Monday, November 28, 2011

73. Perceptions trump reality.

You really can build a career in academe by writing bogus nonsense (see Reason 35). You just have to persuade others to believe (or pretend) that your work makes sense and is—for one reason or another—significant. Others in your field will be willing to play along, because doing so allows them to rely on similar jargon and "theory" to produce their own work. In disciplines where research and scholarly production have little practical application, the value of scholarship rests entirely on the perception of its value. Where does the believing end, and the pretending begin? It is hard to say, especially with respect to one's own work. Some academics convince themselves of the importance of what they’re doing, others are plagued by doubt, while a clever few knowingly take advantage of a system that allows them to make a comfortable living.

In academe, perceptions often trump reality. The perception that there is a comfortable living to be made by anyone who earns a PhD provides graduate programs with a steady stream of applicants in spite of the realities of the job market (see Reason 55). Consider the academic hierarchy (see Reason 3), in which prestige matters much more than objective measurements of educational quality. If your university is perceived to be less than prestigious, you will be at a distinct disadvantage on the academic job market regardless of the merits of your work. Valid or not, perceptions have real consequences. When William James (quoted in Reason 70) referred to graduate school dropouts as "social failures," he was expressing a perception that can make quitting grad school a traumatic experience (see Reason 11). For decades, the higher education establishment has lived off of the perception that academic degrees are worth their high price tags. If the changing perception of real estate value is any indication of what is in store for academe (see Reason 27), it would be a good idea to think again about betting your future on an academic career, even if you're confident that you would make a successful charlatan.


  1. As a first-year humanities graduate student in the thick of final papers, this hits very close to home. The quality of what we write, and the pleasure we ultimately take in it, are determined and derived from making a convincing and well-supported argument, and not from any value that this argument contributes to the world. In effect, the solidity and cleverness of the argument become their own end. But what is the point of making such an argument if its effect or impact is not proportional to its strength? It's disconcerting when you work in a discipline where people are constantly making very convincing and impeccably-worded arguments - and have largely spent long, strenuous hours of their life constructing them - that provoke, at best, nothing more than "Oh, that's interesting. I didn't know you could do a Lacanian analysis of 'Goodnight, Moon!'"

    It's even more disconcerting to think that the reason for this is that the majority of analysis that could be considered illuminating or instructive - or even (gasp!) obviously relevant to the text at hand - has already been done, and is thus relegated to brief discussion in the classroom, where grad students actually bother to grapple with what the text might actually mean, before they go off and write seminar papers on marginal topics which they must show to be of vital importance through their persuasive word-spinning skills.

  2. While I agree with this post, the perception-reality problem isn't confined to academia. I've known plenty of talented, competent, hard-working people in both academia and "real-world" jobs who were denied promotions, raises and the like because of internal politics, or because someone else came out first with the right set of trendy buzzwords that would get them promoted. That's as much a problem in academia as it is in business, art, job searching, and other areas of human endeavour.

    Humans have been aware of this problem for centuries, for millennia. Why else were the ancient Greek Sophists' skills in rhetoric so highly prized?

  3. I recently attended a couple of talks given by some literary colleagues. Each paper focused on a theme that seemed reasonable enough on the surface, but discussed the topic in a manner so full of theory and jargon that it made little sense to me. These young, newly-hired colleagues were obviously trying to impress the audience with their highly specialized vocabulary. What bothered me the most was that the professors who likely hired them were nodding and either eating up every word that they said, or else lost in the fog and only pretending to agree with everything that was said. In academe, the more obscure you sound, the more seriously you will be taken. If you blur your research into a cloud of references to Hegel, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, transantionalism, narrative identity paradigms and hybridities, you will be perceived as a genius. In fact, I think that some of the smartest scholars know that their research makes no sense, and in fact strive to create texts that present an illusion of indisputability, knowing, accepting, and even embracing, that what they produce is full of baloney.

    1. So true. Academia fetishizes jargonism, serving to shore up its positions of one of elites who "achieved" a level of sophistication through a set process. It keeps outsiders out and build an illusion of relevance.

  4. This is my biggest problem with academia, and it's what finally gave me the kick in the ass I needed to leave. I was working on a paper (quantitative political science), and had done all the statistical work and theory and wrote this beautiful tapestry of gobbledy gook. I was presenting it at a conference and submitting for publication. Then someone from outside asked me seriously what it was about (rather than just feigning interest) and as I got to explaining it I realized just how ridiculous the whole thing was, how silly, and realized that I wasn't even sure I believed what I'd proved. And even if I believed it, I just didn't care. It was such a "the king has no clothes!" moment for me, and everything became clear.

  5. You write what I think. Very bold of you. Claps.
    (I'm still possibly going to do a PhD at some point, but having tried and failed before, it'll be for fun and on my terms IF I ever go back)

  6. I noticed this as an undergrad, which is where I think it starts.

    I went to an honors college, and one of the things that struck me in my final year was the BS and the homogeneity of everyones' opinions.

    I would be surrounded by super smart students, and a lecturer with a Ph.D. Everyone in the room was smarter than I'll ever be. And they would all say the exact same things, over and over, in the exact same way. The jargon would do my head in.

    It was basically people showing an incredibly narrow range of views. The worst bit was that they had convinced themselves that they were some kind of elite, and that they were really pushing the boundaries.

    I would tentatively suggest something along the lines of: "Well, you all" - no, really, *all* of them - "interpret Nietzsche in this way, but maybe he really meant *this*...*

    And I would have a bunch of people looking at me with open mouths, including the person with the Ph.D, admitting that they had never considered it that way. And at least some of them would say I was totally right.

    I'm of average intelligence, which might have been a blessing. I don't know if I'd have been intelligent enough to engage in the BS, even if I had wanted to.

    The major problem is how much the "top" undergrads have their backsides kissed.

    Pointing out the appalling odds of succeeding in academe won't work as long as people convince themselves they are, like, totally going to be the exception.

    And that starts as an undergrad - prospective grad students are brainwashed with praise and grade inflation.

