Dead Vole

Kool-Aid cocktails

Posted by CarlD on December 21, 2008

I’m still chewing on the conversation at the earlier lumpenbourgeoisie post. Profacero remains firm that whatever merits academic employment may have cannot justify the poor pay. She keeps the high expectations and high self-subsidized costs of our work in view, with specific examples like research and conference expenses, adjunct stints at less than a living wage, crushing personal debt. This is all real stuff. We have no dispute about what actually happens. All of it has happened to me and many people I know, although I am somewhat insulated more recently from some professional costs by the relatively low formal scholarship requirements at my nice teaching-oriented regional slac — which means gaps in the cv that, along with my status as a tenured associate professor, pretty much take me out of play on the market and bind me to this job.

Profacero would also like to be able to afford a small boat. I wouldn’t have minded being able to afford my divorce, which despite everyone’s good intentions cost nearly twice my annual salary. Other colleagues have aging parents to provide for. Ponies are always nice. These things are relative, but the point is that we’re not paid enough to afford many things we might reasonably need or want. And at many places the belt is tightening, as Dr. Crazy discusses in an incisive post following up on others by herself, Historiann, and Tenured Radical, with whom I completely agree. Of course there’s also much to be learned and pondered about conditions and compensation for academic work from Lumpenprofessoriat, e.g. here, and What in the hell…, e.g. here, and Marc Bousquet at Brainstorm, e.g. here.

I’m all for doing what’s possible to enhance conditions and compensation for work, for everyone. I’ve argued that there may be costs along with the obvious benefits to academics specifically for resorting to unions to do that, just as there are costs and benefits to pulling a gun in a bar fight or putting Pavarotti on the jukebox at a party. The situation inevitably gets structured in a certain way you may or may not like when you make those moves; it would be good to consider alternatives. I’m a real fan of the aikido ethic, but to my knowledge we’ve not even begun to think of how something like that might apply. I’ve also argued that dire though the plight of tenured/tenurable faculty might be, for whingeability it doesn’t sort real high on the priorities compared to other folk with genuinely crappy lives, ranging from permanent adjuncts to some of our support staff to starving Haitian babies.

OK, so what’s this post about? It’s about ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’.

I’ve been arguing that whatever influence we may or may not have over the material realities of our employment, we completely control our attitudes toward them. We get to choose how we think (and, to a lesser degree, feel) about these facts we all agree on. We become what we pay attention to, as Mead and the interactionists say. Or Nietzsche: “And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” So while we ponder available remediation or transformation strategies, we also get to direct our attention, think and be ourselves in the now. And I’ve remarked that in the context of this particular now, given the available alternatives, I’m pretty pleased to be drawing a comparatively decent salary to be doing work I notice is personally and relationally affirming. Profacero thinks that I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, this is a delusional form of pathetic sacrifice, and “they’ve got” me where they want me.

Perhaps. I agree that sacrifice is pathetic, but what I do doesn’t seem like sacrifice to me. “We are all conformists of some conformity or another,” Gramsci said. It’s not whether you’ve drunk Kool-Aid, it’s which Kool-Aid you drank. You can drink the angry, alienated Kool-Aid or the woeful, victimized Kool-Aid or the contented, peaceful Kool-Aid. These are all interpretive stances. None of them are more or less ‘true to life’, and none are inconsistent with working to make things better, but the latter will take some of the sting out of your day. What we do has value; or at least, it’s what we do. This is Existentialism 101, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Our fate belongs to us. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill our hearts. We can be happy.

21 Responses to “Kool-Aid cocktails”

  1. Joe Clement said

    Where are you getting this Western Buddhist dichotomy of either being unhappy and inclined to change the material conditions of social livelihood OR be happy with how things are? I just don’t think the cookie crumbles that way or, if it does, we should go to a different bakery or, if that’s not possible, make a better recipe or simply make something else to eat.


