Let’s begin with a story. I struggled a long while with the wounds of leaving my PhD program five years and two dissertation drafts into the process. I had decided I had no other choice after a two-hour meeting with my committee in which I was in tears almost the entire time, unable even to get tissue for 45 minutes (literally, I had snot dribbling down my lips as I was being called angry, hostile, and arrogant), while being accused of the worst personal motives in lieu of clear criticism about the work itself.
And I hate saying what I’m about to say below. I really do–because I was a passionate researcher, even diving into the original Latin and French of certain texts to create clear throughlines for relevant scientific, philosophical, and etymological histories–but I was by no means perfect, and I longed for a properly critical set of mentors to refine what I’d discovered, concluded, and written. As the nebular hypothesis gradually became an incontrovertible theory of stellar evolution over the 19th century, I argued that the cultural crisis around its attendant cosmological implications could be seen in literary representations of “the astronomer” over 60 years of contemporaneous fictions, non-fictions, and homiletic texts. Not good enough, my committee told me: “So what?”
And so on one level I knew that I had simply chosen the wrong school, the wrong committee, the wrong environment in which to develop my literary history of science. I should have gone to a school with a stronger historiography component, and a rich department of science historians. But I had chosen where I went for economic reasons: to be closer to my younger sister, so I could help on weekends with my very young nephews. And I didn’t think, in an age of online databases, that this choice would work out so catastrophically for me–but once it did, I knew there was no hope. The way that grad funding works, there was no hope of transferring my work to another institution. Most provincial stipends for PhDs run out after four years per student, not per program, and so by year five of my PhD, I was already working overtime to pay exorbitant term fees for, essentially, the occasional meeting with my advisor, and access to the school libraries. And I knew students in years six and seven with grad debts of $60,000 Canadian, trying to hold on long enough to be approved for a defense by their own committees.
Other Factors Matter; Economics Matters More
So this is a messy wound for me–because at the same time, I was stigmatized for my atheism in that meeting. I was called arrogant for refusing to write capital-G god in my own commentary when negotiating five different authors’ very different characters of the Christian god. (NB: I absolutely kept capital-G usage in their quotations! But which of those authors’ versions, or which implied sixth version, was I giving partiality to if I used capital-G god myself? It felt like the height of dishonesty to suggest an absolute fixed baseline when dealing with so many people with opposing views of its character.)
I was also in hot water for writing that famous 19th-century philosophers were guided by their emotions when reviewing empirical evidence and deciding on major cosmological stances. One, for instance, was famous for his work on logic’s role in the sciences, and also hugely pluralist (i.e. he believed that the universe was filled with other life, as most Christians confidently did when they first realized how big the cosmos was, and optimistically assumed their creator would not have made so many desolate outer worlds). But then this philosopher’s wife got sick and died, and biographers note that this timeline ties neatly into a massive cosmological shift, with him thereafter insisting that Earth is the only place with life in the cosmos–or else what a mockery would be the divine compact made with mankind through Christ!
A similar desire for the universe not to be evolving and decaying (with all that stellar decay implies about imperfect design) also saw a few Christian writers in the sciences latch triumphantly onto shreds of erroneous early telescopic evidence against the nebular hypothesis… and then prove incredibly reluctant to follow the empirical data when it subsequently turned pro-stellar-evolution. (Literally, there was quite a bit of raging about the dying of the [stellar] light!)
Now, for me, when I did this research, I felt so much for my subjects. You should see the tediously esoteric posts I dumped on my poor social-media friends, while laughing and crying and being moved by these writers during my studies! And why wouldn’t I? I didn’t see what they did as an issue of religion. It wasn’t a matter of haw haw, silly Christians. It was, and remains, an issue of being human. I saw in my 19th-century studies what is true for every single one of us who aspires to be thought of as purely logical, purely driven to our conclusions by reason above all else:
Namely, that we are all passionate creatures–and if, for instance, the love of any of our lives was dying, I think it would be the height of reason for us to want the whole world to stop being so large and messy and mysterious, too. To want the whole of the cosmos to shrink the same way our inner cosmos is collapsing at that most terrible of times.
Suffice it to say…
I was wounded, deeply wounded, by being taken for an arrogant, sneering atheist that day, when I had always come to my studies with my humanism on full blast.