    It gives them an illusion of belonging and of success - and of speaking a languge (academic jargon) which only they are smart enough to understand.

    Maybe if they had a more realistic idea of their abilities they'd stop thinking of adjuncthood as "that thing that happens to other people".

  7. When I was an undergraduate at Iowa, I attended a keynote talk by a professor who spoke about World War I propaganda. The talk was lucid and clear and he used powerpoint to make his points quite. At the end of the talk, everyone grumbled about how he had wasted their time.

    In the same semester, we had a guy lecture about "thing" theory in an inscrutable way (seriously, what the hell is Bill Brown trying to say?), a theorist of phenomenology who talked about the Internet and consciousness, and some sort of Marxist theorist. Everyone LOVED their talks, but I don't think anyone understood anything they said.

    1. In the first talk, owing to the clarity of presentation, the material is what it is, no more no less.

      In the second lecture, owing to the ambiguity of presentation, everyone feels comfortable interpreting the lecture to mean what they think it means. At worst, it's not a threat.

  8. 6:48: the brainwashing is the worst. I was a good student, but there was a lot wrong with my work. Despite the criticisms, professors heaped a lot of praise on me. They even called me a "prodigy." That's pretty silly to call anyone.

  9. "They even called me a "prodigy." That's pretty silly to call anyone."

    And even sillier to boast about years later. It's lawyer guy again, right?

  10. 9:14: it was a formative time in my life, one to which I hearken back at least once a week. What I said in my 8:44 was not boasting. I was pointing out the vapid brainwashing of the academia.

  11. This was one of the things that ultimately led me away from the English department and academia. Much of the "work" people are doing has gone beyond the stage of highly baroque arguments ornamented by "theory" to the point that they seem like parodies of themselves. Or they are simply lost down the rabbit hole of some piece of minutia or another. What's worse is that the bottom has dropped out and the warrants that should ground and authorize this work is gone, which has driven many of the leaders even deeper. Ask a humanities professor what warrants their work, in general, and they will likely do one of two things: become angry, or hyperventilate.

    And what's worse, these very sharp professors and grad students are sometimes, perhaps more often than not, shamefully lacking some of the fundamentals necessary for their "work." I am a medievalist, and most medievalists I know have paltry Latin, learned for show in a summer, or perhaps even none at all. Talking to a friend, I was shocked to find out that a friend of his who works at a very high powered philosophy department (the university is ranked squarely within the top ten on US News) as an Aristotelian does not know Ancient Greek. I asked if he meant that his Greek was just not that great, and he said that the professor was ashamed to admit that it is nonexistent. This is absolutely a true story, however unbelievable it may seem. Academic work is a shell game. There is hardly anything intellectual about it. Leave academia, or don't go, if you want to have an intellectual life that is more than trading arguments that are either tired or esoteric to the point of idiocy, or both. I'm tempted to say that I've seen the best minds of my generation... But I'm not sure I have.

    1. With seven billion people on the planet, is it likely that very many of us have seen any of the best minds of our generation?

    2. The thing is, most of these people are either:

      1) struggling to stay alive and fed;
      2) trying to avoid becoming victims of violent religious mania, invasion and persecution;
      3) members of truly medieval sects of a religion that (unlike most of its competitors) has on the whole been detrimental to literacy, meaningful societal engagement, and the preservation and acquisition of knowledge;
      4) coping with living in disastrously corrupt and dangerous areas/nations - sometimes run by gangs;
      5) coping with unworkable and unproductive ideologies and the power structures that are trying to institute them; and
      6) coping with excessively intrusive and unrepresentative governments.

      So no, it's not likely that many of us have seen the best minds of our generation, but most of the seven billion is going to be otherwise (and needlessly) occupied, most or all of the time.

  12. Speaking of academic "work" as parody, just for fun I went to the website of the journal mentioned in reason #35 (Social Text) and looked at the article titles from the current issue (Fall 2011). These are the actual titles:

    "Progressives and "Perverts": Partition Stories and Pakistan's Future"

    "Masculinity in Crisis: Nasreen's Lajja and the Minority Man in Postcolonial South Asia"

    "Bio-Reproductive Futurism: Bare Life and the Pregnant Refugee in Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men"

    "Legal, Tender: The Genealogical Economy of Pride, Debt, and Origin"

    "Finance as Capital's Imagination?: Reimagining Value and Culture in an Age of Fictitious Capital and Crisis"

    For a real laugh (or cry), you should read the abstracts. Here's a taste:

    "This essay seeks to contribute to the theoretical groundwork for a cultural studies of finance by recasting a Marxist theory of value toward an analysis of the politics of the imagination under financialized capitalism."

    Is that even grammatical?

  13. 11:46: what bothered me about these texts is that there's nothing to be gained by reading them, and there's no conversation to be had with them. It's the opposite of what academia is supposed to be -- super insular and self-enclosed.

  14. This is certainly a valid point, but I feel like some of the comments imply that this is all academic work is. There are lots of people doing solid, relevant, worthwhile scholarship. If you're intent on going to grad school just try your best to be one of them.

  15. @anomenon

    [Sidenote: I was speaking about English specifically, where I think the situation looks more dire perhaps than elsewhere. I can't speak for the social sciences, or history, for instance.]

    You make a good point. It's true that there's good work going on, but it seems that the most prominent work in English at least seems to me to be the most ridiculous. I haven't read an article from the past five or so years I've been following them in my period (medievalist) in PMLA that I thought was in the slightest bit compelling, and that's the top journal for English in the academy. Publish there and you're golden. But what they publish is, in my view, not even serious work.

    Another one of the problems is that, as a grad student or junior faculty, there is so much pressure to pump out work and appeal to a given department's perception of what's good (which is often what's trendy), that these departments seem to allow less and less for certain kinds of work that might take longer, or just might not mesh with the things that many departments look for, like ecocriticism or thing theory or disability studies, etc, which will come and go. That's how this ridiculousness happens: you design your dissertation three years into grad school that must become a book ten years later when you are working on tenure, and you hope that you are slightly ahead of the curve so you can ride that wave to a job and then secure tenure. If not, you'll get passed over and have to settle for a 3-3 or 4-4 at a small school in the middle of nowhere (if you get out of the adjunct pool) and your good work, which you continue to do diligently, never sees the academic lime light.

