As a teenager growing up in the Living Word Fellowship, an international Christian organization widely regarded as a cult, I aspired to be a writer. Instead, I spent seven days a week at church: It was where I worshiped, socialized, ate, volunteered and even went to school. One summer, at the fellowship’s “School of Prophets” camp in rural Iowa, a senior pastor took his turn at the pulpit to encourage the youth of the congregation to skip college, work for the church and live in one of its communal homes in Hawaii or Brazil, which many in my graduating class went on to do. My parents, who joined the cult as graduate students in the 1970s but have recently left, were an educated anomaly in a culture that valued faith over reason. I’m grateful for my father, who in passing later that day told the pastor in seriousness disguised as joviality, “Stay away from my kids.”
I “blew out” of the cult — to use its own lingo for leaving — after my senior year to attend a Catholic university 20 miles away. I still read the Apostle Paul, but Jane Austen and James Joyce, too. Then I earned a PhD in English at the University of Minnesota, where I rehearsed Marx’s and Freud’s critiques of religion. Simmering with smug resentment, I was certain that I, an intellectual, was on the right side of history, a sworn opponent of the oppressive ideologies I ascribed to organized religion.
But I had to climb only so far up the ivory tower to recognize patterns of abuse that I thought — in my new, secular life — I had left behind. Because academia, I slowly realized, is also a cult.
Cults are systems of social control. They are insular but often evangelical organizations whose aims (be they money, power, sex or something else) are rooted in submission to a dogma manifested by an authority figure: a charismatic preacher or, say, a tenured professor. The relationship between shepherd and sheep is couched in unwavering commitment to a supposedly noble, transcendent cause. For the Living Word Fellowship, that meant “the Lordship of Jesus Christ”; for academia, “the production of knowledge.” In both cases, though, faith ultimately amounts to mastering the rules of the leaders, whose infallibility — whether by divine right or endowed chair — excuses all else.
Looking back, the evidence was everywhere: I’d seen needless tears in the eyes of classmates, harangued in office hours for having the gall to request a letter of recommendation from an adviser. Others’ lives were put on hold for months or sometimes years by dissertation committee members’ refusal to schedule an exam or respond to an email. I met the wives and girlfriends of senior faculty members, often former and sometimes current advisees, and heard rumors of famed scholars whisked abroad to sister institutions in the wake of grad student affairs gone awry. I’d first come in contact with such unchecked power dynamics as a child, in the context of church. In adulthood, as both a student and an employee of a university, I found myself subject to them once again.
One department chair, who had trained as a community organizer in the 1960s, threatened to use the Freedom of Information Act to read graduate students’ emails; she could have, too, since we were technically employees of the state. Elsewhere, a senior colleague propositioned my friend for a sex act I cannot name in this newspaper before the first semester at her new job had even begun; after she complained to her boss, she was removed from her position under other pretenses. I’ve seen grad students expected to put $16 whiskeys for their advisers on nearly maxed-out credit cards at the hotel bar of an academic conference. It’s not unusual for academic job seekers to spend 10 percent of their annual income — the amount of a tithe — attending a single conference for an interview (including airfare, lodging, registration fees and incidentals). A peer of mine was even directed by her adviser to write a doctoral dissertation renouncing the subject of her master’s thesis, a philosopher whose views do not align with the adviser’s own. It should come as no surprise that the professor who made that demand is a white male alumnus of the Ivy League, and the student an immigrant from a working-class background.
We endure these indignities in pursuit of positions that are scarce to nonexistent. Last November, Inside Higher Ed reported that the number of jobs advertised by the Modern Language Association in 2016-2017 had declined for the fifth year in a row, hitting a new low. The MLA’s 2018-2019 Job Information List , released in early October, currently lists fewer than 50 jobs in my field, American literature. Though the list will continue to be updated throughout the year, and not all positions are included on it, the final tally will come nowhere near the number of newly minted PhDs: Despite the dearth of jobs, humanities programs awarded 5,891 doctoral degrees in 2015, the year I defended my dissertation, which is the most since such data began to be recorded in 1987. Nearly three times the number of faculty positions in English and foreign languages advertised that academic year.
