Life at home was like any kid’s life — safe, numb, warm, days stretching out forever, no sense at all of the passage of time besides the markers of our heights, penciled next to the basement door, until she got sick. My mother, wild and warm as a spare sunbeam, a human presence of such comfort and attachment I’m not sure I ever really learned to conceive of her as a corporeal being. She was sweet and funny and gave ceaselessly, and then one day she had a headache. Something had grown in her brain, boring its way furiously but quietly into the tissues, killing her slowly and then quickly. She complained of terrible pain, and then she went to the hospital, and very suddenly the adults around me became both urgent and quiet. My father visibly, audibly trembled. He took us in to see her. I saw the docile body lying on a gurney, tubes and wires, and a white head wrapping that covered her eyes which, brain dead as she was, must have stared into the empty horizon forever. I squeezed her hand and thought to myself, that’s not my mother, and in the room surrounded by everyone I knew and loved, I felt alone. I knew right away, but then when my father came home from the hospital to tell us a couple days later, I still felt a dull, dumb, numbing shock, right in my abdomen, like someone had jammed a syringe of novocaine right into my guts. I went and sat in the middle of the stairs, neither up or down, as if I could hide in that place between places forever.

In the years to come I would learn to clutch, hard, to my father. Gentle, wise, and alcoholic, his sweet cracking voice would wake me up in the morning, would tell me smart things as he tied my shoes every day until I reached the 7th grade. Big old belly to grab, knee to sit on, old artist’s hands. Dedicated to freedom, he taught me how to do everything but the little things I needed most at school, never telling me to wash my hair or brush my teeth, which was the worst and the best thing for me. In time, that freedom became my most reliable and terrible teacher, as our broken blended family succumbed to its internal dysfunction as surely as his body broke down from the liver cancer. It took him years to die. I look back at pictures from the last couple of years, and his jaundice looks shocking, but somehow I never noticed at the time, I never knew. They sent him and my younger brother and our stepfamily to Los Angeles. My older brother and I, teenagers, hid out in our home in Connecticut, alone, waiting for the inevitable.

He came back for a visit, just a long weekend. He was weak; I felt fear as he struggled to control the car. One night as I walked past his room to mine on the floor above, I thought I heard something, but let it go. Coming back downstairs, two hours later, I heard it again; he had fallen out of bed and had been unable to get back up. He must have laid there for those two entire hours, calling out for me in his rasping, broken voice, as I sat unaware up above. A man of impregnable self-belief, vast and proud, he had to be picked up by his 15 year old son, like a baby, and placed back into his bed, cancer-ridden and weak.

In Cedars Sinai, near the end, I went to visit him. He was hooked up to more tubes and dials than I could believe. I will go to my grave remembering the exact shade of purple that his skin had turned where wires had been inserted into his neck. For years he had struggled with a debilitating and mysterious skin illness, and in his hospital bed he was draped with a clear plastic hypoallergenic blanket, and when he saw me approach, dim and confused from drugs and weakness, he tried to cover himself, to protect his modesty in his hospital gown, in front of his teenaged son. I squeezed his hand and told him I had to fly back to Connecticut, to keep going in my high school life, and in front of me and my stepmother and a team of doctors and nurses, he cried. That was the last time I ever saw him.

They had gotten married a couple years before, though they had been dating for longer. I have spent more than a decade not thinking about her, and I have no desire to break that habit now. I wish, in the early days, that I had tried harder, for him. But in the end it was clear that we had no future together. She turned on my older brother first, telling him he couldn’t come home. And then the long, wearying, debilitating, confusing, crushing split, the rending of a blended family that had lost the person who it had blended for. Life became unknowable, a series of decisions made about your life, in secret, by people who did not know you and would not represent your interests if they did. The whole world is a conspiracy, a series of whispered agreements and meetings you weren’t invited to. Whose money was that, and where had it gone, and who got the house, anyway? It took years, years, for the last trappings of connection to  rot and fall away. I had taken his leather jacket, and hung it in my closet with pride and love, and the one day I came home and it was gone. She had given it to her brother. My fucking father’s fucking leather jacket.