    It's a sad state of affairs for academia, but really this has been going on for a long time. In _Ecce Homo_ (begun in 1888) Nietzsche wrote: "Scholars who at bottom do little nowadays but thumb books--philologists, at a moderate estimate, about 200 a day--ultimately lose entirely their capacity to think for themselves. When they don't thumb, they don't think. They respond to a stimulus (a thought they have read) whenever they think--in the end, they do nothing but react. Scholars spend all of their energies on saying Yes or No, on criticism of what others have thought--they themselves no longer think."

    See what the English professor who loves to quote Nietzsche says about this one.

  16. Oh god. Went to a conference and sat next to someone presenting on "Bodies Without Organs." I had no idea what that fucker was talking about, but the faculty facilitator was positively licking her lip, she thought he was so delicious. After the disaster of our own presentation, which featured bodies that most definitely had organs and which won glowers and absolutely ridiculous questions from our faciliatator, my co-presenter looked it up on wikipedia and basically said the guy didn't say anything new. How she followed his presentation enough to tell, I can't begin to guess. I was dreaming about snorkeling in the Bahamas.

  17. STEM Doctor here...

    The video at the link below is a great example of perception vs. reality. Or, perhaps it is an example of STEM vs. non-STEM training.

    The relevant portion of the video begins at 1:15, but you may want to hear the whole thing just for context.

    Here we see two gracious, respectful, and very patient STEM folks attempting to explain to a well-meaning individual that there is no such thing as a perpetual energy source.

    The well-meaning individual is clearly unburdened with any knowledge of thermodynamics (especially the Second Law of Thermodynamics), and I'm assuming (because she seems intelligent
    and is very articulate) that she has some college-level experience, perhaps in one of the humanities. But, duly noted, this is merely an assumption on my part.

    In any case, her comments and this video serve to illustrate three "Reasons" from this blog being put into practice.

    REASON #73: Perception Trumps Reality. The reality is that you cannot manufacture an electric battery that behaves as a perpetual source of energy. If such a violation of the laws of thermodynamics had ever been demonstrated, there is no way it could lay buried and hidden in a patent because the "inventors" would immediately earn the Nobel Prize. But, her perception that a battery company has attempted to hide this amazing discovery (presumably because she has been taught that the battery company is an evil energy corporation) trumps both scientific reality and common sense.

    REASON #3: Your Pedigree Counts. The well-meaning individual in this video immediately starts to question the pedigree of the STEM folks in the video. Even after they tell her that one of them holds a doctorate degree in Physics from CalTech, she persists. She doesn't relent until she is certain that the STEM person not only has a degree from a prestigious university, was in the upper part of his graduating class (whatever that means in
    graduate school), and studied something relevant. That she insists on vetting this guy's pedigree is amazing simply because any kid who manages to stay awake in a high school science class should already know that a perpetual energy source is impossible.

    REASON #65: Smugness. There seems to be plenty of this to go around for all five individuals shown in the video. I'm sure at
    least one of them has been to graduate school (if not all of them).

  18. Academics are privileged idealists who believe they are working toward discovering the truth. But really all they are doing is justifying their membership in an exclusive club by participating in an elaborate social ritual of formulaic phrases and contrived argument structures.

  19. Try as I have to fight the pressure to write in the most convoluted manner possible, I have finally succumbed to my advisor's demands that I make my writing more 'academic'. I have always strived to make my research in sociology accessible, purposeful and actively engaged with the population I am researching, but have been consistently forced to make it anything but.

    In any case, I'm wrapping up my Master's (formerly a PhD) to go study social work - a discipline far more grounded in reality than any of this nonsense. I would like to sincerely thank the blogger and many of the commenters here for pointing me in the right direction. Best of luck to you all...

  20. "In any case, I'm wrapping up my Master's (formerly a PhD) to go study social work - a discipline far more grounded in reality than any of this nonsense."

    I wish you all the best, but be forewarned:
    Hate to tell you, but I fled social work to sociology. Now weighing them both, I'd say social work was better, but don't idealize it or you're in for a heartbreak. Despite the hype that social work is oriented towards social justice, it's plagued with conservatism, homophobia, sluggish thinking, and priggish religiosity. I was elated the day I quit.

  21. Outsider here.

    Not just in the humanities. I read a lot of tax stuff including the leading academic journal in the field. Sometimes the journal publications are clearly written, thought provoking, and useful. More often, they contain little more than pointless speculation about exceedingly arcane questions and are written in a jargon so dense that even an English Literature professor would go green with envy.

    Thing is, tax is intensely real (we are talking about MONEY) and not merely theoretical. Arguments must be clear and persuasive to have any value to anyone. Yet here are these Journal articles, apparently written only to impress academics.

    The Master of Social Work is a useful and salable degree but non-clinical social work practice is largely paper shuffling in an endless search for resources. Not very inspiring, I'm afraid.

  22. "Finance as Capital's Imagination?: Reimagining Value and Culture in an Age of Fictitious Capital and Crisis"

    For a real laugh (or cry), you should read the abstracts. Here's a taste:

    "This essay seeks to contribute to the theoretical groundwork for a cultural studies of finance by recasting a Marxist theory of value toward an analysis of the politics of the imagination under financialized capitalism."


    Sounds like the author wants to examine how our culture allowed for the very real 2008 financial crisis… (Know anyone who lost a job or can't find one???) and how after the crisis our culture allowed us to simply restore the status quo which lead to the crisis in the first place- all while making the decision appear rational.

    Its fun and necessary stuff to contemplate if you have the time…

    It’s culture and ideology which drives academia to exploit grad students and abuse adjuncts.

    Grad students and adjuncts will never garner popular support because the whole lot of you sound like privileged, cry-baby, complainers.

