Fear & Loathing in Academia, or Why the University is Structurally Backwards Looking


Long before I ever walked academic halls, I had a certain image of the professorial life that, when I think about it, came predominantly from Animal House. It was a place of equal parts play and thought. 

Later, I'd read William Burroughs and my imagination blossomed  (I substituted "professor" for "writer"): As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle. 

Yes o yes, I'd be a professor! The university would be my home, a place of books and ideas and casual but meaningful sex. It'd be relaxed and indulgent yet concerted when it mattered. In my delusional imagination, academia was an oasis in the desert of capitalism and its soul draining daily demands. 

Then, as a grad student, I was immediately thrown into the classroom, teaching composition to Berkeley undergrads. While many would grimace at such a prospect, I felt like I was home. Being in the classroom felt good and right. Sure, I wasn't paid much but I was paid—and in pre-dot com San Francisco, that mere $17,000 a year, give or take, was plenty. (Writing that now, it seems insane!)  

So yes and yes again! I'll teach, gladly and enthusiastically. And then I'll read some books that I love. And I'll write about them. This is perfect! It's everything I thought it would and should be.

Until, relatively quickly, it wasn't. Soon, the ugliness would rear its head with such bilious determination, I'm still staggering from it. At first, I thought it a local problem—this professor is anxious and insecure. I didn't see the institution at work, breeding anxiety, systematically quashing thought, creativity, and worst of all, pleasure. (In Nietzschean fashion, I ask: Who would ever found and propel an institution that didn't foster pleasure?)

Looking back, I should have known. As an undergrad, I'd read plenty of academic writing. And, as we all know, it's not exactly a genre that fosters pleasure or the delight of thinking. Which is why I'd shied away from it, sticking to so-called primary sources. When I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Foucault's historiographical methodology, I mostly just read Foucault. Later, when writing my dissertation, my bibliography has around 40 books—all by the authors I was writing about. I don't think I included one contemporary academic text in my entire dissertation. Life's too short, as my brilliant advisor would say. Or too long, my comrade in rhetorical arms would offer.

But I assumed that everyone agreed! That we were all on the same page! After all, who wants to read that arid, convoluted, pedantic scholarly prose? Sure, there might be a keen insight here and there. But deciphering and uncovering it comes at too great a cost to one's soul and body! So I just figured we were all of an ilk when it came to such things.

Oy, silly me! If I'd thought about it for a moment, I'd have realized that this academic writing was written by those in the academy. So if their prose is life draining, it's not a big jump to seeing that they are products and proponents of a life draining system. Plus, well, it turns out criticizing academic writing is not the way to endear oneself to academics. But I really thought we all agreed that this kind of academic writing is not only absurd, it's antithetical to our mission, namely, fostering and teaching the art of thinking! Holy moly, was I naive.

I'm trying to place the first incident that should have told me everything I needed to know. It could have been when I was teaching as a GSI (graduate student instructor) and my class was over enrolled so, to weed out the disinterested, I required they write a paper. One student did not. But, as I'd eloped the night before, I forgot to drop him from my class roster. And by the next day, the system wouldn't let me do it; the student had to drop himself. Which, it seems, angered him. And so he complained to the department. I was summoned to a well-known faculty member's office—she wrote and taught about pornography; her curriculum on the subject, I imagine, was quite different from what I'd teach on the subject—anyway, she summoned me and said: "Students are your clients. You can't kick him out."  Really?!? I would never, and will never, see students as clients. 

And then there was a very well known faculty member who chaired my dissertation exams. As I had a good, friendly relationship with her, I asked if she'd consider chairing my dissertation. Rather than saying yes or no or instructing me to ask otherwise, she launched into a tirade about how inappropriate I was by asking so casually and not referring to her as Professor or Doctor and—and!—asking about her son about which we'd spoke frequently in the past but, it seems, was verboten in this context.

And then, upon walking out of my successful oral exams, this same said well know professor of a certain radical theory of gender told me to have my dissertation prospectus to her in two weeks. Once again: Oy. Needless to say, I did not and she did not remain on my dissertation committee. Who subscribes to these idiotic formal rules of this inane institution? This so-called radical faculty member, that's who. And also perhaps needless to say: at that point, without quite knowing it yet, I kissed any academic career goodbye. Because nepotism premised on sycophantism is pro forma in this institution of pettiness.