And I was wounded by being called angry and hostile by people whose own tones were the only angry and hostile ones in the room–when I was literally crying because I was so exhausted from trying to finish my dissertation in the middle of the night around three jobs, before I ran out of money to keep paying for future terms as a PhD candidate.
But really, my decision to leave came from that last bit most of all: from how small-c conservative academia truly is–no matter how hard our culture works to prop up the myth of unchecked liberalism within it.
The Myth of a Truly Progressive Campus
We hear all the time how academia is too leftist, and “going too far” with its liberal-leaning activism. Look who was just cancelled as a speaker on X campus! Look how these protestors stormed an office to confront a professor over their remarks, calling for their removal in the campus paper! Look how much power these students have! Look how they’re policing Halloween, and boycotting even old-school progressive events like The Vagina Monologues, and calling for safe spaces! Look how I now can’t even say the words I want to say, or suggest the things I want to suggest, without risking a tirade! I can’t touch anybody! No one can take a joke!
And yes, there are some wonderfully progressive things happening on academic campuses–but they don’t usually get included in major press about the State of Academia. Rarely do you see similar media coverage of, say, Indigenous and Peace-and-Conflict Studies programs that take a less confrontational and graded approach to knowledge- and power-sharing. Or how Indigenous Centres host lunches based on volunteer food prep, to create platforms for youth to gather intergenerationally to learn how to honour and respect one another and the world. Or how specific religious groups sometimes make similar collective meeting spaces for the breaking of bread and feeding of vulnerable community. Or how community gardens and other sustainability initiatives are advanced and maintained through campus volunteerism.
Rarely, too, does mainstream media make news out of how many students run fundraisers for global-aid initiatives between classes, or engage directly in democratic activities, or partake in awareness- and resource-boosting events to advocate for the homeless, and victims of domestic assault, and children living in poverty.
Likewise, there are some incredibly stupid campus practices arising under the banner of liberalism. We do have cases of scientific research being expunged from journals because editors are afraid not of what a paper literally says, but rather what someone, somewhere might infer from it in relation to, say, gender discourse. We do have a lousy system in place when trying to confront the restorative-justice needs of sexualized violence on campus. And we do have the difficult matter of how quickly the whole internet can blow up a campus issue in some unsettlingly unnuanced ways. And you will always have student groups with specific demands that might seem petty and pedantic even to others in the same school.
But while all this is true, it’s also not the whole picture.
And the whole picture should give us serious pause before idly agreeing that academia is getting too liberal ever. again.
Let’s Talk About Class Intersectionality, Baby
In my Master’s year, we had a class where professors from the department took turns giving us overviews of major humanities methodologies and general grad-studies issues.
One of those professors told the women to think carefully about whether they wanted to be a mother or an academic.
Later on, when I worked for another professor in the department–an adjunct–I found out she was terrified of her faculty mentor and other members of the department finding out she had a boyfriend. She was worried it would affect her chances of getting tenure; that others would see her as not committed enough if she asserted her needs for a personal life with one bullying senior faculty member in particular (and oh yes, I saw those emails–they were bullying).
Meanwhile, all around me were contract labourers for higher education, quite a few struggling with Herculean home lives on their uncertain schedules. Numbers for contract teachers flitted between 2/3s and 75% of all post-secondary teaching staff. Dwindling job postings across North America routinely saw thousands of applicants, while grad programs continued to expand their numbers because of the government funding universities could solicit for each new arrival.
When I taught at a technical college for a couple terms after walking away from my PhD (positions I took with huge misgivings, but which ultimately kept me afloat while I planned my move to Colombia), I had a shared workspace in a massive room of college teachers, the vast majority contract, whom I would regularly hear talking about struggling to pay the bills, and fears of not getting renewed for the next semester, and what it would mean for their families.
On an unnerving number of occasions, I heard crying over the cubicle walls.
Nor is any of this mere personal anecdote. The horror stories of overworked underpaid grad students and adjuncts constitute a whole genre of online essay-writing and book-publishing. The sprawl of administrative roles in conjunction with these hits to teacher stability is also a background fact of the industry.
Which is… precisely why I find it so baffling that we’ve so readily bought into the belief that either the academic precariat or the managerial monolith is radicalizing the Yutes. Everyone not tenured in this system is struggling upwards, through appeasement and hoop-jumping and overtaxing ourselves with secondary work so we can keep paying the buy-in necessary to keep trying to reach the next academic rung.
