The Longreads Blog

An Education in Doubt

Cover art for Matilda by Roald Dahl, Illustration by Quentin Blake

Catherine Cusick | Longreads | February 2018 | 12 minutes (2,900 words)

We need to scream and argue about this school thing until it is fixed or broken beyond repair, one or the other. If we can fix it, fine; if we cannot, then the success of homeschooling shows a different road that has great promise. Pouring the money we now pour into schooling back into family education might cure two ailments with one medicine, repairing families as it repairs children.

— John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down

I stood and, still shaking, tried to pry loose the small length of copper tubing. I almost had it when Dad flung a catalytic converter. I leapt aside, cutting my hand on the serrated edge of a punctured tank. I wiped the blood on my jeans and shouted, “Don’t throw them here! I’m here!”

Dad looked up, surprised. He’d forgotten I was there.

— Tara Westover, Educated

When I was 9, my dad brought home a copy of Matilda on VHS. Every time I watched Matilda best her unfit parents and take down the unforgivably violent Trunchbull, something would swell in my heart.

“Daddy,” Mara Wilson pleads up to Danny DeVito, one of the only actors ever to plead at him in that direction. “You’re a crook.”

“What?” DeVito says, turning away from training Matilda’s brother in the junk tricks of his trade at the auto shop. He’s teaching his son how to fudge the mileage on used cars by rewinding a speedometer with a hand drill.

“This is illegal,” Wilson says, stomping an indignant little foot.

“You make money?” DeVito asks a 9-year-old. “Do you have a job?”

“No,” Wilson replies. (Of course, Wilson does have a job. We are watching her do it. She’s hard at work headlining a major motion picture that ends up grossing $33 million at the box office.)

I, too, am 9 years old, watching Wilson back in 1996, crossing my gangly legs one over the other on the beige carpet in my family’s den.

“But don’t people need good cars?” Wilson-as-Matilda asks. “Can’t you sell good cars, Dad?”

“Listen, you little wiseacre,” DeVito begins, launching into one of those custom-made lines for movie trailers. “I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Wilson takes one decisive look around. She sees her father’s signature hat next to some superglue.
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The Great Online School Scam

Photo: Getty Images.

Noliwe Rooks | Excerpt from Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education | The New Press | September 2017 | 18 minutes (5,064 words)

* * *

DeVos’s ties to—and support for—the profoundly troubled virtual school industry run deep.

In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Magazine, DeVos said her ultimate goals in education reform encompassed not just charter schools and voucher programs, but also virtual education. She said these forms were important because they would allow “all parents, regardless of their zip code, to have the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children.” Also in 2013, one of the organizations that she founded, the American Federation for Children, put out a sharply critical statement after New Jersey’s school chief, Chris Cerf, declined to authorize two virtual charter schools. The group said the decision “depriv[es] students of vital educational options.” Yet another group DeVos founded and funded, the Michigan-based Great Lakes Education Project, has also advocated for expansion of online schools, and in a 2015 speech available on YouTube DeVos praised “virtual schools [and] online learning” as part of an “open system of choices.” She then said, “We must open up the education industry—and let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry. We must open it up to entrepreneurs and innovators.” DeVos’s ties to—and support for—the profoundly troubled virtual school industry run deep.

At the time of her nomination, charter schools were likely familiar to most listeners given their rapid growth and ubiquity. However, the press surrounding the DeVos nomination may have been one of the first times most became aware of a particular offshoot of the charter school movement—virtual or cyber schools. Despite flying somewhat under the mainstream radar, online charter schools have faced a wave of both negative press and poor results in research studies. One large-scale study from 2015 found that the “academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule.” By June of 2016, even a group that supports, runs, and owns charter schools published a report calling for more stringent oversight and regulation of online charter schools, saying, “The well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual charter public schools should serve as a call to action for state leaders and authorizers across the country.” The jointly authored research was sponsored by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50Can, all groups that lobby state and federal agencies to loosen regulations to allow more robust charter-school growth. As one of the report’s backers said, “I’m not concerned that Betsy DeVos supports virtual schools, because we support them too—we just want them to be a lot better.” Such an upswing in quality seems highly unlikely to happen anytime soon. They are yet another trickle in the stream of apartheid forms of public education flowing down from the wealthy and politically well connected to communities that are poor, of color, or both.