    I understand the anger and cynicism on this site and from grad students and adjuncts generally but eventually that energy needs to turn to humility and a genuine desire to advocate and work for real societal change- change not centered on reforming the university…

    Drop out, realize that you’re not special, join the rest of us in the “real world” and help us change it; now that you realized that you can’t escape it in labs, libraries, or on college campuses generally…

  23. I'm a lawyer and one of the things I find most frustrating is how legal academia is just a big circle jerk with re-fried moronic ideas that would not pass muster in the real world, like allowing people to invest in your home values or turning marriage into a corporate entity. Please.

    A lot of grad students deserve what they get. They purposely remove themselves from positions in which they can effect any change, despite their intelligence. If you enter a monastery, why would you expect anything else?

  24. "I'm a lawyer and...A lot of grad students deserve what they get."






  25. You know, it's not ignoring if you immediately make fun of him. Which you all do as soon as anyone makes any comment that sounds as if it could possibly have come from a lawyer or anyone who didn't go to graduate school.

    I agree with whoever it was who referred to academia as having a language of its own - I've definitely said to people, "I speak history," or "I speak feminist theory" (I should note that both took way more time and effort to learn than actual foreign languages). This is probably more related to the Mumbo-Jumbo reason, but people create these "languages" - and, more importantly, insist on using them even when they're impractical - so that they can a) look like members of "the club" and b) look smarter to people who don't know what the words mean.

  26. Eileen is right. Not just on lawyer guy but more generally about how academic jargon creates an in-group at the expense of general understanding.

    That said, some of the terms are actually helpful, but many are not. As an attorney, I would object to entire books, much as I do to interrogatories that use terms like "actual work," on the basis that the terms are vague. But there's no appellate court of academia to regulate its most flagrant violations, and no magistrate or district court judge to sanction bad academics. (Sadly)

    Ultimately, ignoring is the best option for a lot of what goes on. Academia cannot be destroyed; it can only be marginalized.

  27. @7:37 That's an interesting translation. My first thought was to make the remark that you understand a dialect of English with which I am unfamiliar, but the truth is that I'm intimately familiar with academese.

    There are many of us who have written articles with titles like those mentioned above, but we are not necessarily proud of them. We're playing the game like everybody else. At some level, it's humiliating. It's humiliating to put your name on gibberish just because you have to publish to keep your job.

    An early comment mentioned all of the honest, hard work in academia. There is some marvelous work going on, of course, but junk can be the product of honest hard work, too. If you are presented with an expectation to produce junk over and over again, pretty soon you start producing junk. For many of us, grad school was the time when we were taught to do that.

  28. Anonymous 6:48 here.

    Please, Anonymous 8:16 AM, turn off the caps lock. It looks awful, and it makes you look like some crazy troll.

    It's not intelligent. It's not unique. It just makes you look like a douche. I've seen you use it before and it does my head in - and I doubt I'm alone.

  29. "This essay seeks to contribute to the theoretical groundwork for a cultural studies of finance by recasting a Marxist theory of value toward an analysis of the politics of the imagination under financialized capitalism."

    This is pure junk. There's just no way it can't be more simply stated.

    "Politics of the imagination" -- what does this mean?

    "financialized capitalism" -- isn't this redundant? doesn't he just mean "capitalism"? or does he mean "finance"? if so, what aspects of finance? finance is too broad of a term, much less financialized

    How about:

    "This essay seeks to contribute to Marxist theory by discussing Marxist theories of valuation in the context of the politics of the imagination."

    "politics of the imagination" is still vague as hell -- and honestly sounds like bullshit -- but it's way clearer.

    and what does "recast" even mean?

  30. "There are many of us who have written articles with titles like those mentioned above, but we are not necessarily proud of them. We're playing the game like everybody else. At some level, it's humiliating. It's humiliating to put your name on gibberish just because you have to publish to keep your job..If you are presented with an expectation to produce junk over and over again, pretty soon you start producing junk. For many of us, grad school was the time when we were taught to do that."

    This did my head in. I usually assume that the gibberish folks are all True Believers. How insidious this system is.

  31. Let me preface this by saying that the idea many seem to have about grad students thinking their situation is unique (jargon and sophistry is everywhere!) is annoying and more than a bit idiotic (there's sophistry then there's sophistry, just because they share the same name, they can differ in degree, right?). And there are some people who come to this site to denigrate grad students, for reasons that escape me (this is something they should really think about themselves; it's not for me to imagine what on earth would drive them to do something so strange and perhaps a bit sad).

    On the other hand, the statement that "a lot of grad students get what they deserve" might be something worth considering and not dismissing out of hand. If this is the commenter who claims to be a lawyer and loves to stir these comments up, and if he was the one that said he was called a "prodigy" and wrote the comment I'm referring to here, his comments in this thread at least seem pretty reasonable to me (perhaps he's learned something, and really does want to contribute). He said that labeling somebody a prodigy in undergrad is ridiculous. It is. I've seen it happen a lot, and it is ridiculous and it is a problem too. When he says that "a lot of grad students get what they deserve" he seems to be saying that people who go to grad school thinking they're going to engage in important problems but they end up speaking an insular jargon whose difference defers them from that impulse to engage. This is true, and while many of us are frustrated by this and complain about it a lot, you also have to move on. Reforming the university's not going to do it.

    It can be difficult to reimagine yourself once you've thought of yourself as an Intellectual writing about Important Things, which is what everybody tells you. When the bottom drops out of that, there's a lot of anger and frustration. At least there was for me, and I have done and probably will do again a lot of complaining. But once you realize it's ok not to be an Intellectual writing about Important Problems, and you can just live a good life, it can be easier to move past the frustration. Or if you really want to write and think you have something to say, do what everyone else does who writes outside of academia and get your writing out into the marketplace of ideas. I'm trying (struggling's more like it) to do both right now, and I know that the latter will take a lot of work that might not pay off. But I enjoy the work, think it's important (for me at least, for anyone else who knows), and it makes me feel good to try and write something that people might want to read not just because they have to to write another article, but because it's good and speaks to them.

