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OPINION: The Academic World is a Cult

After pursuing a career in academia for nearly a decade, a young post-doc has decided to leave behind her dream of becoming a professor. Rebecca Schuman has published a kind of  “farewell letter” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which she details the disappointment that lead her to abandon her career path, and in which she compares the academic world to “a cult.”

My tenured colleagues sometimes get offended when I compare academe to a cult—of course they would, they’re in the cult! Still, they must recognize the similarities. In literary studies, for example, we have our own lingo—French-theory jargon, which is nearly impossible for outsiders to parse. We have quasi-scriptures from worshiped nondeities—Derrida, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty—which we recite, from memory, to win arguments.

And we re-educate our ranks using the cult playbook. First, isolate graduate students from the outside world, not by physical barriers but by monopolizing their time with the requirement to read thousands of pages of obtuse prose nobody on the outside cares about. Then break the students down, via evisceration of their naïve early essays, and thereafter by comprehensive exams and the dissertation process. Finally, shortly before they defend their dissertations, call them “brilliant” and fill their heads with dreams of R1 glory. Make sure they know there is no other noble path outside the Life of the Mind…

The Chronicle uses so many pseudonyms for a damn good reason, which ties into the final way in which academe resembles a cult: abject terror of being shunned. We low-ranking academics believe we will be shunned if we dare offend the sensibilities of someone who might be in a position to give us a job or tenure someday—you know, everyone. Shunning would mean the irretrievable loss of our entire selves, because our identities are now inextricably wedded to our academic worth…

Speaking of not getting a job, you may be wondering why I am so comfortable running my mouth. It’s simple: I have very little to lose. I’ve decided that four years of anguish intense enough to induce a fugue state was enough, so next year there will be only 149 applicants per position in my field. You’re welcome.

Read the full article here.

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