An Academic-Turned-Critic Explains Her Path
A conversation with Kathryn VanArendonk
There’s an email I receive, in slightly different form, once every two to three weeks. The particulars differ, but the overarching thread is the same: how did you get from where you were to where you are, and can you tell me if, and how, I do something similar myself? They’re usually referring to my move, in 2014, from the academy to a full-time features position at BuzzFeed, which included a move from Walla Walla, Washington to New York. But again: the real question is less about what I did and more about: is this *general* move replicable?
When I have the wherewithal, I answer these emails the best I can. But I often feel like my responses are fiercely lacking, because they are so relentlessly subjective. I know this is part of “networking” and the email-and-response it calls for, but the happenstance and hard work and specifics of the 2014 internet that made it work for me are not replicable. It was never a path. I bushwhacked my way to a full-time position, but that doesn’t mean that I had the tools to leave a real path behind me. No one person does.
So when another one of these emails arrived in my inbox earlier this month, I decided to take a different tact: ask someone else to tell me about their similar (but by no means exact) bushwhack.
I remember following Kathryn VanArendonk in the early days of media studies Twitter. I fell hard for her Jane the Virgin recaps back when recaps felt like the real pulse of the conversation (I still like recaps, to be clear, they just work differently now than they did back then!), and have marveled at her work as a full-time staff writer at Vulture ever since: her writing and thinking is such a mix of rigor, knowledge, compassion, incredible interview skills, and just, well, joy. (A few of my personal recent favorites: explaining the appeal of the generalized trash fire with indelible charisma that is The Morning Show; going deep with Mike White on the criticisms of White Lotus; How Bluey became the best kids’ show of our time; this incredible piece on Beverly Clearly).
Is it weird, though, that I still come back to her Twitter presence? It still makes me feel like I’m part of a conversation, or maybe just part of a larger group of people who acknowledge that this sort of work is not easy — for any number of reasons, but especially childcare demands and the sheer amount of time you need to spend watching a media text in order to write about a media text. Which is why I’m so thrilled to have her words here today, in responses that reflect the real wisdom, consideration, and generalized push forward that I have come to expect from her work. Kathryn’s answered some general questions from readers in a sort of lightening round below, but if subscribers have further questions — ask away in the comments.
A very broad question to start: how did you get interested in the things you’re interested in?
My first and most long-standing interest is TV, so I imagine it’s an obsession origin story a lot of people share! I loved books, I especially loved series, and I was always fascinated by TV — fueled at least some, no doubt, by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to watch much of it. I remember watching Full House in elementary school and realizing that unlike most other developments on the show, when Aunt Becky got pregnant it would become a long-running story rather than something resolved in half an hour. (This blew my mind.) By 7th grade I was a science-fiction-type middle schooler, and obsessed with a show called Babylon 5. I had to record it on the VCR over the week and save it for the weekend when I was allowed to watch, but if I knew a big episode was coming up I’d call my best friend on the phone and she’d turn it on at her house and prop it up next to the TV so I could listen.
In college I was the kind of English major who had to stop taking English classes my last semester because I nearly had enough to double major in English and not enough in other areas to, you know, graduate. I went to Kenyon College, and my senior thesis was on a series of children’s books from the 1930s (Swallows and Amazons hive helloooo), and I loved writing it, loved the way that area felt rich but with an under-explored text. I had a fantastic experience as an undergrad; I loved my advisors, and Kenyon is a good match if your natural inclination is to just hole up somewhere quiet, often alone.
But throughout college I was also mainlining as much TV as possible. There was an, ahem, extra-legal campus-wide server where people would host whatever media they had saved on hard drives, either ripped from DVDs or downloaded externally. (This places my college years in the very brief, very weird window from 2003-2007.) So when I got to grad school, I built a dissertation on serial structure and episodic storytelling, which let me dig into 19th-century seriality while also writing almost half the dissertation about TV form.