    You say “our fate belongs to us,” and I can’t help but wonder if that’s a nod towards collectivity or the euphemistic, demagogic “our” that really means “my/me.” I ask because I get the sneaking suspicion that these observations and mildly critical remarks about the proleriatization of academia are only approaching it through the assuming the false universality of the (petit-)bourgeois individual. In other words, because that was a mouthful, you’re approaching the question of professor-unionization as if it were no more than a collection of individuals, of which the critic is just another. How do you justify this position when, at the very least, the problem seems to demand precisely the abandonment of it?

  2. Carl said

    Hi, Joe. It’s Sunday so perhaps it was easy to miss this: “These are all interpretive stances. None of them are more or less ‘true to life’, and none are inconsistent with working to make things better, but the latter will take some of the sting out of your day.” Not either/or, see?

    I’m aware that the Western default is to interpret any attempt to find serenity in the now as passive quietism. Let’s check in with the Dalai Lama and see if he agrees. The point I’m making is, I hope, informed by a deeper zen – that things are as they are, and things may need to be done, but all our negativities add nothing to that. They’re just extra, completely optional and self-defeating. It’s also very Western, or rather a certain dominant strand of Western, to think that there’s only one right way to think about things.

    I am a communitarian of sorts – our interdependence is evident and important to me. I have no me outside my relations with others. My universality is the same as anyone else’s, therefore quite personal – it’s the cumulative trace of my whole interactive history. (Here’s where Mead and Durkheim intersect.) At this point in my life I’m most interested in the communities I get to choose, and I’m grateful that I do have some limited choices.

    As for what ‘the problem’ seems to ‘demand’, the point of this whole thread is to question the problem and doubt the demand, to step sideways and look from a different angle. I’ve argued that this move is what academics are specifically good for. I’m all for different bakeries. If this move looks like petit-bourgeois privilege to you, I recognize another ‘false’ universality produced by a marxist/laborist interactive history (this is, after all, my original field of research), but not a standpoint that gives you any critical leverage outside that narrow discourse. That’s just one of the Kool-Aids, just another gang to join. Maybe a good one, but that work has to be done, and until now in history the people who have tried to do it have quickly become impatient or desperate and started shooting. Here’s where solutions become problems in turn.

    Whatever. This conversation doesn’t have to be hard. There’s not much at stake. I’ve already granted that from one compelling perspective things are bad and change would be good. There’s nothing anyone needs to convince me of in that respect. I’ve joined a faculty union before and I could see doing it again. The only question left is if that’s the only way to look at and do things. I can see why one might think that; as I’ve said there’s a lot of leverage in focus. But I’m committed to staying epistemically flexible. So I can’t be convinced to narrow my interpretive horizons without a religious conversion. I ‘justify’ this position with a professional ethic of open investigation and with a personal horror of dogma.

  3. profacero said

    Well, what I am concerned about is actually the denial Kool-Aid, which is the one I’ve tried to drink! I perhaps project this into your posts. I’ve really, really tried, for 20 years, to say things were all right that weren’t, and it has not been at all productive. The Buddha, on the other hand, was awake.

    Your posts are really about unionization. You’ve actually partially convinced me that something other than a union would be a good idea. I have not worked union since I was in an incipient one as a TA. UConn is unionized, last I heard, and it seems to work for them. My friend in a California CC union is, on the other hand, disgusted with their fat cat-ism.

    I don’t think you and I *actually* disagree on much … a lot of it is superficial. We even have similar jobs and economic situations. In other ways we’re *really* different people with different situations, though, and a lot of it is about field and gender … on which I could discourse, except that I should be writing an abstract, and because I’d say more than my should, given that my chair and dean know my blog !!!

    At a personal level I just react to all this acceptance of reality /
    resignation / etc. because I’ve been exhorted to it too much for too long. “This is all you get” has never been the right advice for me. People who actually know me claim I have accepted *too much* “reality.”

  4. profacero said

    “We can be happy.” Yes, but it’s easier if you acknowledge what’s going on and figure out how to handle it, than if you say everything is fine and then just feel odd … yet can’t articulate why because you have already decided you must be happy.

