Tag Archives: Academia

A Life Measured in Swipe-Rights

Graffiti on the sidewalk reading "i saw you on tinder"
Image by liborious (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Andrew Kay found himself on the dating market and the academic job market simultaneously, and spoiler alert: they’re deeply analogous, and it turns out that living both the personal and professional parts of your life as one massive interview is not easy, or pleasant. He takes us through the whole stressful, performative, soul-deadening process in The Point magazine — the piece is long, but the candor makes it compelling.

You craft a digital avatar of yourself and send it out into the virtual world, then spend the ensuing months and years honing and revising it; you rehearse behind closed doors again and again, giving yourself forcible makeovers until your behavior, your tics—I almost said your inner being, though this last remains up in the air, a thing you gradually learn not to think about—correspond with the simulacrum. On OkCupid and Tinder, I was “a chill, big-hearted guy,” family-centered, mild-mannered, humorously self-deprecating. In my cover letter I was a young scholar and teacher of luminous promise—bold, theoretically omnivorous, a winner of fellowships and awards, an author of multiple articles with a first book in the pipeline and a second germinating. The process is exhausting: neither in bathroom nor bedroom are you free from it, devouring dating profiles on the toilet, reaching for your cell phone when you accidentally wake at 3 a.m., checking the jobs Wiki from the parking lot outside the gym. At last you crawl, parched and ragged, to the reservoirs of intimate encounter, thinking here at last you can abandon the pretension and performance, here forget and enjoy yourself—only to learn that the performance and assessment have merely begun.

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How the Humanities Became Morally Incoherent

Last week here on Longreads, Josh Roiland shared an unflinching account of his struggle with debt and economic precarity as a tenure-track professor. It was a sobering story — especially since the tenure track, for anyone not on it, appears like a lush, care-free, wood-panneled paradise. At The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard adjunct Kevin Birmingham takes a step back to examine the systemic injustice at the core of today’s humanities: adjunct labor. He does it with a gutsy, powerful move, delivering his critique of academia as the acceptance speech for a prestigious literary-criticism award.

No one, of course, signed up for this. You wanted to teach Milton and Toni Morrison. You wanted to change the way we understand novels and plays. You agree that the current state of affairs is awful. You have written all about the patriarchy and racism and poverty and the subaltern. You call administrators “neoliberals,” and that feels good. You have little job-market chats with incoming grad students. It makes you sad the way local decisions ripple out across the wide surface of a culture, how literary intentions end up serving unforeseen interests, how people may grow rich or suffer, how what was an expression of freedom now becomes a trap, how what was virtuous now becomes immoral.

I sometimes wonder when the ripples widened out beyond what I had imagined. Recently, I sat next to two professors at the plenary session of a graduate-student conference. The students had been presenting their research all weekend, and now they were listening to us. “What is your advice?” a student asked. “Get your hands dirty,” one of the professors said. “Throw yourself into your work. Don’t be afraid.” He is a good person. He is an important scholar and an inspiring teacher. He immigrated to the United States decades ago and threw himself into his love for literature. He worked his way up, as we say, published several books, received tenure, won fellowships and awards, and now, in 2016, he was offering advice about bravery to graduate students surviving on $10,000 a year. This is the carefully dressed underclass of his department, the people who, when he wasn’t looking — because he didn’t go to yesterday’s luncheon — furtively filled their tote bags with leftover fruit and potato chips.

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A Shot in the Arm

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

Josh Roiland | Longreads | February 2017 | 14 minutes (3,710 words)


“Who’s sticking today?” the man asked.

He wore tan work boots and rough jeans. He told a friend in the waiting room that he had a couple hours off work and thought he’d stop in for some extra cash. The receptionist told him the names of that day’s phlebotomists. He paused. Sliding a 16-gauge needle into someone’s arm is tricky, and the man reconsidered. Instead of signing in, he announced to the room that he’d come back tomorrow and try his luck.

I’d driven 107 miles from my home in Bangor, Maine to the BPL Plasma Center in Lewiston to collect $50 for having my arm punctured and a liter of my plasma sucked out. The actual donation takes about 35 minutes, but the drive and its attendant wait makes for an eight-hour day. I clocked in for that trip five times this summer.

I’m a professor at the University of Maine. My salary is $52,000, and I am a year away from tenure. But like everyone else in that room, I was desperate for money. Read more…

Breaking Elgar’s Enigma: Cryptographic Genius or Crackpot?

