I es­caped two cults. The sec­ond one was academia.

Lapsed aca­demic An­drew Mar­zoni says his PhD pro­gram looked a lot like the fringe Chris­tian sect he es­caped

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @an­drew­mar­zoni An­drew Mar­zoni is a writer, edi­tor and mu­si­cian in Brook­lyn.

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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