A Rumination on “Political Correctness”

I should probably note that there’ll be some language in this post some readers will find markedly inappropriate.*

In classes I have taught, in my work for the substance abuse clinic, and elsewhere, the idea of “political correctness” has come up more than once–usually used as a term of derogation for those who worry about not offending others. For instance, not long ago at the clinic, a client made a mocking comment about my assuming the presented gender when I was retrieving information, a smirk plastered across the face when saying “How dare you presume my gender” in a drippingly unctuous tone. When I replied “You’re right, and I apologize; which gender would you prefer?” in my practiced professional tone, looking the client dead in the eye, the client stammered out a half-hearted justification of “making fun of those, you know, political correctness people.” But it is not always the case that I am able to make such a response, given the constraints of what I do and where.

In my classroom, however, I am able to do a bit more to work against the expression of such views, if not the holding of them (although I know that language influences perception, so that changes to language do work to change minds, at least in some small way or another). Most of what I teach is writing, after all, and so explicitly and specifically concerned with choosing words carefully and arranging them precisely and considering topic and purpose and audience and desired effects and unintentional consequences–and I note, repeatedly, that every character on every page–and, indeed, every page–is a choice made and so carries meaning, whether it is wanted or not. My students, then, expect that I will or may well comment on every utterance–and they should, since it is at least part of my job to do so. (Even aside from grading, I am supposed to coach them along.)

I do not much censor myself in my classroom; I use the language that comes to mind when it comes to mind, for the most part, and that does sometimes run to what many might think obscene. Some of it is done as part of my work to reassure students that their own usage does not indicate that they are unintelligent–something about which I’ve expressed concern before (here and here, among others). Leaving aside at least one interesting study, if an English professor with a doctorate in the subject will drop a “fuck” in class, or point out that “shit” has been in English longer than “beautiful” (per the OED and Bosworth and Toller), then they can’t be too stupid for using such language, themselves. So it might be thought that I am not in favor of so-called PC culture, in which hyperattention to language and overwariness of the possibility of offense results in creeping euphemisms that appear to weaken rhetorical force through circumlocution and meandering neologism.

The thing is, though, that I follow the idea (not my own, although I do not recall its provenance) that most of what gets decried as “PC” is “people asking to be called by their right name,” and getting people’s names right is a simple matter of politeness and attention. (Yes, I know there are people who use PCness as a means of abusing others–just as there are people who use any and every human construct as a means of abusing others. There are words for such people. “Jerk” is a good one. So is “asshat.” So are others.) And I have found a means of addressing the issue that seems to resonate with students–at least, they are more careful about making complaints about “being PC” after I present it to them.

There are some background ideas involved in it. One is voiced prominently by a University of Toronto professor I’ll not name because I do not want to be perceived as endorsing such an idea–namely, that your choice of preferred address does not in any way compel me to alter my usage, that how you prefer to be addressed and referred to does not oblige me to do so. Another is that whatever words are used “are just words,” and that people “need to grow thicker skins and not be so easily offended.” And it was with those ideas in mind that, in a class I taught a while back, when a student (older amid a bunch of more traditional students) started to get onto the proverbial soapbox about PC culture being censorship, I hoped up onto my own; as its planks squeaked under my weight, I asked what I thought was a simple question:

“And if I decided to call all of my students ‘Shithead,’ would that be okay? After all, it’s just a word, right? So I could be all, ‘Hey, Shithead, did you remember to turn in your assignment?’ and that’d be okay?”*

(Or words to that effect. It’s been a while.)

As might be expected, the class went silent, including the student who had been about to rail against PC culture. After an awkwardly quiet moment, I took the opportunity to lay out my position, explaining that of course it’d be a problem for me to decide that all of my students’ names might as well be Shithead or Asshat or something equally insulting–not necessarily because of the word itself, but because the students’ names are theirs to determine, just as the “PC” labels that are often decried are the names of the people concerned to determine. It seemed to make sense to the students; at the very least, they did not try to argue to me that getting names of people and populations right was an infringement on their free expression (although I am sure some still thought it, and others cared not either way, but simply wanted to get through the class as they could).

