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Has Academia Failed? Talk Given to U. of Southampton Students Upon My Honorable Retirement

"So that's how academia got pwned, and that's how I pwned this university." In this short talk, I discuss the purpose of the university, how technological acceleration is overheating academia, how I made the decision to leave academia for full independence on the internet.

If you'd like to discuss this podcast with me and others, suggest future guests, or read/watch/listen to more content on these themes, request an invitation here.

Big thanks to all the patrons who help me keep the lights on.

Click here to download this episode.

Can you do a PhD if you have ADHD?

I received this question recently from a reader. Here is how I replied. I also made this video if you’d prefer to hear my thoughts that way. This post and the video are not exactly the same.

First of all, I'm only slightly “on the spectrum,” if that’s even a thing in this context. I don’t pretend to know anything about clinical psychology. For instance, I’m not even sure if ADHD is maybe one of those made-up conditions that just medicalizes common difficulties, and then everyone seeks a diagnosis for it. I’m sure Scott Alexander has a post on it somewhere, but I haven’t looked because I’m too lazy and would not want to lose an opportunity to opine (how’s that for an epistemic status?). So if ADHD is just another one of these dubious fabrications of the DSM, then what follows will just be my answer to the question “Can you do a PhD if you are easily distracted and/or struggle to do what you’re told and/or procrastinate badly?” I have struggled with enough ADHD symptoms to know at least a thing or two about them — i.e., I follow the ADHD subreddit and frequently recognize myself in it — but I must admit they’ve never been a major debilitating problem for me… So if you have it bad, then I would not expect my input to help you necessarily. It should be obvious none of this is clinical advice. These are just some personal reflections based on my experience.

I think I've learned to hack my rhythms pretty well. Within a big hard goal (getting a PhD), if you find things that make you enthusiastic, you can trick yourself into being really productive by not doing the things you're supposed to, but doing what makes you enthusiastic instead. I have no idea if this makes sense clinically, but that's the best way I can summarize my method. So in grad school I was constantly slacking on my assignments and required readings, and instead I allowed myself to read and work on whatever I felt like — and the reason this worked (none of my profs would remember me as ever slacking on assignments or readings) was that, since I felt like I was fucking off on my responsibilities, it felt fun. Therefore, I could do like probably 5x more and/or better than what the other students could do by just obeying orders. The trick is cultivating interests and enthusiasms that are just proximate enough to what you’re supposed to be doing, that something within the 5x output of your boondoggles can be wrangled into an impressive completion of the assignment or comment on the assigned readings. (I went to a good but mid-tier public research university; at elite schools this hyperactivity quotient will not be as impressive, relatively, because the median student works way harder than at middle-tier universities; so my strategy might be uniquely effective at mid-tier schools, where there is a big gap between median student performance and what the Ivy-trained profs would like to see). If you can do this strategy, you also have a good chance of cultivating a particularly original trajectory, for obvious reasons. You also benefit from the informal social powers that come from being genuinely interested in your work; you seem more authentically engaged, you’ll speak more energetically, and seem more intense and sophisticated than the other students just obeying orders. Of course, it’s risky, because if you go too far out into orbit, you might just become a crank who all the profs and students roll their eyes at. Which one of these two types was I? Which one am I? The jury is still out on that one, but I was one of the only students in my cohort to get a permanent research-based academic appointment. So I did something right.

In short, you allow the ADHD tendencies to do whatever work they will let you do, and then just fake everything else. But as you go, you organize all your fragmented ADHD enthusiasms into a larger narrative that makes sense out of the work you have been doing. Given that the big challenge of a PhD is precisely this — crafting an original narrative about who you are and what you are working on, why it’s important and why someone should hire you, etc. — I actually think think this hacked ADHD strategy can be a strange advantage. Because you are forced to get good at spinning your absurd distractions into an impressive finished project, from the very beginning, whereas the more conscientious students don’t have to work that muscle until they get ready for the job market. Your very first term paper will already be an audacious feat of self-serving dissimulation, as you’ll be forced to furnish a display of coherent intelligence with nothing more at your disposal than a few months’ worth of chaotic digressions. By the time you’re done with the PhD, you’ll probably have way more practice than the other students.

