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THE “PERSONAL MISERY” OF ACADEMICS (and other U.S. folks): Some Remedies and Resources

So, a Tweet has gone viral reporting on a poll that asked academics why they remain in academia. Davis Kedrosky, who writes a newsletter on Economic History Research, posted the results of the poll (no link, context, or credit). People in his replies identified it as a Sept. 24, 2021 Twitter poll originating from Prof. William Pannapacker. A history professor at Hope College (Holland, MI), Pannapacker had just announced that he was taking a year off, had moved to Chicago, was going to look for new opportunities, and was writing about his decision. 

On Nov. 10, 2021, he reported back on the poll in Tenured, Trapped, and Miserable, a short summary and analysis published behind a paywall. Luckily, Paul Caron of Pepperdine, re-published the entire article. The final paragraph reads:

“In a time of financial exigency and eroded faculty governance, the elusive “brass ring” of tenure offers less protection from arbitrary dismissal than most civil-service jobs, but it also locks professors into positions that many no longer want and some do little to deserve. One consequence is that personal misery is structural in the humanistic disciplines: feeling both entitled and powerless is one of the foundations of its culture of grievance, outrage, and despair.”

As this kind of Tweet, article, or news story does, it centers readers’ attention and empathy on the subjects (academics) without contextualizing their work and their existence in the larger political economy. In other words, other than noting that academics feel “entitled”, what Pannapacker doesn’t ask is how academics themselves contribute to making “personal misery” a structural feature of academia (at least in the “humanistic disciplines” according to Pannapacker) in 2021.

Maybe this question will be part of his year-long exploration. His original announcement, On Why I’m Leaving Academe (Sept. 13, 2021), is filled with rich observation of both the academy and the “outside” world in 2021, especially about the humanities, written in plain language. I think his year-long exploration will be worth following, for anyone concerned about the humanities and/or anyone viewing this dramatic cultural shift as an opportunity to move the U.S. onto a more balanced, democratic foundation.

My reason for writing this blog is primarily because universities and colleges are looked to as the repository of most historical knowledge and because academics are looked to as the living interpreters and disseminators of that knowledge, including some skills (but not all skills). However, as Pannapacker suggests, in 2021 those functions don’t always add up to (a) cultural wisdom, or (b) personal skill in navigating one’s own life. And, as the next section shows, the absence of one or both impacts the rest of us.

My secondary reason for writing this blog is because I am nearing abject poverty and homelessness and have had little response to my local outreach per my latest local newsletter EVANSTON, IL Pop-up Newsletter:  Money & banking — policy news + personal need. To be fair, when I reached out to a smaller network of friends, family, and neighbors in 2020, many were very generous, which enabled me to make it through another year. I didn’t think that I could ask in the same way again since most people still don’t understand what I do or why independent women thinkers are important. For the record, this passage by Paula Gunn Allen from “Where I come from is Like This” is why independent women thinkers are important:

“Through all the centuries of war and death and cultural and psychic destruction have endured the women who raise the children and tend the fires, who pass long the tales and the traditions, who weep and bury the dead, who are the dead, and who never forget. There are always the women, who make pots and weave baskets, who fashion clothes and cheer their children on at powwow, who make fry bread and piki bread, and corn soup and chili stew, who dance and sing and remember and hold within their hearts the dream of their ancient peoples — that one day the woman who thinks will speak to us again, and everywhere there will be peace.  Meanwhile we tell the stories and write the books and trade tales of anger and woe and stories of fun and scandal and laugh over all manner of things that happen every day. We watch and we wait.”

A. SUGGESTIONS for thinking about structural misery in the academy (and beyond)
B. REMEDIES for personal misery in academia (and beyond)
C. SURVIVAL BASICS 2021: Resources

A. SUGGESTIONS for thinking about structural misery in the academy (and beyond)

As a 70-year old grassroots activist with many friends, neighbors, and colleagues in the academic world (as well as other highly credentialed friends, neighbors, and colleagues), I’d like to suggest some ways to do this exploration. Please note that, although Pannapacker’s observations of higher education center largely around the humanities, my suggestions apply to all fields, all departments, and to most faculty and researchers, for reasons that I think will be obvious.