In Pennsylvania, Michigan, South Carolina, Ohio, and Florida, poor students from rural areas as well as those in underfunded urban schools that primarily educate students who are Black and Latino today face a new response to the question of how to solve the riddle of race, poverty, and educational underachievement. Increasingly, despite little supporting evidence, a growing number of states and local school districts no longer believe that the solution is merely about infrastructure, class size, funding, or hiring more teachers. In states with high levels of poverty and “hard to educate” Black and Latino students, virtual schools are on the rise. Such schools are not growing nearly as fast in school districts that are white and relatively wealthy, nor are they the educational strategy of choice in most private schools. As much a business strategy as one promoting learning, virtual education allows businesses to profit from racial inequality and poverty. Sadly, this particular cure to what ails our education system more often than not exacerbates the problems. Read more…

A Tale of Two Vegases

View of the strip in Las Vegas. (Kobby Dagan/VWPics via AP Images)

Gayle Brandeis | Longreads | February 2018 | 12 minutes (3,027 words)


The Best of Times — March, 2007

The night before I was slated to fly to Atlanta to attend the biggest writing conference of the year, I was sideswiped by one of my vomiting episodes. These hit every few months — hours of intense abdominal pain that came and went like labor, followed by hours of vomiting that often led to a trip to the emergency room; this had been going on for the past 12 years, with no diagnosis. I didn’t want to miss the trip, but I was writhing around on the floor, and heaving into a large mixing bowl, and attempting to keep the anti-nausea suppositories up my ass long enough for them to kick in. I was chanting, “Help me, help me, help me” — words that always burbled from my mouth during these episodes. I wasn’t sure who this chant was aimed at — not my husband, who tended to shy away whenever the vomiting began — but my mom seemed to hear me in Oceanside, 100 miles from my home in Riverside, California. She called and was alarmed when I told her I still hoped to get on the plane the next morning.

“I’m coming with you,” she announced. Before I had the sense to stop her, she purchased a last-minute ticket for my flight. She picked me up in her red Intrepid shortly after sunrise, and I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into. I pretended to sleep most of the flight.

My mom and I ended up having a surprisingly good time in Atlanta — we danced together, attended illuminating panels, had a blast with her cousin who lived in the area, ate copious amounts of boiled peanuts; she even made meaningful eye contact with Walter Mosley, who she was certain would one day become my stepfather. When our flight was delayed, she was miraculously relaxed and chatty, and I didn’t feel the need to pretend to sleep on the plane to avoid her. I was plenty sleepy by the time we arrived at the Las Vegas airport, though — it was 1 a.m., and we had missed our connecting flight. The airline gave us the option of staying in the airport and flying home in a few hours, or taking a hotel room and flying home late the next day.

I was so tired, I needed to rest my head on the ticket counter, but I looked up at her and said “Why don’t we stay? Maybe we could see a show or something.” It was the first time I could remember voluntarily extending a visit with her. Our relationship had always been complicated, but when she started to show signs of a delusional disorder 14 years earlier, our connection became all the more fraught.

“Let’s do it,” she said, and soon we were giggling in a free cab on our way to a free hotel room just off the strip. Our luggage was still on the plane, so we slipped into the plush white robes hanging in the closet and crashed for a few hours. We put our rumpled travel clothes back on after our showers, then ordered egg white and asparagus omelets with our free breakfast vouchers and set out to see how much Vegas we could pack into a day.

