25 February 2007

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence

To be honest, I’ve never been a true aficionado of the work of Adrienne Rich. Too second-wave funky for my tastes, too much unreconstructed lesbian separatism lingering around the corners, not the least of which was her assertion in the 1970s that gay men were responsible for all the problems of pre-Stonewall lesbians (per Faderman). As well, the attachment of young white liberal undergraduate women to her famous poem “Frame” always seemed a bit too much like guru fetish, even if I secretly liked that poem myself. In any event, I have always been taken, however, by the title of her 1979 prose anthology, which has stayed in my memory even as any meaningful details of the volume itself have faded into the white noise of having led a life too full of books and ideas to keep any of them straight anymore.

Her inspired title always stood for me as a rubric for the parameters of social life, a feeling only intensified by working in the Biz. If indeed the infrastructure of the Byzantine workings of the academy are grounded in lies, secrets, and silence, then a key to success is developing the skills to gather and process information selectively and cogently, skills not anathema to our training as intellectuals and professionals, but also a skill-set that some of us do not bring to bear upon the inner mechanisms of our daily professional lives.

Once upon a time, in describing some controversy, the Fierceness used the metaphor of the purloined letter, the secret hidden in plain sight. The image has stayed with me, not only because of the persuasive reasoning of the Fierceness’s mind, but also as a modus of the university. Scandal, corruption, and bad tidings are usually in plain sight, laying about like the detritus of university life, someone’s hopes and dreams burnt to a crisp, and as such pass by the trained eye searching for the elaborate hiding place. Competition between junior and senior faculty, corrupt hiring and promotion practices, people hired because of nepotism and fired for no cause, racism and sexism and homophobia ingrained in evaluatory mechanisms, these and other horrors typically live not hidden, but right before our eyes, folded into the manner of living that is the academy, through paradigms such as collegiality, mentorship, “fit,” process, and undergirded and supported by the lies we tell everyday (to ourselves and others), the secrets we keep, and the silences we engender, for survival and power.

Inspired by several sources, Rich’s title, and the memory of The Fierceness’s purloined letter, let’s take a closer look at how this trinity works in the academy of here and now, as in right now …


On one of the pages of the Academic Job Wiki there has been a heated conversation going on about a particular tenure-track job search at a private baccalaureate college in the Eastern United States. Perusing the listings, keeping up with the Joneses of course, it caught my eye about a month ago, and every time I check back there is another shocker. The line of conversation seems to have begun around questions about the search process, and whether or not there was an inside candidate. But as the thread grew and expanded, the tone shifted from the job itself (which remarkably features comments from a member of the search committee itself defending their process [!], among others) to the role of questioning itself, with some comments gesturing towards the idea that those (other, questioning) commentators engaged in criticising the search process are potentially bad colleagues, insecure, angry, and overly subjective.

Whether or not there is an inside candidate for this position is less important to me as a voyeuristic reader than parsing the institutional politics on display in this thread: on one hand, the role of the internet and anonymity to question and undermine the total and secretive power of the search process; on the other, inchoate forces of reaction that seek to shut down the conversation with veiled threats and insults directed at the questioners themselves. What this intriguing dynamic demonstrates is the depths to which some of us inculcate the culture of official lies in the university. We all know, for instance, that the academic hiring process is inherently, tragically flawed. Those of us with experience in these matters also know the depths of chicanery involved in even the most banal searches. These are not matters open to debate, but frankly acknowledged by most academics familiar with the processes of the university, most often with a shrug of the shoulders.

For me, what has been most exasperating about the progression of this conversation thread is the way in which some writers have displayed a total colonisation of their minds (to get a little retro) by the system, how they have come to believe (whether unconsciously or deliberately) the lies of the system in reassuring us, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, that all is well in the Religious Kingdom of Academic Meritocracy that is the root of our perception of the academic hiring process. How deeply they (we?) have become slaves to the system! This involves a whole series of interlocking and embricated belief systems that, like a house of cards, must exist as a whole, or else face imminent collapse. The faith community of Academic Meritocracy, like most faith communities, cannot brook dissent, however, which is one reason why the tone of this particular thread on the Wiki has become somewhat ugly. But what happens when the Messiah doesn’t come? What about the crisis of faith? To reveal the lie, to speak of the illusion, to reveal the mimesis, is also, in the minds of some, to mark oneself as a troublemaker, a bad colleague, or rather a bad slave. It is vulgar, impolite, and unpleasant. Rather similar to our current political moment, and perhaps as such reveals more about the American character than the academic one, or perhaps reaffirms the lessons of hegemony as a sophisticated, persuasive system of control.