    Did I get what I deserved? I'd say that's a bit harsh, but my partner's actually a social worker and her job is ridiculously tough. Listening to her talk about what goes on in her day is a real wake up call (and I'm not even talking about funding woes in these times of austerity). My frustrations are real as are everyone else's on this site. Emotions run high when you feel like your trapped in a system, and when you need to reimagine who you thought you were after leaving school (I've been in school off and on, mostly on, for about 25 years all told: it has been my identity). But there's a way out and away from those frustrations that keep us in a vicious cycle of frustration and complaint because of our idealism and perhaps our now tarnished ideal of who we were.

    This is my take on the situation. Perception of oneself in academia also trumps reality, and when reality comes screaming back our natural impulse is to scream back at it. That worked for a while, but now my voice is getting hoarse. Time to give it a rest, recover, and come back stronger.

    (Apologies if this sounds preachy, but it's what I think and have gathered from my own experience and a lot of reflection).

  32. ^Lol, “what does “recast” even mean?”

    You’re an actor… you’re playing stupid to make a point… But yeah, I imagine some English articles can be worthless and exclusionary.

    Social science generally has an objective to make research and theory applicable for real world use… not to say there can’t be junk there too…

  33. "Social science generally has an objective to make research and theory applicable for real world use… not to say there can’t be junk there too…"

    Maybe psychology, though from what I can see, a lot of those folks identify more with the STEM fields. But if you've read much contemporary sociology, you know it's an obfuscating tangle, same as much humanities work.

  34. I think contemporary sociology has hit a wall largely because there’s only so many ways that you can examine and explain contemporary society and its institutions, people, etc… Still, I believe that the discipline has done a good job in laying the foundations for understanding and moving forward. Change in society is a slow process… Moving forward is where the real work lays and its uncharted and unpredictable territory. The sad fact is that most people are too fearful to move forward, think differently or attempt anything new- unless it becomes an absolute material necessity.

    For the rec though, a lot of disciplines hit walls… Some come to mind… chemistry for our handle on it- “what’s new here?”; and fields of biology for their sheer complexity which leads “we just don’t know” answers…

    Fraud is also uncovered in STEM research and writing… and you also have to take into account all the energy and time spent on stem research and papers which lead to nothing or answer few questions. Researchers can spend lifetimes and never really finding out or say anything…

  35. I have the impression that everybody here is studying in the US. Is that right?
    Anyway, in your opinion can we generalise the critics toward the academia also to the european context?

  36. @12:50 As an American who has attended a number of European conferences over the last 10 years, I would not hesitate for an instant to say that jargon-filled tripe is every bit as common in European academia as it is in the U.S. The problem might actually be worse over there.

    European graduate programs (at least at the Ph.D. level) seem to be much better designed and have higher entry barriers than those in the U.S., but that is a different issue.

  37. Derrida is a European and really the ultimate in academic charlatans. The man a living off saying essentially nothing, but pretending that he said a lot.

  38. I have a general comment about the posts: they are very good and provide a necessary dimension of honesty to the discussion.

    But like most discussions about academia, they tend to continue the culture of fear and anxiety that academia already tends to promote. I'm not saying that the posts aren't right; I merely mean: there must be a way to satirize and ridicule academia that also really knocks the wind out of its inflated sense of pretension, without allowing it to seem SCARY.
    The reason is: the people who have not contemplated going might be persuaded away because of this, and that's good! But the people who are already IN academia (and I'll bet a lot of the readers of this blog are in that category) will read this and only have their "pit in the stomach" feeling increase. There _has_ to be a way to attack academia for its very worst quality: the quality of producing that "pit in the stomach" feeling and the sense that "the bad people will always win and the good people will always lose." that feeling is good for the people not yet in it, but bad for the people already in it.

  39. Those of us who are already in this environment need to break free of the culture of fear.

    We need to recognize all of the things that are being said here, and agree that the system is broken, but without giving into fear.

  40. I fast-tracked my master's degree and bailed on plans to do a doctorate. I had loved the first 2-3 years of undergraduate studies where my mind was opened to so many important truths and debates. But in the later years I found I didn't understand the writings of some popular contemporary theorists, didn't think they they got much farther than the broad brushstrokes painted by survey classes and other undergrad classes, and, most important, what I did read seemed very unrelated to real life. I remember commenting in an honours class that the theory we were considering wasn't applicable in practice. I was told this didn't matter.

    I figured I either missed the point of study or I wasn't intelligent enough. Either way, the ivory tower wasn't for me. This website reinforces my views, but I am sure the world would be poorer without graduate students. It is important to think about small things deeply, even if they don't immediately appear to have much to do with anything. It's the Emily Dickinson way. It just needs to be done with integrity, and by fewer people, I think.

  41. I think you guys are being slightly too harsh on the articles posted on November 29, 2011 11:46 AM. Or at least the first three anyway.
    I read the abstracts and
    I would predict that

    "Progressives and "Perverts": Partition Stories and Pakistan's Future" is probably a solid article and can contribute to anyone understanding the politics of the Partition of India and Pakistan's coming into existence as a nation.

    "Masculinity in Crisis: Nasreen's Lajja and the Minority Man in Postcolonial South Asia" is potentially interesting look at South Asian Politics; but hobbled by English department jargon, twice as long as it needs to be, and is making assumptions about masculinity in the negative direction that are not actually supported by the text or by reality,

    "Bio-Reproductive Futurism: Bare Life and the Pregnant Refugee in Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men" is probably an interesting take on the theories of politics put forth in Giorgio Agamben's book "Homo Sacer" (Something about political rights being necessary to life itself.); made five times as long as it needed to be by the author forcing us all to pretend that we care about the film "Children of Men". The second article discussed might have either cited "Homo Sacer" or should have.

    "Legal, Tender: The Genealogical Economy of Pride, Debt, and Origin" is completely worthless.

    "Finance as Capital's Imagination?: Reimagining Value and Culture in an Age of Fictitious Capital and Crisis" is even less than worthless. The author should be ashamed of themselves, since we are living in a world that desperately needs a reexamining of finance and capitalism. This article is not that, but rather jargon heaped on top of jargon, wasting everyone's time. I award no points to the author of this article but I hope that God has mercy on their soul.