Photo by Shawn Carpenter (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In New Republic, Daniel Estrin writes about how a former insurance adjuster claims to have solved the 118-year-old cryptographic mystery of the hidden message in Edward Elgar’s infamous Enigma Variations.

And far from the ivory towers of music academia, mostly on his blog, Elgar’s Enigma Theme Unmasked, Bob Padgett has emerged as perhaps the most prolific and dogged of all Enigma seekers. His solution, which has caught the attention of classical music scholars, lies at the bottom of a rabbit hole of anagrams, cryptography, the poet Longfellow, the composer Mendelssohn, the Shroud of Turin, and Jesus, all of which he believes he found hiding in plain sight in the music.

Over the course of seven years of work, and in more than 100 detailed blog posts, Padgett identified about 40 other clues that support his theory, weaving a confounding web of musicological, literary, theological, and historical references.

There is another way to experience music, and that is Padgett’s way: to dissect it, to learn its grammar, and, ultimately, to borrow a phrase from the sequence of coded letters he discovered, to know it better. For Padgett, who is very religious, wrestling with Elgar’s work is akin to studying the Bible. It is reassurance that a grand, intelligent design exists. “For him, it’s a religious text,” his wife told me. “But he didn’t want to go on faith alone. He wanted solid proof.” “I’m an outsider, you know. I’m not one of these credentialed academics. I’m not published,” he said.

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In Defense of Facts: What Is the Essay?

When Fingal points out that D’Agata, far from revealing the meaning of Presley’s life by sifting through its particulars, is inventing and imposing his own meanings on it—this is during an exchange about tae kwon do, which Presley practiced and for which D’Agata concocts an elaborate originary legend involving an “ancient Indian prince”—D’Agata replies that there is something between history and fiction. “We all believe in emotional truths that could never hold water, but we still cling to them and insist on their relevance.” The “emotional truths” here, of course, are D’Agata’s, not Presley’s. If it feels right to say that tae kwon do was invented in ancient India (not modern Korea, as Fingal discovers it was), then that is when it was invented. The term for this is truthiness.

Yet D’Agata, as Fingal notes, is not presenting Presley’s story to the reader as something that has been “poetically embellished” (Fingal’s phrase), or as the chronicle, as D’Agata insists, of his own search for meaning. He is presenting it as a work of nonfiction. D’Agata clearly wants to have it both ways. He wants the imaginative freedom of fiction without relinquishing the credibility (and for some readers, the significance) of nonfiction. He has his fingers crossed, and he’s holding them behind his back. “John’s a different kind of writer,” an editor explains to Fingal early in the book. Indeed he is. But the word for such a writer isn’t essayist. It’s liar.

– In The Atlantic, William Deresiewicz pens a heated critique of controversial writer John D’Agata’s account of the essay’s history, form, and modern incarnation.

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The College Syllabi That Shaped ‘The Waste Land’

Indeed, the famous eclecticism of “The Waste Land,” which incorporates quotations from multiple languages and literatures, can be seen as a tribute to the educational philosophy that governed Harvard during Eliot’s time there…

Yet as Crawford shows in the impressively researched Young Eliot, the “melange of topics” that Eliot explored in college “mightily enriched his poetry.” Eliot’s studies with the philosopher George Santayana planted the seeds of the idea that later emerged in his criticism as the “objective correlative”—the notion that poetic images function as a formula to evoke an emotion. In the recently founded Comparative Literature department, Eliot studied with scholars who “encouraged people…to connect literary works through anthropology to supposedly primitive rituals.” This would become a major technique of “The Waste Land,” which uses the Grail legend, as interpreted by scholars like James Frazer and Jessie Weston, as a structuring myth.

Crawford even manages to track down the moments when Eliot first discovered images and individual words he would later employ in his verse. As a junior, for instance, he took a class on the Roman novel that included Petronius’s Satyricon; years later, the novel’s image of an undying Sibyl appeared in the epigraph of “The Waste Land.” In Eliot’s own annotated copy of the novel, which Crawford examines, the poet glossed the Latin word for mushrooms, tubere in the text—a word that returns in “The Waste Land,” where he writes of winter “Feeding/a little life on dried tubers.” There is something thrilling about the way Crawford locates such moments in time and space, showing how a poem as mysterious and complex as “The Waste Land” draws on something as familiar as a college syllabus.

Adam Kirsch writing in Harvard Magazine about how T.S. Eliot’s time at Harvard shaped his life and career.

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The Two Purposes of History

Underlying the entire conversation was a tension between the two purposes of history, the philosophical or scientific, and the civic. The philosophical or scientific perspective considers the pursuit of historical truth to be of highest value. Like any organized scientific activity, historical research is corrupted when oriented to immediate public ends. Its public value ultimately depends on its autonomy.

