The Wire Mother, or, Politics and Paranoia in the Academy

Last week I wrote a post about the ambivalence I felt as a PhD accepting a teaching job whose value would never be acknowledged by my graduate program. Three hours after posting, I was added to the University of Chicago English Department’s PhD Alumni listserv. (I graduated eleven months ago.)

The overworked department administrators were always kind to me, and I do appreciate being added to the list; however, the immediate result of the email was acute arrhythmia. The next day I got the cold sweats when the University of Chicago Alumni page retweeted my post, despite the bump in pageviews.

When I wrote the original post, I wasn’t actually thinking all that much about the university, honestly. I was thinking of, and writing for, my fellow in-betweeners, my colleagues in confusion, “the ones who left,” as I strangely think of us, even though not all of us did. We are the ones Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius euphemistically call “post-academics” in their terrific book about finding careers outside of academia–which is published, in a hilarious bit of irony, by the University of Chicago Press.

One of my post-academic compatriots had a therapist who had herself been through grad school hell. She had a sign posted in her office that read, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

Anyone whose anxiety issues first appeared in grad school will tell you that this is literally the funniest joke in the world. And like all the best jokes, it’s funny because it’s true.

* * * * *

Immediately after posting a couple of days ago, I realized with a jolt that I had failed to mention the many, many skilled and hardworking teachers in post-secondary education, professors working everywhere from community colleges to liberal arts colleges to Research I institutions. It’s not because I don’t know any great and humane teachers in the academy. I know tons. They are my former professors, my acquaintances and close friends, my family members, even. These professors care about their students. They struggle to improve their teaching. They work long hours and are usually underpaid. It was truly irresponsible of me to leave them out of the picture. Why had I done so?

I did it because I was treating the academy “monolithically,” a critique I heard second-hand from a professor who did not want to comment on the blog itself. It’s true that I treated the institutional stance toward non-academic life, specifically non-university teaching, as monolithic. It is not. However, to borrow one of the many useful terms I learned in the academy, I would make the case that it is hegemonic. I believe that although many, many individuals in the academy, maybe even the majority of them, do care about teaching, that doesn’t mean there’s not a problem with the way teaching is perceived in the academy. It just means that the problem is institutional in scale, not individual.

The same source suggested that my views had been unduly influenced by my own personal academic experience, to which I can only say, guilty as charged. However, she then went on to say that I had made “ridiculous assumptions” about how academics see colleagues who leave the academic world.

If this is a ridiculous assumption, I am not making it alone. I got far more responses to this post than anything else I’ve written for this blog–in the comments section, on my Facebook page, and in my personal inbox. I will cite a few of them here to illustrate my point. (None of the private or anonymous comments were used without permission.)

First things first. I started out complaining about the University of Chicago’s attitude toward non-academic jobs for its graduates. Here’s an unsolicited comment from someone I don’t know who graduated from the same department I did:

A few years ago I challenged the dept about the fact that they don’t list alumni with non-academic jobs (or show any interest in them). I was told that they couldn’t put such info on the website or it would tarnish the dept’s reputation as a serious program in the eyes of prospective students and applicants.

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Another anonymous commenter confirms this view, saying that faculty response to her “other” jobs post-graduation” was “utterly shaming,” even when that job was working at an extremely prestigious academic journal.

And another:

I have a friend who decided to become a high school teacher and her advisor promptly dropped her–he has put off reading her completed dissertation and scheduling her defense for almost two years since she’s no longer pursuing “academic employment.” 

This is not a huge sample size, but anecdotally and based on my own experience, these stories are not very surprising. Moreover, I have never heard this type of story told about any high-status job other than academia–as a friend of mine remarked, no lawyer or doctor would ever look down on someone who decided to quit a massively demanding job to do something else that made them happier (with the possible exception, sadly, of raising a child). Maybe we’re all just trying to cover up our own academic failings, which I don’t believe is the case, or maybe the assumption that academics often look down on non-academic jobs isn’t so ridiculous after all. Unless we’re just being paranoid.

But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

* * * * *

If that’s the perceived value of teaching outside the academy, what about teaching within the academy? I heard stories about that, too:

when i did a campus visit at X earlier this year, one of the committee members told me that he had taught at Yale before moving to X. When he received a teaching award, his colleagues all sent their condolences — because no one who had received a teaching award had ever been tenured.

The most shocking part of stories like these is that if you have been a grad student, they are not really shocking at all.

But! Duh, you are thinking. Yale, you are thinking. All these examples, you could point out, come from Research I universities with English departments consistently ranked in the top 20 nationwide, by whoever ranks those things. What about all of those professors toiling away at liberal arts schools, at inner-city public universities, at community colleges? They’re not suffering from delusions that they are living the always-scare-quoted “life of the mind.” They are too busy grading, or endlessly meeting with kids in office hours to help them revise their papers, or staying up late to put together a terrific lesson plan. They teach, and they care, and many of them get tenure.