I might have ended up thinking about TV on my own. I happened to be focused on it at the exact time that TV became readily available for a college student with a laptop, and when there was a palpable surge in narrative experimentation and popular awareness that TV deserved focused attention. But I doubt I’d have ended up writing about it if I weren’t also living in the middle of an incredible boom in writing about TV online. In undergrad and grad school, I constantly read Television Without Pity (especially recaps on Battlestar, West Wing, Veronica Mars, reality shows … so much.) I read Alan Sepinwall’s blog religiously, and AV Club (especially Sonia Saraiya and Emily VanDerWerff) and all of Matt Zoller Seitz, particularly his Mad Men recaps, and James Poniewozik and Emily Nussbaum. I was already interested in TV on my own, but without them would it ever have occurred to me that it could be something more? Probably no.
Tell me more about your experience in academia, now that you’ve had some distance from it. I feel like my understanding of what was valuable and what was toxic, and just the general way I hold that experience in my head/history….it changes all the time. Where are you now with it?
I am both lucky and privileged, and because of that, my academic experience was hard and exhausting and disheartening but I still came away from it as a net positive. I did an English PhD program at Stanford immediately after undergrad, and Stanford made it difficult but definitely possible to live on a grad student stipend and still write a dissertation. It was also easier for me because I was living with my partner, also a Stanford grad student. (We dated long distance in college and managed to get into the same grad school; this is both improbable and a key element in the “how did you transition out of academia” part of this story.)
Mostly, I was able to live in a world where grad school was sometimes incredible, sometimes obnoxious, sometimes impossible, but often benign neglect, especially after the first year. Once I had outlined this dissertation area that didn’t fit neatly into department categories, and I proved that I could sort of churn through the program with comparatively minimal oversight, I was pretty much left alone. Which could have been a complete disaster, of course. I’m sure it contributed to why I then got absolutely nowhere on the job market. But 9 days out of 10 I was happy that way. I got married. I watched TV. I wrote a dissertation and taught classes I enjoyed, with manageable class sizes.
My advisors were supportive of me, and I was very very fortunate that Stanford let me bring an outside dissertation committee member. (Sean O’Sullivan at OSU, who works on TV and seriality and was much, much more tied into the work I was doing than most of my committee.) Still, grad school was isolating, and for a lot of people I knew it was really, really hard. It’s an old school English department, and a lot of dysfunction and toxicity gets swept neatly under a rug or ignored. It was not my experience but I knew it was happening, and I dealt with it mostly by building a little TV hole and burrowing in deep. In retrospect I wish I’d been more outraged and noisy and social and connected.
I moved across the country and had a baby and flew back to do my dissertation defense with a 3 month old. In my head that’s a WILD story. I was living in New Jersey and no one knew I was pregnant. I set the defense date, had a baby, and then emailed my dissertation committee the day after she was born to say “guess what I had a baby; see you in California in a couple months.” The registrar’s office was very surprised to see me show up with my filled out paperwork and a tiny infant. But simultaneously, that is a story about how I was able to move across the country and start a family while finishing my dissertation, because my husband had gotten a job outside academia and he was financially supporting us.
I ended up adjuncting at a local community college, mostly because they hired me quickly and it was 10 minutes from my house. I taught intro writing courses, and it was eye-opening in many many ways. I was teaching a very different body of students than a typical Stanford undergrad. I loved it, but I was so aware that I would’ve been a better teacher if I’d had training for what that group of students needed. Even then I still loved the teaching part, and I did get better at it after a few semesters.
A lot of why I get to feel that way, though, is because I am no longer working in that system. I did not have to live with its enormous flaws for long. I was healthy and did not have to fight for medical leave, and my mental health was okay — another enormous way that I lucked out. I did not get sexually harassed or assaulted as a grad student, even though after I graduated I learned about serious allegations against my chief advisor, Franco Moretti. (There’s a whole separate long version of this that’s just me talking through my feelings about that situation but it’s not as relevant here!)
I am grateful for grad school. It was legitimately helpful for me, and I don’t know that I’d be where I am now without it. But also my experience of it was so shaped by so much non-grad school stuff: my personal life, my comparative financial stability (especially at the end), the fact that my dissertation was about a subject where there was so much good, popular writing. It’s hard to differentiate between what I am grateful for in academia, and what I am grateful for in spite of it.
People always ask me “how did you do this,” and I feel like whatever advice I have is not very useful because it was so based on chance, timing, what the media landscape looked at in a particular moment, etc. etc. What’s your advice when people ask you “how” and how has it changed?