A couple of nights ago, at a dinner party celebrating a visiting scholar in town, in response to some mild-mannered queries, I went off on various things, a soliloquy more informed by hunger, tiredness, and missing Mr. Gordo than by any tangible material dissatisfaction (at least, tangible in a new and different sense). Afterwards, I felt mildly embarrassed and self-conscious. Nothing I had said was untrue, per se, but no one really wants to hear it. Revealing the lie in one case can have the unhappy consequences of stripping other, disassociated lies of their glamour. And when you have a life built on lies, as we academics have, then such a process of consciousness can overwhelm. Many of us prefer to dream, stay asleep in our individual cocoons, although the reaction of my dinner compatriots, to be generous, may have been more akin to the awkwardness that comes from the revelation of personal pain and our individual inability to do much about it, other than be supportive as we can be.

The desire on the part of many to stay asleep, however, also strikes me more as a human failing rather than a particular indictment of academics themselves, although the tension between our refined intellectual powers of delineation and the base conditions of our working lives leads to irresolvable contradiction, and in some cases, yes, madness. In fact, I’m surprised more academics don’t lose their marbles in a system as cruel as ours. The useful application of anger in these situations seems to resolve some of the tensions of living in a house of lies, as anger speaks to a consciousness of the system in all its ugly manifestations and a resistance to the hegemony of that system, although anger is not a socially appropriate emotion in our tranquilised society. This is why one of the accusations hurled at critics on the Wiki is that they are “angry.’ Well, hell, why shouldn’t they be angry? To quote the old Lefty-feminist bumper sticker, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention!” In the gulf between Stepford Wife automation (“Would you like more coffee?”) and insanity, there has to be some or several islands that stand apart from either extreme. Finding them, and making a home on them, however, is almost like finding Pitcairn, the proverbial needle in the haystack, a secret hiding place for outlaws and mutineers such as we.


Following this, I recently had a long talk with an old mentor, someone who was incredibly important to my success at Prestigious Eastern U. and remains embedded in my life. Mentor had recently served on a search committee at their institution, and we spoke about the excruciating nature of the conference interview, in their words, “from the other side of the bed,” a metaphor I liked because of its associations with the intimacy of the academic hiring process. We are not only hiring co-workers, we are also hiring lovers, confidantes, children, parents, and the whole realm of messy, subjective, personal relationships we associate with collegiality in the academy. Mentor spoke of the parade of lackeys, flunkies, and the qualified that passed through the hotel suite, and how it was not the latter category that got invited for campus visits. All in all, not terribly surprising. But Mentor’s commentary on the nature of the academic hiring process, and the academy in general, I found compelling. Mentor observed that the system was rotten to the core, with little or no oversight or accountability. It was a completely unexamined process, rife with ridiculousness and illegality. Mentor observed that not even in the ziggurats of Mammon was so much entrusted into the incapable hands of so few, with no repercussions for bad behaviour or a job badly done.

I had never thought of it in this particular way, and I found the idea shocking as well as depressing. This infrastructure of incompetence is dependent on secrecy. Search committees are riddles wrapped in enigmas entombed in lies, secrets, and silence. There is no accountability of their process, no public measurement of fairness and success (if you discount the beauty pageant that is a series of job talks, that is). In fact, the whole process is so shrouded in secrecy that candidates have no idea about basic things in many searches, like for instance who eventually got the job, never mind more important information like where the candidate may have flubbed, or if one of their letters of recommendation is suspect. Nowadays, some committees don’t even bother with a formal rejection letter, even for candidates on the short list. Those of us who have done our time on search committees know the messy internal functions and petty compromises one must make with infantile senior faculty or sensitive constituencies. But from the outside, the academic search committee is the very definition of the Star Chamber, inscrutable and random.

