A dystopian Academe

I’ve had a rather long blog-hiatus these last few months despite having just started it. It turns out that the last year of a PhD program — attending conferences, submitting articles, applying for jobs, oh, and writing that pesky dissertation — with a toddler in tow is rather challenging (who knew?) and maintaining a blog somehow ended up taking a backseat, way waay in the back. But, actually, I did write several posts. I just never published them.

These posts sat in my drafts folder collecting dust because they were rants. Rants about academia. They detailed my frustration and disappointment with this world that I had idealized as an undergraduate student. Before my life as a grad student, you would have been able to see twinkling stars reflected in my eyes as I gazed up at Professor so-and-so and their superstar academic life.

A few weeks ago, as I started preparing my applications for postdoc positions, I deleted all of those posts. For the same reason that I never published them in the first place. For fear of political repercussions. I didn’t want to lose a chance to get some job because of some opinion I happen to have. And besides, they were just rants, right?

This morning, I read this letter from a guy who was so frustrated with academia that he quit just a few months before he finished. It echoed some of the frustration I felt a few months ago and reignited the anger I attempted to bury back then. Putting aside the comments about his possible burnout, I think the points he makes are valid.

Right off the bat, let me be very clear that I love the research I’m doing and the people I work with now. I really, really do.

But I have definitely seen the awful things mentioned in that letter. And it’s forced me to reevaluate my possible career direction, especially now that I’m getting ready to send out my applications for whatever may come next.

All that political mumbo-jumbo that academia claims to exist above, it’s all there lurking behind the closed meetings attended by greedy, ambitious tenured faculty and cautious, conservative administrators. At least in industry, all that cut-throat deception and lord-of-the-flies competition for prestige is out in the open, even expected. No one pretends to be “better than those money-grubbing capitalists”. If I can’t escape dealing with assholes, better the devil you know — or at least the devil that doesn’t hide his horns.

But there are also great people in academia. Who want to change academia from the inside. Who believe that other people in academia also want the academy to be great. These are the people who got me interested in academia in the first place.

The problem for me now is not that I think academia is devoid of good people. And it’s certainly not that I’ve stopped believing in its message. I do. I still want to be part of the group who endeavors to extend human knowledge and to openly and freely share that understanding.

The biggest problem I have is that I get it. I mean, I need to eat, too. And the work I just spent six months of my life on “for the betterment of society” should at least feed me and my family for the next six months of painstaking work, right?

But I believe the system isn’t broken. It’s just been around so long that people have started exploiting some of its loop-holes. The system just needs to evolve. Install some anti-virus software and update it from time-to-time.

I remember I once had a conversation with Peter some years ago — way before I ever got a behind-the-scenes look at an academic Board meeting — about how the people who are able to talk about change (the tenured bunch) are too comfortable to ruffle any feathers and the people who have ideas to bring about change (the postdocs and tenure-tracked lot) are too scared to say anything publicly.

So I have an idea.

The anti-virus protection for academia has to begin with a discussion. We have to identify its flaws and consider the possible ways of correcting them. But most people who can say anything worth hearing can’t because they may lose their jobs or grants or whatever.

Now a blog seems to me to be a great place to begin and have a discussion. And it may even be possible to have this discussion anonymously — as long as it is thoroughly monitored and identities are well masked.

I will gladly take on the role of monitor and editor for such a blog. I’ll even offer up my blog space for this (with Peter’s permission, of course, since this is his server space). If enough people get involved, we could perhaps have a great thing going.

Anyone who wants to be part of this conversation should email me personally. After I’ve vetted the authors to my satisfaction, I would then collect relevant topics, edit their content to remove any identifiable markers and post them on this or some new blog. Any comments for the posts will go through a similar process.

Visitors to the blog will feel like they are listening in on a conversation I am having with myself. The “voice” of the blog will always be mine though the thoughts behind it may be that of many.

So what do you say? Want to start a conversation?