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Time starts to glitch the longer I stay seated with my long-lost grad school compatriots. I don’t notice it at first. One moment, I’m in the present reminiscing about the past in the West Village. But, time does not behave when you bend it to travel into a painful past. Like a chain reaction, memories of grad school pull me back into our department’s graduate student lounge. The original site of trauma for so many of us. The room where we were all of us were publicly humiliated at least once. By professors. But especially by our peers. This is the room where public dissertation proposals were presented. And ripped apart. This is the room where some of us would eat lunch and flaunt our pseudo-accomplishments, if only to remind those around us that we were the best. That we would rise to the top and Make It.
Without even seeing it coming, I’m pulled from those tedious lunches and into the more recent past of my experience in that graduate student lounge. The room is also the site where I came face to face with the reality that my academic career was over. It is the room where I gave my dissertation defense. Where I had my PhD withheld from me until I removed what had already been stolen from me.
I jerk myself back to the West Village. That’s over now, I think to myself. Another round is ordered, our reminiscing continues. The time machine isn’t done with us yet. Our merriment invariably turns to impassioned discussions about the state of higher education, as my conversation with academics invariably does these days. Hazard of the blog, I suppose.
Everyone at the table goes around, sharing their experiences with being gas-lit, exploited, or ripped-off. I think of the hilarious riffs off the Ja Rule tweet (“I too was hustled, scammed, bamboozled, hood winked, lead astray!!!”) about the infamous fraud that was the Fyre festival. I almost speak this aloud because humor is my way of creating some emotional distance, some breathing room, between what I am hearing and what I have been through. It’s a survival tactic. The urgency with which they share their stories suggests that they want me to do something about it. Yet, before each story is the inevitable disclaimer that comes with every academic who talks to me: don’t tell anyone this. Don’t write about this.
I nod and explain that I have never posted a story without that person’s explicit approval. No one looks at me like they believe me, but that isn’t my problem so I disregard it. So rich with distrust and fear is the toxic culture of academia that there is never any trust. It’s far too dangerous. After all, look at what happened to me.
Rage rises up to my throat when the conversation steers towards trashing another person we all knew from our grad school days. I have always deeply admired this person. I hear how many at the table think this person was never a ‘serious’ academic. How this person is not smart enough. And I think, how dare they. I cut off the conversation, leaping to this person’s defense. How dare they. I make an impassioned case for why they were wrong about this person, how novel their scholarship on the legacies of gendered violence and slavery is and how needed that was in art history, and pause. I’m worried I’ve gone too far. Revealed that I care too much. I look around the table. Silence. But an unconvinced silence. This is not my audience.
My academic relapse is in full-swing. I am caught up in the terror and hope of it all. I am placed back into the position of the powerless graduate student, and the feeling that I should have known better returns. I fight off the instinct to run. I can’t leave now because I am trapped between memories and reality.
I think about how we are still trapped in the toxic culture of academia. How our self-worth and ability to empathize is steadily ripped from our identity the longer we stay in academia. How our how desire to make a valuable contribution to a shared sense of the collective good dissolves into nothing as our own individualistic drive for success eclipses all else.
Academia shapes us into something sub-human with such a fragile conception of self that it insists we ignore the reality of higher education’s systemic exploitation, racism, and sexism. After all, to acknowledge those realities is to come face to face with the bleak realization that academia is not a meritocracy. That maybe, just maybe, our success within it is not because of our work, but more a result of luck and privilege. To even entertain this thought is to unmoor our conception of self so completely that we are violently opposed it. The tweet thread #everydayprofessor speaks to this willful myopia.
On some level, consciously or not, to believe in academia’s meritocracy necessitates the belief that those of us who are not successful in it are not as human as we are. How else can we justify our behavior and callous neglect of them? This toxic mindset allows us to act as if the humanity of others matters less because they are perceived as not intelligent enough. Or played the game well enough.
It is fair, then, to attack their personality concurrent with critiques of their scholarship.
Elapsing the two even as our discipline of art history dictates that biography is not to be confused with history. But that only matters with research. Or perhaps we are not even aware of this hypocrisy. Tragically and myopically blind to this complete rupture from practice and praxis. This fissure from humanity, that very same thing that we ironically devote our lives to studying in the humanities, has cost us our lives, happiness, and relationships. And worst of all, it has cost us higher education, where education itself is farmed out to itinerant laborers and a precious few tenure-track positions are maintained to keep us in line. To keep us pitted against each other. Because we still believe that academia is a meritocracy.
As the night dwindles down, our numbers are reduced to two. With our lips loosened by alcohol, my long-lost friend and I finally get down to it. I explain what my past year has really been like. The depth of the depression into which I descended. How I had been sure that I would never be capable of success again because I was too traumatized, too broken. How I did not even remember what I wrote my dissertation on. How merely looking at the art I had once loved became a painful reminder of my failure. Of that which had been cut off from me first from factors well beyond my control. And then again with my decision to become a whistle blower. I know I sealed my fate.
He looks at me with such sympathy and pain. I see in his eyes that he gets the heartbreak of it all. Of losing that which you loved most. Seven years of excruciating sacrifice and hard work for naught. To start all over. To not be able to get an entry-level job because you were simultaneously over-qualified and under-qualified for everything. How I had not chosen freelance life, but that it had chosen me.
He takes a deep breath before he says, “Honestly, Allison, if someone had told me six years ago that you wouldn’t be the one with tenure-track position, and more than that, that you had left academia entirely, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
I allow myself to re-associate with my recent past and think: you and me both, buddy. You. And. Me. Both.
And with that one admission, for the first time in the two years since the discovery of the ‘alleged’ misappropriation, the attempted reporting, the suspicion, and the betrayals, I finally live through it as if for the first time.
In a moment of total recall, I remember the excruciating process of deciding to speak out and take a stand despite knowing it meant the loss of all recommendation letters, which is to say, the loss of my career in academia. I remember it all. My realization that nothing I had done in my dissertation would matter. That it had never mattered. That I had lost before I even knew I was playing. That my story is not unique. That this is all of our stories from academia. That this is why my blog (that I thought maybe 100 people would read) went viral. The shock. How ill-prepared I had been for what ‘going viral’ meant.
I recall all of this sitting across from my friend enveloped in the cacophony of the crowded bar in a simultaneous and overwhelming instance. In flashes, I recall my process of connecting the dots as the emails flooded in. Of spotting the systemic exploitation that was not only inherent to higher education but was also dependent upon it for its success. The realization of just how complicit we all are through our embrace and perpetuation of this toxic culture that believes meritocracy is real and that competition must be ruthless.
And then I feel what I felt when I was first told I was being sued. The terror. The legal process. The silencing. The bankruptcy. For a few minutes in the early hours of Saturday morning, I feel it all for the first time. I remember my process of forgetting. I recall the sequence of decisions and their consequences that got me to here. To this day. To the end of the lawsuit. To sitting with a friend at 2:30 AM at a bar in the West Village, discussing our shared terrors about the future of higher education. Tears in our eyes, we stand up and hug each other before parting ways and disappearing into the night. It is only then that the time machine stops its violent sputtering and finally releases me.
I wake up the next morning to face the consequences of my relapse. I did not sleep well. I am exhausted. I get out of bed with the determination to get academically sober again. To confess to my friends what I had done the night before, so that they can hold me accountable to not do it again in the future. Recovery is a humbling process.
See you all next week, and, as always, get in touch. I’m listening.
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