To this, I respond—I hate to burst your bubble, but in the rarefied heights of academia, in the top ten English graduate programs in the nation, those jobs are not valued very highly either. I have heard so many anecdotes from colleagues who were visibly and palpably snubbed by professors, often by their own advisors, for having taken jobs like these. I wish I could give the stories in more detail, but they are not my stories and I will not tell them without permission. People have their reasons for not talking about these things in public forums.

Yes, most (though not all) of my anecdotes come from departments renowned for this type of occluded elitism. Nonetheless, there is no denying that they are the top departments in their discipline, that their professors are the top academics in their fields, that a recommendation from one of these professors opens doors. They wrote the books we cite, they headline the conferences we travel to. They are the scholarly tastemakers, the critical vanguard, the leading lights who set the standard for the most prestigious jobs in the field. Students continue to fight to get into these universities because in a nearly non-existent job market, they continue to place students in academic jobs–“good” ones, though again, the definition of a “good” job is determined entirely by the people doing the placing.

As suggested by the former University of Chicago grad student cited above, professors want to maintain that prestige for the department, thereby continuing to attract the brightest students, and they know how to do it: promoting the importance of research, and, by extension, demoting teaching to secondary status. (Tertiary if you account for wearing cool clothes.)

Anyone who doubts this is invited to meditate on the phrase “icing on the cake.” It’s a phrase I heard a dozen times when I was applying for jobs, a phrase used to describe the value of teaching on the academic job market. Every professor in my department, even the ones who themselves value teaching, will use this phrase (or sometimes the less colorful “bonus”), meaning sure, talk about your teaching skills in an interview, it won’t count against you. But it won’t get you hired either, much less tenured. (Conversely, as many of us have seen, the lack of it won’t get you fired.) I assume that these professors, who are at the top of their field, and whose most pressing business is to get their students academic jobs after graduation, know of what they speak.

I have approximately a zillion anecdotes that demonstrate the undervaluation of teaching in my department, but again, I do not want to tell others’ stories without their permission. So instead I will directly quote another commenter, this one from a prestigious public university, who actually changed her focus from literature to rhetoric and composition out of frustration with the sexism of her lit professors. Although she had always loved 18th-century literature, the classes this student took in rhet/comp were more interesting, more humane, and more generally acknowledging of female existence than the lit classes:

The seminars were awesome! And the things that we were talking about were so smart! And the faculty were supportive and helpful, and they thought that ladies were smart and that teaching *well* (not just teaching, but doing it well) was important. . . . In leaving lit, those old white 18c dudes think that I have made a *huge* mistake. Because anything rhet/comp is considered “service work” and is (*gasp* oh no!) feminized. . . If they were any good at teaching, they would realize how hard it is and how much research goes into being a good teacher.

Rhet/comp is the study of writing and argumentation. Writing is a demonstrable skill with copious uses in non-academic jobs. Teaching someone to write is difficult, but progress in writing is relatively easy to assess, which is perhaps why the field tends to be more teaching-oriented than literary fields. So it’s no surprise to me that, with the exception of certain theoretically-oriented departments like Berkeley, rhet/comp doesn’t get a lot of respect in English departments. Anyone who’s seen an English professor’s nose wrinkle at the though of teaching freshman comp classes knows that it is considered “service work.”

And as the commenter pointed out, that makes it women’s work, and women’s work is undervalued. Is anyone really surprised that attitudes toward feminized work within the academy reflect attitudes toward feminized work in the outside world?

Well, yeah, I was kind of surprised, since I went into academia to teach. I thought that was what professors did! I entered grad school with the comically naive goal of standing in front of a classroom in an elbow-patched blazer, teaching the books I loved, and getting summers off to write my novel.

By the way, if I had a dime for every academic who got into it thinking they would write their novels in the summer, I would be the saddest millionaire in the world. Creative writing is seen as a quaint and slightly embarrassing hobby in  academia.

* * * * *

Is teaching, especially teaching writing, institutionally undervalued in academia? After all this, I confess it’s hard for me to say, given my own experiences, which some would call extreme. They may be, although, as I argued before, I believe those attitudes coming from on high affect the way teaching is valued (or not valued) at all levels. Still, they create a certain myopia, as another commenter from my department described:

. . . on the other hand, at one of my mla interviews, one of the questions they asked was, “why do you want to be a teacher?” — it’s hard to be very sure when most of the grad students you actually know were raised on the same wire mother.