    I *really* think happiness depends on whether you can find useful and meaningful things to do. I have heard a lot about how it depends on deciding that things are acceptable and you have what you deserve, or something like this, but for me it has so much more to do with actually taking a joyful attitude, looking about you, and doing things. What’s hard for me in academia is the collective depression many people seem to think is normal, and to which they want others to conform.

    “The point I’m making is, I hope, informed by a deeper zen – that things are as they are, and things may need to be done, but all our negativities add nothing to that.”

    YES. And I had an IRL argument about this yesterday with an Argentine friend scandalized by the poverty in N.O. when the U.S. is such a rich country. I said yes, that is how it is, but the U.S. never actually promised social democracy and so on. The poverty situation is bad but real. He said what, you just accept it? Well of course not, it’s just that I didn’t discover it yesterday.


    What I react to is the cant I’ve gotten in life about how academia is the only thing one should do, and how one should be willing to do it at any place, any level, any circumstances, any salary, just so one can be in it … and that one should then say one was grateful because one had the chance to “help people.” I could say a whole lot about how that line of reasoning is NOT reality based.

  5. profacero said

    PPPS. I also think it’s a lot easier to think these things, think it’s all OK and so on, if you’re not also trying to handle race and/or gender discrimination at work. “Do I want this badly enough to fight this battle for it?” has always been one of my main questions.

  6. profacero said

    OR: a version of what I said in response to your comment on my blog: dissatisfaction “seem[s] optional” … that is what I said to myself when I set upon the path of resigning myself and being “realistic.”

    I can’t help it: for a helping profession, I’d get a law degree and work for MALDEF, and if it were teaching as ‘helping’/social activism I were interested in, I’d have gone for that full on. Rather than be in a helping profession, rather get that law degree and work for some sort of policy institute.

    I want urban life or else serious access to nature, really meaningful work, a research job, and enough money to be able to visit family including family abroad without having an utter crisis. I would also rather not deal with as much gender discrimination than I’ve had to put up with in academia.

    I don’t have to have all of these things all the time or all at once, but 20 years on, when I have health, energy, and talents, and there is so much in the world to enjoy and also so much that really needs to be done, it feels sacrilegious not to be using what I have been given. It feels wasteful to be investing so much of my energy in resignation.

  7. profacero said

    PPPS. I still believe in the push-back organization, the A.M.A. type organization, pushing back as a guild.

    I’m just afraid (cf. that Lombardi article on deconstructing faculty work) things have gone too far for that … maybe not, though.


    “I’m pretty pleased to be drawing a comparatively decent salary to be doing work I notice is personally and relationally affirming. Profacero thinks that I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, this is a delusional form of pathetic sacrifice, and ‘they’ve got’ me where they want me.”

    Well, I didn’t mean to say this was a delusional form of pathetic sacrifice. What I noted was that it’s so common – and it was what they told us as T.A.s – to hear professors say they’re so happy doing what they do that they’d do it for free. That’s great they’re that happy, but I don’t think most could afford to do it for free … and that’s where the danger lies, when the administration would *like* you to do it for free. I’ve heard people say one should want to do it for free since graduate school and it has usually been a way to try to guilt people into doing s*** work. It is usually also said by admin people who earn very very well.

    My experience of professordom is that it’s been really destructive personally, career wise, and so on. I am still here because I have been told so often that I should be grateful, that one should be willing to do academia no matter what, one should be willing to do it for free, etc. So I react really strongly to hearing versions of that.

  8. profacero said

    PPPPPPS. OK I am really really really procrastinating now and surely bugging you to death. But. Back to theory.

    Proletarianization. Adjuncts *are* in a lot of ways. Also: there is less and less shared governance. Proletarianization, no, but faculty are now more like corporate employees. I could give a lot of wild examples about that but it would be really indiscreet.

