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The New Guy’s Post on SEK

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(The LGM powers-that-be asked me to adapt something that I wrote on Facebook about Scott.)

I only knew Scott via social media and email, and not terribly well. Like everyone else here, I admired his wit and humor; I looked forward to everything that he wrote. But his writings on visual rhetoric were particularly important to me. I assigned them to students in my ‘science fiction and politics class.’

After I found out how sick he was, the first thing that I did was to donate to his medical fund (which is still in need of support). The second thing that I did, however, involved downloading a large chunk of his visual rhetoric posts. I’m a bit embarrassed about this. It feels mercenary. But I wanted to make sure I could still assign them if his sites went dark.

They really are that good. Not only did I learn an enormous amount from them, but I’ve found them extremely useful for getting college students to think more analyticaly about comics, television, and film.

In my view, there’s an important lesson here.  An untimely death wasn’t the only thing that robbed an emerging area of study of someone who should have been—in the homo academicus sense—a leader in his scholarly field.

Scott never accumulated traditional academic capital. He never published a major university press book. He was one of a veritable army of brilliant PhDs diverted into the contingent-labor pool. Indeed, Scott’s career was one marked by consistent job insecurity. As readers here know, he eventually shifted into writing for places like Salon and Raw Story. In fact, Scott was unusual when compared to many other PhDs exploited by the low wages and benefits of the academic contingent-labor ‘market’: his scholarly writings and ideas—mostly in the form of blog posts—reached a wide audience. They influenced non-academics and academics alike.

But I can’t help think that Scott got a raw deal—in his lack of stable and quality health insurance, at the very least. In turn, scholarship lost out. Scott had the particular flair, and skillset, to leave his mark as a public intellectual. But he deserved to be both that public intellectual and the producer of respected academic books and articles. He certainly deserved the tenured position to match.

But the professoriate, our cost-cutting administrators—at least when it comes to things other than shiny dorms and athletic facilities—and our state legislators all let Scott down. And, by extension, the archive of scholarly knowledge.

Scott was, as I noted above, unusually gifted at public communication. He also came along during a brief moment when the blogosphere was a great, intellectually vibrant leveler for those who not only had access to it, but also the time to invest in it.

It may seem odd to say this in the aftermath of Scott’s painful and premature death: most academics shunted into the  contingent labor stream are not as lucky as Scott was. Part of honoring Scott’s memory is ensuring that his ideas and insights remain in circulation. But another part, I contend, is to set our sights on changing the system that failed him… and fails so many others.

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  • Colin Day

    Off-topic, but I noticed that SEK is still on the masthead.

    • AstroBio

      Well, I hope it stays that way.

    • Dave W.

      Being still on the masthead makes it easy to access his archive of work here, as I just did in looking over his most recent postings going back to the beginning of 2015. If LGM wants to move that link to a special In Memorium tab or something, that’s fine, but I hope it doesn’t go away. There doesn’t seem to be any rush about it, in any case.

  • mikeSchilling

    Those posts are amazing. I’m not a particularly visual person, so those sorts of things always went over my head, but now I can recognize and appreciate at least the more obvious ones, and that ‘s entirely because of SEK.

  • Gregor Sansa

    As you can clearly see, being uncontroversially right is not the way towards popular posts on a blog, as measured by responses. You must instead be essentially correct, but overstate or misstate your case in certain minor areas, and then you must invariably double down when challenged. Either that, or you must write in a way that invites the reader to share personal stories, even if they’re only weakly related.

    …or, in other words, good post, welcome to the blog, and don’t be discouraged by the low response count so far.

    • I’ll second that. I wanted to post to welcome you but you didn’t say anything that I could argue with, or even expand on.
      So, well said, and welcome.

    • Gregor Sansa

      btw, one minor tip: for a post this short, you don’t have to have a “click for more”.

      • (((Hogan)))

        Tip for just about everyone else: for a long post, “click for more” is a REALLY GOOD IDEA.

  • Alan G Kaufman

    I am not an academic, so I don’t get it. Why didn’t he accumulate academic capital? Why didn’t he ever publish a “major university press book,” and what is that anyway? Why does the academy seem to consider him at the same time somehow a second class citizen and also robbed of his proper due? Did he choose an independent path and that cost him establishment recognition? I don’t know. I just read his work here and as linked here. I learned from him. I thought he was creative, original, erudite, and simple… In the best sense of simplicity… in the sense of a student who grasps suddenly complex ideas because presented having been sliced and diced by a master with occam’s razor. I guess, to me, just a reader, the tragedy is not that the academy blew it with him …. he did more good I suspect out than in….but that he left us with so much more to teach, and without understanding how well respected, admired and appreciated he was, and is, for his communication to us of newness. I suspect his legend will grow as time passes, and he will be appreciated more after life than he ever was during… like Van Gogh, or Tesla, or Melville…..