I’ve taught since that class, obviously, and while it has not been the case that each section I’ve taught has had the PC issue come up, it has been one that has gotten addressed fairly often–more times than not. Each time, I use the model I stumbled onto in a bit of in-class pique, and, each time, the students seem to take the point–or fake it well enough that I can let it slide. So there is that much, at least, that I’m able to do.

*The language is, more or less, what I use and have used, and the language was calculated to shock–with the idea that the shock would help drive the lesson home. Then again, my teaching has been much reduced since I first went on this tack, so there may be something to various students’ condemnations of me.

However you feel about “being PC,” I hope you’ll feel like sending a bit of help my way.


In Response to Brian Rosenberg

On 29 May 2018, Brian Rosenberg’s “Are You in a ‘BS Job’? Thank You for Your Work. No, Really” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article opens with a summary of common complaints about administration and the remark that the Chronicle hosts no few such–including David Graeber’s “Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone” (about which my comments appear here and here)–before rehearsing Rosenberg’s own experience on both sides of such complaints. The author then asserts a position contrary to the tendency to badmouth administration and staff, grounding the assertion in staff:student ratios and anecdotal commentary from Rosenberg’s own situation and background. After, the article turns to a reflection on administrative burdens, usefully citing Adm. William H. McRaven and the Vietnam War era before offering a Swiftian passage and concluding on a variation of the oft-rehearsed teacher’s protestation that those who actually come and try to do the work will have a markedly different view afterward.

The note must be made that Rosenberg is president at Macalester College. As such, he is in the kind of position against which Graeber rails, so it is understandable that he would rail against Graeber and those like him, in turn. And that position might well make readers somewhat suspicious of claims Rosenberg makes; he has a vested interest in the opinions of others about the validity of his job, so arguing against those who would question that validity is to be expected–and it is easy to overreach in such an argument.

That it is easy, however, does not mean that it happens. Rosenberg admits to his own culpability in propagating the myths he decries in the article. He also admits to the limitations of his data sets, acknowledging likely causes for the observations made from them (although they are themselves problematic, the more in that he is in a position to vitiate against them at his own institution), as well as the anecdotal nature of much of his discussion. While the Swiftian passage in the penultimate paragraph might come off as somewhat excessive, it is both brief and rooted in a long polemical tradition, and it is done in service to what is an essentially sound central point: if there are more administrators, it is because 1) more administration is demanded by even the compassionate, student-centered university towards which institutions ostensibly strive (let alone the technological and regulatory realities of higher education) and 2) more people are classified as administration than their job duties would normally prescribe. It is a point worth making.

And I have to add my own comments to Rosenberg’s here. I have seen no few poor administrators and staff, to be sure, just as I have seen no few poor instructors–and any other set of professionals that could be named. But I have also seen college deans teaching introductory classes at eminently undesirable times (5 to 9 or 10pm on Fridays. for example), and I’ve had others who’ve back me wholly when the inevitable complaints from students have arisen. At the same time, I have complained about “the management” as “the enemy,” and I have railed against administrators who have not taught the classes they oversee in years, if ever. The truth, I think, lies somewhere between Graeber (in this regard, although not in others, as I’ve noted) and Rosenberg–and finding it, finding any truth, is something worth doing.

Care to support these endeavors? Send a little help my way!

In Response to Adam Kirk Edgerton

On 25 May 2018, Adam Kirk Edgerton’s “What’s Wrong with Being from the South? Just Ask an Academic in the North” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article opens with an anecdote from Edgerton’s undergraduate life in which the idea of escaping his upbringing is voiced, leading to an explication of prevailing academic presumptions against the rural South. Edgerton moves on to treat the mutually reinforcing effects of those presumptions on both academic populations and those who inhabit the rural South before decrying the reactionary impulses on both sides–including their historical grounding. The author also notes that the historical grounding that is typically presented serves to oversimplify matters, and that academics tend not to question that particular oversimplification, which situates geographical identity in much the same way that racial/ethnic and gender identities are by those populations academics would decry. Edgerton offers a gentle rebuke of the mental laziness involved in accepting the oversimplification and returns, at last, to the idea of the contradictory identities of displaced Southerners in (Northern) academe.

