my heart and while you don’t know me, and my opinion might not matter, I feel like reminders that we’re not alone are important lately. I contacted you pre-COVID (what a time!), about leaving higher ed. I am delighted to report that I’m in a new position and I am making money — with the promise of making more based on merit and meeting goals. Higher Ed IS THE GRIFT. I was allowed to take on an INSANE amount of responsibilities pre-tenure that I felt were good because I needed the money. I was repeatedly warned that I might be being “taken advantage of,” and I comforted myself with the knowledge that I was actually taking advantage of the system because I had found a way to increase my salary. But I was also working 60+ hours a week. And I was on call basically 24/7. And my colleagues hated me because they thought I’d sold out. It was an untenable situation. And yes, I was being taken advantage of. Last year, in addition to all my other duties and teaching, I wound up supervising 3 post-docs. During that time, I realized that our institution was in financial trouble. I’d worked in development previously, so I understood the money aspect of Higher Ed pretty well. One of my post-docs was not well-liked by other folks around campus, and made no effort to be. But it was a teaching institution, and being either well-liked or a workhorse IS the cultural capital there. Acting like you’re at a Tier-I when you’re not was a poor choice. I told him that I wanted to “protect him,” meaning from impending layoffs that I couldn’t tell him about, but that I was almost certain were coming. He fought me on it, told me I was untrustworthy (mostly because I’d stopped buying the Higher Ed line of BS and tried to help him see it), and proceeded to act like a Tier-I professor — even insisting his title be changed to “visiting professor” instead of “postdoctoral fellow,” refusing to attend mandatory trainings, and being kind of a jerk to our provost. The other two post-docs heeded my advice, and they were kept while he was fired . I lose sleep at night over it sometimes, because it was too late for him to land elsewhere and because his behavior seems SO in line with all these folks now attacking you for “grift.” My former institution also fired 7 other early career faculty in the humanities/arts, and then re-hired a few of them when the appealed. It’s absolutely dehumanizing. All of this is just to say: folks who are “in” don’t see it as grift. They think we should die to teach classes that students don’t remember and could care less about. Our colleagues who teach in practical fields where there’s a great deal of work preparation or real-world experience are seen as lesser than for monetizing their efforts or being too “practical” and not theoretical enough. It’s all about to cave in, and you are so right to try to help provide people with a life raft out — or at the very least, an honest portrayal of what it’s really like right now. My dissertation advisor was in her 70s, and my other advisor is such a rockstar that 10 years ago when she was on the market, she had 22 interviews at MLA. This is not the reality we’re all living in now, and many current professors refuse to be real with their PhD students about it. Keep spotlighting the issue! I am relieved and heartened every time I see you focus on how corrupt and untenable Higher Ed is.”
“THANK you for being the *first* academic I ever read who told me that this is a job. While I can’t post publicly because I got the golden ticket in some ways, the only way my head is still above water is because I learned this is not a holy vocation and started therapy. It has some lovely aspects where I can lift up students, but I do not owe it my soul. Because I finally embraced this, I’m doing better at my job, in my classroom, in publishing, and my partner and I finally let ourselves have a child we were so afraid to have. So, if that’s what being a grifter is, then we obviously need more grifters. I now tell all my grad students that their lives come first, then their dissertation, and if they ever feel otherwise, we need to talk. This is after my speech on only getting the PhD because you can afford to be broke and like the reading. Breaking that cycle little by little.”
“I’m sharing a story (anonymously) in case it’s helpful, as an example of how academia is the grift. International student, left the US and found an academic job in my home country very easily. In my PhD program in the US, at an institution that likes to flaunt its progressive credentials, the only job market support I got was from a staff person who had no idea about how citizenship impacts non-academic job prospects and kept telling me to apply for US government jobs, and a senior white male faculty member (who once asked all the students in a class I took with him to guess what they would think my racial background was if they didn’t already know it, as a way to illustrate how race is socially constructed — and sadly, not the worst thing I’ve been told in a class with regard to my racial background and nationality) told me that I would have an easier time than any of the rest of my cohort because as a woman of colour, I am especially popular now that “diversity hires have taken over”. There was no institutional accountability for any of this, not even a visible process that we knew how to use. When I and another student of colour tried to ask for disaggregated data on admissions and placements based on race/ethnicity and citizenship status, we were told by the student advisor at the time that we should stop otherwise we’d alienate the faculty.”
“Your blog and resources gave me the huge boost of courage I needed to leave a toxic, abusive academic program earlier this year and start figuring out my true interests. I also finally had the courage to “go public” and write about why I left academia, calling out the abuse/toxicity I encountered. Thank you so much again, for everything. I am so glad people like you exist.”
“It boggles my mind: how is an honest business practice like yours the grift? Thank you for standing up to elitists and toxic men for women, queer folx like me, and underrepresented and marginalized phds etc. Your work is more important now than ever, and I find so much inspiration to fight back. I am glad to name the conference. If someone somehow traces it back to me, so what? I was brave enough to question them in the moment; I just didn’t know how to handle being shut down so abruptly. I’ve sat on this for so long. Thank you for being the outlet. As a man I want to fight back against toxic men. Thank you for everything else.”
Gayle Brekke says
I’m relatively new to academia (PhD candidate, started 5+ years ago after a 20 year career in a corporate job. As I didn’t grow up in academia, it’s obvious to me that being a professor or researcher is a job, not unlike others in many ways. I would like to become an independent scholar, a public intellectual of sorts. For a variety of reasons, I don’t think academia is for me…
Thanks for what you do!