Another thing I should mention is that my PhD was in the social sciences, and my strategic advice would presumably apply way less in the hard sciences. To be fair, I was trained in the harder wings of the social sciences, by hard social scientists. But still. A Phd in the social sciences or humanities is not rocket science. You have to read tons, or at least be able to talk about books you're supposed to have read, and you need to ultimately write a ~150-400 paged thing with a beginning, middle, and an end. But the truth is, it really doesn't have to be very good, and nobody will ever read it. Mind you, I have supervised PhD students as well. Of course, succeeding in academia is a whole different game than simply completing a PhD; getting an academic job is much, much harder, but doing a PhD in the social science is not very hard so long as you basically like to read anything and can force yourself to write anything in a semi-disciplined way for a few months in a row, a few separate times. This point is crucial for understanding the viability of my strategy. Nobody really cares what your dissertation is about, so long as you can produce a long document that makes decent sense and cites certain people. So as long as you can convert your distracted enthusiasms into text, there will exist some way for you to rearrange that text into a passable dissertation.

I suppose I have many more dubious bits of highly conditional advice on grad school and academia questions, if you want to try me.

Naked Academics, Crimethinc Anarchism, and the Resurrection of Christ

On the naked anti-Brexit academic lady, my fondness for youthful romantic insurrectionary anarchism, and my take on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ — are we really supposed to believe a guy died and rose from the dead? This was first recorded on February 17, 2019 as a livestream on Youtube. To receive notifications when future livestreams begin, subscribe to my channel with one click, then click the little bell. If you'd like to discuss these topics with me and others, suggest future guests, or read/watch/listen to more content on these themes, request an invitation here.

Big thanks to all the patrons who help me keep the lights on.

Click here to download this episode.

AcademiaLeaks, University of Chicago Edition

I was just sent this by an anonymous reader. It's not private but it's not in the news. The reader says "Haha imminent collapse. For real though, mostly suggestions for more committees..." They went on, "It all started when grad students voted to form a union in 2017. Admin didn’t recognize it but launched a committee to investigate grad education in 2018. Their report was released today... There’s a suggestion to let students have input on tenure LOL..." Some snippets:

...We were concerned to learn that students feel there is no expectation that it is part of a faculty member’s role to teach TAs how to teach. Worse, students feel some UChicago professors don’t prioritize teaching classes at all, let alone the teaching of pedagogy. Moreover, they indicated that under some circumstances, professors may not even be qualified to teach pedagogy.

This feigned surprise and horror at obvious well-known facts is the kind of Soviet-level delusion I've talked about before. You don't become a prof at U Chicago by prioritizing teaching, let alone teaching PhD students how to teach. All administrators know this, and reports like this are pure theatre. Also, if you can get a PhD, you can teach yourself how to teach (there is hardly any known method for teaching, let alone teaching teaching). You learn how to teach by getting smart and then telling others what's up! If you want/need someone to show you how to teach, you're not ready to teach.

The current transportation options offered by the University are aimed at making students feel secure in getting around campus. These options include the availability of a Safety Escort provided by the University of Chicago Police Department; although it is unclear how well known to students this program is. Additionally, not all students may feel safe with a police escort.

When new and enhanced safety measures cause safety concerns, you know something has gone wrong.

the CGE Faculty Survey showed that at least in some units more of the responsibility for PhD student advising and mentoring is perceived to be shouldered by faculty who are female or from underrepresented backgrounds. One way to positively influence the quality of faculty mentoring going forward, and at the same time to reward good mentoring, is to increase the level of scrutiny on mentorship by enlisting student feedback during faculty promotion and tenure decisions.

This is an interesting pattern. Academics will generally agree that women and people of color are held back by sexism and racism in academia, and that academia should take steps to increase their leadership opportunities (or some such management-speak). This invariably leads to more work of some kind for women and people of color, and then the same people will protest that women and people of color do a disproportionate share of work. Like new safety measures causing new safety concerns, solutions to one set of academics' grievances are usually a basis for some other common set of grievances, leading to a dense web of mutually-reinforcing dissatisfactions, each of which actively stimulates the others for nothing more than momentary satisfactions of ressentiment.

It's not too uncommon to invite graduate student input on tenure decisions, actually, but it's interesting to think about how this plays out in connection with the previous observation. I'll let you figure that out.