I cannot claim to come from the same circumstances as Edgerton, to be sure. I am from the South, true, but the Southernness of Texas is not the same as the Southernness of the Carolinas (and that of San Antonio, in the shadow of which I grew up, is more different still)–and my family is Midwestern, so that I never was as immersed in the South as were those around whom I grew up. Too, I am a cisgendered heterosexual white man of British descent, raised ostensibly Protestant by two veterans of the US military, so that I occupy quite a few positions of privilege. I am I cannot speak on the matter with Edgerton’s force. But I can speak to it, because I am also a Southern man who has been involved in academe elsewhere than the South (in New York City and in Oklahoma–and the latter is not the South, despite its strange desire to be so), and the…disdain in which the overwhelming majority of the South is held (Austin and New Orleans seem to be the exceptions), of which Edgerton writes, is not unknown to me.

This is not to say the South does not have its share of problems, of course, and even Texas. There is too damned much of each of racism, homophobia, sexism, and religious discrimination, there is too damned much jingoism, and there is too damned little regard for reflection and thought. But that is also true of other parts of the country. I have had to have pointed conversations with Midwesterners who made comments about “knowing how those Mexicans are” more often than with Texans, and to rebuke locker-room talk of certain epithets in New York City more than even in Lafayette, Louisiana. I have heard comments about “you people” from passengers on New Jersey Transit trains more than on VIA buses–all while being told that “racism is a Southern problem; we don’t have that up here [in the Mid-Atlantic].” And I’ve heard no few times the disbelief that I do not (normally) carry the accent/s around which I grew up from people alongside whom I’ve taught, or who hear me talk at Kalamazoo or elsewhere, when they learn that I’m from where I’m from.

I’m glad, therefore, to see Edgerton’s piece and to see the issues it raises get some attention. I’m less so that the issues are there to get the attention, but if they have to be, then, as Edgerton puts it, they ought to push all of us “to ask how academe might better speak to all regions of the country.”

Help me keep these responses coming! Send a little bit my way!

Poems after the Styles of Others: An Epic Entry

Sing, O, Muse, of the ire of Helios, who looks
With burning eye upon the hills that rise where once
Did Ocean flow and from what that flow bore are made,
Which now excites the metal Hermes to those heights
Again where it has danced before, as all look on
And shade themselves with hat and bough of tree, and long
For other days when they despised the cold now fled
And shivered in their coats and by their fires and thought
That they would fain again tempt Theia’s child’s rebuke!

I wonder if you’d help me avoid the wrath of Hyperion’s son.

A Rumination on Destroying Records

I have not made a secret of the fact my current day-job–the full-time work that pays most of my bills, so that my ongoing teaching work can help me get my family ahead–has me work as an administrative assistant for a substance abuse clinic in the Texas Hill Country. It is, as it were, what I do as an academic expatriate, the source of those remesas that I still send to that country which I sought to enter and to which I can only return at intervals. And while I approve of the job for many reasons (the hours are good, the pay is steady, I can leave work at work, I get vacation time to go do the academic part of my life, and I am helping people), there are some functions of the job that sit less well with me.

Oddly, cleaning this is not one such. I do it, but I do not mind so much.
Yes, I took this picture, and yes, it is the staff bathroom at my workplace.

Perhaps the chief among such ill-sitting job functions is the destruction of records. Like many organizations, that for which I work has a records-retention policy, and, because one of my job duties names me as a custodian of records (on which account I have been called to court more than once), I enforce that policy. That is, I put things into the records room at our facility and, when the time comes, I take things out–forever. I’m not generally able to do it on a daily basis, but what I am able to do is take out large chunks of information that has passed its retention time and prepare it to be taken where it can be destroyed in appropriate fashion.

Such as this stack of boxes, each of which is full of stuff that is soon to go away.
And there are others yet.
Again, the photo is mine.

I know that we have a retention policy for a reason. We have limited storage space and no budget to rent more. There are also liability concerns involved with keeping the information; the longer we keep it, the longer we can be held to account for keeping it, which can have court implications. (I do not like being called to court. I go, but it is not one of the more entertaining parts of my job.) And, in all truth, there are matters contained in our records that those whose records they are may well want to have buried, chapters in their lives that they would have closed–and I cannot blame them, truly. Even with as sedate and uninteresting a life as I’ve had, there are things I’d rather other people not know about, that I wish I could forget and that I am relieved other people probably have; for those whose lives have been a bit more…dynamic, I imagine the longing to forget and be forgotten–and to be kept confidential, as is clients’ right (you’ll notice that I name no names)–is a bit more pronounced.