The civic purpose of history, on the other hand, is to help a community—a nation, a religious or ethnic group—understand the present in ways that orient that group to the future. The questions asked, and the answers offered, will be ones relevant to the community at large rather than a scholarly community of inquiry.

We need both; in fact the civic depends on the scientific if history is to avoid becoming propaganda or having the preferences of the reading public drive the discipline’s priorities. Before historians can engage the public, they need good knowledge, and thus basic research.

Johann N. Neem, writing for the American Historical Association’s AHA Today blog about a panel discussion on The History Manifesto that was held in D.C. last week.

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Link Rot, or Why the Web May Be Killing Footnotes

The Web dwells in a never-ending present. It is—elementally—ethereal, ephemeral, unstable, and unreliable. Sometimes when you try to visit a Web page what you see is an error message: “Page Not Found.” This is known as “link rot,” and it’s a drag, but it’s better than the alternative. More often, you see an updated Web page; most likely the original has been overwritten. (To overwrite, in computing, means to destroy old data by storing new data in their place; overwriting is an artifact of an era when computer storage was very expensive.) Or maybe the page has been moved and something else is where it used to be. This is known as “content drift,” and it’s more pernicious than an error message, because it’s impossible to tell that what you’re seeing isn’t what you went to look for: the overwriting, erasure, or moving of the original is invisible. For the law and for the courts, link rot and content drift, which are collectively known as “reference rot,” have been disastrous. In providing evidence, legal scholars, lawyers, and judges often cite Web pages in their footnotes; they expect that evidence to remain where they found it as their proof, the way that evidence on paper—in court records and books and law journals—remains where they found it, in libraries and courthouses. But a 2013 survey of law- and policy-related publications found that, at the end of six years, nearly fifty per cent of the URLs cited in those publications no longer worked. According to a 2014 study conducted at Harvard Law School, “more than 70% of the URLs within the Harvard Law Review and other journals, and 50% of the URLs within United States Supreme Court opinions, do not link to the originally cited information.” The overwriting, drifting, and rotting of the Web is no less catastrophic for engineers, scientists, and doctors. Last month, a team of digital library researchers based at Los Alamos National Laboratory reported the results of an exacting study of three and a half million scholarly articles published in science, technology, and medical journals between 1997 and 2012: one in five links provided in the notes suffers from reference rot. It’s like trying to stand on quicksand.

The footnote, a landmark in the history of civilization, took centuries to invent and to spread. It has taken mere years nearly to destroy. A footnote used to say, “Here is how I know this and where I found it.” A footnote that’s a link says, “Here is what I used to know and where I once found it, but chances are it’s not there anymore.” It doesn’t matter whether footnotes are your stock-in-trade. Everybody’s in a pinch. Citing a Web page as the source for something you know—using a URL as evidence—is ubiquitous. Many people find themselves doing it three or four times before breakfast and five times more before lunch. What happens when your evidence vanishes by dinnertime?

Jill Lepore, writing for the New Yorker about the Internet Archive and the difficulties of preserving information on the Web.

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A Well-Rounded Scholar: The Many Alter Egos of A. D. Harvey

Photo by Nicholas Boos

Charitably, we can see the practice of reviewing one’s own works as a kind of knowing critique of the insider trading that can occur among authors and reviewers. Why bother to solicit reviews for your books when you can write them yourself? There may, however, be something more poignant here. Even for holders of tenured university positions, scholarship can make for a lonely life. One spends years on a monograph and then waits a few more years for someone to write about it. How much lonelier the life of an independent scholar, who does not have regular contact, aggravating as that can sometimes be, with colleagues. Attacking one’s own book can be seen as an understandable response to an at times intolerable isolation. How comforting to construct a community of scholars who can analyse, supplement and occasionally even ruthlessly criticize each other’s work. I’ve traced the connections between A. D. Harvey, Stephanie Harvey, Graham Headley, Trevor McGovern, John Schellenberger, Leo Bellingham, Michael Lindsay and Ludovico Parra, but they may be part of a much wider circle of friends.

—Russian literature scholar Eric Naiman wanted to track a minor literary hoax to its source. What he found instead is an ever-expanding network of hard-to-trace scholars citing, reviewing, and plagiarizing each other’s work. Could they all be the fictional creations of one A. D. Harvey, an isolated British researcher? Naiman recounts his detective work in this 2013 story from the Times Literary Supplement.

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