Progressive versus Anti-Progressive Academics

Disillusioned with academics? It is NOT all the same ...

Background for this Article

Many years ago, when I was a graduate student, I remember feeling very alienated from academics. The view around me seemed bleak. I saw professors and students seemingly preoccupied with intellectual problems that had little or nothing to do with helping with the oppression that I saw all around me. I observed people playing ego games. I absorbed "horror stories" of people abused, such as a dear friend told he would have to do another decade of study because a member of his doctoral committee suddenly decided my friend needed to know his discussion of ancient Greek philosophy in several more languages. I witnessed a couple, doing doctoral studies, manifest sickening sickness of jealousy and competetion. One "advised" me not to accept an offer to instruct a course because I would be "exploited". A year later he was teaching. His now ex-wife, affecting "friendly" talk, recently told me, "You'll never teach in a university again." A year later I was doing precisely that. I saw speciesism triumphant in my Department, smiling a smug smile of malign indifference, lips stuffed with fat from animal corpses. And other things. I felt disillusioned, discouraged. I started to ask myself: "You want to become an academic? You want to be like that?"

Now some people still discourage academics. Alex Hershaft, at the conference AR 2010 in Washington D.C., told his audience that you should not go to graduate school, implying that it is a waste of time, and one should instead become an activist - presumably of the sort he wishes to model. He himself got a doctorate in chemistry and did work in that field for a while. But I spoke up and told him he should not make overgeneralizations. I went to graduate school, and I believe that I have something to contribute to progressive discourse in a way that will help animals, both human and other. Such negativism on the part of Hershaft! As I have written before I am a grassroots activist, but also an ideas-roots activist.

But turning back the clock once more, how did I overcome my own negativism during grad school? One of the most vital sources of renewed interest, enthusiasm, and self-encouragement was making a fresh distinction. I decided to start to distinguish the kinds of academics who are progressive, and whom I truly admire, and those who are not, who were really alone the source of my disgust and anguish. It was 1998. And it resulted in a table, albeit modified in later times, contrasting Progressive and Anti-Progressive Academics. I hope you find it useful, and perhaps even inspiring. If you are an academic, I hope that it helps to lend some positive energy to your perceptions of academia. I have seen people go through comparable phases and they were given a pause that refreshes through this table. And if you are a by-stander to the strange phenomenon that centres in our universities, may you respect "us in the academy" a bit more. Enjoy!

The paper is available for pdf download.