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The Internet Isn’t Forever

Illustration by Shannon Freshwater

Maria Bustillos | Columbia Journalism Review | February 2018 |2900 words (12 minutes)

This story is published in collaboration with the Columbia Journalism Review, whose Winter 2018 issue covers threats to journalism.

The Honolulu Advertiser doesn’t exist anymore, but it used to publish a regular “Health Bureau Statistics” column in its back pages supplied with information from the Hawaii Department of Health detailing births, deaths, and other events. The paper, which began in 1856 as the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, since the end of World War II was merged, bought, sold, and then merged again with its local rival, The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, to become in 2010 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. But the Advertiser archive is still preserved on microfilm in the Honolulu State Library. Who could have guessed, when those reels were made, that the record of a tiny birth announcement would one day become a matter of national consequence? But there, on page B-6 of the August 13, 1961 edition of The Sunday Advertiser, set next to classified listings for carpenters and floor waxers, are two lines of agate type announcing that on August 4, a son had been born to Mr. and Mrs. Barack H. Obama of 6085 Kalanianaole Highway.

In the absence of this impossible-to-fudge bit of plastic film, it would have been far easier for the so-called birther movement to persuade more Americans that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. But that little roll of microfilm was and is still there, ready to be threaded on a reel and examined in the basement of the Honolulu State Library: An unfalsifiable record of “Births, Marriages, Deaths,” which immeasurably fortified the Hawaii government’s assertions regarding Obama’s original birth certificate. “We don’t destroy vital records,” Hawaii Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo says. “That’s our whole job, to maintain and retain vital records.” Read more…

Are We Getting Ripped with Protein or Ripped Off?

Alexey Malgavko/Sputnik via AP

Carbs are good. Carbs are bad. Butter’s good. Butter’s bad. Coconut oil is a miracle. No, it’s evil. After decades of diet trends and conflicting information, protein’s upstanding reputation has remained unscathed in America. Of course, it isn’t just protein — it’s industrialized society’s engineered version of it, added to powders and bars, flavored and sweetened — and its popularity is more linked to convenience and perceptions of a “healthy active lifestyle” than to weightlifting.

At Eater, Casey Johnston examines the rise of protein and its most popular ready-to-drink delivery system: Muscle Milk. Wellness is a trillion-dollar industry, and what she calls the blurring of “the line between supplements and food” signals a lucrative future for protein drinks and powder. Many questions remain: Can the human body even process all this processed protein? What does protein do for us? Johnston visited Muscle Milk’s San Francisco headquarters to find out.

In the pre-supplement era, if protein had a downside, it was that it couldn’t be eaten isolated from other kinds of calories — milk has fat, beef has fat, soy has fat, and any substantial amount of plant-derived protein is high enough in carbs to make Gwyneth Paltrow faint. That left chicken breasts, eggs whites, and lean fish, but that was about it.

A few decades of engineering later, most non-meat forms of protein can now be drawn out from their sources and repackaged with a little sweetener or flavoring into whatever highly digestible and convenient food format you desire. Companies cram protein into their foods with the hope of splashing “good source of protein,” a term protected by the FDA, across the label — frozen pizzas with crusts made of chicken, whey-enhanced nut butters, whey-enhanced or even whey-based ice cream, soy-enhanced granola. Even foods that aren’t in the game are trying to play — I recently found a box of corn flakes boasting “2 grams of protein” per serving, a single-digits percentage of what any person needs in a day.

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Is This the Most Crowded Island in the World? (And Why That Question Matters)

(Alex MacGregor)

Alex MacGregor | Longreads | February 2017| 19 minutes (5,053 words)

Geographers have an affinity for superlatives. Among the millions of named features on Earth, if something can claim to be the biggest, tallest, deepest, longest, or otherwise most extreme, it gets a lot of attention.