    ANYWAY the issue for me is the corporatization, the fact that we are now in the academic industrial complex not an old German university. Ameliorating working conditions, esp. for adjuncts, yes, I’m for it, and none of us thought we were going to be rich as professors. (Although I DID think I’d be funded for a conference a year, and that there would be books in the library.) But the REAL issues I think are the corporatization, and governance, and I am afraid (although I hope the opposite) that things have just gone too far in these directions.

  9. Carl said

    Lol, Cero, thanks for sticking with me here! I think you’re right, we differ about very little. You’ve had it with the “grin and bear it” version of pathetic academic, and I’ve had it with the “poor me” version of pathetic academic; I project my worry onto you, you yours onto me; but we’re just focused on two sides of the same coin. That “collective depression” you cite is it.

    I really like your point that happiness makes more sense if you “acknowledge what’s going on and figure out how to handle it, than if you say everything is fine and then just feel odd … yet can’t articulate why because you have already decided you must be happy.” I think this is Camus’ point exactly – not clueless resignation, but an active decision to find dignity in full understanding of our condition. And we do, of course, need to keep trying to push the boulder all the way over, even if that means it’s just going to roll down the other side into another valley.

    You said “I *really* think happiness depends on whether you can find useful and meaningful things to do,” which I also think is right. (This has been my colleague Bob Ritzema’s point, following Aristotle to some degree, on his ‘happiness’ blog Life Assays.) Along these lines I think Weber, Durkheim, Mead, Horney, Gilligan, etc. are all right that our sense of meaning comes from our relations with others. For me the academy provides the opportunity for many meaningful relationships, including this one I’m enjoying with you, Joe, Nate, LP and Marc on this thread. If instead for local reasons those affirming relations are blocked, jumping ship is the sane thing to do. I’ll put up with a lot of garbage for people I enjoy; very little for jerks and fools.

    Speaking of which, shared governance is a nice ideal and worth pushing back on. But like any democracy its success is dependent on the virtue of the citizens; without that, it’s just a smokescreen for whatever interests are able to manipulate it. If I had more confidence that faculty are always the good guys and administrators are always the bad guys I’d be much more excited about shared governance.

  10. profacero said

    HOLA. (My abstract is driving me nuts.) Anyway. No, administrators are not always bad & faculty not always good. I have reason to know. But the concentration of power and knowledge in the hands of a few czars is really impractical, not least because when one leaves, you have a huge vaccuum.

    I absolutely cannot abide the “poor me” version of things. Usually, too, the “poor mes” have materially good situations. Then they get better ones. HMMMM. Still, I am not willing (or able) to emulate them.

    Colleagues, yep. That’s what I want. At some point the telephone wears thin. I didn’t start the blog to get colleagues, but it’s what addicted me to the blog! :-)
    (Gives secret UC handshake … Go Tritons … no I am not a sports person.)

  11. Carl said

    That’s right, we were the Tritons! Not bad, although Anteaters (Irvine) and Banana Slugs (Santa Cruz) are so much better. Anyway, I think we were good at water polo or whist or something… I am a sports person in some ways, faculty athletic rep here for example, but at the college level sports only interest me if I know people involved. Which gets us back to collegiality and the secret handshake! Plus there must be some kind of preposterous cheer, don’t you think? Izzawizza fuzzawuzza zippety zappety zoo! Hold your hats and belt your britches, our team’s coming through!

    Abstracts are hard. What are you writing about?

  12. profacero said

    Oh those lovely coastal UCs. I was never a school spirit type but in my first job, which is the one I truly couldn’t stand, I would visit the UCLA campus – to go to the library but also to pick up the vibe. I did not even realize that I knew the UCB fight song, but as soon as I hit that Bruin campus I would virtually kiss the ground of our sister institution and for lack of better music “Our sturdy golden bear…” would pop into my head. I figured out I should invoke the Golden Bear (“watching from the sky”) to write, and it worked. I just remembered that! I think I’ll start doing it again!