Finally, a stunning little self-own... The disingenuous "virtue signaling" of academic "diversity" messaging becomes explicit:

...still require meaningful representation of students of color in a range of institutional and educational settings to signal that diversity is valued.

The people who write these reports do not genuinely value anything, at least in the time they spend writing these things. In brief moments of transparency, they will even tell you: they are just signaling to others that they value whatever it is they are supposed to value. The dictatorship of the "they", Das Man.

Do you have any Academia Leaks? Submit them here.

Get Fired or Resign? — Ruling the Void — Lacan, Charlatan? — How to Pick a Major (Livestream Q&A)

This livestream took place the day after my hearing for "gross misconduct" was scheduled. On being fired vs. resigning — on ruling the void and the work of social scientists such as Peter Mair and Wolfgang Streeck — is Lacan a charlatan? — and how to pick a major. More below... The blog post corresponding to this podcast is: Evaluating Exit Modes: Resign or Be Fired? (How Academia Got Pwned 11)

This was first recorded on February 14, 2019 as a livestream on Youtube. To receive notifications when future livestreams begin, subscribe to my channel with one click, then click the little bell.

If you'd like to discuss this podcast with me and others, suggest future guests, or read/watch/listen to more content on these themes, request an invitation here.

Big thanks to all the patrons who keep this running.

Click here to download this episode.

Unfair Competition (How Academia Got Pwned 13)

This is the thirteenth post in a series about the glorious completion of my academic career, the internet, and the future of intellectual life. It's going to become a book, so for updates be sure to subscribe.


You are probably reading the first and only blog that a university has ever accused of unfair competition. Congratulations, dear reader. I couldn't have done it without you.

In the last section on my departure narrative, I skipped ahead somewhat, as I was approaching (in real life) my hearing for "gross misconduct." Before that, I had only brought you up to the point of my suspension. In #5, I analyzed the evidence provided in support of my Dean's claim that I was harming the university's reputation. But the posts after that went into some other parallel lines of inquiry while, in real life, the events of my narrative were rapidly approaching their climax.

At the time of this writing, it's now official: I am no longer an employee of the University of Southampton. I will explain how this all came to an end, but first we need to circle back and fill in some gaps in the narrative thus far.

One of the reasons I chose the exit strategy I chose is that I'm now extremely free to share details that I would not be allowed to share right now if I decided to fight this with a lawyer. You're welcome, dear reader.

The gaps I need to fill are between my initial suspension (October 2, 2018) and my hearing for gross misconduct (scheduled February 13, 2019). There were two separate investigation meetings conducted in the period of my suspension. The first was on Friday 2nd November 2018.

There were two notable features of the first investigation meeting that took place after my suspension. Just like the first meeting (before my suspension), the guy simply amassed a dossier of copypasta capturing things I've said and done on the internet, and asked me about them in that stern FBI tone he probably learned watching crime shows. With all due respect to the guy — a very nice and fair man, bless him — my main impression was that he seemed utterly confused about what the frick had been placed in his lap. I got the impression he wanted to start by asking: "First, what is a Twitter?" Instead, he just shoved a bunch of screenshots in my face and asked me to explain what I meant. It was surreal how innocuous were many of the items. Consider the following item from my mile-long rap-sheet, which I'm screenshotting from the final report of the investigation.

Imagine a very concerned Boomer sliding a screenshot of this tweet across the table, and asking "Could you explain what you meant by this?"

I was like, "Huh? That's all it means, I support student activism. I always have. Students should be free to criticize professors, even publicly, I applaud this." To this day, I still cannot even guess what esoteric meaning he thought this one could have had. It was stunning to learn just how badly university administrators are genuinely confused and paranoid about the most straightforward of internet communications.

Then things took a turn toward creepy. It appears that expressing doubts about the viability of academia is itself a punishable offense. When the questioning turned in this direction, again I couldn't even see what they were concerned about; it was only in the third investigation that I was able to decode this line of inquiry. Only later would I discover that they were beginning to investigate a possible breach of "the duty of fidelity." Do people realize academics have a duty of fidelity to their employers? I sure didn't; I had never heard of that, and I certainly never would have signed any pledge of fidelity. Here is a piece of evidence I was confronted with in Meeting 2 (again, 'capped from the hearing documentation):

They basically just asked me "What did you mean by that?" and I answered "Exactly what it says," regarding everything they brought to the table. It was pretty clear I didn't even need to be there. My physical presence was necessary to rubber-stamp the meeting as having taken place, but it was clearly a machinic process in which the purpose and outcome was perfectly impermeable to any combination of noises I might emit.