Asserting any superlative involves a degree of hubris. Our world has been picked over for superlatives, but how sure can we really be about any one claim? Any elementary school class will recite in unison that Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world — that is, unless the class happens to contain an Ecuadorian student. Ecuadorians correctly learn that the highest mountain in the world could be measured by distance from the center of the earth, rather than of from mean sea level. By this measure, Ecuador’s Chimborazo is taller than Everest. (An asterisk is warranted for even this basic claim.)

Of much less prominence on the globe, but also a tricky superlative to nail down, is the most densely populated island in the world. A handful of the perhaps 100,000 islands on Earth have stratospheric population densities: Ultra-crowded islands exist in places as disparate as Kenya, Hong Kong, France, and the Maldives, but it’s regularly cited that, by the numbers, the densest of all is Santa Cruz del Islote, a 3-acre islet of about 1,200 people off the coast of Colombia. This claim has been repeated in numerous publications, most recently by The New York Times, and it’s even the subject of a short documentary. Journalists usually emphasize the bonds of family and community in a place so radically removed from western consumerism.

All of which makes for an uplifting read about a fascinating place. But what if the premise is wrong? I can’t comment on the experience of life on the island. But we’ve already learned to be wary of superlative claims, especially when westerners are the ones keeping score; what about this one? What if this is merely a very crowded island, and not the most crowded island?
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The Making of a Black Fortune

Portrait of a young, well-to-do African American woman, c. 1890. (Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

Shomari Wills | Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires | Amistad | January 2018 | 6 minutes (1,450 words)

At the turn of the century, Robert Reed Church was 60 years old. He now walked with a cane. His eyes were still fiery and bloodshot, and he remained fear­less and quick-tempered. A decade earlier, in 1889, he had begun to draw up plans for a park and arena for black citizens in Memphis. As their construction neared completion, he wondered how white Memphis would react to his project. His life had been filled with attacks by Confederates, racist police officers, and segregationists for daring to strive as a black person. Many winters earlier, he had been pelted with rocks by racists for having had the audacity as a black man to be the only man in Memphis with a sled. What would they do when he opened a $100,000 arena?

As a young man, he had dealt with white men with his fist and gun. Now, gray and wrinkled, Church decided to exert a skill he had acquired with age: diplomacy. In 1900, a group of ex-Confederate soldiers decided to throw a reunion for Confederate veterans in Memphis. As they struggled to raise $80,000 to build a temporary auditorium in which to hold the affair, they received an unexpected donation of $1,000 from Church, a former slave. “I never gave a cent in my life, so cheerfully or gladly as I gave that check to the veterans’ entertainment fund,” he said afterward. He had learned that goodwill could be bought when he had helped bail out Memphis from bankruptcy. He hoped that $1,000 would be enough to protect his arena from the same resistance as his pool hall, which a white mob had burned down when he was a young entrepreneur.

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It’s Never Too Late to Apologize

Hindudstan Times/Getty Images Justin Bieber asks, “Is it too late now to say sorry?” Longreads says, “Better late than never!”

Taking criticism is hard. Lately, it appears especially hard for writers who are also on Twitter, which is many — maybe even most — writers.

Earlier this week, New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss tweeted a video of American Olympic skater Mirai Nagasu landing a triple axel. Nagasu was the first American to ever achieve this at the Olympics — a huge feat. Weiss appended her tweet with a reference to Hamilton: “Immigrants: They get the job done.”

Twitter users were quick to point out that Nagasu is not an immigrant. Her parents are Japanese immigrants, but she was born in California and held dual citizenship until she was 22. (Also, the lyric in Miranda’s song is phrased “Immigrants: we get the job done.”) To the first correction, Weiss claimed she knew that fact, but she was taking “poetic license.” In a vacuum, Weiss’ tweet is a misstep, but not unforgivable. The desire to celebrate Nagasu is good, referencing Hamilton is good. But in the context of her work and public statements, the implicit assumption that someone non-white, with an “ethnic” name, was automatically an immigrant rubbed people the wrong way.