But it is not merely a matter of packaging papers to be ported away. It is a matter of readying them for slaughter, for taking the traces people have left behind and setting them up to be destroyed. If, as Edmundson writes (and about which I have commented more than once before, not just here), the records left behind are testimonies to the worth and dignity of the people they record, and they are therefore deserving of respect as human creations–metonymically or synecdochally the people themselves–then what might well be an unreflective preparation of kindling or shredder-bait becomes something far less pleasant.

Related image
I’m told this is a public domain image of a public domain painting,
Pedro Berruguette’s Santo Domingo y los Albigenses.
I use it for purposes of commentary–but I am not sure I need to make the comment.

I sought to settle in the academic land of literary study; I am a lover of books and of writing, generally. And perhaps I romanticize writing and records and archives to some (great) extent as a result of that attempted homesteading. But although I am an academic expatriate, although I know that I must labor as I am bidden if I hope in any way to support the country I sought to enter, I am made uneasy by what I have become in making the attempt to join those ranks. Though I appreciate getting to do the work I do, I cannot say that all of it is as I would have it be–but that is true of all jobs that can be had.

Work pays the bills, but more support is welcome.


A Rumination on Graduation

It is the time of year in my part of the world–the Texas Hill Country–when high school careers come to their ends. (Colleges, for the most part, have already done so, and the scramble to find work before student loans start to come due has begun in earnest.) As is to be expected, there is a fair bit of pageantry going on, the pomp and circumstance to which Elgar gives the traditional soundtrack, and, at the high school from which I graduated, what is hoped to become a new tradition has begun: the Senior Walk, in which those about to graduate return, in regalia, to the elementary schools they attended, where they cheer and are cheered by the students in attendance.

Senior Parade
Seniors at Tom Daniels ES
Photo by Jenna Carpenter of the Kerrville Daily Times, used for commentary

I can see the value in such a gesture. In reminding the graduating seniors of their own educational beginnings, the schools promote students’ reflection on their achievement and enrichment, as well as helping to foster pleasant memories that may well lead to future support of the schools. In showing the elementary school students what the end-results can look like, the schools promote more attention to and focus on school from the younger pupils, which is likely to increase their engagement with the formal educational enterprise. And for families who may have pupils across grades–whether siblings or cousins–there are welcome opportunities for reaffirming familial bonds. (As a family man, the appeal thereof is not lost on me.)

That said, there are some problems with the event. Not all who graduate from the high school attended any of the elementary schools, for one; people move into the town and the school district later than fourth or fifth grade, after all. Some students–and I would have been in this group–attended more than one of the district’s elementary schools; which elementary school gets to have a student for Senior Walk who attended three or four of them?

And then there are the students like me in other ways. Had this been a thing when I was at that age, I’d’ve hated it, and if I couldn’t have skipped out on it, I’d’ve been…less than pleasant. (I was something of a little shit as a kid. Now, having grown past that, I’m something of a big shit.) It appears I’d’ve had company, as well.

Clearly not the happiest of campers; I sympathize
Photo by Brandy McCoy of the Hill Country Community Journal,
used for commentary

Admittedly, I am a curmudgeon, a gorgon to the joyful heart and fond of graveled paths. But, then as now, I would have resented being forced to parade about–indeed, I tried to get out of attending my own high school graduation, raging against having to walk the stage, and I still maintain that I had better things to do with a rainy Friday evening than sit and listed to speeches and a long roster recited slowly. (It is a lesson I have learned; if Ms. 8 wants to sit hers out and the school will permit it–as some do not–I will allow her to do so. But that is a way off yet.) And so I have to wonder if, in the attempt to foster community, the schools have not pushed some further outside it, bred resentment at being the subjects of a dog and pony show into students who had wanted nothing more than to get out at long last–and what they might well have lost in so doing.

Care to contribute? It’d be appreciated!