Talk about extraordinary rendition! Every year, thousands of hopeful candidates send out reams of paper in a process relatively similar to tossing pennies in fountains, or wishing on a star. And this process, random and inchoate and opaque, has been naturalised for us, normalised as the way it is. But why should it be this way? The story of how our profession came to this stage is more a story of the banality of evil than meritocracy, a corruption and misapprehension of market forces and the constant, drum beat raising of the bar, illusions and delusions of the professoriate, as well as a total collapse of the guild structure that ironically follows the end of formal white supremacy in the academy and society. Brutal economic conditions masked as the socio-cultural are not unique to the academy, but are perhaps most pronounced in the abuses of the academic hiring process, a cesspool under the basement floorboards that at any given moment threatens to bubble over into scandal or legal action. When this happens, ever so rarely of course, the mess is cleaned up by paid professionals, settlement checks are issued (if you’re lucky), confidentiality agreements are signed, and everyone goes back to business as usual, maintaining the secret.


Clearly, the system of lies and the structures of secrecy are dependent on silence as a compulsory condition in the academy. The concept of silence is interesting in the ways it can imply resistance as well as acquiescence. Silence may in fact be the a standard methodology for dealing with the ugly business of the university, but it is also one that has always as well been full of holes, like a leaky boat. Gossip, knowledge exchange, and the confidence game all have their honourable roles in the profession, and one road to academic success is mastering the art of information and recognising the purloined letter in one’s midst. To return to the Wiki and more largely the culture of blogging and web reportage, of which this very blog is but one example, one of the most absorbing uses of the Internet in the academy has been the unauthorised telling of secrets, naughty facts, and hard realities. In other words, a sort of inchoate breaking of the codes of silence upon which the entire trinity of lies, secrets, and silence depends (per Culture Cat’s discussion of the Invisible Adjunct).

To wit, at the end of the long and meandering conversation thread on the Wiki, one commentator introduces a rupture in the discussion, writing,

“[P]eople should know that [baccalaureate college] is in fact an insane institution that treats many of its visiting faculty, among others, like dirt. There is a real price to be paid for living in paradise, which is intense paranoia: people meeting in parking lots to whisper about job searches in code... like something out of THE PARALLAX VIEW. Some depts are worse than others, of course. But sometimes paranoia and deep suspicion are in fact the correct and rational response to certain situations.”

Click, dial tone, buh-BYE! What a delicious nugget of information! The relative truth-value of this statement is not what is at issue (as if we really care), but rather the rupture of the official line, the questioning of the process, and the unauthorised revelation of experience is what makes this statement breathtaking. What formerly lived as asides in the hallway or private conversations in hotel bars at national conferences are now intensely public, and subject to wide diffusion, commentary, and information collection. Some may observe that in fact such utterances can be ill informed, subjective, or grounded in personal antipathy or bitterness. To which I have to say, “So what?” To return to the trinity, one of the reasons for the “paranoia and deep suspicion” is not just subjective disappointments and resentments of individual academics, but the implacable nature of the system itself, which depends and lives on lies, secrets, and silence, and as such informs a sort of collective delusion, as well as a collective illness. We have reached a point where nothing can be believed with any reasonable assurance, where everything is a house of mirrors, reflecting distorted and multiple images back to us. The “real” story increasingly becomes a barometer, of which side you are on, which sources you trust, and whether or not you value the ruptures of the official story.

Perhaps this is always where we have been, but the acceleration of electronic resources that spread gossip and unauthorised information at the click of a mouse and guarantee a certain amount of anonymity are a deep threat to the structure of the trinity of lies, secrets, and silence in the academy. As more and more of the skein of illusion is removed, we can expect to see more, not less, pitched battles between those who wish to tell, wish to question, and others with a vested interest in defending the system, and aiding and abetting the functions of the Biz. It won’t be pretty.


Professor Zero said...

Great post and I am going to study it. For now, a funny story, of someone I know who is old now, when he was an assistant professor in a department of foreign languages.

WHAT: his language was going to get to hire a senior person, and had a good chance at one. Chair (in another language) sent offer letter. Candidate wrote back saying he was not independently wealthy and needed a salary, not an honorarium, so no thanks.