Rather than considering this point, Weiss lashed out. She claimed she deleted the tweet after “being told I am a racist, a ghoul and that I deserve to die.” A cursory look through her mentions showed no evidence supporting this claim, but women are attacked on the internet regularly and virulently, so it’s possible people had taken to email with particularly galling attacks.

But this claim that being criticized, and corrected, is akin to being “silenced” is becoming a common theme of late. People are responding to criticism as though it is some sort of form of torture. Katie Roiphe, a professional critic, dislikes being criticized so much that she responds by accusing her critics of being “low-level secret policemen in a new totalitarian state.” Weiss believes that when she is criticized, it is “another sign of civilization’s end.”

If I were Roiphe, I might deem these reactions “hysterical” but I dislike the gendered connotations of that word. Men who balk at “political correctness” have been reacting this way for years. Any criticism of their behavior or their opinions is galling, is somehow an attempt to erase them off the face of the earth. “We have a right to free speech!” they shout, but what they really want is a right to be free from criticism, from reflection, from having to think about the experiences of anyone other than themselves.

It is an interesting form of entitlement, this belief that criticism is an infringement on some fundamental right. As Rebecca Traister pointed out in a recent essay for The Cut, published after Roiphe’s much-hyped contra-#MeToo essay in Harper’s, it is “a tic of the powerful… mistaking the right to speech for the right to unquestioned authority.”

In a recent issue of n+1, Dayna Tortorici wrote of this same phenomenon, time-pegging it to the end of 2014: “The right to free speech under the First Amendment had been recast in popular discourse as the right to free speech without consequence, without reaction.”

This is, it should be obvious, not a right that any government or other entity ensures. Alexis Grenell wrote about this last September in a column in the New York Daily News touting the value of “shame speech,” and “the soft power of shame.”

“The First Amendment only protects freedom of expression; there is no right to be heard, or respected,” Grenell explains. “The state of shame is made possible by thousands of people of different backgrounds finally having their voices heard.”

While writers like Roiphe and Weiss are still the ones getting platforms in publications like Harper’s and The New York Times, the internet — that great equalizer — is facilitating this “state of shame.” Twitter might be overrun by Nazis, white supremacists, and angry basement-dwellers making rape and death threats, but it has also increasingly become a place where marginalized voices are able to make themselves heard.

Some people hate that. People you wouldn’t expect! Just this week, Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter at the New York Times, appeared to be so moved watching the teens who survived the school shooting in Florida this week speak on television, he tweeted, “Impressive how articulate and well-educated these kids are from this school. Obviously a good school. Another sad reason for yesterday’s events.”

More than 200 people replied to his tweet, pointing out how hurtful his words were, so Lipton attempted a clarification, “And not saying it would be less sad it [sic] there were poor kids, obviously. Just such a waste to see kids with so much opportunity before them wiped out.” More than a thousand people responded to that one, which anyone who spends any time on Twitter could have predicted.

After a few hours, he deleted those tweets, and wrote a new one. “I deleted an earlier tweet that was misread by many people. What I was saying was not meant to me [sic] disrespectful. Sorry it was read that way.”

This type of reaction is so common, and it confounds me. It is so, so much easier to listen, see that you’ve hurt people (usually people with less institutional and systemic power than you), and say sorry. Then it all goes away!

Bret Stephens, a colleague of Weiss’ in the opinion section at the Times, who seems to live for the thrill of being a bogeyman contrarian, came to Lipton’s defense.

The last line is a reference to the fact that Stephens dislikes criticism so much, he keeps threatening to leave Twitter but then fails to do so.

Opinion writers, in particular, should be able to handle criticism better, given their job is to criticize — and, at their best, honestly and diligently examine different ideas in good faith.

This week, NYT opinion editor James Bennet issued a 1,500-word memo in defense of Bari Weiss, insisting that she, and everyone else in his stable, are operating in good faith. The way he described the opinion section is exactly what its critics want it to be, and what they feel it’s falling short of achieving:

[W]e owe our readers an honest struggle over the right paths ahead, not a pretense that we’re in possession of God’s own map.