Apparently, being open to exit options is a punishable offense. As I reported in a previous post, at the time when my Dean handed me my suspension letter, I informed her explicitly that getting suspended would make me money on the internet. Confronted with this unfortunate little molehill in the intellectual topography today, they must have sent a lackey to go find some ordinance that prohibits it. A few weeks later, after I started blogging all the details of the story, the university launched a whole new, additional investigation. In their words:

"the investigation is to explore allegations that through social media posts (provided to JM on 24.01.2019) that JM:
• breached the duty of confidence; and/or
• breached the implied duty of fidelity; and/or
• breached the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence; and/or
• brought the University into disrepute.
"

I couldn't find anything about fidelity in the ordinance they cited. I guess that's why they call it "implied." But with my PhD it only took a few minutes of Googling to resolve what was going on here. In case law, the implied duty of fidelity is what prohibits an employee from taking business from the employer:

"A number of potential aspects of the duty of fidelity, including a duty not to compete with the employer, have been identified in case law... These issues often arise in "team move" situations, where a number of employees who work in the same business decide to leave and join a competitor, often with assistance from the new employer, or set up a competing business themselves." (Thompson Reuters Practical Law)

Because I was writing about what was happening in the university, and people from the public were giving me money for it, they must have realized what I was trying to warn them of: Their entire business model is in serious trouble. If they were intelligent, autonomous agents, then upon realizing this they would have taken my advice and not have suspended me. Of course, being what they are, they could do nothing other than escalate their own doomed institution to the highest possible level of self-ownage, by confirming and enshrining the accuracy of my vague wager in the majestic aura of their own legal strategy. Thus, likely for the first time ever (as far as I know), a university built a formal legal case to the effect that a single academic's blogging was unfair competition.

Let's start by savoring the irony of their two-pronged legal strategy. On the one hand: "Justin, you're awful words and inappropriate antics are harming the university's reputation." On the other hand: "How dare you enjoy a good reputation without us!"

So this is how academia gets pwned, ladies and gentlemen. If you wonder aloud whether academia is the best way to constitute a free intellectual life, people dissatisfied with academia will throw you money to encourage this line of inquiry, while academia will... make it harder to constitute a free intellectual life. It doesn't require advanced game theory to see the ineluctable equilibrium on the horizon, once the intellectually ambitious start to downgrade their valuation of status relative to independence. When I look at the dynamics of influence and attention, I see the relative payoff of status decreasing and that of independence increasing (1 , 2, just to cite a few places where I've developed these observations). Ergo, stick a fork in it, baby!

I would not put any money on some kind of institutional course-correction, because even when they realize they've owned themselves, they are structurally barred from responding in any way other than owning themselves at a higher level. Academia is so pwned already that I didn't even need to bait it into a final round of self-destruction in order for my own exit plans to enjoy a satisfactorily high probability of success. I could afford to walk away, even before the university was done hitting itself with my hand. Unfair competition, indeed, so unfair I honestly started to feel bad.

And I assure you, the university was eager to hit itself with my hand at least one more time. In fact, the university is very lucky I'm not the attention whore my haters accuse me of being. Lucky for them that I would rather theorize this process in peace and quiet, than sacrifice myself on the altar of accelerating it. I am no saint, dear reader. I am now but a commoner, a peasant. It would have been easy for me to accelerate the process more aggressively, but then I would very likely be embroiled in a busy, exhausting, dizzying media spectacle of one kind or another, instead of writing this blog post with calm glee. Truly, at the end of the day, I only wish to till my own soil. That's all I've ever asked, dear reader. Instead of trying to accelerate the downfall of academia single-handedly — an Icarian dream, no doubt — it seems at once wiser and more radical for me to lay bare the system's underlying mechanics to the best of my ability, allowing dozens of others, potentially hundreds of others, to accelerate the process as well. With the knowledge I've gleaned from the belly of this beast, at the outer-most edges of its contemporary development, together we will accelerate the process without anyone ever having to fly too close to the sun.

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