About six months ago I was invited to do a TEDx talk, which I called Academia Is a Cult, by Prof. Adam Key of University of Arkansas at Monticello. I don’t watch TED talks, and mostly dislike the whole idea of them. So I ignored the invitation for a long time. Adam was persistent, though, and kept following up. Finally, I responded, but the more we talked, the less I wanted to do it.
The fact was: it was an unknown and I was scared.
I didn’t want to have to deliver a short, punchy talk without a script. I didn’t want to talk to an audience I didn’t understand. I didn’t want to DO A NEW THING.
Certainly not in a pandemic.
But I felt stupid saying no, so I said, “ok,” wondering if I could just cancel out later.
Adam needed various items from me (you know–a title, a description, that kind of thing) and each time, I drafted an email in response saying, “never mind, I can’t do it, I withdraw.”
And then I’d give myself a talking to. “Come on, Karen, seriously. He needs a TITLE. You can give a title, can’t you?”
And so, in went the title. And the description. And the talk outline.
I kept inching forward, and not backing out.
After the first practice talk went to 23 minutes (it was supposed to be 10), I AGAIN wanted to just say, “I cannot do this, I cannot, cannot, cannot.”
But I plugged away, cut 50%, and then cut another 10%, and got the talk to under 10 minutes. Adam was instrumental–he had a great eye for what works, and a great ear for my message. (“You’re so much… nicer….than you seem online,” he remarked at one point.)
Then I had to record it. At home. Because: COVID. And I didn’t understand the technology, and I didn’t want to ask anyone, and there wasn’t any time, and I just improvised some stuff but I couldn’t get the technology to work and I didn’t know what i was doing and basically I cried for a day (you can see my red post-cry eyes in the video!).
And I produced a frankly kind of crappy video, and I said: this is enough. I did it. It’s recorded. It’s not great. But it’s done. My shirt is wrinkled and my eyes are red and I’m too close to the camera. It is the minimal viable product and it’s the best I can do.
And I sent it to Adam (who said, “Well this was the first time I’ve ever gotten portrait mode video and landscape mode slides…”) and promptly decided to forget the whole thing.
Until the live TEDx event, when AGAIN, thanks to COVID, I had to use an unknown platform, Bramble, to attend a virtual conference with little avatars knocking around a virtual conference space. I DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS, my mind screamed, as I sat there a) mortified that I had to be present while people were now actually watching my video TEDx talk, and b) horrified that I had to engage with people before and after the talk.
The event ended, and I again promptly decided to forget the whole thing.
Until TED put the talk up live on Youtube on its channel. And now, it exists. And the world, if the world wants to, can see it. And in a couple hours 4000 people had watched it.
Here it is. Academia Is a Cult. My TEDx talk. From my sofa. For better or worse.
I believe in every word of this talk. Academia IS a cult. Vulnerable undergraduates ARE groomed to go into it. It DOES gaslight people into accepting overwork and exploitation. Peoples’ lives ARE ruined by believing its self-serving lies. It IS possible for victims to save themselves and move on.
The content was never the issue. It was everything ELSE about the talk that was a struggle. The process. The audience. The technology. The platform. Everything new. Everything requiring a learning curve. Everything pushing me out of my comfort zone.
And I did it.
Is it perfect? No it is not. But it’s done. And I’m proud of it. And in case this story of a mental battle against quitting, and crying at technology, and a minimal viable product, and putting yourself out there into an unknown space is helpful to you in your process today… well, I offer it up. Sometimes you just have to try.
El Gordo says
It is a cult and you sell services to help people to join it??
Do you know what she is doing? she is saving people from people who already joined the cult…
Is it Montevallo?
Karen Kelsky says
It’s U of ARKANSAS Monticello. I had an error, now corrected.
More a mafia
Thank you for this video. Spot on.
Hallie Sloane says
Brilliant! Thank you for this!!!
Thank you for putting this into words. Much of what you say is obvious from personal experience, yet it is hard to accept when the lie goes un-articulated.
Having attended an elite technical highschool in New York, I was indoctrinated from an even earlier age than most.
It has been a long journey for me to shake free of the mythos of academia. We need more voices like yours speaking loudly and with confidence.
Please keep practicing your public speaking. Please keep refining your message. If more people wake up, perhaps we will find a better way to allocate resources to the truly talented problem solvers in our society.
Thank you for sharing both the perfectly imperfect video and your reflections about the challenging process. (And, of course, the content.) I’m bookmarking this –and telling friends– to come back to this whenever I feel similarly challenged!
Obviously you’re not a grifter. You’re quite clear and forthright in your positions, and your assessment of academia is refreshing/distressingly uncommon. Still, I can’t help but wonder how you understand the moral character of the consulting work you do now inasmuch as it is in the service of helping contestants succeed in the market game which you rightly point out is quite coercive. In what sense do you consider yourself to be outside of academia as opposed to just participating in a freelance/gig-ified version of it?
Karen Kelsky says
There are still some jobs and people still apply to them. I have the ability to help them. The choice whether or not to pursue this avenue is entirely theirs. I’m always amazed how difficult it is for some people to grasp this simple concept. Always feels like these memes: https://thenib.com/mister-gotcha/
Jen Peterson says
I do wish I had added to my earlier comment – that though I am profoundly grateful for the intellectual and personal support that I was given during my PhD, there is a wall – a mountain really- that keeps those whose incomes in the system are viable and predictable from recognizing what is happening to their students. This is also very confusing mechanism – which you unmask in your video. Thank you – it was hard to hear- but it needs attention.
Jen Peterson says
I am so grateful Adam pushed you to make this video. It is very well done. It is beyond heartening to have it there to come back to and listen to. I am grateful to you for sticking with it and making it – even though it was hard to do so.
Your site has kept me afloat during my post PhD journey, where I often describe my degree as personally satisfying and professionally – a car crash- I like many others was told that my work was cutting edge, woo’d courted – given the TT job that was timed with the recession – and cut with it – and tumbled into the most confusing Alice in non-wonderland adjunct labyrinth. After moving all over north America tackling intriguing projects – and finally hitting almost homelessness- I got off the Merry-go-round and my life finally started to improve – but the toll on my body and non-existent retirement remains. Your site was always there to help me sort through things. A life saver.
The fact that it is okay to loan money the equivalent of a house to a project with such mythological not real equity is one of the great mysteries of our time. I think it is because the indoctrination starts in childhood and is reinforced by many forms of media with parents drawing on their own mythologies of school. With this video -You have burst the bubble and I think this is a terribly important act. Thank you so much. I am so grateful for it.
(Sorry if submitted twice. Could not tell if it took)
Karen Kelsky says
Thank you soooooo much for this! It really means a lot to me. Karen
Academia in the US is a cult and brainwashing mechanism!
I came from a different country, no degree but I’m able to perform much better than my 10 colleagues, three of them are PhDs.
In IT, Academia fail and will fail. Why? simply because you need to practice and evolve on a daily basis. There’s no chance in the world that any professor who is not innovating or working in field can teach your people what is tech.
Cisco is a great example. Their programs really ensure you have the knowledge and test your ability to deliver. Academia? theory only, memory based and completely outdated.
last but not least. there are so many people with problematic situations other than finance, some people are terrible when they are infront of exam – would that make them bad engineers?
well, two of my friends have no degree and they’re the best software engineer I ever met! one of them with patent already..
besides, for someone 40 years old. what does it matter if a person already have super successful career? why would the degree matter? non-sense.
money makers, they brainwash you all, put you in debt and just selling more and more products, limiting your thoughts.