A Rumination on Memorial Day

In the United States, today is Memorial Day, ostensibly dedicated to honoring those who have died in military service to the United States, and more commonly observed as 1) the unofficial beginning of summer (summer in the sense of persistent high temperatures has generally already come to the Texas Hill Country in which I live by the time of Memorial Day, and the solstice is not for nearly a month yet), 2) an opportunity for stores to attract customers through sales, and 3) an almost-obligatory day of grill- and smoker-work. For me, as for many others, it is a day off from regular work (though that occasions its own challenges); for me, as for seemingly relatively few others, it is a day inviting reflection, as well.

Memorial Day 2010
Few, not none.
Public domain photo from Arlington National Cemetery

I am not a person who normally makes much of holidays, being of a decidedly secular bent and of a generally staid and curmudgeonly demeanor. But I understand that many other people, perhaps most, are, and I do not necessarily begrudge others their observances (though I do begrudge being bombarded with them, as is sometimes the case, as well as having my generally quiet and unobtrusive non-observance berated), and I remain committed to at least some notion of the life of the mind, to the service of Truth as something that might actually approach being an objective good. So I note that, despite the US-endemic hyper-commercialization attendant upon the holiday, and in addition to the (problematic in several ways, I know) family-reinforcing tendency towards grilling and outdoor togetherness that accompanies it, there are those who observe the memorial sincerely–even as it arises from the US Civil War and, in particular, those who were on the rightly losing side of that conflict. And I wonder why it is that only service under arms is valued, or valued so highly. For it is not the case that service under arms is the only service that works to the public good, nor is it the case that service under arms does the most public good. Nor yet is it the case that only those who serve under arms are like to die in that service–as has been too abundantly and too often proven in the past months.

I leave aside entirely whether or not those who have died in service under arms deserve commemoration. I do not leave, however, the question of what it says that only those who die in such a way seem to deserve it. The public priorities would seem to be suggested thereby, and I am not certain the suggestion is one of which the prevailing public ought to be proud, whether when it marks its fallen warriors or at any other time.

As ever, contributions are welcome–and appreciated!

In Another Response to Paul Sturtevant

A version of this review appears on Amazon.com.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to buy a copy of Paul B. Sturtevant’s The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film, and Medievalism (I.B. Tauris, 2018; ISBN 9781788311397).* After prefatory materials, the book offers an introduction to its field of study and the particulars of the study on which it reports before examining prevailing and study-participant-understandings of “medieval” and “the Middle Ages.” Sturtevant goes on to discuss historical films, generally, and medieval and medievalist films, more specifically, before reporting in some detail on participants’ reactions to three major medieval/ist films of the early 21st Century (Beowulf, Kingdom of Heaven, and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and their articulated understandings of the medieval world. A conclusion outlining implications and potential uses of the study follows, with appendices treating methodological concerns, notes, references, and an index closing out the volume. At close to 320 pages, it is a substantial volume, not likely to be the reading of an afternoon, but it certainly rewards the time spent reading it.

Screenshot of Cover of _The_Middle_Ages_in_Popular_Imagination.png
I took a screenshot of the cover from the publisher’s website.
I use it here for purposes of reporting.

As with any work, there are concerns to be raised about it. Several receive attention from Sturtevant; for example, in the conclusion of his book, he notes that there are decided limitations on his study, including demographic selectivity (participants in the study that led to the book were drawn from undergraduates at the University of Leeds, among other factors) and the inherent challenges of qualitative research. Since they are explicitly noted, however, they do not present problems with the book itself so much as they serve to note how much work is yet to be done–but that is a good thing for scholars, as it helps to assure that they will always have more work to do.

A bit more annoying, perhaps, is the obvious legacy of dissertation work in the book. Sturtevant acknowledges that the volume is the (expected) outgrowth or refinement of his doctoral work (pg. XV), and that is not bad in itself; what comes across as less than optimal is the seemingly formulaic nature of several of the chapters, which exhibit a “tell ‘em what you’ll tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and tell ‘em what you told ‘em” pattern that can grate. (Not all chapters do so; those that do not are likely the product of Sturtevant’s increasing knowledge and understanding–which are formidable even within the dissertation-esque portions and, it must be remarked, are decidedly impressive in his work on The Public Medievalist.) It joins the occasional intrusion of copy-editing error in getting in the way of what is otherwise an excellent read.

