We Don’t Need No Thought Control

Please welcome Bumblepuppies to discuss higher education, graduate school and a form of cultist sequestration I had no idea existed.

I’ve come here to tell some stories.  I usually write humor but today I intend to go serious with topics that sometimes end up as a punchline for me these days.  You should not expect extreme emotion from me, but rather a disturbing calm.  I have been away from the situation for a while now, long enough for other life events to move into the foreground.  It is for this reason that I don’t usually talk about this anymore, though it is something people need to know before allowing friends and relatives to pursue a Ph.D.

If you humor me on the small stuff early on, you’ll find that the issues grow as you keep reading.

And so…

I remember that my academic department had an email listserv for all of the faculty, staff, and graduate students.  It was used sparingly, normally to describe events and disseminate other announcements.  Some events were more welcomed than others.  Promoting a graduate student team for a charitable fundraiser was frowned upon.  Though the faculty never explicitly said so, interactions outside of the university tended to be at least somewhat taboo.  However, if you wanted to watch a movie, the faculty had ideas on hand.

For instance, I had watched (independently) a film that satirized 60’s radicals in Europe, focusing on life within and the eventual dissolution of one commune.  If you check out online reviews, you’ll find that this is the message viewers seem to have uniformly understood… except for the faculty.  The film, when advertised on the listserv, was hailed as an example of how much destruction an outsider with nonconforming ideas could wreak on a happy and harmonious community.  After all, it was a commune member’s sister who was welcomed from the outside and who ended up spreading thoughts that made people realize the problems in their little home.

The underlying idea: academe, like the commune, is a community that ought to remain protected from pernicious outside influences.  It only takes one voice to topple the fragile result of so much social engineering.  Opposing voices must be reframed to make them seem agreeable.

Of course, the whole thing with the movie was just one man promoting a film.  To find a bigger problem, look to the library.  Graduate students living off campus could log into the library’s online subscriptions by way of using a proxy server, but woe to the student who forgets to turn off the proxy.  (For those of you who don’t know, using a proxy server basically means that you run your internet connection through someone else’s as an intermediate step.)  I forgot sometimes.  And sometimes I was curious to know about diverse political reactions to current events.  However, the campus proxy server blocked access to townhall.com, which is perhaps the biggest conservative blogging hub.  After all, the academic community is fragile and access to diverging opinions could destroy what was supposedly being built on campus and in our heads.  And it’s scary to think that a bunch of academic professionals (because that’s what librarians are, and they collaborate with professors) believe that the knowledge they proffer would fall so easily to the less-than-intellectual offerings that make up so much (but definitely not all) of Townhall.

Unfortunately, the academics’ “knowledge,” when it exists, is not presented in the form of knowledge.  And you can probably imagine that this has an impact on the people who conform fully to the “intellectual” prescriptions that surround them.  (I apologize in advance for singling out campus feminists.  I choose them because I understand that they do have some legitimate grievances and I learned that through my interactions with non-campus feminists.  The campus feminists made me want to turn Republican.)  As an example, feminists on some campuses become so accustomed to having their every belief supported at every turn, even when it is expressed as unfounded dogma, that they can do nothing but spew vitriol at anyone who dares to even question the effectiveness of how they express their beliefs.  And then we get nutjobs on the Right (if the powers that be don’t prevent you from encountering them) who claim that feminists aren’t capable of rational dialogue.  And of course students are going to agree because the feminists they’ve encountered on their campus have begun conforming to that nasty stereotype.  At least that’s the case where I attended graduate school.

And so ideas get passed around with no support and they are reinforced and reinforced because no one ever disagrees.  People will just call your ideas “crass” or pretend that there aren’t any valid ideas to oppose their own.  The closest thing I got to a rational argument before graduating was “is that what you really believe?” in an incredulous tone.

Those who persist in thinking freely often get shunned.  This can be a blessing in disguise if you value an active mind and real conversations, but I was rarely so lucky.  Unfortunately, people will forget that you are being shunned because they can’t grasp the idea that someone in their midst finds their proclamations uncompelling… or that you might have discovered some most excellent people off campus or perhaps in the law school.