And, in time, year by grasping year, the four of us have endured, and we are building something, I suppose, like we were a decade and a half ago, and we advance for forever, all of this prologue to our inevitable triumphant rise.

Understand: I have never experienced trauma, according to the theories of the time. Not in the way that politics recognizes. Not in a way that they regard as legitimate. Because the deal now is that you will receive deference, and the right to speak with command, and the greatest laurel progressive culture now gives, the right to declare offense. But first, you have to play by their rules. You have to take that trauma and render it in the dullest, most cynical, most motivated language, a language of opportunism, subtlety-killing, particularity-killing. You have to submit. You have to take that part of you and make it into just another vehicle for someone else’s political pretense. Then, they’ll bless you with the right to trauma. They’ll let you take communion, but first you have to pray the rosary. The only thing that’s required is that you take the one thing that is most yours and give it to them, a human sacrifice, submission to their enlightened, benevolent, paternalistic authority.

So it’s true: I’ve never experienced trauma. I will go on owning every sad step of this sad journey, I will preserve a space within myself that is known by no one but me, and is for no one but me, and I will have the courage to be human though everyone and everything around me tempts me to be otherwise, and I will keep my own counsel on the meaning of suffering, and I will not serve.






one rule

Over the years I’ve become used to (and associated with) a certain style of pugilistic political argument. That style is fine by me, and I think indicative of a healthy political culture. For as much as people complain about hyperpartisanship and “the state of the discourse today,” there’s no halcyon past where everyone was civil to each other (whatever that means), and anyway political debates about the fight for justice and equality are naturally and necessarily passionate. Making the world more just and equal, after all, is the most important human project. So, I’m happy to received intemperate criticism and to deal it out when necessary.

However, there is one type of engagement that I have grown more and more tired of, and have now adopted a policy of zero policy towards: people lying about what I believe. You are allowed to say “what you believe is dumb, wrong, evil, etc.” You are not allowed to say “you believe X” when in fact I don’t believe X. If you say it in a way that seems motivated by genuine misunderstanding, I’ll correct you. If you continue to say that I believe something I don’t believe, then I end all communication permanently. If you say something that’s particularly inflammatory that I don’t believe and haven’t said, I’ll just cut off contact immediately. If you’re on Twitter, I’ll block you, if you’re on Facebook, I’ll unfriend you, if you’re in my blog comments, I’ll ban you. Life’s too short. Those kinds of engagement never go anywhere productive at all. Because the one and only way for people to access each other’s political beliefs is for one person to say “I believe X and not Y,” and for the other people to believe him or her, a political conversation that is premised on ignoring such statements is in fact an anti-conversation. Nothing can rescue or redeem it. So, zero tolerance.

For example. There is this guy, Noah Berlatsky. He is one of these writers that has made a living being a professional The Only Righteous White Man Alive. Much of what he publishes amounts to an attempt to represent himself as a beacon of political morals shining out from a fallen gender and race. In order to play that game, though, you have to constantly be identifying others who share that identity in order to assert your superior morality. So Berlatsky is one of those critics of mine who reads my work with manic attentiveness, poring over my tweets, looking for something to seize on for one of his goodness performances. It seems exhausting, but I guess it’s a living.

Anyway, today Berlatsky just straight lied about what I believe, taking a tweet — a form of communication permanently hampered by a very limited character count — and baldly misrepresenting what it said. I have noticed, recently, that a lot of people have expressed support for trans rights in a way that actually ends up as a kind of gender conservatism. They insist that trans people just are a particular gender, that they were born that way, and that this is biologically prescribed, unchanging, and out of their hands. It’s another example, in other words, of trying to argue for rights through a “they can’t help it, so we might as well let them do it” philosophy. It’s conservative, in that it robs from individuals the right to self-define, and it’s all part of really noxious, destructive historical tendencies, echoing the tradition of eugenics. I heard someone on a local radio show asking about a potential future where we have a medical test for the “trans brain.” I don’t know what kind of vision that is — handing gender identity over to doctors rather than to individuals, the potential of someone being denied the right to the gender identity they choose because they failed some test — but it is not a vision of justice, equality, or progress.