That asymmetry contributes to a culture of dependency, convincing graduate students that they must obey the dictates of their advisers if they hope to obtain increasingly scarce jobs. It is also, at least in part, a response to the desires of tenured faculty members, hungry for disciples of their own, regardless of whether there are jobs for them. Inevitably, it results in a growing pool of academics who teach on an adjunct basis, frequently making less than minimum wage, without benefits, subsisting in patterns of unfair employment not unlike those of the church employees I knew growing up: financially insecure and thus susceptible to offers they can’t refuse. With little practical training even in teaching, the implied career goal of many research fields, grad students who venture out of their discipline may appear overqualified to employers wary of the initials following their names, but they are usually underqualified, their concrete experience limited to the service jobs and freelance gigs keeping them afloat between terms. Those faithful who adjunct, whether by necessity or choice, commonly earn less than $5,000 per class, and in 2015 the University of California at Berkeley Labor Center reported that a quarter of part-time faculty members are on public assistance, further foreclosing their options and avenues of escape.
Exploitative labor practices occupy the ground floor of every religious movement, and adjuncts, like cult members, are usually required to work long and hard for little remuneration, toiling in support of the institution to prove their devotion to academia itself. Contrary to stereotypes of professors as contemplative eggheads at best and partisan layabouts at worst, many academics use their summers and sabbaticals as opportunities to catch up on articles and book projects held over from previous academic years, overworking as many as 60 hours per week. The cliche “publish or perish” belies a constant demand to prove one’s commitment and worth, amounting to a crippling fear of being “intellectually pantsed,” as a mentor of mine once said. It’s difficult not to see these abuses as rites of passage in the service of some higher cause. Academics may cast themselves as hardened opponents of dominant norms and constituted power, but their rituals of entitlement and fiendish loyalty to established networks of caste and privilege undermine that critical pose. No one says it aloud, but every graduate student knows: This is the price you pay for a chance to enter the sanctum of the tenure track. Follow the leader, or prepare to teach high school.
Like others who’ve come to this realization, I was not surprised when I learned of the recent sexual harassment investigation of Avital Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at New York University whom I cited heavily in my doctoral dissertation. Less shocking still was the smear campaign that many of her celebrated colleagues launched against her accuser, Nimrod Reitman, which resembles the silencing tactics deployed by the Church of Scientology and other cults. These scholars fail embarrassingly to embrace the radical theories on which their careers and reputations rest.
They are the figures who preside over the important professional organizations, teach at the best schools, use their prestige to get their grad students the best jobs (or claim to, anyway) and even author the “scriptures” that their disciples will go on to teach. Until he died in 1983, the Living Word’s founder, John Robert Stevens, had much in common with these academic saints. His texts are densely complicated webs of metaphor, jargon and reference that demand the interpretations of other cognoscenti whose proximity to the source is not always solely spiritual or intellectual. Ronell, for her part, has been known to begin talks by invoking her own departed master: philosopher Jacques Derrida. As Andrea Long Chu notes, describing her apprenticeship to Ronell, the professor wrote that she’d been “conditioned for every sort of servitude, understanding that doing time, whether in graduate school or as part of a teaching body, amounted to acts — or, rather, passivities — of cultish subjection.” The networks of adulation Derrida and other deconstruction evangelists engendered resemble the followings of other charismatic leaders: the Rajneesh, Sun Myung Moon, Marshall Applewhite, Jim Jones.
The Ronell scandal should alert us to the broader ways in which the 21st-century university is an absolutist institution, a promoter of sycophancy and an enemy of dissent. The fault doesn’t lie with any one school of thought so much as with the academy itself.
Knowing all of this, I doubt that I would have had the courage to write this essay were I still applying for faculty jobs this fall. My dance with the tenure track came to an end more or less where it began: On the campus of a small liberal arts college where I was a candidate for an assistant professorship. I got the job but ultimately turned it down. I’ve learned a lot in universities, but none of it as important as what leaving the cult had taught me 15 years earlier, a lesson I’d be a hypocrite to preach from the lectern: No institution has a monopoly on truth.
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