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The Answer to Academic Envy


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Last year I applied to several programs in Communications and Media Studies. I have a Master's from The New School and I felt like my research, work and recommenders were very strong, although my GRE scores could have been better. Since spring, I have been frustrated since I failed to get into many of my top picks. I am fortunate that I got a good offer and will be starting somewhere in August with a great assistantship, but I was still feeling envious and upset with myself. "Why didn't I get into this school?" I ask myself. While waiting for responses, I became upset every time I saw another potential student get a positive reply from one of "my" schools. I felt hurt by their good fortunate - I couldn't feel good for them because I was so upset for myself. This has bothered me on and off for months now and I did not have a good answer until today. 


I was reading this article, and this bit struck me: 


"academia works by envy and to adjust oneself accordingly. Even as the premises grow increasingly unlikely, let us pretend. You have (1) a job interview, (2) another job interview, and (3) an offer from no. 1. Proceed thus: tell no. 2 that you have an offer. This exponentially increases your chance of getting a second job offer. Once someone sees someone else desiring you, you become more desirable. If you have a second offer it is even easier to get a third one. And so on. There is doubtless an envy algorithm."

For a long time now, I have been working in myself to understand forces which motivate and construct us as people, and in some sense restrict our freedoms. By that I mean normative conceptions of what it is to be an __x__, things that tell us about our identity. The most obvious example is gender - for instance, men and women historically have a series of expectations to be considered an authentic or valid person with that identity. Obviously, not all women have to be housewives - masculinity is not so narrow either. 

Zen is a major source of comfort to me. One author, Charlotte Joko Beck, wrote "In spiritual maturity, the opposite of injustice is not justice, but compassion. Not me against you, not me straightening out the present ill, fighting to gain a just result for myself and others, but compassion, a life that goes against nothing and fulfills everything." So we have to understand that two lefts don't make a right, fire can't be fought with fire, and things like anger, envy and frustration have to be negated with the very last thing we might consider. 

As with everything, academia has its own set of forces which construct people who identify with the institution. These forces can be harmful and destructive. If I am honest, I'll say that I was disappointed I wasn't accepted to more programs. But my future peace of mind relies on understanding those forces and counteracting them in a way that negates their restriction of my freedom. 

In this case, consider charity as a resistive, radical act. Certain behaviors and ideas are considered radical when they confront and delegitimize the existing order of things: radical silence, anti-work, pacifism, anarchism. Beck's quote shows how compassion is radical, when we forgive people who have done us wrong, in the same way that radical theology presents non-violence and a refusal to condemn others even when there is a legitimate grievance. 


If you recognize that envy is a tool of the institution and society to produce a certain result from its members ("more qualified applicants," "stronger research," "sexier work" etc), then you can realize that it does not always suit your individual purposes. This article also supports my point: "run your own race." Particularly if you are involved with academia for ideological reasons - the Buddhist concept of right livelihood would prevent a moral person from working as a defense contractor. If you feel (like I do) like you want your work to be part of a greater effort to broaden human understanding, to improve and increase personal agency and to do some good through teaching and research in a way that satisfies personal moral or ethical expectations, then envy has no part in your career. It is potentially a force which supports the existing order and is not essentially useful or helpful for you or others - it is competition for the sake of the institution, not the work or your own meaningful accomplishment. 

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