Some people never waver from their preferred gender identity. Which is fine. Some people continue to explore their shifting gender identification over a lifetime. This is also fine, but it is directly rejected by strict gender binarism. I know someone who was female identifying for most of her life, then transitioned to a male identifying. She began hormone therapy. Then, over time, she transition back to female identifying. I have no idea how common that is. But it’s real, a real, human condition. Rigid gender binarism and aggressive “born this way” rhetoric erases such conditions. So I reject them. You’re free to disagree. But you are not allowed, as Berlatsky did, to say that I “blame the gender binary on trans people,” a ludicrous claim that I reject utterly, or to call me a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, as Berlatsky’s fellow Professional Righteous Dude Arthur Chu did. (One of Berlatsky’s constant tactics is to chum the waters by lying about what someone else said, throwing it on Twitter, and trusting that no one will actually check if it’s true or not.) That’s just lies. That’s all they are.

The essential thing to understand about guys like Berlatsky and Chu is that it’s all performance, no practice. They aren’t engaged in political action; they’re engaged in political posturing. And they do it professionally. In a very direct and uncomplicated way, they’ve monetized a certain kind of affected progressive posturing, totally dividing those beliefs from actual political sincerity and turning them into just another profit center.

Now: how do you know I’m not a TERF, and that I don’t blame trans people for the perpetuation of the gender binary? Because I’m right here telling you that I’m not a TERF and that I don’t blame trans people for the perpetuation of the gender binary. On literally every issue that define TERFs — you know, the actual positions that make up a political tendency — I disagree with them. I don’t think trans women should be excluded from women’s bathrooms. I don’t think genitals determine gender. I don’t think trans women should be prevented from being active feminist leaders. I don’t think you need to have been born with a vagina to know what it means to be a woman and suffer from sexism. I believe none of those things. And I am the only arbiter of what I believe.

Of all of the ways in which our political conversation is broken, all of the endless petty erosions to the basic ability to meaningfully discuss politics in any constructive way at all, I think this tendecy is the worst. It is the single most undermining, destructive way to behave. “I want you to be saying this thing that I think is wrong so that I can get mad at you for being wrong about it and get others to condemn you.” That’s where political progress goes to die, and I have no more patience for it. Sorry. I’m too damn old.

round and round the trigger warning maypole

I got into another discussion of trigger warnings last night that really crystallized why that discussion is so immensely frustrating for me.

First is the now-ubiquitous claim that trigger warnings are only warnings, and that they have no connection whatsoever to an actual censorship impulse. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told, with absolute confidence, that “no one is talking about actually regulating content!” Which just is not true. Again, I’m forced to invoke my greater personal experience and knowledge of actual campus activists, rather than the purely abstract version that so many people in the media embrace. I have spent my entire life in campus lefty circles, was a campus activist when I was on campus, maintain an active network of people involved in campus politics today, and keep my ear to the ground still. And there have always been campus leftists who think that many types of speech that we generally acknowledge as legitimate political expression should be banned. When I was growing up on campus, there was already a robust hate speech discourse in campus activist circles, and they tended to take a very expansive view on what hate speech constitutes. I know campus antifa types myself who think that anti-abortion attitudes should be no platformed as a matter of routine. Stop telling me from the media bubble you live in that these attitudes don’t exist, just because they resemble a conservative stereotype.

Yes, you can articulate a view that trigger warnings are entirely distinct from actual regulation of intellectual content on campus, and you are certainly free to support the former and not the latter. But there is real overlap  between the people who push most forcefully for trigger warnings and those who want to push ideas they find offensive off campus. The Laura Kipnis affair was frightening because it was an escalation of a pattern of attempts to regulate ideas on campus, bringing the power of the federal government to bear. But it wasn’t surprising, to me, at all. Again, because I know people who actually want to limit speech in the way that drive-by liberal writers say don’t exist. The University of Michigan American Sniper incident was a minor moment, sure, and the movie was eventually broadcast on campus. But I was just arguing with someone who said that the movie should be banned from campuses because it’s violent propaganda, not legitimate expression. You can call that view fringe. You can claim it doesn’t actually have power on campus. But it exists, and it’s held by many of the same people who push most forcefully (and accusingly) for trigger warnings. To say that there’s no potential connection between these things simply isn’t credible. I don’t understand why people can’t say “I support trigger warnings, but I acknowledge that there are genuinely censorious forces on campus, and I don’t support that.” Why is that so hard?