    All of that being said, Every article here deserves to be dinged just for appearing in "Social Text" This magazine will publish anything that seems to stroke their ego politically and has no credibility.

  42. ^ Weak and not funny... try again if you want.

  43. When I was an undergrad, I felt like I had figured out what I wanted to do with my life. I remember the thrill of writing great papers, and the even greater (but cheap) thrill of professors telling me that I was brilliant, a prodigy, and even that my paper was publishable. I took a graduate course and felt like I had found a community of scholars and my calling.

    I remember looking down at others who didn't share my status. Everyone else in my program was not killing it like I was, and I assumed it was because they were dumber.

    Then things started going downhill. I graduated and worked a dead-end entry-level job. People no longer cared what I had to say about Kant, and it was a sad reminder of how little I had actually accomplished. Then I took the LSAT, which was a significant challenge, and scored well enough to go to a T6, but I still felt like a failure -- why wouldn't a prodigy be at Harvard Law School, or Yale?

    At Law School, the economy crashed, and I couldn't even get a big firm job. Things went from bad to worse. I couldn't find work during my 3L year. I got a rejection from the Philly DA office that said they had rejected 2,000 others -- to be a DA!. I looked at my student loan balance and felt sick. Many of my college graduate friends were working in retail, or at coffee shops.

    Now, my girlfriend tells me she needs to get tested for HPV -- they think she has the virus.

    Grad school is an escape; it's a drug. Don't do drugs.


    Lawyer guy

  44. "Now, my girlfriend tells me she needs to get tested for HPV -- they think she has the virus."

    Wait, have you been parodic all along?

  45. Also,
    "why wouldn't a prodigy be at Harvard Law School, or Yale?"

    Perhaps you're not a prodigy.

  46. "Now, my girlfriend tells me she needs to get tested for HPV -- they think she has the virus."

    She wants out the relationship, she no longer wants to sleep with you and she is pulling a passive agressive move to push you away and make you look like the bad guy.

    *or atleast my ex did something along those lines*

    Good luck to you.

  47. "She wants out the relationship, she no longer wants to sleep with you and she is pulling a passive agressive move to push you away and make you look like the bad guy."

    Uhh...maybe she just got the genital warts or whatever it is from lawyer guy. He doesn't exactly convey a lot of respect for women in his comments to previous reasons; note his objectifying description of his own GF, as well as his invitation (to another poster) to "suck my dick, you bitch" (a few asterisks in place of vowels or substitutions of the word "bleep" doesn't do much to disguise the message or dilute the misogyny).

    In any case, the guy needs help if he's actually got a job in this economy but is nonetheless perseverating on hyperbolic praise he received as an undergraduate. Still doesn't seem to be getting the point that virtually all grad students were praised and groomed in this way. I think it's particularly hard for the millennial generation to realize that they aren't the unique, special creatures they've been told they are.

  48. 6:30: Over half of all sexually active women will contract the HPV virus within their lifetime. There are over 20 strands of the HPV virus, and only a few produce genital warts. Men with healthy immune systems usually do not contract HPV from sexual contact with an infected person, and HPV is often asymptomatic even in men who do contract the virus.

    My girlfriend showed the letter that stated that HPV had been found in the culture removed from her body and examined by a lab.

    As for misogyny, a healthy amount of it is necessary in order to attract women. They don't like guys who treat them like they are walking on eggshells. I frequently goof around with my girlfriend by using misogyny, and, unlike humorless grad students, she laughs when I say that this country has been going downhill since women's suffrage, or that she shouldn't drive to the store because women can't drive.

    It's all about delivery. And she knows I'm just joshing her. One of the reasons I didn't bother with grad students is because they seemed so humorless, and you have not done a good job of dispelling this. Lighten up. People say crazy shit all the time. Just laugh it off instead of going on some holier-than-thou tangent.

  49. So you think that the occasion of joking around with your girlfriend is the same as communicating with people you don't know, anonymously, on an internet forum? Wow, that is preposterous.

    A lot of people joke around with people they know very well, and say things they wouldn't say publicly, including things that would cross the line if done in other circumstances. This is called intimacy. If you think the way you talk with your girlfriend should be just like the way you talk to everybody else, at the very least you are really ignorant of something I try to teach my firstyear composition students: the importance of understanding the context of what they say in writing and speaking, and fitting it to the occasion. (There are maybe worse consequences for your personal life, but I'm not going to speculate about that, though I could-it just doesn't fit the occasion).

    It's called intimacy, or code switching, and it's just about being aware. People here aren't just a bunch of know it all PC police, we're just calling you on your bullshit. People do say crazy shit all the time, but most people pick their spots, they don't make a mistake say crazy shit when they probably shouldn't have then whine about how everybody calls them on it. Teenagers do that because they don't know any better; they're new to the social world so they get a break. At this point, nobody's going to give you a break buddy. You're responsible for being a dick in public.

  50. "You're responsible for being a dick in public."

    JML, I love you!!

    No educated person with any brains over the age of 16 actually believes that women appreciate misogyny or that you have to be a dick to get love or any related brand of silliness. I suspect our little friend is just winding us up and having a laugh at our expense again.

    Returning to the reason at hand, so as not to turn yet another comments section in Lawyer vs. Current, Former, and Prospective Grad Students...

    I think one of the trickiest parts about the perception trumping reality reason is that, when combined with the amount of power advisors have over their students, your content and rhetoric can become infested with nonsense, despite your best efforts or wishes. I'm a better writer than my adviser and s/he's working hard to get me to bog down my work in jargon and numbered points. It's rotten.

  51. @JML: Thank you for that. The off-topic nonsense from our troll was getting to the point that I really didn't want to read this blog any longer.

  52. "@JML: Thank you for that. The off-topic nonsense from our troll was getting to the point that I really didn't want to read this blog any longer."

    Ditto. Wish the blogger (whom I admire for starting such a great blog) was more hands on with moderation.