Based on my local, state, regional (Midwest), and national experiences of the last 16 years in the food & farm “justice” world (in addition to my 50 years of adult life experiences), most academics contribute to structural misery in at least one of three ways:

1. Some academics are actively complicit in the system
Some fields, departments, and schools of thought are promoters and apologists for capitalism, an economic system of creating winners and losers, owners and wage-slaves, embedded in the U.S. Constitution.

For some quick context, see Elizabeth Lukehart’s recent essay on capitalism, the essence of which is that “something must always be sacrificed”, Anti-capitalism: A Journey. Until recently, Lukehart taught social entrepreneurship at Northwestern University.

Also, this quote by Prof. Barbara Alice Mann (Humanities, U. of Toledo) is instructive about the history of the U.S. political economy: 

“It is interesting to me that, in all of the debate furiously raging ever since Bruce Johansen’s Forgotten Founders (1982) rubbed academia’s nose in the fact that the authors of the U.S. Constitution had been strongly influenced by the Iroquoian Great Law, few have noticed the main disparity between Iroquoia and the United States. It was not the political presence or absence of women, or trial by jury, or a standing army, or any of a dozen other, readily spotted political differences that marked the distinction. It was, instead, the failure of the Founding Fathers also to adopt and adapt the Iroquoian system of grass-roots economics that complemented its political base of Ne” Gashasde”’sa’ (popular sovereignty).  

“The true failure of the resultant hybrid lay in the unthinking assumption by the Founding Fathers that European war-lord economics and Haudenosaunee Ne” gashasde”’sa’ could operate in harness without the plunder economics of Europe throwing the political system of  Ne” Gashasde”’sa’ into disarray. By furthermore ignoring the sibling principles of Ne” Sken’no” (Health) and Ne” Gai’ihwiio (Righteousness) as practical tools of economic prosperity (as opposed to mere moralistic pieties), the Founding Fathers sabotaged hopes for real participatory democracy by writing the proprietary economics of Europe into their Constitution. It is this mismatch of popular but unfunded sovereignty bound to the naked exploitation of capitalism that is short-circuiting American Ne” gashasde”’sa’  today, subverting the political will of the people through the undue economic pressures exerted by a financially privileged elite. No such unbalancing access waspossible in the prototype, however, for the clan level where Ne” Gashasde”’sa’ was fomented was also the level at which the confederated economy was managed. Power, will, and weal did not trickle down in Iroquoia; they percolated up.”  

pp. 212-13, Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas (2000)
by Barbara Alice Mann
Gantowisas = clan mothers, indispensable women, mature women acting in public authority

2. Most academics are indirectly complicit in the system.
Most U.S. universities, including administrators, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, climate scientists, business schools, etc., are not grounded in core survival knowledge that, for lack of a better term, I’m calling Survival Basics 2021:
–the science of money
–political economy in a democracy
–the uncounted work of women
–the extent to which all wealth and liberty depend on the uninterrupted ability of the earth to renew and restore herself

These basics are explained in Section C.

3. Many academics are frustrated by not being able to more activist in their field, by not being able to apply their knowledge directly to practical social problems.
Those that do try to become active often take out their frustration on less secure partners (such as grassroots activists). I offer these examples from my personal experience because academics do not often get honest feedback on their community partnerships and from what I hear and read through the grassroots listservs these behaviors are not uncommon.

a. Actual Cheating
In 2007-10, I was cheated out of $30,000-40,000 by (a) a dean at U. of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) and (b) a program at U. of Illinois (Chicago). Promises were made to find funds for work that I was already doing, but those promises were never kept.

In the case of the UIUC dean, he cheated two of us out of substantial $$ — the co-coordinators of a state task force. Worse, he cheated the entire state task force and the people of Illinois by failing to keep two promises to a state legislator, the chief sponsor of the Illinois Food, Farms & Jobs Acts (2007, 2009). Both promises involved sending key information to the legislator in a timely manner (to meet legislative deadlines near the end of the session):
— a suggested governance structure for the new Illinois Local Food, Farms, & Jobs Council (created by the 2009 bill, passed unanimously except for one vote)
— language for a companion bill expanding U. of Illinois Extension’s mission to include “local foods”

The dean completely ignored his promises, torpedoing the effectiveness of the entire initiative.

b. Stealing
Academics are constantly picking activists’ brains, work, etc., without compensation, credit, or permission.