If you really support trigger warnings on campus but oppose actual regulation of intellectual content on campus, you might get around to saying the latter once in awhile, rather than circling the wagons and insisting that it’s all a conservative conspiracy.

Next, the relationship between PTSD and trigger warnings. There’s absolutely no clarity on a very basic question: are trigger warnings intended to help those who suffer from PTSD? The very notion of a “trigger”  comes from discussion of PTSD. And when it suits them, those who aggressively pursue trigger warnings certainly use the weight of medicalization to get what they want. But there is no corresponding claim that only those with PTSD should be invoking triggering. In fact, trigger warning proponents tend to take a very expansive view of who gets to invoke feeling triggered, generally arguing that anyone who claims to be feeling traumatized legitimately is so. But that’s not at all the standard of medical science on PTSD. So the standard seems to be that when it comes time to argue for the righteousness of trigger warnings — and, naturally, the evil of those who oppose them — trigger warnings are a matter of medical necessity. But when it comes to who gets to invoke them, there is no medical standard that needs to be invoked at all.

When we talk about “triggers,” are we talking about PTSD? I have read thousands and thousands of words on this subject, and I have no idea. 

Nor is there any notion of how to handle cheating and abuse, because questioning whether someone actually suffered a trauma is considered anathema. This is a constant aspect of contemporary progressive politics: assigning special rights or privileges to groups that have a certain condition, but treating investigating whether someone actually has that condition as the most offensive behavior possible. What are we supposed to do with students who frivolously claim to have suffered trauma? I have been told directly by people who are in favor of trigger warnings that to attempt to determine if someone really has PTSD, or some other, vaguer form of trauma, is to “revictimize” them. So what are educators and institutions supposed to do? The closest thing I get to a response is “no one would  do that.” No one would do that? Really? No college student would take advantage of a special dispensation you’ve created that inarguably gives them a certain amount of transactional power in their interactions with an instructor? There are millions of people in college. They come in all different forms. Many of them are great, both honest and ethical. And some of them are very bad people. So what do we do to decide who can fairly claim to have suffered trauma, and access the special dispensation that might come with it?

Then there’s the fact that, in the actual medical literature on PTSD, triggers are discussed not as intellectual subjects like rape or war but as sensorial impressions like a sound or a small or a play of light. Or the fact that there’s no extant medical literature that demonstrates that trigger warnings actually have provide demonstrable relief to the people who suffer PTSD. That stuff isn’t even discussed.

Finally, there’s the rhetorical condition of the discussion we have. I think this piece from Lindy West emblemizes it:

Maybe we can all get flippant and condescending about trigger warnings after we build a world where more than 3% of rapes lead to conviction, where we don’t shame and blame people for their own victimisation, where men don’t feel entitled to women’s bodies, and where millions of people aren’t moving through life yoked with massive, secret traumas.

This strikes me as a classic example of a common progressive category error: this terrible injustice exists (and it does), so therefore you have to get on board with this heavy-handed policy that cannot possibly actually reduce that injustice. I am totally unclear as to how trigger warnings actually combat any of the problems that West identifies in that paragraph.

But more importantly: how exactly is anyone supposed to have a conversation after a statement like that is made? How are we supposed to sort good from better when the rhetorical cudgels of rape, victim blaming, male entitlement, and secret trauma have been deployed? The trigger warning conversation is so impossible precisely because of tactics like this: using the reality of trauma, and the horrors of trauma, as a means of guilt by association and ratcheting up the emotional stakes of the discussion. The whole conversation tends to get dragged down into recrimination and acrimony precisely because of this kind of argument, which seeks to cast people asking questions and raising concerns as apologists for terrible crimes. How can you have a conversation that way?