ACTION, PART I: two assistant professors want to know what salary was actually offered. The bravest (R.I.P.) went to campus Saturday, with a ladder. The building had those ceiling tiles you could lift out. Lifts out the ceiling tiles by the chair's office, jumps over the wall, goes through the desk, finds the carbon copy of the letter sent to the Candidate. The salary offered is, indeed, an honorarium.

ACTION, PART II: The two assistant professors take the copy of the letter to the dean, and say, see how this chair is making our institution look. Dean says, you are right. I hereby grant you and yours your own independent department, and you will do the hire. And so they did, and it is a big department today.

Oso Raro said...

What an excellent story! Like the academic version of the Watergate burglars, but instead of Liddy we have catburglar eggheads in tweed jackets and cordovans. I wonder if they wore cute little party masks...

Now that's what I call dedication to principle!

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Speaking as somebody who was kicked out of the club last year, by means of secrets, lies and silence, this post really hit home. Keep up the good work.

But here's a little story that I'd like to share in terms of lies, secrets, and silence.

While pursuing my MA, part of the guidance that my supervisor offered was that he would show me how to play the game, as well as comment on my thesis writing. I remember once he told me that I was professionalizing really well.

So I wrote away, meanwhile taking another course in our department with a professor who I dreamed of doing a PhD with. The course went extremely well, the professor really liked my work, and I mustered up the gumption to ask if he would write me a letter for our department and if I could work with him next fall.

He agreed to write me a letter, and coached me on my PhD application. All signs pointed to contiuning in the same department next fall.

During one of our semi-regular thesis meetings, my supervisor informed me that I'll soon receive a very cold letter from the department saying that I'm on the waiting list for the PhD programme. I started to ask a few questions and the concluding answer I got was that it's not the quality of my thesis, it's not me, they like me, want to keep me, but it was an administrative decision.

I didn't end up making it, and the reason in the final rejection letter was that there is nobody to supervise my work in this department. A little while later I met with the professor who I wanted to do my PhD with, and when I brought up the subject in the form of 'I suppose you've heard that I didn't get in', his eyes fell to the floor and he said that this is not the place for the project I proposed.

I've never told that story in a public forum, out of fear. Fear that this story will fall into the wrong hands, and that the academic powers that be will find it and use it against me. Fear that if I speak out, this story will destroy my academic career. Well, since I'm kicked out of the club anyway, I often wonder if it really matters anymore.

But, in all honesty your blog post has inspired me to speak out, and I can honestly say that I do not hold my supervisor or the other professor personally or professionally responsible. After reading your post, I've accepted the fact that my rejection in my own department was all a part of the culture of lies, secrets and silence.

Your writing inspired me to speak out against this discourse.

I'll leave this testimony with a parting thought: if you ever have a bad day, just remember that your writings have made a positive difference in the life of a former graduate student.

Keep on writing and keep up the good work.

Joshua said...

Hey, F.Y.I. I completely got what Bruce (not so different) said on his blog. I just didn't agree. I have also been on the net for a long time. And I'm not trusting of someone who over and over writes critical assessments of other online people - while unwilling to share anything personal about himself. In my longevity on the net - it screams deception and fakeness. It sends off red flags, and that's why I made the comments I did. But I won't be returning there :)

Professor Zero said...

Hey anon., I don't think you risk anything by telling that story.

Oso, I've read your links now and learned things. Distinction intellectual/academic, yes.

Anonymous said...

Hey prof zero,

You know, you're right. To sound cliché, I guess things are only as bad as they seem. But I suppose that that in my mind speaking ill, or accusing a professor or two of shafting you over is...well...dangerous.

Thanks to Oso for providing the space to engage in dialogue!

MaggieMay said...

Beautiful and chilling post. And anon's reluctance to speak out is, of course, part of the condition: I know I am always unsure what stories can be told where, to whom, without risking ...something: reputation, credibility, dismissal from the academic club.

I also know that my discipline's wiki and blogs almost make the problem worse; potentially there's room for truth-telling there, but in my experience the sheer amount of rumor and misinformation is *staggering*. It makes secrets seem almost appealing...

Anonymous said...