Or perhaps you had the crazy idea that you’d like to spend Christmas with family even though you were “just there” for Thanksgiving.  Spending too much time with outsiders is dangerous.

And so one day you become an elder graduate student with some influence over the younger students who have not yet learned that you are supposed to be avoided.  Then, your professor calls you up at home and asks you to put in a good word for the faculty’s biggest concern at the next graduate student meeting that, conveniently, will also be attended by the department chair.  It will be more effective if a student expresses the faculty’s opinion instead of a professor, or so it goes.

And in the process you learn not to trust most of the people who have surrounded you for so many years because you can’t be sure whether they’ve been speaking as themselves or as puppets.

And that is relatively harmless.

Graduation soon rolls around and you’ll need to find a job. Your department loudly advertises all the wonderful professorial positions its graduates receive because that’s how new students are herded into the program.  Of course, the occasional “real job” is listed with the cornucopia of temporary positions that pay less than Wal-Mart while providing no health insurance.  No distinction is made between desirable and other positions; entering graduate students will eventually learn the hard way.

And what I learned the hard way is that my nonacademic job search would not take place independently of my academic department.  Sure, I knew I’d need my professors as references but this goes much deeper.

The first time I visited the Campus Career Office to talk about nonacademic careers, I was deprogrammed by a counselor who didn’t realize that I had (presumably) been pegged as a future professor.  (Again, never underestimate the faculty’s ability to ignore all evidence that you don’t share their vision.)  During that first visit, I was bombarded with all sorts of reasons why a professorial career is no good and we plotted some possible directions for a nonacademic job search.

However, I had to enter my name into a computerized sign-in when I arrived.  By the time of my second appointment, that same counselor was saying this:


And the opportunities that had been so touted were now being described in negative terms.

And when I eventually went for help on interview prep, I ended up receiving a tour of the building instead.

And I remember the first time I told someone (a staff member in another department) that I didn’t plan to become a professor.  By now, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that one of my department’s professors was asking me about that the very next morning.

Deviations from the “plan” had to be reported.

And then things get serious.  Let’s say that you end up being the victim of a crime or three that might impede your ability to find a job.  (Identity theft immediately comes to mind.)  The first possible suspects you think of are the faculty or perhaps a graduate student doing their bidding.  And no matter how generous they’ve been to you over the years, and there was a lot of generosity going on, you can’t help but remember that there’s an end game to all you went through.  They need their grads in certain jobs to help keep the program afloat and they need you agreeing with them because, let’s be honest, most humanities professors seek no impact on the world other than the transmission of their cherished beliefs to the next generation and beyond.  If you take that last part away from them, their reason for sacrificing so much goes up in smoke.

And the sacrifices are sold by way of the same isolation I already described.  Being in graduate school means that everyone thinks it’s crazy to maintain any location preferences.  It’s either no preferences or no job (except for the few lucky people who get to live in an exciting place like New York without enough money to rent a small closet.)  And the neverending workweek is sold similarly, as a single item and not as part of a bill of goods you’d reject if you were considering the whole thing in its entirety.  And plenty of women go without children because it’s often a career killer.  And you have to change your views if you want to be published someday.  And it’s normal to criss-cross the country with a series of low-paying one-year positions as you keep trying unsuccessfully, year after year, to land something more permanent.  And if that means living apart from your spouse for several years or more, so be it.

And according to them, you’ll be unemployed for the entire year if you don’t apply for academic jobs because no other opportunities exist for you, even if you’re bilingual.

And then you spend your time unemployed and wondering if that last rejection or three came about because your references think you’re just fooling yourself about wanting to leave academe, even after all this time.  They can block your efforts if they so desire.

But if you’re lucky like me, you have a moment where you get to see your surroundings for what they were: a cult.  (I am not a loon.  The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is the major academic trade publication, has run articles making precisely this comparison.)  And no one from academe can grasp why you left and some folks seem to think you’ll inevitably change your mind.