I don’t think political correctness is ruining campus, no matter how often I am accused of thinking that. In fact I don’t even like the term “political correctness” at all. I don’t think trigger warnings threaten the fabric of our education system. I do think that there are some legitimate problems with them and their use, and more, with the way that people who advocate for them go about arguing in their favor. And unlike so many others, my concerns in this arena come because I want to spend my life on campus and have direct personal stakes in the health of our institutions. I genuinely believe that there is a meaningful common ground that people can find on this issue. But I have no idea how to find it, when as soon as you raise concerns with the practice, you’re relegated to the role of victim blamer and trauma denier. There’s no way to address this issue constructively under those conditions. None. So the question becomes, as it is for so many other issues within the progressive coalition these days: do we really want to be the side of “you’re either with us or against us”?

Jonathan Franzen: why bother?

We’ve entered late August. The days are growing shorter and cooler. Before you know it, the first leaves will start to change, and autumn will be with us. If you’re keeping your ear to the ground, though, you’ll note another season, just as certain and predictable, is coming near: Jonathan Franzen season.

The internet does not like Jonathan Franzen. Jonathan Franzen has a new book coming out. And so it follows, as the night the day, that we’re in for a lot of pro forma Franzen hate pieces. They’ll all be written in the same tired idiom, the worn out snark that you’ve been consuming by the gallon since 2004. They’ll make the same rote claims about privilege and publishing. They’ll play to an audience that is made up largely of people who are expected to dislike Jonathan Franzen and who in fact take disliking Jonathan Franzen as part and parcel of the social culture to which they belong. In other words, there will be no challenge to their presumed readership. These pieces won’t be bad because they’re mean, or because they degrade our capacity for empathy, or because they’re cheap. None of those usual complaints. No, it’ll be bad because they’re boring. Worn out. We’ve all heard it ten thousand times. Whatever about that vocabulary once seemed fresh and cutting now seems rote and predictable. We’re dealing with a class of young writers for whom that style has been the assumed language of the internet since they started reading online, which means that many of them use it not because they want to but because they figure that’s just what you do.

What is the value of writing a piece on the internet about how you don’t like Jonathan Franzen in 2015? What in that genre could be done that hasn’t already been accomplished? Why bother?

You might imagine that I’m a Franzen fan. Well, I thought The Corrections was a good book, it’s true. Didn’t care much for Freedom. His thoughts on contemporary fiction, as epitomized in his essay “Mr. Difficult,” are as offensive and wrong to me as literary opinion can be. Ben Marcus’s takedown of those ideas is one of my favorite magazine pieces ever. The general notion that artists should be elbowless crowdpleasers, eager to flatter their audience, drives me completely insane. I’m not a Franzen partisan. I have no interest in protecting the reputation of a wealthy and successful novelist. I am a partisan, however, for a culture industry that is something more than the endless sifting of personalities — goodies and baddies, the cool and the uncool, the savvy and the chumps, the complimented and the ridiculed.

When the Entourage movie came out, the result was as predictable as you can imagine. The internet hated it, and hated it for perfectly predictable reasons. And you know, if you had forced me at gunpoint to see that movie, I’m sure I would have hated it for the exact same reasons. But I was struck by the utter exhaustion of it all. Everyone knew what the internet would think about the Entourage movie. The tropes were all the same. It felt like everyone, writers and readers alike, was going through the motions, but nobody could just decide to opt out. I guess it’s just another example of the taking of the media, only it’s a matter of style and attitude rather than subject matter. Somehow that makes it so much worse.

Why does the internet bother telling itself the things it already knows about itself?

Complaints about the contemporary economics and culture of online writing are ubiquitous and tiresome. I write more of them than I should. I’d much rather identify what I like than what I don’t. And I’ll tell you: I think there’s more talented writers regularly writing online right now than ever before. It’s just that the economic structure they’re caught in compels them to write the exact same things. So let me identify a piece that I read that avoided all of the things that I’ve grown tired of. This Stassa Edwards piece for the Awl is just a beauty. It’s subtle, deeply researched, quiet. It has no punchline. It teaches you things while avoiding the dulling, clumsy, ham-fisted “A+B=C” school of essaying that editors are infatuated with today. It’s deeply political without seeming to  fit into any obvious political lane. It displays loving craft without being crafty. And it deploys irony in the pursuit of sadness rather than comedy. More than anything, it made me say to myself “this is not a feeling I thought I would feel in reading today.”