If the advice is “how do you get into media,” there are a lot of skills from academia that are really very transferable. Academics are practiced at looking at writing models and roughly replicating or adapting them. So it’s — find writers you admire. Don’t mimic voice or style, but do mimic shape. What moves happen in an 800 blog post? What does a recap look like if it’s for Selling Sunset versus Mare of Easttown? What boxes does a profile need to check? How does quotation work in a piece of public writing that feels different from academic quotation?
Those are “how to write” things and not “how to get the opportunity to write” things, but I think it’s useful to see those as related. If you’re looking at models, you’re also looking at where those models are. You know what a Vulture piece sounds like and the range of styles and forms of writing we have; you can feel when something is Slate-y, or more like The Atlantic, or it’s n+1 or Vox or The Ringer or Vanity Fair or etc etc. Particularly when you’re coming in cold, that is also how you know what and where to pitch. An editor who doesn’t already know your work will have a better sense of what kind of piece you’re envisioning if you can also refer them to a general template. (“I know Vulture runs ‘Close Reads;’ this would be one of those, with a particular focus on TKTKTK.”) (AHP note: TK is a very useful tool that journalists use as a placeholder for “come back later and add; it’s particularly useful because there are no other words with TK in them so when you Control-F, you only find places with TKs. I used to use * for this purpose when I was in academia and TK is much more useful!)
Eventually, sure, you want to be able to define your own forms and not necessarily be looking backwards at what a publication already does. But if you’re trying to get started, it helps so much to have that shorthand. It helps you know what’s already worked at a publication, and it helps an editor trust that you’re going to be on the same page about what they’re looking for.
More specific advice is going to end up being too limited to writing about TV or comedy, and I DO have thoughts on that of course! But the other general ideas are the obvious ones. Follow editors on twitter and pitch them, and keep pitching. When you get a pitch accepted, know that it’ll be on a much faster timeframe than anything you’ve written for academia, and file it on time. Do not agree to write for free. Pitch things you feel strongly about.
All of that is true. But also: I got the job I have because we were able to live on my husband’s income for a few years. I was a freelancer and initially made very little money (and was also doing all the childcare for our 1 year-old.) We could afford to go for a bit without me having a full-time job, because we did not have school loans and my husband’s job had good health care and I pitched writing I could cram into little corners within parenting. (I could not have done much if any reported work like that.)
If the advice is “how do you leave academia,” then it’s much more about trying to disentangle your sense of self from your career identity as an academic. I’m not saying it’s like deprogramming from a cult, but for some circumstances I’m not not saying that. There is one thing I learned very quickly about academia and money and public writing, though. From a direct hours-to-hours comparison, I got paid much more to write an essay about The Bachelor than I did to adjunct. And it was easier! The economics of that situation fucking suck but it meant that leaving academia was not a tough call for me. At all. Even a little bit, and even though media is precarious. Academia is too.
You’ve been public on your Twitter about the difficulties of making life as a full-time writer and reviewer work when you didn’t have full-time childcare during the pandemic. I think people are sometimes like...you have the best job in the world, how could this be hard, just watch the shows. This is never the case, but it’s particularly not the case when you’re supposed to be caring for small children. What is hard to describe about the space needed for the “writing” life just generally, but even more specifically, the “media critic life”?
Hooooo buddy. The main thing is I have childcare now. My oldest kid is in 2nd grade and goes to aftercare; my younger kid is in full-day preschool.
I spent the first 4 years as a writer without full-time childcare, though. It was a range — at the beginning none, and then a couple hours of preschool, and then once I was offered a full-time staff position, it became a cobbled together combination of nannies and preschool. Even that was never quite full-time coverage, and hands down the only reason I was able to make that work was because my editors at Vulture have been completely flexible from the beginning. I have never been asked to go into an office full time, and I have never felt pressured or like it is a problem if I have a kid-related emergency, or I’m doing school pickup, or I have to say no to something because it’s not going to work for kid reasons, or when my younger kid often wanders into meetings. Believe me, I know how fortunate I have been.
But also, especially in the earlier years and then again in the early part of the pandemic, it was just … I had this image of myself, pinching and hoarding every minute. I have written essays in four minute intervals, while standing next to a preschooler playing with tupperware in a sudsy sink. I have recapped an episode that I watched most of but had to finish just listening to it with an earbud, because my kid refused to take a nap and she was old enough that I couldn’t let her watch Bachelor in Paradise. I have done edits in a google doc while standing next to the train table in the Barnes and Noble kid section. Especially when you’re a TV critic, there’s a lot of stuff you cannot watch around your very small kids once they’re old enough to understand, so I watched a lot of TV between kid bedtime and when I went to sleep, and then did a lot of the writing on my phone at the playground.