  53. Prodigy is an interesting word.

    It means that a person is intelligent, but it also implies a certain position of subordination. There is a mix of both brilliance and miniontude within the connotation of the word prodigy. The student is encouraged to be a 'mini-me', if you will, of the professor. Whether it is envisioned that the student so called will actually outshine the master, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.

  54. The blogger wrote: "Some academics convince themselves of the importance of what they’re doing, others are plagued by doubt, while a clever few knowingly take advantage of a system that allows them to make a comfortable living"

    I've seen all three behaviors in the STEM world.

    Although I often take solace in the fact that STEM researchers are ultimately grounded to the absolute reality of how the atoms and molecules truly behave (as opposed to the humanities, where everything seems to be a matter of opinion, fad, or political agenda), I would be remiss if I did not admit that STEM researchers engage in a whole lot of spin when selling their research ideas.

    This requirement that you "sell" your STEM research creates behaviors that are not at all unlike those induced in a humanities professor trying to sell his/her ideas for publication. (The only difference is that in the STEM case, there are large amounts of taxpayer funding involved). Like the humanities professor, these behaviors arise from the disconnect between wanting to something useful and doing what is actually necessary to graduate, get published, and get tenure.

    Thus, we see the following:

    1) Many STEM researchers are plagued by doubt about the relevance of their work. This is especially true of the graduate students (lab slaves) who must trust their adviser's choice of research topic. STEM graduate students have little say regarding their research project. It must fall within the scope of their adviser's most recently funded research project.

    2) Many STEM researchers are convinced of the importance of their work. This is especially true of the recently tenured professors. Their work is, by definition, important because their peers just said it was and granted them tenure.

    3) The Clever Few. I have seen countless full professors in the STEM fields who have learned to game the grant system to their advantage. Each year a huge amount of taxpayer money goes to fund the STEM fields. Once you know how to play the game, you've got funding for life. Common tricks include the following:

    [a] The Rehash: Simply repackage an old grant proposal to conform to the latest "hot" research area. This often involves easy changes to the introductory and concluding paragraphs with the main body of the proposal being largely the same old stuff.

    [b] The Leap Frog: This one is effective but tricky. You have to take the funds from a large grant from early in your career and use these funds to perform the relevant research project AND ALSO some preliminary work for the subsequent (perhaps unrelated) research project. Then, when you apply for funds for the subsequent research project, you already have data and know the project is going to work. As one of my professors once said: "It's always easier to write a research proposal for work you have already done."

    [c] Being in the Club. It's no secret that federally-funded STEM grant award decisions are made by select groups of STEM professors in the very same field. This sets up a network of elites in each niche STEM area who always assure that each others grant proposals are approved.

  55. Lia (6:18) reminds me of another perception that many people have of the ivory tower: the supposition that the "life of the mind" is exposure to different ideas and the time and the freedom to explore those ideas. The reality, apparently, is not the same. Commenters on previous Reasons / threads have mentioned how myopic and closed-minded grad students and professors can be. Close scrutiny of a research topic is myopic by its very nature.

    Like Lia, I LOVED my first couple of years of undergrad -- at least, I enjoyed getting to study topics that interested me and expanding my horizon by taking classes in various departments. But declaring a major destroyed the fun of choosing electives, thanks to the scheduling of interesting classes at the same time as required ones. (Yet another joy of studying at a SLAC.) The limits of a major are too restrictive for those of us who are interested in so much.

    The last two years of undergrad proved trying for me because this. As much as I have a passion for some topics, I can't imagine devoting significant chunks of my life to them without some counterbalance.

    (Just to let everyone know, I am not a lawyer nor a grad student. In fact, so far I only have a BA and am very, very thankful not to have restricted myself further with more schooling without the careful perusal of such blogs as this.)

  56. Good job 8:01. Moving forward, live the life of the autodidact. You'll learn more and enjoy the process, unlike the rest of us drones who thought we needed Esteemed Professor X to feed us.

    There's a great story about Frank Zappa (as told by his son Dweezil). Frank had a studio session for which he had done extensive (musical) arrangements. Knowing he hadn't gone to Berkelee School of Music in Boston (or similar), he was asked where he learned to write scores. Franks said, "The library."

  57. @STEM Doctor: Thanks for your insightful breakdown. There is no question that there is as much funny business on the STEM side of campus as there is on the arts/humanities side. The university has turned into a typical bureaucracy, where office-holders look out for their own jobs first, and concern themselves with the mission of the organization second (if at all). If anything, the unconscionable criminal mess at Penn State is proof of that.

    This New York Times story on college presidents' salaries is an eye-opener:

  58. @Anonymous (7:46): I'm an autodidact, and 'became' one (I'm not sure 'became' is the right word) when I realized that I wasn't happy with my public school education, but had no other option (to improve my education) than to supplement it myself. Fast-forward to my university education, and now I'm paying out my ass for an education I already taught myself, all so that I could have a piece of paper that says that I know what I already know I know.


  59. 7:46 here.

    Regarding the Life of the Autodidact:

    We know that some mentors actually provide mentorships, but many others don't know. We know it's hypothetically possible that seminars will be productive sites of collaborative learning, but more often they're trial-by-fire courses in how to survive 10-16 weeks in The Snake Pit.

    So if, once in grad school, you're teaching yourself anyway, what's the point? It's a credentialing institution which enables you to APPLY for jobs as a professor (getting them is another matter). That's it. Yes, consider pedigree, and if you are going to a professional school, alumni network. But we're seeking a job credential. That's all. Making it more idealistic than that is a sure recipe for disappointment.

  60. @9:37

    The great thing about being an autodidact is that you have passion and, driven by this passion, you might encourage yourself to learn more about something than others (even those in graduate school?) would. The bad side is that no one will listen to you since you don't have any impressive letters after your name. (Another perception: we have to have credentials in order to appear that we know what we're talking about.)

    Since you've already taught yourself everything that is being taught to you now, why not study a different discipline / field? One has to wonder why you chose the major you chose in the first place, if you feel that you know enough of it already. In any case, if you're close to graduating, I'd suck it up and get outta there. No point in wasting more time and money when it'll all lead you to the same dead end. But if you're still early in the game and find it unbearable, see what else is out there and perhaps change your major.