— Just last week I received another request (through a mutual academic friend) for info on “the work you did on legislative initiatives for local farming and local farming funding.” I offered to send a quote if she wanted me to consult. But knowing she was likely feeling trapped in the system (either wouldn’t consider paying me or be able to pay me), I sent a few links to my website.

— In 2010, the Cook County health department got funding to do a local food assessment, write a report, and draft an ordinance for a county-level food policy council. The department created a committee and hired an academic from Northern Illinois University to do the assessment and write the report. When the draft report was first presented to the committee, the title page read as if the project was an NIU project, not a county project. It was corrected, but only after an unnecessarily long discussion.

— The same UIUC dean mentioned above (in conjunction with another task force member) attempted to write his own version of the task force report, violating the direction of the task force’s own Writing Committee. I might add that the dean and other task force member were on the task force leadership team, charged with chairing the meetings (including approving and following meeting agendas) and keeping meeting minutes, respectively.

c. General Disrespect
A Northern Illinois University professor woke me up at 8:00 AM on a Sunday morning because he was pissed that I’d suggested changes on his draft of a grant application we were writing. It wasn’t until six hours later that he discovered that he’d sent me the wrong draft (which badly needed my suggested changes). He apologized, but only through email and only in the most cursory way. He did not apologize for yelling or waking me up.

d. Non-scholarly Behavior: Disinterest in learning and truth
By and large this behavior manifests in a general disinterest in intellectual engagement with less credentialed adults, including community partners and non-partners. This includes avoiding accountability for more egregious behaviors (such as cheating and stealing). But it also includes research bias and blind spots caused largely by the overweening power of private funding in academia. Examples include:

— There are many in the food & farm world, but one of the biggest and most historical was the USDA Memorandum No. 1368 (Nov. 1954) severing organizational and business ties between Extension Service (public employees) and Farm Bureau (private money). Unfortunately in the 1980s agri-business found new ways of influencing Extension, which is partly why Illinois farmers no longer feed the people of Illinois.

— More recently is a peremptory cancellation by a national food & farm listserv (housed in a university program) of a long-time supporter and participant of that listserv. Details of my cancellation and reinstatement — without any discussion, warning, or contact (personal or public) — are laid out in a recent blog: EXPLODING LISTSERV: Industry & lobby groups “administratively redefining” farmers and women — I’ve been cancelled. In this case, the behavior was caused by the overweening power of Big Pharma + Big Advertising + Big Tech + pornography, all coming together in the gender identity industry.

B. REMEDIES for personal misery in academia (and beyond)

To summarize, academics who are miserable (feeling trapped) might want to consider as possible contributors to that feeling:
— their own behavior and work relationships
— the extent to which their field contributes directly to upholding the current political economy, which structurally creates and compounds inequalities and personal misery in the general U.S. population
— the ways in which their field contributes indirectly to upholding the current political economy, primarily because of national ignorance of basic survival needs 

SIDEBAR: Of course, it’s also very possible that someone’s personal misery is mostly personal, in which case the academy’s structure might not be relevant and some inner spiritual exploration might be in order. Yes, the extent to which the academy and the larger U.S. culture inhibits inner reflection is definitely a structural defect, but it’s also an individual responsibility to do some spiritual work on a regular basis. I guess we’ll have to wait until Prof. Pannapacker’s leave of absence is over to find out the actual cause of his misery.

Based on my own life experience (including mistakes that I have made), here are some more practical tips for coming to terms with one’s personal misery within academia. Although I am focusing on academics, some of these tips easily apply to highly credentialed professions (e.g., health, law, architecture, planning), other vocations and jobs, as well as 21st century U.S. adults in general. 

Practical tips for remedying:
1. Academics’ own behavior and work relationships: 
a. apology(ies) and/or restoration as necessary
b. examine the assumptions of one’s field

2. The extent to which their field contributes directly to structural personal misery in the general U.S. population:
a. examine the field’s assumptions
b. listen to poor and vulnerable people

3. The ways in which their field contributes indirectly to structural personal misery in the general U.S. population: 
a. examine the assumptions of one’s field
b. listen to poor and vulnerable people
c. get grounded in the basics of survival in 2021
— the science of money
— political economy in a democracy
— the uncounted work of women
— the extent to which all wealth and liberty depend on the uninterrupted ability of the earth to renew and restore herself

As my tips suggest, I believe that most of the adult misery in the U.S. derives from our individual and collective distance from (and consequent ignorance of) #3c — the basics of survival. To begin with, it’s important to keep in mind that seventy percent of U.S. residents now live in urban areas. An even higher percentage of us get most of our worldview, information, and analysis through mass media — i.e., not through direct experience or individual thinking. Here’s some explication and resources for those core missing links.