I’m just a greedy, undeserving reader, and you are free to ignore me. But god, please, stop churning out pieces that fall along the same predictable political lines. No more of the same sarcastic hit pieces. No pieces where, when I see the headline and your name, I can guess every beat you’re going to hit. No more adults complaining about the banal daily indignities of human life that everyone has always had to deal with. Say a thing that another person in your exact position at your exact publication would never say. Surprise me. Challenge me. Make it new.

stop calling everything a strawman

Sometimes I think the slippery slope fallacy and the strawman fallacy are in a war to be the most misused.

Here’s where a claim of a strawman argument is useful. You and I are arguing. I refute a point you haven’t made and don’t hold. I treat that as evidence that you’re wrong. That’s a strawman.

Here’s what’s not a strawman. I identify an argument that I’ve heard and disagree with. You don’t personally hold  that argument that I have disagreed with. You say “that’s a strawman!” and act as though you’ve refuted my argument against this position. That’s not a strawman. The fact that you don’t hold a position, or have not yet heard that position voiced, does not mean that no one holds that position, or that the position doesn’t deserve refuting.

I say this because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written a piece identifying and disputing an argument, only to have someone who was not the target of my piece say “that’s a strawman, no one believes that.” Saying “no one is arguing X” is almost always wrong, because the world is big and full of a lot of people with a lot of opinions. And it’s not inherently fallacious, at all, to say “some might argue this point this way, but they would be wrong for this reason.” Again: if I claim to have refuted your case for something because I’ve dismissed an argument you haven’t made, that’s a strawman. If I’m just generally addressing an argument you haven’t made, that’s not a strawman, even if you’re sure I’m wrong.

I say this because a few people have come after my Observer piece, claiming that no one is arguing that the Ashley Madison leak is justified, or that people who cheated deserve to be exposed. Well, actually, many people are doing that, most certainly the hackers themselves. And you can find similar sentiments on Facebook, in Tweets, in comments on articles, etc, with minimal effort. This actually highlights the subtle classism of a lot of these strawman complaints. They often aren’t so much “no one is saying that” as “no one who matters is saying that.” But arguments that are popular outside of professional media are important. They say a lot about community morals and norms. I find it perverse to imagine that an argument made by a single columnist in the New York Times requires repeated rebuttal, but arguments made by hundreds of people on social media don’t.

for the record, I don’t think sex is radical

Gawker has just linked to Yasmin Nair’s interesting provocation “Your Sex Is Not Radical.” I’m happy more people will read Yasmin’s piece, as she’s a great writer that everyone should be reading, and that piece is her in fine form. In particular, it demonstrates her absolute refusal to trod a well-worn ideological path. Some have interpreted that piece as a critique of me, because I am named in its first paragraph. But in fact I quite agree with Yasmin. I don’t think that polygamy is radical. Indeed, in my piece for Playboy debunking anti-polygamy arguments, I said

in many ways polygamy is a conservative venture. But just like I must insist on the equality of women in the capitalist workplace, even while I recognize that the workplace is a site of alienation, exploitation and destruction, I have to insist that the conservative structure of marriage must apply equally to all loving relationships. 

In similar terms, some people reacted to my Observer piece yesterday by asking if I really think infidelity is a left-wing virtue. To which I reply, of course not; but then, I never said it was. I do believe, however, that the kind of communal shaming of naughty sex-havers for having sex outside of marriage, waged by strangers to both partners in those marriages, is inherently reactionary.

I don’t think legalized polygamy is radical, and I certainly don’t think it will tear down the state/capital/patriarchy. I just think it’s a good idea. Likewise, I don’t think adultery is radical, and never claimed so. I do think the notion that we should all be anti-adultery police is deeply retrograde.

the Department of Education as loan shark

Jordan Weissmann’s piece today, discussing grad student loan debt today, is a bit of a logical pretzel.  The piece is set up as a complaint about the fiscal damage grad students are doing to the budget, with a headline reading “The Newest Scourge of the Federal Budget: Graduate Students.” But as Weissmann points out, grad students are a large money maker for the federal government. That’s because the federal government draws huge interest payments off of grad students, as they do off of all students who take advantage of student loans. Weissmann says that “Graduate degree holders are relatively affluent, meaning there isn’t a great argument for heavily subsidizing their educations.” As Mike Konczal has pointed out (I can’t find where right now), if the government is making money off of a financial program, that’s the precise opposite of a subsidy. Would Weissmann say that payday lenders are subsidizing poor people who take out predatory loans to pay for food or the rent?

