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The Zombie Academic Journey

March 11, 2013

Today seems to be the day for zombie academics – posted earlier today about Drezner and Lauro and now at the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Running the Zombie Marathon” by Noah J. Toly arguing:

We need a new metaphor for the long process from dissertation to tenure.

Toly starts with the classic “marathon” metaphor but thinks it insufficient to explain the modern academic horror-show, favoring “zombie run” to better encapsulate:

the active and sometimes capricious opposition that can mar the course of an academic career.

zombie noah toly

For Toly, academia is not just an endurance run it’s a “zombie marathon” filled with

antagonistic committee members or sociopaths for chairs

Suggesting the “need” for

better metaphors for the resistance, hostility, and active struggle

And it continues after the Ph.D. too:

Job hunters occasionally face subterfuge and unethical interview practices. And who hasn’t heard bone-chilling stories about rogue promotion-and-tenure committees, or about conniving administrators and senior professors who despise a particular subfield or method?

Overall, I think this is interesting but think “Hunger Games” might be a more suitable metaphor for Toly’s argument. See also David Brooks on Competition that ZombieLaw previously likened to both Zombies and Hunger Games. And see NYU’s dissertation writing room to survive out the zombie apocalypse.

But more the point let’s consider that this is overall bad for American education and that we have developed a very poor system for academic progress.

The “love is a journey” conceptual metaphor is important to George Lakoff, speaking of dead-end streets and stuck spinning your wheels:

Toly’s essay demonstrates flaws in the academic model that sees education as a journey to traditional professional academic roles. Instead for most would-be academics, it’s merely a question of how long can you stave off the zombie hordes. It’s a question of the ability to sustain some academic direction.

You may think you’re running a normal, if difficult, race when all of a sudden—bam!—the undead catch the scent of life and start nipping at your heels.

This is not unique to academia. It’s capitalism.

We need to reframe. Education and love need not be journeys. Education doesn’t get you somewhere or anywhere. It is an exploration of the Nothing (see also Hegel) and it can open doors of possibility for later journeys. Similarly love is not really the transportation vehicle, it is just a ticket to ride.

As Drezner suggests, we can reframe debates with metaphors and maybe pass arms treaties and keep our zombie boyfriends.

Who is controlling the metaphors?! Don’t run from zombies. The journey is the destination! Stop competing and just hang out with the zombies. Don’t expect to get anywhere but have fun and you just might learn something. And we need to restructure the education system to reward more of these types of zombie learners, otherwise we just keep rewarding the ultra-competitive and letting them develop the system.

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