Is it just me or is the paranoia as high as the snow in Little City? Shit like this happens because of silence . . . SPEAK up, spread the shit, name names and expose the fuckers before they fuck over again! Anyone remember the outing campaigns of Queer Nation a decade ago? Expose the festering "secrets" . . .

foreigner said...

I'm a bit surprised that the one encouraging naming names and speaking up is...well...another anonymous. American Academe is a poorly weaven web of secrets and lies.

Bruce said...


The academic hiring process in much of continental Europe is quite different from that in America. On the surface it seems even more corrupt and squalid, but--- if we discount its indirect relationship to class and money--- the European system is ultimately much fairer.

Because of the absurd funding situation in which most European universities find themselves, most full time faculty are seriously overburdened and cannot really manage the huge amount of thesis supervision and administrative work that is loaded upon them.

It is, then, necessary that a professor take on an assistant chosen from among his best recently graduated students. There is, of course, no money to pay such a person--- with the exception of occasional grants and low paid short term contracts that don't really provide enough to live on. The ex student has to be ready to work for several years with hardly any pay, which means he has to have the support of his family for several years after graduation.

Eventually, when a job opens up in the department concerned, the student who has slaved for the professor for several years receives his support in the competition. If the professor is powerful enough, and if he complies with his unwritten obligations to support the student's candidacy, the student gets the job.

One problem with this system, of course, is that it eliminates from an academic career anyone who does not have enough money to support himself during the years of apprenticeship; on the other hand, anyone planning an academic career in Europe probably should have at least some independent income, since academic salaries are pathetically low. In Italy, for example, it would be impossible to support a family on the salary of a newly tenured professor.

Another problem is that it develops, on the part of the student-candidate, skills of questionable moral and academic virtue. The student- slave has to be somewhat cynical in the selection of his mentor. It makes little sense to ally oneself with a young, relatively powerless professor, no matter how brilliant and inspiring he may be. It's much more advisible to subject oneself to the service of an already powerful professor, who can assure you of a position within a few years.

This process sounds rather distressing, but it does assure the most capable, financially independent young people who eneter into the process of eventually finding a position in the university. The costs for the candidate are very high, but the rules of the game are clear and relatively reliable.

It even supports a meritocracy, of sorts, in that a professor is certainly going to choose his assistants from his most capable students (Sometimes extraneous elements, such as sex, do play a role in a professor's selection; but the person selected can't be too much of an academic incompetant. The price paid by the professor, who has to depend on the assistant's labor, would be too high for him to choose a sexy incompetant.)

In fairness to European universities, it should be noted that they are not the exclusive instances of this apprentice system. At least in Italy, getting a job in most public funded institutions involves a certain period of unpaid, or very low paid work on a voluneteer basis. Then, when a job becomes available, the person chosen is generally from one of the apprentices or volunteers. This system also works in international organizations, and some of the more prestigious NGOs.

As for the American University situation, my experience is somewhat different, since I tought in the US back in the 1960s, when jobs were plentiful and candidates were actually courted by departments. The atmosphere in the University was just as petty and catty as you describe, but I attributed the cattyness to the putting together of a group of highly eduacted, even at times intelligent people, and then paying them absurdly low salaries, in a society that measured one's worth by the size of his paycheck.

GayProf said...

One thing that amazes me is how totally uninformed academic people are about what is actually legal to do during job searches. Screw ethics -- I am just talking about federal law.

In my time at one institution I heard all of the following from people involved in different searches: 1) Questioning a candidate's religion 2) Questioning a candidate's ethnic background 3)Questioning a candidate's marital status 4) Speculating on a candidate's desire to have children 5) Discounting a candidate because "Don't we already have enough people of color/women/gays and lesbians in the department?"

Why universities and departments are not sued more often is a mystery to me. Perhaps it is that silence, though, which prevents an otherwise litigious society from wreaking havoc on higher education.

Professor Zero said...

- Anon., the beauty of the way you told the story is, you did not directly accuse anyone of anything - you just said, essentially, that something odd happened and you didn't get into the program. This actually happens all the time - people don't get into programs, don't get fellowships, jobs, tenure, etc., because of 'something odd'. It can even *look* one way, and actually be rooted in some additional factor (i.e. the chair wanted to hire his girlfriend, whatever). So, while you might say to your friends "I got shafted by Prof. X," you can say to a broader public words to the effect of, "There was a misunderstanding." Understatement is everything - people will then say, ah, yes, one of those Situations, I know them well.'