Now I agree that we should cap the federal loans that a given grad student can take out. I also have written acres of words on why not (and, very rarely, why to) go to grad school, which you can look up. And, of course, that one rare example of the person who apparently went unfunded through a grad program to the tune of a quarter million dollars and will get most of it forgiven looks bad. But most grad students are not using the federal loan system as a source of graft. Most grad students are not living high on the hog on loans. As someone who recently graduated from grad school myself, I would again ask for a little more human sympathy for grad students, who as a group are subject to constant ridicule. The idea that getting more education is a noble path forward is inscribed in our national mythology. Politicians constantly cite a more educated populace as a goal for our government. And I’ll remind you that many of today’s grad students felt forced back to school by an unprecedently terrible job market for recent college graduates, one that left them hopeless. For many of them, the choice was not between grad school and responsible employment but between grad school and unemployment. Now, they’re generating money for the federal loan system, which is not only self-funding, it draws a cool profit. I can’t blame any of them for settling with the government for somewhat less than they originally owed under those circumstances.

Yes, I think it’s in some sense unfortunate that some grad students who are likely to be more affluent are going to take advantage of the system when there are poorer people who won’t be able to. But that’s the reality of the kind of large-scale social engineering that our efforts to educate our populace results in. People will work the system to their advantage, and given all of the other federal spending we could get mad about — enormous bank bailouts, the $1.5 trillion dollar F-35 boondoggle, corporate welfare — well, I just can’t get mad if someone works that system to their advantage. There are much bigger fish to fry than grad students who rake in profit for the federal government for all you fiscal hawks. Particularly in a world where some countries pay for all of their citizens’ higher education. Personally, I don’t think the federal government should be making a profit on student loans at all.

I don’t think Weissmann’s this sloppy. I think, to be frank with you, that he needs to get a little grad student resentment in there because it’s such a reliable generator of attention and hate clicks. I can only imagine what the comments of that piece are like, for example. I’ve said before that the resentment of others, particularly those who remind you too much of yourselves, is a key revenue generator of the contemporary internet. And with the ambient cultural mockery and often outright hatred that grad students engender, I think looking to blame them for one more thing — to call them a scourge of a budget for which they as a class generate large profits — is just too tempting.

Freddie’s simple rules for formatting your academic CV

Hello, fellow academic traveler! If you’re like me, you’ve often struggled to know how to format your CV, which as we know is the single most important document of your professional life. So many different people give completely contradictory advice, always expressed as absolute no-exceptions rules that, if broken, will result in potential lawsuit and certain ridicule. It can be hard to know where to begin! But fear not. I’m here to give you the lowdown, after years of reading and synthesizing these rules. With these guidelines, you’ll have a beautiful, professional CV in no time.