C. SURVIVAL BASICS 2021: Resources

1. The Science of Money: The Money Question
A remedy for both academic unhappiness and better relations between academics and professionals on the one hand and grassroots activists and other working people on the other, is for ALL academics and professionals in EVERY field to start asking The Money Question — who creates new U.S. money, how does it enter the economy, according to what rules decided by whom?

— A good place to start is Jeffrey Sklansky’s 2017 book Sovereign of the Market: The Money Question in Early America. Sklansky’s specialty is the intellectual history of 17th and 18th century capitalism. He teaches history at U. of Illinois-Chicago.
Monetary History Calendar: a free weekly newsletter filled with quotes, milestone dates, personalities, etc. — all having to do with The Money Question
— U.S. MONEY SUPPLY: Why the numbers ($$ + time) don’t add up — American Monetary Institute conference (Nov. 5-7, 2021)
— Lots of resources on the websites of the two national organizations leading the movement for Congress to reclaim the money power: American Monetary Institute (AMI) and Alliance For Just Money (AFJM)

2. The Political Economy of the U.S. Democracy
Technically, The Money Question is part of the political economy. But it is such a central and overlooked — even invisible — aspect that I thought it important to deal with it separately. Now I can address the ignorance of the rest of the U.S. political economy, which still remains two-pronged:
—ignorance about the political economy — what are the components, how should they work together, and how does the U.S. political economy subvert itself?
—ignorance about democracy — what is a real democracy and how does the U.S. fall far short?
—ignorance about how the political economy and democracy should work together

— In Case of Constitutional Crisis…Start here: The Great Law of Peace (2018)
— Democracy as completeness in Let us Begin with Courage, by Jeanette Armstrong (2013)
— My most current understanding of real democracy and the components of the political economy are on my Real Democracy webpage. Section C includes components of the political economy, as represented by active monetary reform proposals and practices in 21st century U.S.  

3. Women’s Public Authority: If Women Counted (or were visible, or acknowledged, or valued)
For all of U.S. history, the land and people of the U.S. have been largely deprived of women’s knowledge, wisdom, and experience as decision-makers of public policy. I call this “women’s public authority”.  Using the same logic that structures guaranteed income (funded sovereignty for voters), clan mothers, women’s councils, and other manifestations of women’s public authority need to be publicly funded.

If Women Counted, by Marilyn Waring (1988). Republished in 1999 as Counting for Nothing)
— Women’s Authority, Women’s Lives: The ERA or the Great Law of Peace (2018)
— Women are the center, Sections C and D in To survivors & other women, “I’m sorry,  20th century feminist strategy was wrong” (2021)
— Democracy as completeness in Let us Begin with Courage, by Jeanette Armstrong (2013)
Roles in decision-making are defined as:
YOUTH – innovative possibilities
FATHERS – security, sustenance, shelter
MOTHERS – policy, workable systems
ELDERS – connected to the land

4. Renewability of life: Take climate issues seriously, prioritize the Earth
“The renewable quality—the sacredness of every living thing, that which connects human beings to the place they inhabit—that quality is the single most liberating aspect of our environment. Life is renewable and all the things that support life are renewable, and they are renewed by a force greater than any government’s, greater than any living thing or historical thing. A consciousness of the web that holds all things together, the spiritual element that connects us to reality and the manifestation of that power to renew that is present in the existence of an eagle or a mountain snow fall, that consciousness was the first thing that was destroyed by the colonizers.”  p. 123, Basic Call to Consciousness, ed., Akwesasne Notes, 2005

— Every adult should know how to grow a cauliflower. (Jens Jensen)
— Martin Prechtel, Keeping the Seeds Alive (Keeping our Agreement with the Wild) — a roadmap for “beautiful farming”pp. 323-97 in The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic (2012)
— LEAVE THE LEAVES: Urban Soils, Urban Consciousness (2020)