That means being willing to challenge our own assumptions; it means being open to counter-arguments even as we advance our own convictions; it means listening to voices that we may object to and even sometimes find obnoxious, provided they meet the same tests of intellectual honesty, respect for others and openness. It means taking on the toughest arguments on the other side, not the straw men. It means starting from a presumption of good faith, particularly on the part of our colleagues, including those we disagree with. It means having some humility about the possibility that, in the end, the other side might have a point, or more than one.

Bennet! Bennet. This is exactly what we are asking you, and Stephens, and Weiss to do. This is all we want! Take your critics seriously. Don’t dismiss them as too stupid or “insane” to understand your point. You are writers. You are writers of opinion, which ultimately means you are rhetoricians, so your goal is to persuade. If people are arguing with you, it means you have fallen short of that goal. Engage with them! Start from a presumption of good faith! And please, please think about why you think that presumption is owed “particularly” to people who work for the Times, not to those who read it, and love it enough to try to push you to be better.

Bennet’s memo was written after an internal Slack chat was leaked, showing NYT employees frustrated both by Weiss’ tweet and her entitled self-defense earlier this week. One anonymous employee wrote:

i wasn’t here when we had a public editor, but i understand how it worked. it was clear. what i don’t understand now and now what’s unclear is what’s supposed to happen when the same mistakes keep getting made again and again. at what point is the company willing to take the responsibility off the public for calling this stuff out? will the reader center step in? is that even what the reader center is for? i genuinely don’t know!

What seems to be obvious both to us readers and internally at the Times is that the Reader Center is not living up to the legacy of the public editor. As I’ve mentioned previously, I wrote NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan in 2014 — around the time Tortorici references in her essay, when this outcry about the audacity of plebeian critics surfaced. I was frustrated about three separate instances when NYT writers had been criticized for insensitive language and responded by pooh-poohing an uptight, uncomprehending Twitterati. (Sullivan was at the time working on a column in response to the latest incident — Alessandra Stanley referring to Shonda Rhimes as an “angry black woman” — but it was also in the wake of a column about Ray Rice that used florid language to describe his spousal abuse, and the infamous Mike Brown “no angel” article.) The writers were, similarly to Weiss, defending their perceived “right” to use the language they want without considering the impact it would have on readers, and vulnerable readers in particular.

I wrote the following to Sullivan at the time, and I still believe it today:

Journalism does not occur in a vacuum. When your artful words are sent out into the world, they have the power to hurt people who are particularly vulnerable.

That these articles get past not only a writer but — I assume — multiple editors without one person stopping to think about the effects the language will have, not in their stylistic quality, but in their existence in the world of readers who may be victims of violence or domestic violence or systemic discrimination and racism, is absurd.

Pretty writing is not more important than empathy and respect for people with less power and less of an ability to have their voices heard.

The problem here is not Twitter. It is a culture in which a writer can receive criticism from people their writing has harmed, and respond not with a gracious, empathetic apology, but with the dismissive arrogance it must take to claim that anyone who disagrees with you just isn’t smart enough to understand your point.

If Bennet wants people to assume his writers are operating in good faith, they need to show that. For now, Weiss has shown exactly the opposite, both in her work (as when she claimed the motto of contemporary feminism is “Believe All Women” or reductively cited a vague Instagram post in a claim of a black activist’s anti-police bias), and this week’s dustup. Tom Scocca outlined this well on — of course — Twitter:

Here’s the thing. Weiss, Stephens, and Roiphe claim they want a gentler, kinder discourse. That’s a good goal. It can be exhausting to be patient in the face of microaggressions, especially for people who have been on the receiving end of them for so long. But if we can muster it, I have no doubt it will lead to a better discourse.

The flipside of that, though, is that Weiss, Stephens, Roiphe et al need to come down from their mountain and actually listen to and consider the criticism leveled against them. They have to try to be better right along with the rest of us.

