Toxic Academia: The Road We Never Knew We’d Take
July 07, 2020
Turns out that living life vicariously - through the acknowledgement of our peers and employers - is an unhealthy way of life.
There is hardly any other place in the world as iconic as the U.S. for extolling the bootstrap association of persistence with fair and fulfilling success despite dancing to a completely different tune. We are taught, for instance, that hard work can make anything possible, a notion undergirding the proverbial “rags to riches" mentality that seems intuitive and believable, even in the wake of intergenerational poverty, job and housing discrimination, and nuisance ordinances that suppress minority communities whose faith in said proverb would (and frankly, should) be unfounded. Yet, for better or worse, we are inculcated with this value system that enshrines relentless effort and derides nonconformity to this way of life. Does doing so give us the hope that we didn’t know we needed to go on? Or perhaps is it merely a way to get us to buy into our own exploitation? Surprisingly, academia, the seedbed of cognizant nonconformity itself, is the first place that some students ask themselves these questions.
The colloquial phrase “publish or perish," which has since been espoused by a namesake software, describes the pressure put on students to publish academic work as the most feasible way to succeed in an academic career. (Graduate) College administrators whose jobs are to curate a student body of cerebral and accomplished youths are increasingly using this criteria for recruitment, assessing "the number of publications to an individual's credit as the measure of competency". Conversely, scholars who dedicate their time to activities that don’t result in publications (e.g. being a mentor/tutor/lab assistant) find themselves short of advantages for what positions academia leads them to. This emphasis on the hierarchical appraisal of students’ accomplishments diminishes the incentive for them to genuinely engage with academic thinking - the very genesis of public information and self-discovery. Hence, at the same time this incentive to proliferate research reports has led to unethical practices and wasteful funding on research groups that claw to distinguish themselves from the proximate works of others, it also commodifies the academic journey that was once about combining public service with introspection.
This phenomenon doesn’t just plague the research scene; no matter what students do, it seems like the incentive to commercialize their endeavors follows them everywhere. Be it a hobby like playing the violin or writing a personal blog about cinema, by basing admissions and hiring on the evaluation of these activities, academia encourages its constituents to document what they’ve achieved in doing them, which more often than not means pressuring them into doing it competitively. While there’s nothing wrong with urging others to find meaning in the things that they do (which may very well have been the initial purpose), in staking admissions on things that often become the articles of someone’s identity, it diminishes the humanity in those activities. I shouldn’t have to worry about which renowned concert halls I’ve performed in or how much internet traction each of my blog posts garner. I shouldn’t have to worry about existing on a graded scale where I must acknowledge that I am worse than my peers or better than some others.
Furthermore, it turns out that in pursuing an academic career, we are indeed “buying into our own exploitation." Even if students keep their heads down as they power through textbooks and fork over tens of thousands of dollars for higher education that only demands more of the same at the graduate level, students who go on to become optometrists, biomedical engineers, psychologists, professors, analysts, counselors, researchers, and high-level social workers tend to have less pay for positions that require master’s degrees and extensive (and expensive) training. If success wasn’t just about fulfillment, it certainly seems like now it also isn’t about the money.
Perhaps none of these were things that we could ever control to begin with. It’s highly likely that the state of academia being able to be distilled to a marketplace of paper identities was an ineluctable consequence of economics. Still, I regret to admit that I believe we have every reason to see things that way. It turns out that hard work doesn’t make anything possible. In fact, it traditionally leaves us deprived of our humanity, devoid of money, and ultimately unfulfilled. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe I’m just projecting my insecurities about my accomplishments and immediate employability when I graduate. Perhaps I’m just basing my conclusions on incomplete literature that tends to overrepresent the flaws of our systems - because if academia led us to a world that truly didn’t just operate on the commodification of human beings, then I’d be glad that I was just being a cynic. I sure hope that I am.