    • rm

      He didn’t because opportunity to follow the career path of a tenure-track professor — where the teaching load is low enough to allow research to happen, and where a livable salary and job security allow academic freedom — is a rare thing. Instead, higher ed has followed the corporate model of squeezing maximum value out of poorly-compensated labor with no or few benefits. Thus, adjunct teachers teach most courses. Department rosters have shrunk. When teachers can get full-time positions with some benefits, they are often permanent lecturers with no advancement possible. Class sizes rise, because it’s hard to prove to an administrator that hard-to-measure quality of learning outweighs the obvious $$$ savings. Sometimes the public can’t see this because their image of a university is Harvard or Stanford. Most of higher ed is thousands of community colleges and regional state universities, where the labor is getting screwed.

      SEK didn’t do anything to disinvite himself from academia, that I’ve ever heard — there just aren’t many jobs anymore, and a Ph.D. and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee.

      Being a brilliant writer and having the rare and enviable ability to reach a wide audience, he could work as a writer on the internet, but that is of course no pathway to riches. He would have given us even more than he did if he’d had an office of his own, health insurance, and job security.

  • LFC

    Couple of prefatory things. First, I did not know SEK and was not aware of most of his online work until the recent memorials in various places highlighted some of it. (I did really enjoy the humor and cleverness of the Oldman Cat posts here and even commented on a late one, even though I’m not particularly crazy about cats.) Second, of course I agree the system sucks (too many PhDs competing for too few tenure-track jobs, administrators more interested in spending money on frills than on hiring people, exploitation of contingent labor, etc.).

    Reading the memorials etc. in various places, I’ve learned that SEK started blogging in 2005 as a graduate student: from what I gather he was great in the blog medium and quickly attracted a fairly substantial readership, esp. for a grad student (including a couple of professors who, when they encountered him in person at a conference, said they were “intimidated” about approaching him, a grad student, because they knew him as a skilled blogger).

    SEK finished his dissertation in 2008 (I learned this particular fact from a memorial post at the U.S. Intellectual History blog). So for roughly three years, 2005-2008, he was actively writing online while also finishing his dissertation. It’s possible that if he’d spent the time he devoted to online writing instead to writing and publishing journal articles, he might have had a slightly better chance of getting a tenure-track academic job when he finished his dissertation. (Though given what I assume was and is the horribleness of the job market in his field, English, the odds would/might probably still have been long.)

    So from this I tentatively conclude — and again, I did not know him — that he wanted to be a public intellectual and writer for multiple audiences perhaps more than he wanted to be an academic. No doubt he deserved to be and should have been both, as Dan Nexon says in the post; still, the choices he made as a grad student about where to put his writing energies suggest that he might have cared more about reaching a wider audience than about (marginally or otherwise) increasing his competitiveness in the awful academic job market.

    As someone “unusually gifted at public communication” in the post’s words, SEK decided to use that gift in the blogosphere at a time when some of his grad student peers were deciding to write articles that only two or three people would read in an effort to give themselves more of a fighting chance of getting an academic job. I assume — and if I’m wrong, someone will tell me — that SEK made that choice consciously and aware of what it might mean in terms of his future career. This does not at all detract from the post’s point that the system sucks and, among other things, wastes talent on an unconscionable scale. But the bad system forces trade-offs and choices on people that, in a better system, they wouldn’t be forced to make.

    • Peterr

      It’s possible that if he’d spent the time he devoted to online writing instead to writing and publishing journal articles, he might have had a slightly better chance of getting a tenure-track academic job when he finished his dissertation. (Though given what I assume was and is the horribleness of the job market in his field, English, the odds would/might probably still have been long.)

      So from this I tentatively conclude — and again, I did not know him — that he wanted to be a public intellectual and writer for multiple audiences perhaps more than he wanted to be an academic.

      Or . . .

      Unlike a non-trivial portion of academia circa 2006, SEK did not view writing blog posts as a poor substitute for journal articles, but as a way of engaging the academy in the wider world in a way that many others within the academy (including more than a few search committees) did not agree with.

      Far from trading off the academy for being a public intellectual, my take is that he wanted the academy to be far more public than it is.

      [And like you, I too never met him or even knew him beyond his blog posts.]

      • LFC

        Ok — point taken.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        I didn’t know SEK personally, either, but my guess is that you’re right, Peterr. He was very involved in promoting academic blogging as such while he was a grad student and still an academic. And he wrote a wonderful piece for Inside Higher Ed (which included the anecdote about professors saying they were intimidated to meet him and which Paul Campos linked in his memorial post) that celebrated the ways that blogging built online academic communities. Though many at the time (and some still today) see blogging as a distraction from academic work, SEK was among those who saw them as complementary. And he set an example for those of us who agree with him.

        afaict SEK seems to have devoted little time to writing about academia after he left it. There are other PhDs who never landed tenure track jobs, like Rebecca Schuman, who devote entire careers to ripping apart the academic labor system. And the academic labor system certainly deserves it. But I suspect that, if they have the opportunity to do so, many people will continue to find value in SEK’s work for decades to come, while Schuman’s columns will be mostly of interest to historians of higher ed.

  • JR in WV

    Dan, you can stop calling yourself “the new guy” now. That gets old pretty quick, esp. when you aren’t really new to what we’re doing here, just new to this signboard.

    I agree with you again, we gotta stop agreeing like this!

    Stay safe!

    JR

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