Why Would Academia Be an A-Hole-Free Zone?

This is an addendum to Aaron’s critique of Ranii Neutill’s piece on Salon, “Sixteen Years in Academia Made Me an A-Hole.”

Before I was in graduate school and found a library job in the summer to supplement my grad-teaching stipend, I must have had 30 to 40 jobs–everything from being a dishwasher, a soda-jerk, and a short-order cook to making deliveries and emptying and filling trucks on a loading dock, to being a custodian in a hotel and then in an office building, to working in the “sorting and “wash” rooms of an industrial laundry, to being a security guard, to working the overnight shift at a residential facility for emotionally disturbed children.

At every one of these jobs, I met some really nice people, but I also encountered a large number of a-holes. At the risk of coming across as a misanthrope–and as an a-hole myself–I think that, at each of these workplaces, the a-holes far outnumbered the nice people.

Let me provide a singular illustration. When I was working, briefly, as a hotel custodian, my supervisor interrupted me at work to give me a lengthy lecture on how to vacuum the velvety maroon carpet in the ballroom. He was not concerned that I was not adequately cleaning the carpet; there was not a speck of dirt visible anywhere on it. Instead, he wanted me to move the vacuum cleaner in such a way that the nap of the carpet all bent in the same direction before the first-to-arrive guests walked over it and made the direction of the nap a completely moot point.

My experiences in working at all of these jobs seems to have very much tempered my expectations as I entered academia.

Although I am sure that some waiters and waitresses do enjoy their jobs, Neutfill does not seem to recognize or at least acknowledge that all sorts of a-holes, including those she has met in academia, regularly eat at restaurants.

I suspect that if she has related her story to her current co-workers, at least some of them are thinking precisely what she reports that she was thinking shortly before she abandoned academia: “In my head, which had started to throb, I was thinking, ‘You guys have it real hard here, don’t you?’”

All of us bore the crap out of people by talking about our jobs, and because academics are more articulate than many other people, they are particularly adept at boring the crap out of people in this way. But to assert that every occupation does not include some, if not many, who delight in explaining the most arcane aspects of their jobs or in cataloging their most recent accomplishments seems naive to me.

I am sure that when I abruptly resigned my position as a hotel custodian, my supervisor went home and complained at length to his wife about my inability to master the finer points of vacuuming a velvety carpet.

Like Neutill, I found the job unbearable and I quit, but in that job, I was working forty-five to fifty hours a week to earn, perhaps, a sixth of what I am earning now.

The financial and professional rewards of my life as an academic have combined to increase dramatically my tolerance for a-holes. It occurs to me, however, that, in making such an assertion, I may be coming perilously close to sounding like Trump–“And some, I assume, are good people.”

So, I will admit that the rewards of my current circumstances may have also increased my capacity for acting like an a-hole. And my only real defense against that charge is that there are clearly a lot of people who are being rewarded, financially and professionally, considerably more than I am for being even bigger a-holes than I am.

It seems, then, that this is all ultimately a matter of perspective–or, to give the extended metaphor running through Neutill’s article and this post an unpleasant level of literalness, it is all finally dependent on one’s angle of vision.



3 thoughts on “Why Would Academia Be an A-Hole-Free Zone?

  1. Hmmm, this is amusing: a sliding scale of a-dom. The biggest academic arses I have come across are the ones who mock their own students’ ignorance… As if that did not reflect back on themselves.

    But university life at its best is much better than this: good conversation and witty, generous company. If you really want a-holes make your way down to your local secondary school!

  2. Pingback: Weekend reads: NFL, NIH butt heads on concussion research; should all paper be anonymous? - Retraction Watch at Retraction Watch

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