    Be careful what you choose: I studied music, and consequently the follow-up question is always "What instrument do you play?" -- never does anyone consider me able to do / discuss anything outside of that. Your major becomes your label, and it sticks. (This is another reason I have opted not for graduate school, this possibility of further limiting and labelling myself. It makes me nauseous.)

    All the best,

    1. A wise man once said,

      "If you make the potato salad, you will always be the one who makes the potato salad."

    2. I majored in Physics, and had roughly the same experience. People mocked me for wanting to discuss art, literature, and history. Employers were inevitably curious as to why I would want to do something outside of my degree field and no answer I gave was ever fully satisfactory.

      In the end, I really wished I had just studied something typical like Business. At least people would be able to treat me normally then.

  61. @Anonymous (10:09)

    I have a year left on my degree, and I decided a while ago to "suck it up". So why did I major in a field I've largely taught myself (aside from actually having some desire to work in the field)? It's University! You know, "higher learning" and all that jazz. The promise of deep-thinking and this-and-that profound consideration was the siren song of the academy: little did I know that it wasn't going to be learning much outside of what I already taught myself (and at this point I don't care -- I just want to get done and be done with it). Little did I realize how rampant narcissism was... That's not to say that I think I know everything in my field -- I don't. But where's the guarantee? I'm paying XX for one degree, I'll have to pay XX for a specialized degree... Who is to say this won't be a second exercise in (what amounts to little more than) credentialing? (Of course everyone expects me to continue my education, but I'm having difficulty seeing the point...)

    In the mean time I've returned to a childhood passion -- graphic design. Anticipating little chance of employment, I've taken up web (programming) / graphic design. Funny how I don't need a Ph.D from Harvard to be considered competent, even talented!


  62. "little did I know that it wasn't going to be learning much outside of what I already taught myself "

    The worst part of this mess is that not one, but TWO PhDs told me, "In grad school, you teach yourself." Well, they were'nt kidding. Boy do I feel dumb for not listening.

    @ 4:36 Fuck the people who have expectations for your future that don't match your own. I'm not one of those people who's saying, "You shouldn't care what other people say"--I know other people are important. But on the other hand, it's really a kind of aggression to force your vision on someone else, especially if that vision requires years of their life and oodles of money. I've been in my program for over 5 years now, and at least one member of my family has died each year I've been in. They're dead as dodos, and I will be too one day. I'm not gonna piss any more of what's left of my time on this planet away on pleasing other people.

  63. @ 7:37 (Same Anon as 4:36 and 9:37)

    The last PhD I talked with (about grad school) told me that (paraphrasing), "Undergraduate studies were about learning how to read; graduate studies were about learning how to write about what you've read, while (studying towards a doctorate) was all about learning how to live with your supervisor(s) stealing your dissertation." -- How encouraging!

    I agree completely with your second comment, and whatever I end up doing, I'll be doing on my own terms.

  64. I disagree with the notion that grad school dropouts are perceived to be "social failures." Perhaps other academics from your department think so when you quit, but in the real world, no one cares. Most of the people who'd be looking at your resume and seeing an M.A. instead of a PhD wouldn't even think to ask whether you'd dropped out of a doctoral program. If your M.A. is from an Ivy or a school with famous sports teams, they'll be impressed, even.

  65. "even if you're confident that you would make a successful charlatan."

    Not only that, but there are more successful ways of being a charlatan than being an academic. Consider for example, you have grown adults seriously believing that the reason bad stuff happens is that thousands of years ago, a man and a woman, ate from a tree that "god" forbade them to eat from. This "god" didn't have the normal adult common sense of putting such a dangerous thing out of their reach in the first place (which is what we do with poisons that might hurt children). After this "god" instituted a system of animal sacrifices to atone for this "sin" he then couldn't possibly admit to himself that the idea of animal sacrifice was a mistake and simply change it. Instead he decided to "sacrifice" his son, to himself. Of course, many people would jump at the chance of being god's right hand man if all they have to do is be dead for three days, so it wasn't much of a sacrifice. And that all you have to do to be a swell guy is simply believe all of this stuff. It doesn't matter what you do otherwise (including having sex with children) because believing this stuff will make you a neato guy with this "god".

    So really, religion has the academia circuit beat hands down if you really want to live your life as a charlatan. All you need really is a pleasant personality and have a lot of stuff to say that's fun for people to listen to.

  66. Once again I'm struck by how so many of these 'reasons' reflect conditions that are operative everywhere. Perceptions trump reality in finance, investment, real estate, politics, journalism, science (yes, science), engineering, education, love, marriage, law, business... just about every human endeavor involves perceptions that trump reality. Welcome to the real world.

  67. The flip side of this argument is that sometimes research can be incredibly meaningful and significant, but receive little or no institutional support.

    One case is that of Svante Arrhenius. Chemists may recognize the last name from the Arrhenius equation, a fairly important relation of reaction rates to temperature.

    Arrhenius attended the University of Uppsala (Uppsala Universitet) at a fairly young age, leaving to attend the Royal (Swedish) Academy of Sciences (Kungliga Vetenskapsakademien) for more appropriate mentoring. After he returned to Uppsala, he submitted a 150-page doctoral dissertation with some fifty-odd theses in 1884, on the conductivity of chemical solutions. This work would later be considered fundamental to the development of physical chemistry and some twenty years later would win him the Nobel Prize.

    However, when it was reviewed by professors at Uppsala, it was given a very low rating. Following its defense it was reclassified upwards to a third class degree which could have been the end of any academic career aspirations he might have harbored. Following intervention from a colleague in Riga, Uppsala arranged an *unpaid* lectureship for Arrhenius in 1889. Arrhenius apparently remained bitter about his treatment by Uppsala Universitet to the end of his life.

    Even though ultimately Arrhenius won out over his detractors, there was nothing inevitable about his eventual victory over the Uppsala Universitet establishment and the perceptions they either had or wished to convey.