  1. Please, no cliched fonts! There’s nothing search committees hate more than fonts they’ve seen a thousand times. This means no Times, no Garamond, no Cambria, no Calibri, no Helvetica, or anything else that comes prepackaged with Microsoft Word, Adobe InDesign, or any other popular program that you likely have access to. As a good rule of thumb, if members of search committees can read your document without downloading a new font pack, something’s wrong.
  2. Don’t get gimmicky with your font, though. That screams “amateur.”
  3. Remember, you want all of your sections to be as self-contained and visually coherent as possible. This means that every heading absolutely must fit on a single page. Keep margins to 3.5 inches on all sides. No lower than 16 point font, please — you don’t want committee members to have to strain to see. Four full carriage returns between each line item; you want them to have room to breathe. Oh, and it should go without saying that you want to have as much listed under each heading as humanly possible if you want to get a job. Good luck.
  4. The total number of lines in each section must grow according to a mathematical sequence that is intuitively apparent to the committee member. The last thing you want is for a committee member to have to pull out a calculator. Make sure your sequence is classic without being cliched. If you use the Fibonacci, you might as well write “Help, I’m trapped in the 90s!” on the top of your CV. But don’t get fancy; the Padovan sequence will make you look like a showoff. Choose wisely.
  5. Bold and italics only when necessary. Bolding or italicizing anything that’s not necessary is the kiss of death. Of course, you must bold or italicize when necessary; to fail to do so shows that you have grad student mentality and are not ready to be taken seriously as an academic. The key to recognizing the difference between necessary and unnecessary bolding or italics is
  6. If you send a CV that’s in a standard International ISO paper size like A4 or a North American paper size like letter size, you might as well slap the chair in the face on your campus visit. Any serious academic knows the only acceptable paper size is Jeppesen Aeronautical Chart standard. It should be from a prewar production run, of course.
  7. Header should include your name, email address, PIN number, SnapChat handle, cosmological constant, and the phrase “BUSH DID 9/11.” ( STEM applicants may substitute “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams,” if dictated by field-specific convention.)
  8. If I see a single bullet point on your CV at any time I’ll rip your diploma from your goddamn hands, I swear to god.
  10. A watermark can add a whimsical, personal touch that really makes you stand out from the pack!
  11. Video CVs are increasingly accepted and, in many fields, required. However, any format other than your unblinking face, holding as still as possible, while an offscreen British man reads the complete content of your paper CV in a droll but sensitive tone, is unacceptable and may result in IRB action against you. Vine is the only acceptable choice for hosting your video CV.
  12. Using a ruler, compass, and number 3 pencil, find the exact midpoint of each section of your CV. Then, draw a circle that encompasses every word within that section, while intersecting (but not overlapping!) the first letter in the first word and last letter in the last word of each section. The radius of each circle of every section must be a factor of the total number of words in your CV as a whole, including headings but excluding headings.
  13. Color in your CV is forbidden, except when it is mandatory.
  14. Confused by how to list work in progress? The conventions are simple. If an article has been submitted but you have not yet heard a response, it should be listed as “not yet denied.” If you have received a revise and resubmit request, it should be listed as “politely denied.” If you have received an acceptance with revisions, it should be listed as “accidentally accepted.” If your work has actually been published, it should be listed as “accepted out of mercy and/or corruption.”
  15. Double reverse half-chronological order (Mayan calendar format) throughout the document.
  16. Your CV has to be scannable — research suggests the average search committee member spends 12 seconds rubbing your CV’s paper between their fingers before lighting it on fire.
  17. Remember, ABC: Always Be Concise.
  18. Remember, ABC: Always Be Comprehensive.
  19. Don’t forget to staple a lock of virgin yak hair to the upper right hand corner, or if applying to a British university, the upper left.
  20. If you find that you keep getting rejected, ask yourself: was that yak really a virgin?
  21. Make sure to prominently list the name of the Ivy League institution where you got your PhD on every page. If you got your PhD at a non-Ivy League institution and still want a tenure track job, hahahahahahahahahahahaha oh christ that’s hilarious
  22. Have Steve sign every page of your CV.
  23. List your first three books prominently near the top of your CV. If you haven’t published three books, seriously, where did your life go wrong?
  24. For goodness sake’s, proofread! Have at least six graduate students go over your CV in fine detail, looking for the slightest error. Then have a faculty member pretend to do it. Then pay somebody credible to take out all the errors your undermining, jealous grad student friends snuck in there to undermine you.
  25. Make sure all of your applications are sent within seven (7) days of your dissertation defense. Otherwise, your dissertation has officially gone stale and you are worthless garbage.
  26. Your university likely has a career counseling department that will help you prepare your CV. Everything they tell you will be the complete opposite of what your advisor told you. Somehow, they’re both completely wrong.
  27. Ultimately, the goal of your CV is the same as your goal on a job interview: to appear formal but casual, friendly but standoffish, self-aggrandizing but not conceited, teacherly but not didactic, fully formed but moldable, amenable to change but resistant to change, brilliant but dumber than your potential colleagues, and most importantly, nothing at all like the grad student you’ve spent the last 7 years being.

Good luck!