Sixteen Years, What Do You Get?

One of the advantages of starting an academic career late in life is the understanding of the workplace and of people one brings into the new activities. One of the advantages, also, is that one is unlikely to have grandiose visions of a life in the ivied towers of a research institution. Unless one is already a star in another field, the gatekeepers at the elite institutions aren’t going to let one in; there’s no way of competing with the young tyros, so alternatives must be found.

My own career in academia, anyhow, was unorthodox from long before its beginning. As my friends have heard too often, I attended my first graduate class in a blue uniform with VW on one pocket, “Aaron” on the other. Even today, I live in a defiantly working-class neighborhood; our guests for dinner last night were a truck driver and his wife who works in a dress shop—wonderful people. I’d rather spent my time off with them than with most of my academic colleagues–though that is no reflection on my colleagues. I simply see enough of them at work.

After our guests had left, I started reading a piece on Salon, “Sixteen years in academia made me an a-hole” by Rani Neutill. She has left the college environment to work in a bar, somewhat the opposite of what I did (I closed my store and café, where I often worked as clerk or barista, to devote my attention to academia). Though I sympathize with her, I also find that her vision of “academia” is far too limited—and that, I believe, may be part of the resentment she has built up against it. She writes:

“How do you deal with these people?” a colleague’s spouse asked me one night. We were smoking on a porch in the dead of winter, shivering through our conversation. There was snow everywhere. I had been quietly listening to two white dudes from the philosophy department alternate between a discussion of Heidegger’s “Being and Time” and reminiscences of traveling to Paris in the summer for research, how wonderful the city was and how hard it had been to return to the provincial United States. In my head, which had started to throb, I was thinking, “You guys have it real hard here, don’t you?” Another guy from the English department launched into a monologue about his recent publication in some fancy academic journal.  No one seemed impressed. No one there seemed impressed by anything other than themselves.

Teach where most of us in contemporary academia teach and that’s not going to be quite the experience. In terms of the elite institutions, most of us might as well be in blue autoshop uniforms for all the attention and flattery we get.

Even Neutill excludes us from the conversation. Her “academia” is one of interviews at MLA and post-docs. Of “the elitism and snobbery that came with the profession—an elitism that seemed inextricable from the environment and the people in it.” Most of us were never interviewed at MLA and few work for institutions where post-docs exist. It’s hard to feel very elite when one teaches at a community college or deals daily with students negotiating the first experience with higher education of their families.

What Neutill describes is an environment alien to most academics but one she assumes as standard. She writes: “I have a Ph.D., I’ve taught at Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins.” Few of us have, yet we are all painted by Neutill as people more interested in Hegel than “The Good Wife.”

Plenty of the professors where I teach would find, as I do, the distinction Neutill makes perplexing—in terms of our own professional lives, at least. Many of us come from working-class backgrounds; others have made a choice to live their politics, deliberately working with students from non-elite backgrounds in institutions far removed from Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins. Still others are immigrants, people whose academic careers began in the far corners of the world. Our academic concerns are as likely to concern “The Good Wife” as Hegel, and the distinction between the two that Neutill attempts seems, to us, curious. In fact, we’d probably find a way to include both instead of positing a divide in value between them.

Neutill writes, “I was someone who always made friends outside academia, who would rather engage with the spouses or bartenders and servers I encountered than the fancy senior faculty around the table.” For most of us who teach in American institutions of higher education, the distinction she is making is meaningless. Our lives have never intersected with the elite she describes and our own experiences—and those of our families—include bartenders and servers and always have.

What she is describing as academia is really just one more face of the one percent of ‘occupy’ fame.

Neutill ends by saying that “waitressing had taught me more about the world than academia ever had.” That’s too bad. She makes a false distinction, after all, falling into the trap of seeing academia as something different than the ‘real life’ of waitressing when what she’s really describing is the difference between the one-percent and the rest of us. Her anger shouldn’t be against academia, for that’s a myth in modern America, but against the elite, the growing reality of a ruling class completely distinct from the rest of us—including most college professors.

It’s not us professors who are the “a-holes.” It’s the elite who think that, somehow, waitressing is beneath them.

3 thoughts on “Sixteen Years, What Do You Get?

  1. I believe Neutill could have made some good points had she not painted the entire system so bleakly. I’ve worked at institutions that were way off the beaten trail- and others that were at the top of the heap. By far and away, my experience concerning the people who behave as elitist snobs are the ones desperately in need of recognition. The quality of their work never seems to be at the forefront of their minds. Instead, the entire focus is on hobnobing and rubbing elbows with those who are recognized as cutting-edge academics. In essence, most of the snobs are just wannabes.

    Your point about the top tier schools (Harvard etc)- is a good one, though. They are beyond doubt snake pits. But I do not believe everyone in that environment is a snob. To be sure, some are. But the truly accomplished among us need not put on any airs. They know they’re good, so they have nothing to prove. Some of the most soft spoken and humble people I have met were Nobel laureates.

    What I would communicate to all academics, though, is the importance of being self depcrecating. Of showing the world that yes, we too out our pants on one leg at a time. Of making everyone feel welcome and comfortable in our presence. Of communicating that your audience is the priority- not you. OF being the hardest working guy in the room.

    As for the snobs- shower them with praise. That is, after all, all they want. Give it to them & move on.

  2. I agree! Neutill’s experience is unrepresentative of the majority of us in academia. My colleagues are nice, down-to-earth people who happen to be intellectuals. Of course, there are some arrogant a-holes in academia, but they don’t represent the majority of us.

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