If you are unfamiliar with the wire mother, it’s shorthand for a classic experiment in screwing monkeys over for life conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Basically, you isolate the baby rhesus monkeys from their real mothers and give them surrogate “mothers” made of wire and cloth instead, and watch what happens over time.

I don’t know whether any of those monkeys went on to finish their doctorates, but they exhibited intense, crippling anxiety and misdirected aggression throughout their lives. I had to laugh, juvenile as it was, upon learning that in these monkeys “[s]ex behavior was, for all practical purposes, destroyed,” as  “isolate females ignored approaching normal males, while isolate males made inaccurate attempts to copulate with normal females.” Maybe that’s why I didn’t have a boyfriend for six years!

Other bizarre behaviors exhibited by these children of cold, pointy, comfortless mothers included “clutching themselves, rocking constantly back and forth.”

Oh, rhesus monkey. I’ve been there.

* * * *  *

I feel deeply, deeply complicated about the wire mother that is University of Chicago. I don’t want this post to become an autobiographical list of all the cold, pointy, comfortless things I witnessed there, but it’s hard to stop once you start. It’s hard to communicate to people just how traumatizing those things were, so you just keep going, which is why, after all, I am still writing this at 4:30 in the morning when I have to get up at 7:00.

It’s been eight years since Thomas H. Benton asked (pseudonymously) “Is Graduate School a Cult?”; longer still since Margaret Newhouse wrote “Deprogramming from the Academic Cult“; and over ten years since Lisa Ruddick observed the dehumanizing influence of the academic hierarchy in her post-9/11 article “The Near Enemy of the Humanities is Professionalism.” But if my recent experience and those of my peers is typical, not a whole lot has changed since then.

For a more recent example, see this humorous but dead-on comparison of grad school to a cult by a grad student who, by the way, was once literally in a cult:

1. On the first day you arrive, you’re reminded that you’re part of a small, elite subgroup with access to specialized knowledge that the average person can never hope to achieve. You’re congratulated for choosing to come to graduate school and leaving behind the shallow materialism of the world.

2. Despite what a great achievement it is to get into graduate school (or so they tell you), you start to notice that your only reward seems to be working harder than all your college friends.

The pride in suffering that keeps you in a place like this even when you have to be doped up on Klonopin to bear it, this cult-like tribalism that says you are being torn down for your own good, that you will emerge the better for your wounds, is everywhere on display at the University of Chicago. It is a mentality perfectly articulated, literally inscribed on the body, by the t-shirts worn proudly by undergraduates all over campus, bearing the legend: “University of Chicago: Where Fun Comes to Die.”

* * * * *

The question of how this all pertains to sexism and the undervaluing of “women’s work” is something I can’t quite handle yet. It is at once a personal issue, a political issue, and a the-personal-is-political issue, all tangled up in a big, messy knot with my particular experiences of humiliation at the University of Chicago. I entered the university by way of an MA program whose students, despite being basically cash cows for the university, get treated very, very poorly within the English department. I fought hard for legitimacy and respect, and eventually I must have won it, because I was admitted into the PhD program the very next year. Having lived in two worlds, I am intimately, painfully familiar with the difference between being valued and being ignored, sometimes even openly despised, within the same intellectual community.

Did I get a huge rush every time a professor gave me the head-nod of approval in class, or liked my work, or treated me as an important person with good ideas? Absolutely. Did I feel giddy every time I won some department-wide competition for a scant resource, whether it was money, an award, or teaching (which, although the professors don’t care about it, acquires value among grad students precisely because it’s a scant resource at U of C)? Yes, yes, yes.

The first time I got the magic head-nod, I nearly hit the fucking ceiling. I trembled for hours. That’s approval addiction. Approval is not the same as support, not by a long shot. But in an environment where actual, steady, dependable support is hard to come by, you’ll take it. Any port in a storm, any mother in a monkey cage. I leapt for the gold ring again and again, transfixed by the moment of exhilarating warmth I felt, the knowledge that I was doing well.

Like all addictions, approval has diminishing returns. But that doesn’t make it any easier to give up. I wish I didn’t still want it. The job placement page is just a bookmark in the vast tome of not-giving-a-shit that I, paranoid, feel emanating from the university where I spent six years learning how to feel inadequate, even as I piled up successes within the department.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not trying to forget you ever existed.

If this sounds crazy, you’re just going to have to believe me when I say that I never felt this way before I attended the University of Chicago–not as a child with my parents, not in grade school or high school, certainly not in college. If it helps, I have plenty of witnesses from my pre-grad-school life who can attest to this. I’m married to one of them.