Much of what I was writing at that point was TV recaps, or lists, or close read-style essays, though. Not to suggest that stuff isn’t hard — it is absolutely challenging and often it requires immense endurance as a writer. Still, from the perspective of brain space, you’re often helped by the fact that the scope is fairly defined. I get to write features now, and I love it, but it’s so much more to hold in your head, and so much more impossible to juggle at the same time as your brain is full of “my seven year-old needs to bring in an empty paper towel roll tomorrow. Do we have an empty paper towel roll? When is picture day? Should I be worried about the fact that my four year-old cannot make R sounds? Oh shit there’s a dentist appointment tomorrow morning. I need to do a follow-up interview but it’s at the same time as the dentist. Can I do it … in the car in the dentist parking lot?”
And I worry, constantly, that because my attention is fractured into this kaleidoscopic buy more 4T pants make an OT appointment wash masks ran out of oatmeal email the fact checker read the proof write the blurb record a podcast watch the screeners mode, that the writing isn’t what it should be. Or what it could be. It probably isn’t. I know it isn’t.
Oh well! That’s how it is right now. Not every piece is going to be a face-burning epiphany, and not every part of parenting is going to go the way I’d like, and I forget things and drop things and screw things up basically perpetually. We muddle through.
I asked Twitter for some questions for you here — can you choose 1 or 2 that you want to answer? (I know that one that I’d love to hear more about how you would’ve done things differently if you had a dumb time machine, or how the rhythms and style of your writing have changed, but truly any of them!)
Ooh questions! I love so many of these, I am so frustrated I can’t do all of them. I’m going to try a lightning round?
Do I miss teaching? Yes. It is the thing I miss most. Hands down.
Which one has better work - life balance? My work life balance is terrible right now but I have zero reason to believe it would be better if I’d stayed in academia. And for all of the balancing issues, what I have now is a lot of flexibility that is not stigmatized by my employer.
Did your former academic colleagues ostracize you for leaving? This would probably be a different situation if I’d been tenure-track and lived in that world longer, but it has not been my experience at all. (Occasionally I’ll hear about someone using my work on a syllabus and PHEW the joy that gives me!) It’s also totally possible that people talk shit about me and I don’t know it! Good for them; get through life however you can.
How does academia inform how you ask questions? This one is just the best, because the answer is that for me, they are very closely related. One of my chief hopes is that it makes my criticism more conscious of a long history of fiction and seriality and TV history and genre fiction. It is one of the best things grad school gave me: an awareness that very few things are new, and even the things that are new still came from somewhere.
How did the money work? I hope that you got some rough sense of that in the previous way-too-many paragraphs, but to add some specifics: I started freelancing for Vulture in 2015, and I wrote one Jane the Virgin recap a week for $150 a recap. Eventually I started pitching other essays, which I often got between $200-$300 for. In 2016 I signed a freelancing contract with Vulture, which was for a certain number of recaps + essays per 6 months, at a rate that averaged out to a little over $40k a year. I did that for two years, although the second year was screwy because I had my second baby and took 3 months off. Rather than re-up my freelance contract Vulture then offered me a staff writing position, which started around $60k. I’ve since been promoted a few times and am now a features writer; you can get a sense of the pay bands and median salaries (and why our union has been fighting for a fair contract) at New York Magazine’s union website.
Who are two or three writers in your general area whose work is so good it makes you want to throw your computer at the wall?
Almost everyone I listed back for that first question is still writing and I am still so grateful to read all of their work. Doreen St. Felix and Lauren Michele Jackson at The New Yorker have both been incredible in the last couple of years. They both write work that rattles me, and reading them is how I know my own work could be so much better. I mean, shit, I work at Vulture. My colleagues are all maddeningly great. Craig Jenkins on Chappelle? Angelica Bastién panning a Marvel movie? (Every profile Alex Jung writes?!) We also have a new critic starting soon and I don’t know if I can name them yet but ha ha ha suckers, they’re ours now! )