- A nonacademic friend informs me that everyone he knows who teaches, from kindergarten on up, complains of the cattiness of the faculty.

- Indeed, many universities, or at least individuals in them, do not know federal law. That becomes really obvious at interviews, where you have a group situation and several people saying and doing illegal things publically at once, but it is not just there.

- I actually think the misinformation and rumors are worse than the secrets and silence. I've seen a staggering number of people do ill advised things based on poor information. It's actually one of the reasons for the silence: it is very, very easy to have anything which is said, converted into misinformation. This can be harmful even when no harm is intended and the misinformation is based on misunderstanding.

- One of the biggest pieces of misinformation, I find, is how scared it is believed you really need to be. I find this pernicious.

Professor Zero said...

P.S. gayprof - what amazes *me* about candidates in on campus interview is how much they volunteer about religion, family, desire to have children, etc. I was trained never to do it and I am amazed that these brave new people do do it. It is not the best idea, even when it is 'safe' - it just does not look professional.

Professor Zero said...

Me *again*, as you can see I am thinking about this post. What I note about lies, secrets and silence in academia is that it is very similar to what happens in the corporate world, government, and the military.
One always has to read tea leaves and figure out what the organization is *really* doing - how to adjust one's own plans accordingly - etc.

Anonymous said...

(This is a long one. Apologies.)

I'm really grateful for this post, Oso. And I do regret posting anonymously but...

See, I was one of the finalists for said position. (Indeed, it was my contribution to the wiki on this search -- that fateful invitation for a phone interview a mere 2 days post-deadline -- that triggered the first wave of energy in the thread.) The search in question unfolded with uncharacteristic speed, during which I think I worked harder than for any other campus visit I've experienced. I was on campus for the visit 32 days after submitting my application (with a phone interview and followup request for very large writing sample in the interim). On day 51, I was notified that an offer had been made/accepted -- by someone else. And, throughout, as things developed on the wiki, I read with mortified, terrified, thrilled, greedy curiosity.

My experience of the wiki thread, then, was a crazy-making mix of the lies, secrets and silence. I did all three on the topic of this search on the wiki. And it tested my faith in precisely the ways you describe here.

At the beginning, I totally discredited allegations that there was an inside candidate (hey, I wasn't an insider!) and valued the claims that the committee had been working hard on the search (hey, they've been really efficient, thorough and forthcoming so far). By the end, I had become convinced that there was an inside candidate (why didn't I notice that one person's bio on the website) and that the very committee member posting passionate disavowals on the wiki (it's totally obvious who it is) has a lengthy personal relationship with this insider. All of which leads me to wallow in my wiki-instigated fantasies of the place being a snakepit. (A fantasy fortified by my own chagrin at encountering "racist-ish" nonsense commentary addressing my ethnic heritage and area of research specialization throughout the day of my visit -- an accumulation of quips noting my certain climactic challenges as a native southwesterner and not one but three burrito jokes -- an experience as yet unique to this search.)

Of course, I have no idea how any of this "inside" knowledge squares with the "truth" of the situation. But, for me, it does underscore that old saw: a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. What I first adored about the wiki -- a collaborative venue to speak through the chilling silence of the dehumanizations of the academic job search -- emerged as yet another emotional hazard zone in an already fraught process.

(Thanks for indulging this rant, folks.)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cero said...

Well ... being anonymous in the blogosphere is different from being anonymous on one's campus, where I certainly am not and am famously outspoken.

But: asking questions which are illegal according to Federal law, yes. Or making *assumptions* which are ... that is almost worse. We had a huge fight a few years ago about a candidate whose detractors were just sure she would soon be pregnant and non publishing (those two go together you know) because of her national origin and her husband's. It was so *beyond* ridiculous, in part because she was *so* obviously career oriented an un-derailable. She has since made Full in a more demanding place than ours.

Anonymous said...

Hi .nice blog.I need to find jobs .can anybody send links of that job websites....
Thank you.....

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