Just what kind of liberalism does anyone imagine such an education system will effect?
Small-c Conservative Pressures under Liberal Banners
“O Captain! My Captain!” cry the students at the end of Dead Poets Society, in farewell salute to the film’s iconic rebel of a schoolteacher, who over the course of the film told them to tear up one stodgy version of authority and hearken instead to his impassioned version of… well, authority, too.
If you sincerely believe that students are being radicalized by post-secondary education, I invite you to visit any post-secondary instructor during office hours after a major assignment has been graded and handed back. I invite you to listen to the students in anguish over their B+s, and the teaching-team leads advising TAs to use Fs sparingly because each F a TA gives out usually means a student going over the TA’s head to the instructor–or worse, launching a formal appeal at term’s end.
It’s not ideal, but the TAs I worked with were told that it’s easier on the human component of our system to nudge as many students up to a pass as possible. Few of us were paid enough for the headaches involved, so we were reduced to “getting by”. And that’s what everyone was doing, more or less: Students struggled to move as quickly as possible through a system they were told they had to use to have any socioeconomic success in life–even if it meant incurring huge debts in the process. And TAs and class instructors and adjunct professors struggled to stay and move up in the system as quickly as possible, because… what else were they supposed to do with their skill sets?
And, yes, struggling in that system means a lot of virtue signalling. It means a lot of professors and class instructors and TAs learning quickly what is kosher and what is verboten under the parameters of a given department’s take on cultural activism.
But here’s the kicker: When a staff member is uncomfortable with how careful they have to be in word and action, and how they navigate any more nuanced views on a given hot-button issue, they then tend to associate their discomfort with the content of the activism, instead of with the small-c conservative pressures that actually make dissent so perilous. It’s not “I am deeply replaceable by design–and that’s a problem!” It’s “This particular call for social-justice by students is going to cost me my job!”
How amazing a distraction is that?
Imagining a Truly Progressive Academic Future
Meanwhile, if you really wanted to see an academic world espouse liberal values, you’d need a post-secondary system where economic instability no longer plays such a dominant role in student and staff outcomes. There would have to be more paths to job security without ridiculous commitment tests or tears in shared offices. There would have to be more funding for the fewer number of grad students schools took in, so that those who did get in wouldn’t need to worry as much about burnout from resource-scarcity. And there would have to be no point-of-service costs for undergraduate education, such that students fresh to adulthood, told they have to go to university if they want any chance at a good life, would have no mounting debt load hanging over them while handling the consequences of academic failure when it happens.
Simply put, we know we make poorer choices when we’re economically unstable. We know, too, that we cling to what’s trending–even as we resent clinging to what’s trending–when the alternative is a major hit to our livelihoods. There’s a reason, after all, that suicide attempts are strongly correlated with financial debt: our whole identity becomes wrapped up in our earning potential, our quantifiable value to society. And while that’s true across the board, for many sectors of the current economy, none is quite like academia in its blatant contradictions. In the very halls that espouse liberal values–the backbone of an enlightened society! a meritocracy! the great equalizer!–ever so many of academia’s participants go hungry, go homeless, get depressed and ultimately despair for the future.
I know how bad it can get. I almost killed myself during my PhD program. I spent three months in an out-patient program, and three more at a day-hospital, while still going about my PhD studies and working at three different job sites. I passed my second comps exam that year. I moved from PhD student to PhD candidate. I was in pain for years, in short, before that final meeting gave me the final nudge I needed to realize that this process was never going to pay out for me. That my sunk costs were sunk.
Which is perhaps why I find it especially agonizing to see this bit of cognitive dissonance continue to play out in our culture. Academia is not liberalized–even if it does claim to march under the banner of liberal values. It is an institution, instead, overwhelmingly run like a business rather than as a state resource to improve the public good. And so while individual incidents of “radical” student, staff, and internet-jury action might often seem like a sign that social-justice initiatives have gone too far; that campuses are too liberal, too leftist, too activist… the exact opposite is more often true.
Small-c conservative action, rather–the kind that has us making decisions based on appeasing our superiors and afraid of losing what little stability we have–is what keeps so many in academia on such a perilous ledge.
So when people fall off that ledge, or even when they wobble upon it, we have to stop blaming whatever final nudge led to their collapse–because there will always be nudges, whatever is most recently trending in the way of campus concerns.
What should alarm us far more is that the ledge exists at all.