And the book is an excellent read. The central tenets of the work–the oft-decried youth do care about their collective past and do learn from what they see; popular media do much to teach them, so it is incumbent for makers of such media to handle well what they do; scholars who want to see better understandings of their fields need to reach out to the public in accessible ways, though change will be slow–are all things that bear consideration and repetition, and they all demand the best efforts that those who will do the work of the mind can exert. The details used to support those tenets are presented accessibly and do well to illustrate the points Sturtevant makes throughout his book. The repudiation of “conventional wisdom” that “kids don’t know anything” is decidedly welcome, as is the assertion that early exposures exercise outsized influence on people’s understandings (which makes curation of childhood media consumption all the more important). Too, the notion that media exposure often leaves information in the mind without connection to its sourcing has important pedagogical and sociological implications. And, in a more aesthetic light, much of Sturtevant’s prose is flatly enjoyable reading–which is rare in academic texts, and rarer still in the dissertation work from which the present volume emerges.

Sturtevant is right in that there is more work to do. He is better than that in offering a useful starting point for such work in The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination. I am glad to have had the opportunity to read it.

*In the interest of full disclosure, my access to the text was facilitated by the author.

Care to help facilitate my access to other texts?

In Response to Paul Sturtevant

On 11 May 2018, Paul Sturtevant‘s “What if Thanos’s Plan in Avengers: Infinity War Actually Happened? It Already Did (Sort Of)” appeared in the online Washington Post. In the article, which opens with an appropriate spoiler warning, Sturtevant connects the cinema-suggested effects of rapid depopulation to the historically observed effects of rapid depopulation in one of the most prominent occasions thereof: the Black Death. The article points out the spread and indiscrimination of the plague and traces some of the notable early reactions to the pestilential wave: self-flagellation, religious tensions, hedonistic fatalism, and disruption of preexisting social hierarchies due to sudden release of material wealth and collapse of systems of production. Sturtevant goes on to point out that Europe returned to stability soon after the wave of devastation occasioned by the disease, pointing to it as a seemingly paradoxical beacon of hope against similarly destructive events that many envision coming.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet Sturtevant (head of the excellent website, The Public Medievalist) and the even better fortune to read his 2018 book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination (my review of which is forthcoming here and in a couple of other places), and it is always a pleasure to read his work. Having the chance to do so again in the Post is therefore welcome, and it is good to see how he continues to link contemporary mainstream cinema to the medieval. It is also good to see accessible medieval scholarship in a far-reaching platform, and it is better to see that scholarship used to promote a positive message, rather than the denigration usually meant or implied by references to the medieval (by non-medievalists, of course; those of use who dedicate ourselves to medieval studies as a field tend to see it as no less wrong-headed than the current epoch–worse in some ways, true, but better in others).

One point at which I have some small issue with the article is in the fourth- and fifth-to-last paragraphs:

The old order was indeed undone. That was not necessarily a bad thing, in Gottfried’s telling. Old class boundaries crumbled as “cheap, abundant human labor” disappeared. New technologies and new equalities arose in its place. The shortage of cheap labor helped break the system of serfdom, and promoted the growth of the middle class.

But unlike what Thanos seems to expect of the universe, the new world that rose from the ashes of the Black Death was not a more ecologically sustainable one. It did not result in reduced consumption of natural resources long term, and notably, within a handful of generations, the population of Europe rebounded completely.

The latter paragraph implies that, post-Plague, things returned very much to the way they were pre-Plague. Such rapacity as had been in place was not set aside, such population pressures as had been in place returned. But while the European middle class did arise largely in the wake of the Plague in Europe, it did not do so through the elimination of the lower socioeconomic classes; there were still many poor, many downtrodden, and those in power still wielded arbitrary, terrible authority over others. The population returned to its earlier levels, so the labor supply did, as well, and the addition or enhancement of an intervening social stratum between the highest and the lowest likely only made for another group happy to keep others “in their places”–so I have to wonder if the “equalities” in the former paragraph should read “inequalities” instead.

That is a minor point, however, against the excellent springboard for thought and consideration Sturtevant offers in his article. He points to a potential for much medievalist work to be done with the movie that gives rise to the piece, and there is no small delight in following an idea forward, even one that is voiced in a work of fiction featuring purple people in awkward poses. Too, again, the idea that the medieval points toward hope rather than a dirty, dreadful despair is a welcome message to see. There seems to be a need for it, in any event.

Help me keep the past of penury from becoming the present?