But these days, I don’t really think about it all that much.  Time dulls the paranoia, even if it was at least somewhat rational and justified, even if it might still be, even though I’ve heard similar stories about folks at other universities.  And not just in the humanities.

The stories die because life goes on.  You return to your family and any friendships you managed to maintain. And you look for some volunteer work with people who won’t consider you “overqualified” to help their cause.

And the past eventually fades behind you. It feels good.

Meanwhile, 22-year-olds continue to flood the gates into the same nightmare you experienced, not knowing what awaits them, not knowing that they risk a transformation into the people who will try to bulldoze them, who have perhaps bulldozed them already.  To speak out is to strike at the people who control your future, for they still hover over you as your professional references.

24 thoughts on “We Don’t Need No Thought Control

  1. Since I think your experience is, to say the least, idiosyncratic (I strongly doubt all colleges function like this, and I know mine didn’t) I would recommend that instead of using “you” in your post you use “me” or “we.” The whole time I was reading it I was thinking, “But I didn’t get that, I wasn’t told that” etc even though you were saying “You will find…you will be told…” in this ominous voice. I’m interested in and sympathetic to your experience but as a reader I don’t want to be told that it’s “mine” too through the use of the indirect “you.”


    • I appreciate your thoughts and I would agree that not all universities function like this. However, the percentage is high enough that the warning is warranted. I’d suggest visiting thefire.org to see how widespread some of this is. Last I checked, the Chronicle of Higher Education links to them as a reliable source. There have also been plenty of articles over at CHE on issues between graduate students and professors when it comes to choosing nonacademic careers.

      I did not submit this without knowing about the broader informational base to support me.

      Also, the second-person phrasing was deliberate, but sometimes for a less obvious reason. When I reached the point of discussing illegal activity, I was not in a position to say “these people committed these crimes” because no one has been charged, tried, and convicted. The second-person allowed me to discuss issues without dragging people’s names through the mud. (I know I’m anonymous but that may not always be the case.)


  2. Interesting post. I too fell victim to the siren call of graduate school, not once but twice, and then went on to a career outside of academia (after many years within academia in a non-teaching capacity.) Looking back, I’m (mostly) happy with the education, but became bery disillusioned and even a bit angry at the games and politics that occur within most academic programs, and the false hopes that are dangled in front of grad students (and worse, to would-be grad students). I discussed some of my experiences and what I learned in a recent post here:



    • I especially liked this paragraph from your post:

      When such people tell us “don’t ever do X” or “you really should consider Y” it’s probably always worth taking a moment to reflect on their own background and consider their own possible motivations. Are they giving us this advice because they truly care about us, or because they themselves are bitter from their own experiences? Do they make us jump through hoops and dangle possible futures in front of us because they themselves had the same thing done to them? Might they feel trapped by their own life choices and wish they could have other opportunities, and envy their students who have yet to make choices?

      The rest is also worth recommending.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your attention that your single detractor here has a gravatar named PROFjojo. Hmmm. I absolutely agree with you bumblepuppies about the direction and politics of graduate work. My Mum is a retired Prof and I grew up around university politics as she started with a BA when I was about 12 and over the next 18 years worked/studied until graduating with a PhD and then started to teach. I also did graduate work but only to a Master’s level – that got me in enough trouble that if I ever won the lotto, I’d do a PhD for the personal challenge and amusement but otherwise, never.Too much inbreeding. They threatened to throw me out of the Master’s program when I inadvertently(well, almost inadvertently, umm maybe on purpose) got involved in university politics. I even received threatening calls from the course director at home. Ha! It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that there was some illegal stuff that went on there too – including bullying of Profs and students, threats, marks that were submitted before exams were even written, etc. Aaargh! Double Aaargh!

    That being said, there were a core of profs and administrators that were responsible – the majority were as much victims as were the students. Now this ain’t Podunk U that I’m talking about – it is one of the top rated universities in Canada established before Canada was even a country, that regularly gets on the rolls of the best in the world. And this program is (as they put it) the jewel in their crown – the best of the best.