Or when I was no longer a graduate student but adjunct faculty and I was summoned to this same said radical philosopher's office who told me that my cursing in my lectures had to stop as it "offended students' moral and religious beliefs." I'm not making this up. 

Or when that same well known faculty member informed her graduate students that their teaching should always take a back seat to their job search. 

Or when I was denied a contract for being a "demagogue"  — despite growing the major and driving money into the department. 

Or, when I was teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, and became loathed by faculty I'd never met once because their students were all in my class — at which point I was asked to limit enrollment so professors whose classes no one wanted to take would have students in them. Again, I'm not making this up. 

Yes, some might consider me paranoid. And, no doubt, there is much to loathe about me. But teaching the shit out of my classes with enough both quantitative and qualitative metrics to prove my success should not have been one of those reasons.

The fact is: I taught the shit out of my classes because I loved teaching and took it seriously. I poured my heart and soul into every class. And I believed that would be enough to afford me professional success. Students loved me! The major grew! And that is precisely why they canned me — or didn't renew my contract, which is the same thing. I'm not saying I'm not an asshole. But I was a committed, good teacher — and that was the very reason they canned me! It was ressentiment. 

I don't mean to invoke these personal anecdotes as proof of the academy's idiocy. I proffer them as my first hand account of an institution dedicated to backwards thinking. There is no place in the American academy for original thought. The entire enterprise is premised on scholarship, on having some domain of expertise and, preferably, access to some document that gives you dominion over the smallest, least interesting realm imaginable.

Not only is there no incentive to think creatively, it's institutionally prohibited. To wit, I was in the Rhetoric Department. As I wasn't going to get a job in other rhetoric departments—they mostly focus on composition theory—I was told to write about something that could get me a job in an English department—20th century American beat literature or something like that. But my interests move across time, country, and genre—like all thinking does— so I wrote about philosophers and writers from different countries. But that meant there were literally no jobs for me. 

The academy, alas, is premised on having domains of expertise. It is distinctly not dedicated to thinking. Thinking cuts across time, place, and genre as it wants. The academy does not. Look at the departments; look at the courses they offer. They're all pedantic, tightly bound fields: 19th Century British Women Writers; 20th Century French Phenomenology (well, that's not actually offered); Conceptions of the Self in Ancient Greek Poetry. These might be interesting subjects but they are constrained by institutional demarcations that prohibit the meandering essential to thought.

Without a specified and predetermined subject matter of expertise, there is no way to enter the academy. The gates are kept by pedantic weasels protecting their domain of knowledge and systematically prohibiting anything resembling live thought. And if all the domains and departments already exist, where does the novel live? How are new ways of thinking supposed to enter and operate?

Mind you, this is not to say that there aren't great people in academia. I know many. But they are the exception. And, more to the point, they got in by playing the scholarly game. Power to them. I was naive enough to think being smart, loving writing, and being a great teacher would be enough. Not only weren't they not enough: they are precisely why the academy refused me with such ardor!

Rather than fostering thought, academia is thought's undertaker. The institution is premised on pre-existing fields of knowledge. Whence these fields? Why aren't they up for grabs? And it's premised on "mastering" some tiny, specialized domain that you're then expected to protect. Which means, like all experts, you're dedicated to received knowledge and existing modes of approach. The entire institution is, quite literally, backwards looking. And this is supposed to be where new thinking is born! It's absurd.  

But, even worse, it's so depressing. The fact is I have more time and freedom working for the so-called Man than I ever would have being a professor. I work for my clients, sure, but I maximize my time writing and thinking about anything I want—death, tequila, Deleuze, Burroughs, porn, pedagogy, dating. I miss teaching terribly. But at least I'm free to think and write as I want. 

