Exploitative labor practices occupy the ground floor of every religious movement, and adjuncts, like cult members, are usually required to work long and hard for little remuneration, toiling in support of the institution to prove their devotion to academia itself. Contrary to stereotypes of professors as contemplative eggheads at best and partisan layabouts at worst, many academics use their summers and sabbaticals as opportunities to catch up on articles and book projects held over from previous academic years, overworking as many as 60 hours per week. The cliche “publish or perish” belies a constant demand to prove one’s commitment and worth, amounting to a crippling fear of being “intellectually pantsed,” as a mentor of mine once said. It’s difficult not to see these abuses as rites of passage in the service of some higher cause. Academics may cast themselves as hardened opponents of dominant norms and constituted power, but their rituals of entitlement and fiendish loyalty to established networks of caste and privilege undermine that critical pose. No one says it aloud, but every graduate student knows: This is the price you pay for a chance to enter the sanctum of the tenure track. Follow the leader, or prepare to teach high school.
Like others who’ve come to this realization, I was not surprised when I learned of the recent sexual harassment investigation of Avital Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at New York University whom I cited heavily in my doctoral dissertation. Less shocking still was the smear campaign that many of her celebrated colleagues launched against her accuser, Nimrod Reitman, which resembles the silencing tactics deployed by the Church of Scientology and other cults. These scholars fail embarrassingly to embrace the radical theories on which their careers and reputations rest.