To make a long story short (too late!): No, I don’t believe non-academic careers are much valued in academia, and no, I don’t believe teaching, either in a university or elsewhere, is much valued in academia, and yes, I think this attitude disproportionately affects women, and no, the quantities of good, hardworking teachers in the academy do not really change the question of how much they are valued. The fact that I had it relatively easy in academia, the fact that I was a valued and respected member of my department who also avowedly loved teaching, does not change the question either. If anything, it’s even more damning to me. Even while I earned approval from the department again and again, I couldn’t help but absorb those attitudes, and eventually they became toxic to me. And that is why I left.


4 thoughts on “The Wire Mother, or, Politics and Paranoia in the Academy

  1. Kellie says:

    As one of those MA program cash cows, I acutely felt most professors’ disdain for teaching and for students. We were annoyances to them, and yet, wasn’t I helping to fund their paychecks (and am continuing to pay for that funding)?! I still think the smartest thing I did in grad school was run far, far away. I’m not sure this is a phenomenon that’s exclusive to academia though. Isn’t the tendency in any higher level, specialized career niche to try to render yourself “greater than” the mediocre masses?

  2. Joyce Cheng says:

    Hi Amy, I think you’ve really started a great conversation on a matter of great importance. I don’t know what there is to do about it, but solidarity between educators at all levels is at least a start. The most disturbing thing about the gap between the American high school and the university I have ever heard is that, as one of my former mentors said, the system can afford the failure. The speaker was English, and his audience was French parents in Chicago who turned their nose up on Chicago public high school. Of course they had to send their kids to private schools to get a real education. When they went on about the deplorable standard of the American public school, my mentor reminded them that the elite American university had never suffered from the non-education that was happening in so many high schools around the country. Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Chicago, Hopkins routinely get top students in the incoming class while inner city public high schools continue to fail. In short, the system has no incentive to improve.

    The United States is a free but very, very unequal country. The difference between an Episcopal academy and the Chicago inner city school is unbelievable. The difference between an Ivy and a X-State University, both in terms of endowment, quality of instruction, number of courses taught per faculty and level of students, is equally unbelievable. The same class can be taught at an elite undergraduate liberal arts college and at the MA level in a state school. In short, the inequality is between DIFFERENT institutions in the SAME category. The way elite Americans go about things is to make sure that they are at top rank in each category. Other countries I know function differently. From what I understand, there is a difference between the Sorbonne and Nanterre, but not a grotesque one, and there is virtually no difference in terms of intellectual level between the Sapienza in Rome and the University of Bologna. (Plus, you pay 300 euros per yer, and Umberto Eco will supervise your MA thesis. Where you go to find this?)

    In any case, the point is that I doubt the elite American university has any real reason to care about the American high school, for the simple reason that it doesn’t seem to be really affected by it. Universities have their own problems to deal with (I certain do now as an assistant professor in a public university), but I am afraid that the failing of American high school is simply not one of them.

    Chilling thoughts. The socialist in me wants to say that we need less freedom and more equality, but I doubt a private American university with the annual endowment in the billions would agree with me.

    • amyegentry says:

      This is all so interesting to me. No doubt universities don’t suffer over-much from under-educated students, partly because now that EVERYBODY has to go to college to get any kind of good job, there’s always a big pot to choose from. Yet every single professor I know, no matter what level the college (including U of C) laments the lack of preparedness for their students, and they always blame high schools. Funny how no one on the other end is blaming universities for the unemployability of their graduates! Honestly, I think that regardless of the quality of the professors, the university administrators don’t care all that much about the quality of the education itself. They are running more and more on a for-profit model (given cuts in funding who can blame them) but with ZERO accountability for the quality of education they produce. So students are subsidized by the government in taking out massive loans they’ll never pay off, loans which are then bought and sold on the free market until they are impossible to keep track of, and universities simply can’t guarantee that those educations will earn them anything like an income, and student debt is becoming an astronomical liability in this country. I think a brand-name education like Yale or Harvard does pay off, but not because the quality of the education is that much better–the students who benefit most from the name-brand degrees are typically already benefitting from generations of wealth or connections (social capital) or other advantages that got them where they are, and even those who start out without those advantages are benefit more from the social capital of their peers than from the education, I suspect.

      Anyway, I think you’re right about all this. They say the next economic crisis will come from student debt and if you think about it for a minute you can see why. If universities have no reason to care about the state of their students coming in, they have even less incentive to care about the state of students going out, and with teaching undervalued in the university setting and overworked adjuncts taking on the majority of it anyway, it feels like nobody is actually taking any responsibility for American education at all.

  3. Oh you know who i am says:

    if you want to do a panel discussion about racism/sexism in professional/educational stanards in academe, you need @tressiemcphd . I don’t know her personally, but she’s a brilliant badass about this stuff.

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