    Rather improbably for Louisiana, the younger set of male instructors in my department have turned into surfing enthusiasts and are off on a surfing vacation. They want jobs at the new CSUCU so they can surf the Rincon. I am from Santa Barbara, so I can relate, but I cannot surf. They say it is the ultimate workout and I should come next time, inaugurate my fifties by surfing. I had thought I’d climb the Aconcagua, but perhaps I shall surf.

    Abstract, sent. It’s about critical race theory, which I like. I don’t believe in postethnicity. I’m very much over multiculturalism and I had thought everyone was over hybridity, but in Germany, where this conference is, they may not be, because Europe is different. I will find out by researching this paper whether my attitude is truly outmoded, as some would suggest, or whether it is actually radical and therefore flying under the radar. I ended up stealing some of my abstract from a blog post I’d written off the cuff … “Certificate of Whiteness” … so who says blogging does not support research?

    I’m still working on ejecting various forms of koolaid, which is preposterous since I should be packing or asleep … but somehow it seemed it would be best to hit the MLA koolaid free.

  13. profacero said

    I am still thinking about this, now from back home in SF. This – “what I do doesn’t seem like sacrifice to me” – is key. If it doesn’t seem like sacrifice, it isn’t.

    One of the things that do seem like sacrifice to me is location – I just can’t get around it. If one couples that with limited chances for development, it’s a sacrifice for sure. But for me on this, the real sacrifice seems to be the apparently often required act of *saying* and trying to believe that it’s enough, it’s enough, it’s enough.

  14. profacero said

    Or, still clarifying (for me): if what you sacrifice for the sake of academia are your research and teaching interests, which is what I had to do, and a very great amount of quality of life, which I also did, then what is left and why has one done these things?

    I have already renounced, and that is why I react so strongly to the discourse of renunciation.

    Our job candidates (I am at the convention) say one of the reasons they want to work for us is that they want to get out of the city to a more suburban kind of life. That means *they* are not thinking in terms of renunciation, they are thinking in terms of getting things they want.

  15. Carl said

    Oh, SF, I’m a little jealous. You know I lived in the Bay area for many years – did you get around to taking any ferries?

    Location: I think you know yourself well enough to be right about this. In my experience few people do. I find something to like about anywhere I am, starting with a couch to potato on. I’ve seen some upend their and others’ lives to get to that perfect place with museums, symphonies, cultcha in the plural and then never go to any of it. They carry their mental couch with them everywhere.

    Your poor old candidates have to say that, of course. They want the job first, other priorities can wait. But among them is someone who would really be happy there, and in being so make the place better for everyone. Now maybe it’s the committee that must sacrifice some of its cherished illusions to achieve a more organic outcome?

  16. profacero said

    Ferries – yes, to Larkspur, more than once! I love the ferries.

    I of course want urban life + mountains and seas + a great job … but if I can’t have them all, or even two, I at least want one.

    However I think mine is the minority position, i.e. I think academia self selects a lot of people who really do just want a couch and an internet connection (or some similar combination). I had a conversation about it with some non academic friends yesterday and they thought the idea of not caring about location was absurd … yet academics really are trained out of it.

    It also really depends on where you’re from. Cali’s a hard place to leave, I am discovering years after the fact (I used to have a stiffer upper lip but it only lasted so long).

  17. profacero said

    I am still analyzing it. Now that I am on sabbatical, the town doesn’t look *nearly* as bad – which amazes me since I’ve been here 11 years, I thought I knew it well, but I realize how confinement to the campus zone / lack of time to get to the cool stuff / the overshadowing of campus influences me. This makes me realize in turn how depressing the job itself is. I’ve always said I’d do that job just fine in a city but I realize, of course, that in a city, I wouldn’t have to: there would be other work.

    Of course being able to have a sabbatical is a marvelous thing. But on the other hand I note, finally having one (the second sabbatical semester in a total of 21 years), that there’s a reason why the tradition was one sabbatical year out of seven: people really need them if they’re to do this job description in a serious way.