In Response to David Graeber

On 6 May 2018, David Graeber’s “Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article–a longer one–opens with a plain statement of intent (to write about bullshit academic labor) and a clarifying definition (bullshit labor is work known by the worker to be pointless). Graeber works to establish his ethos for conducting his discussion before suggesting that perhaps half the work being done could be eliminated as bullshit, noting that the increase in bullshit labor is detrimental across fields of endeavor–especially academe. He explicates the degree of bullshit-spread throughout academic institutions, noting that marked increases in administrative staff have prompted the increasing proportion of bullshit labor being done by academics. A case study focused on “Chloe, the nonexecutive dean” is used to exemplify the problem, and Graeber takes pains to note the prevalence of the problem not only in Europe, but also in the US, as well as commenting that the interaction of fields promoted by academic establishments conduces to the peculiar proliferation of bullshit work in academe. He adds that workable solutions are likely to come from neither academic management nor academic labor, but from outside academe–although he expresses hope that such may happen, citing earlier intellectual movements and reformations as examples and shifting into the claim that a universal basic income is one of the more effective potential responses to the spread of bullshit throughout academia.

As someone who has spent a fair amount of time reading up on and contributing to the study of bullshit–such as this piece and some panels I’ve chaired–the piece immediately attracted my attention. One of the things I have striven to do across several years is find joy and humor in the work I do, and getting to read about bullshit and to write about it–as well as to write the word itself, many, many times–helps me to do so. As with other words, the simple juxtaposition of a scholar writing with and about such language reads as humorous–and not only for outside readers, whom a Chronicle piece might well not reach, but for academics, as well; as I said, I have worked with such material before, presenting it at conferences, and even “stuffy” academics have been audibly titillated by the work. And having a working definition of bullshit labor–the performance by workers aware of its uselessness of useless work–offers a good rubric to apply elsewhere. So that much was good to see; additions to taurascatology as a field, even if at a middle-brow level, are decidedly welcome.

Similarly welcome was the core discussion of the piece; rather than being merely a chance to write the word bullshit or a variation of it 27 times in an article, Graeber’s piece offers a frank treatment of the often-unseen-by-those-outside-academe parts of academic labor that annoy and distract. As an academic expatriate–it’s the most accurate term I have to hand for my own status relative to academia–I’ve been in a position to see both the bullshit labor of the academy (whence my end-of-session reports, originally) and the bullshit labor of the outside world (a previous job abounded in it, and there are elements of it, to be sure, in my current work). What Graeber reports largely aligns with my experiences and the reports I have from others, and what does not can, in most cases, be put down to the differences among individual institutions and departments.

That does not mean, however, that all in Graeber’s piece is well with me. I’ll be taking up one major thread of it in another webspace (and please read the Tales after Tolkien Society blog!), but there are several issues that need to be addressed. One of them is that the piece makes several assumptions, overt and otherwise. An early example is the parenthetical assumption that “the provision is made such that those whose jobs were eliminated [by the excision of bullshit labor] continue to be supported,” which seems far less than likely in the increasingly profit-driven social environment in which Graeber writes, I read, and many others languish amid spreading manure. Similarly, the notion that “the easiest way to de-bullshitize academic life would be to do something about the current precarity of intellectual life” seems at odds with the experiences and attitudes I have seen reported; the tendency, so far as I have noticed, has been towards the large-scale elimination of academic life–and demolition is far easier than reconstruction.

Too, the sudden shift in the last two paragraphs to the idea of universal basic income is jarring. While the idea itself is attractive to me, since I have had times when an assured minimum income would have been a blessing (my job searches were not short, folks, although they were diligently pursued and far-reaching), the presentation of it as 1) a useful remedy to academic precarity and 2) briefly and at the end of an article on bullshit labor seems forced and tacked-on. Honestly, it reads as the kind of disjunctive organization for which students are often (rightly) criticized, and it weakens the rhetorical force of Graeber’s argument–as well as the idea, itself, which already labors under a broad onus. In the end, then, Graeber’s argument offers some disappointment; its central tenets, explicating what the bullshit labor is and the conditions of its emergence and spread, are good, but there is enough that falters in the presentation of those tenets that they are all too likely to be lost in the fray.

No bullshit; I could use your support.