I haven't taught in 10 years. But the small glimpse I get of life there today seems so miserable, so determined to eradicate pleasure—in life and thought—I'm relieved they got rid of me before this new assault. It's to the point where I am discouraging my 15 year old son from going to college as I tell him—much to his delight—that there are other ways to learn, think, and experience life. (Mind you, "work" isn't one of those other ways. So it's a quandary as to what life holds for him.)

Frankly, this all makes me sad. Because academia should be amazing, vital, challenging, delirious. It should be a place of delight in ideas and conversation and other people. A place of exploration—intellectual, sexual, existential. A place that actively fosters thinking and the new rather than systematically eliminating it, an oasis from the quotidian soul death of American work, a viable counterpoint to the techno-capitalist assault on existence. O, to smoke that spliff with Donald Sutherland and become a world in someone else's thumbnail! That sounds perfect just about now.


Anonymous said...

kakistocracy (noun): a system of government that is run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous...

jim said...

As Paolo Virno says, work has been turned into politics and is now a form of servile virtuosity.

Mat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mat said...

I was never a student of yours but I listened to your Rhetoric 10 online through iTunes U. I have to say with complete honesty, that it changed the way I thought forever. Nietzsche was never the same after your class. I shared it with my roommate at the time and we listened to the entire series, we even bought the UC Berkeley booklet with the readings even though we were students in North Carolina.

I think its a tragedy that you no longer teach or offer any type of lectures online. As you opened my eyes to the "everything is an argument" perspective of the world that changes how everything else is seen. I found your lectures because you were one of the first people to even offer an online lecture series. It was only you and Hubert Dreyfus doing his existentialism series at the time.

This blog post is more dishearting not because of the politics involved in being a professor at a major university but because it feels like you never took your own lectures to heart. The medium is the fucking massage!

I bought your book and read it but it just doesn't have the same power as your Rhetoric 10 class. Anyone who listens to those lectures can tell you love teaching. And the way you can take such ordinary things and put a new perspective on it was profound. It's like you were a new DJ on the scene remixing Socrates with a fat new beat.

I was listening to Jordan Peterson's lectures online on personality. And it bought a memory back of your lectures. I was hoping you were going to be on Coursera, EdX, Youtube lecture channel or something...But it was only your blog. While fun to read; it's like listening to an album that you've heard a hundred times compared to seeing the band play live front row with all your friends out of their minds.

Something about reading this post was...well...unpleasurable. It was like reading the last few chapters in 1984 after the man's will has been broken. I ended up at a mundane corporate job and I asked myself, what would Burroughs do? So I quit my fucking job and I'm taking my savings and moving down to Mexico.

I only write this because it's a damn shame that you don't teach anymore. Not that I particularly care, but what you gave back to the world and in particular, to me was something real. Join the Singularity. Novel ideas live on the Internet now. The University is dead. It's just a place to get laid and party. Although I've always thought the university is romanticized.

I've never even stepped a foot in your classroom. And you are one of a few teachers in my life that truly changed the way I saw the world. So to see this post where you blame the system instead of devising and designing...is truly depressing. I mean... What would fucking Burroughs do?

But what do I know...I'm just an army of metaphors.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Well, Mat, first of all: I'm glad those lectures did you right. They were something, indeed. But a few things: I do still teach — online, usually, but sometimes in person here in the Bay Area. But always for pleasure.

More importantly, I never felt a need or desire to 'fight' a system. I've engineered my life to be so much more free and delightful than it ever could have been in the uptight academy where not only might my thinking have been limited and coerced but, these days, I'd probably have ended up in jail or court.

I'm not a do gooder who has any will to fight a system. That's not something I ever taught. I am a rhetorician; I seek opportunity. And the opportunity I seized is that I can make good money working very little which affords me tons of time to think and write without any of the restrictions of the academy (academic publishing, the demands of tenure, the politics of petty egos). Sure, I miss teaching. But I've facilitated a quite excellent and mostly free existence.

The academy IS depressing. It's a silly institution; as DG would say, it's antiquated. I have no desire to expend my energy saying No to it when I can spend my energy saying Yes to me, to my son, to my friends, to my girlfriend.

But I am participating in an online university that is non-academic, exciting, new: https://renegadeuniversity.com/product/friedrich-nietzsche/. Take a peek.

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