    My fantasy, for a teaching job, would be to have input into curriculum and be able to choose at least some of my own materials. NOBODY told me professors couldn’t do that. It is really hard to remember that one is competent to do original research when on a daily basis one isn’t considered competent to choose textbooks and basic things like that … this has always been my problem, all the daily humiliations and grindings down, and THAT really does seem to me like Wal*Martization, proletarianization, etc.

  18. profacero said

    Anyway, what do you think of this article:

    Critiqued here by New Kid:

    The guy says everyone should lower their expectations and be happy. He moved from NYC to Birmingham, AL and was happy. I note:

    * Birmingham, AL is still an old, major city. It is NOT the sticks.
    * He had a wife-helpmeet move with him … from the sound of it, as a personal assistant among other things.
    * He was a married white man in Birmingham, AL, not a single woman or a person of color. So, it was a lot safer and more comfortable for him to be there than it would be for many people.
    * He is happy with Sunday NYT delivery and 200 TV channels (what if you don’t like TV … I don’t even have one … and don’t relate to the NYT, but prefer to live somewhere where I can relate to a good and interesting LOCAL paper?)
    * He was hired by a friend to do something he wanted to do.
    * He wanted to go to UAB … he wasn’t guilt-tripped into settling for it, he wanted to go.

    I really don’t know, Carldyke … people have always told me I am unreasonably smiley, happy, enthusiastic, and so on, and I have always found it very confusing to try to be happy about things I am not. I don’t find that happiness is an effort one has to make, or some sort of mental yoga, or anything like that – I just usually am, and if I’m not, it’s a sign of something being wrong. I have always found happiness, feeling happy, to be a symptom more than an attitude: it means you’re taking care of your health, you’re doing interesting things, you have friends, you have work or some sort of project that means something to you, etc. If you have some of those things going on you will then feel happy, and I tend to be good at finding Cool Stuff and Events that make me happy.

    Trying to say “it’s good enough it’s good enough” or “at least I am not starving” or things like this really seem to me to miss the point, and to be sort of soul killing.

  19. Carl said

    Cero, I observe that folks scatterplot between two axes: “finds a way to be happy eating gravel in a hurricane,” and “that pea fourteen mattresses down is bruising my spine.” Close to the axes, there’s either nothing you can do to make them happy, or to make them unhappy. Out in the middle is a field of contextual possibilities, where some things will content some folks and not others.

    Historically, details of that middle come and go. Flush toilets didn’t exist to trouble our emotions for most of history; then made a lot of people very happy for a little while; now we take them for granted and their lack is an affront.

    Because of the historical lengthening of my perspective, I tend to be at best agnostic toward particular anecdotal claims of existential satisfaction or distress. That is, I understand them to be relative to particular circumstances and possibilities, within a more general field of affective psychology in which some people tend to be happy and others tend to be miserable more or less no matter what. I do notice that from the perspective of each particular existence there is a truthiness about claims that this or that factor is enabling or disabling of happiness. But from the larger distributive and historical perspective, none of those particular variables are universally effective.

    Anyway, if you’re not a princess who finds a pea under every mattress (and it seems pretty clear you’re not), and you know where the sleep is more comfortable, and you can go there, then go there. I mean, that’s just good sense. What’s at stake?

  20. […] Some people tell me that they, too, are miserable, but that life is a miserable thing and there is nothing to do but endure it and hope one does not live too long. Other people keep telling me that I should not wait to make the move I so want to make, but should rather make just any move, any random move. Still others tell me I should be happy. In fact I am wracked with guilt about not being happy, not being grateful, not being able to limit myself and my appetite for life in such a way as to fit into the narrow space I have been given. But I  remain as I am, and that is why I still have such difficulty with this post. […]

  21. […] Some people tell me that they, too, are miserable, but that life is a miserable thing and there is nothing to do but endure it and hope one does not live too long. Other people keep telling me that I should make a random, chaotic move. Still others tell me I should be happy. In fact I am wracked with guilt about not being happier, not being more grateful, not being able to limit myself and my appetite for life in such a way as to fit into the narrow space I have. But I  remain as I am, and that is why I still have such difficulty with this post. […]

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