    The end result, in this case was a messy public housecleaning that saw the Executive Director, the Dean and a handful of profs swept out the door.The University President followed shortly thereafter – but there were other factors there. Good riddance.

    That being said, the quality of the education was top notch – it was an amazing, eye-opening experience that changed me forever in a good way. I wouldn’t discourage any student from doing the degree (in fact I would ENcourage them), but I’d certainly give them a heads up on the politics. The majority of the profs and admins were frightened senseless of being blackballed and relieved when the change came. So, it’s not all bad, but as I once said to a prof I trusted: Some days I feel like I’m full of bullet holes and standing in a minefield – but then I realize that I AM still standing. Not sure university is supposed to feel that way, but that was my experience.

    Thanks for the post bumblepuppies – much appreciated and underdiscussed topic.


    • Thanks for reading, Paul.

      The fear among profs is something I also witnessed often. In my case, though, they most visibly feared budgetary reductions for our department because of declining enrollments. When people are constantly told that they can’t function outside the university and then find themselves in a situation where their continued presence on campus becomes uncertain, their actions become desperate. I see your comment about grades being submitted too early and remember the “encouragement” to “give the students A’s” because that would increase enrollments for the following semester. At some institutions (including a few with strong reputations), giving a low grade can get you in a lot of trouble… even if you can prove that the student deserved it.

      However, that veers off into a completely different issue.


  4. wonderfully put, bumble. and right at the beginning of your post, it sounded exactly as if you were describing a cult. as i read on, i saw that indeed, you were. an excellent and eye-opening piece.

    i did a master’s program in order to change careers and it turned out to be fine, because i stayed out of the politics, did my work, bonded with my cohort, and moved on. i had no idea there was so much going on behind the scenes, but i did get some hints of it while there. i guess my ignorance was also my bliss in this case.


    • Thanks.

      I’ve noticed that the whole experience changed how I go about things, even in my personal life. These days, I don’t want to be involved in anyone else’s drama and I just want to go about the work (and occasional play) that I have to get done. I have old friends who seem to expect (and want) me to get entangled in their affairs but now all I do is sit and listen and occasionally decline to answer my phone. Or maybe that’s just me not being 21 anymore…

      I also think that master’s degrees may be a unique case. Unless they try to get involved with anything in the broader university, master’s students are only on campus for two years. That’s probably too temporary to establish anything like what I described. And then a lot of master’s students attend part time, which makes it even harder to enforce the kind of conformity that’s achieved with a group of people who will be present full-time for 6-10 (or more) years.


      • and you are absolutely right about that, bumble. in our situation, as master’s students, we had jobs off campus, and we were still pretty fully engaged in our outside lives. the shorter commitment helps too, and as you know, part of any cult mentality, is to cut you off from outside influences, so we were never too affected by what went on behind the scenes. the phd’s however, had to deal with this on an ongoing basis, it was their lives. great post.


  5. Yes Paul I am a professor but I am an adjunct at the ultimate of Podunks, a rural community college. Perhaps I am sheltered from true academia and its politics. The school itself gives ME very little but I love my students and I want them to learn. I am not now now have I ever felt either brainwashed by or ostracized from any school where I’ve attended/taught. Also, I would not characterize myself as the poster’s “detractor.” I enjoyed the post, mentioned that I was both sympathetic and interested, and then made a style comment that i thought was constructive feedback, and the poster responded with what I felt was a perfectly adequate reasoning for the stylistic choice, which I respect. Does a different experience make me a “detractor?” I hope not; I didn’t intend it to.


    • I apologize for the strength of the word “detractor” profjojo. I meant it to signify someone who disagreed with the central hypothesis of the post. If you don’t disagree, then you are indeed not a detractor. My apologies. I have an enormous amount of respect for those like yourself, who toil out of the public eye in order to teach and train students – passing on the knowledge and understanding that makes the world go ’round. The world needs more people like you.


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