Grieving the Academic Life

Frank May/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Years ago, when I told a friend I was searching for more work in academia, she laughed and said she was looking for ways out of academia. Now that I’m in it, I understand what she meant. Most industries have their peculiarities and struggles. Media purges too many talented editors and writers too often. Freelance writers spend more billable hours chasing their checks than is reasonable. Public school teachers have to spend their own money on school supplies. But universities have created profound complications for devoted, educated workers by making tenure difficult and by increasingly reducing educators to adjuncts.

On her blog, history PhD Erin Bartram examines the emotional effects of having to leave academia for an unrelated career, and how unequipped the scholary community is to deal with that. Tenure, once the goal of many PhDs, remains an increasingly elusive golden ring. Bartram’s identity as a historian suffered when her final attempts at tenure-track work failed, but she realized she wasn’t the only highly specialized scholar who struggled to grieve the associated losses. Bartram says scholars in general don’t know how to grieve the loss of their colleagues when they leave academia. They don’t know how to grieve the loss of their personal investment, the way it renders years of research useless, and the loss of a vision of a career that seems too willing to lose them. Worse yet, she asks: if academia isn’t willing to financially support qualified researchers and educators, why should researchers contribute to these academic fields after they leave academia?

Even in our supportive responses to those leaving, we don’t want to face what’s being lost, so we try to find ways to tell people it hasn’t all been in vain. One response is to tell the person that this doesn’t mean they’re not a historian, that they can still publish, and that they should. “You can still be part of the conversation!” Some of you may be thinking that right now.

To that I say: “Why should I?”

Being a scholar isn’t my vocation, nor am I curing cancer with my research on 19th century Catholic women. But more importantly, no one is owed my work. People say “But you should still write your book – you just have to.” I know they mean well, but actually, no, I don’t. I don’t owe anyone this book, or any other books, or anything else that’s in my head.

“But your work is so valuable,” people say.  “It would be a shame not to find a way to publish it.”

Valuable to whom? To whom would the value of my labor accrue? And not to be too petty, but if it were so valuable, then why wouldn’t anyone pay me a stable living wage to do it?

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What Happened Onboard the ‘Nautilus’?

The premises of Peter Madsen, who is accused of killing Swedish journalist Kim Wall. (Ole Jensen/Corbis/Getty Images)

For journalist May Jeong, Kim Wall was more than a colleague, she was a friend, a compatriot; she was on the frontlines of the great battle for stories, for freelance assignments, for respect as a reporter. “I only have questions” Wall texted Jeong, “about agency as a woman…and if we will ever be free, no matter what we do.”

At Wired, Jeong traces the final voyage of the Nautilus, the private submarine built by Peter Masden, the subject of a story Wall was working on. When Wall didn’t come home after visiting onboard with Masden, the police began a search that would eventually lead to the discovery of her violent murder.

Jeong travels to Copenhagen to find out what happened to Wall, and through her reporting she also finds a way to move through the grief of her friend’s death.

In the days after she disappeared, I heard people ask questions that betrayed a misunderstanding about reporting—couldn’t she have done the interview over the phone?—and casual sexism—why was she there alone so late? On nights when I couldn’t sleep, I would end up on internet chat rooms where the comments sections filled me with rage: “She is a woman—how could she go alone with a man she does not know?” And: “She had skirt and pantyhose—how could she egg on a poor uncle in that way.”

In Afghanistan, where I worked mostly with men, I never wanted to show any sign of weakness or fear. In reporting this story, my editor made me promise that I wouldn’t put myself in harm’s way. But much of reporting is just that—routinely putting yourself in uncomfortable positions. In the four months I spent on this story, I did things that in other circumstances might have seemed foolish. I went on long drives at night with sources. I met strangers on their doorsteps and entered their homes. In stepping onto that submarine, Kim was doing what any reporter onto a good story would have done.

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