Is Everything an MLM?
If you've been reading Culture Study since 2019 you know
AHP Note: I originally published this essay back in early 2019, when I was using the (very much unpaid) newsletter as a place to collect scattered thoughts that didn’t fit within the boxes of my other (full-time) writing job. It was disjointed, informal, and I pretty much pressed send as soon as I finished the last sentence. But some of the pieces from that time still travel around, and I wanted a chance to polish, re-edit, and make some additions…and introduce it to the thousands of readers who’ve signed up in the three years since it first went up.
Regularly scheduled new content will be back this Wednesday. Also: Elon Musk’s new plan to “share” Twitter advertising revenue, but only with users who agree to pay the monthly fee for Twitter Blue….definitely an MLM.
A few years ago, the New York Times published a sprawling investigation into the spread of CorePower Yoga. The piece detailed how CorePower’s business model is contingent upon enrolling thousands in expensive “teacher training” courses, even though there’s already a surfeit of teachers out there. The company makes money from the teacher training, and teachers’ own labor becomes devalued, as they’re encouraged to teach for less or teach for donations (appealing to yogic principles of service and selflessness as a means of excusing it).
The first time I was told I should do teacher training, it was 2010, and I’d been going to the same hot yoga (not Bikram) studio for two years. You’re not supposed to be competitive at yoga, and I wasn’t competitive with others so much as with myself. It became natural to go every day, to pull “doubles” (when you attend two classes in a row) on weekends. There’s a cultishness to yoga — a natural outgrowth, I think, of intense physical and spiritual experiences — and it’s fair to say that I was addicted. I didn’t know my teachers in any capacity other than the 90 minutes of interaction, but I felt strongly about them, venerated them, craved their approval.
So when one of them casually said I should think about teacher training, I bashfully shook my head and averred, but I was secretly thrilled. I knew it would never happen — I was bad at handstands! I was a grad student and absolutely did not have thousands of dollars!— but I’d turn the idea over in my mind every day, when I was feeling dissatisfied or aimless or insecure in the rest of my life. I could be a yoga teacher! I could spend my life in stretchy fabrics, with great arms, eating açai bowls and friending students on Facebook!
My studio wasn’t a CorePower studio, but it was clear even then that the teacher trainings — along with the retreats, located everywhere from the Texas Hill Country to Bali — were the real money makers for the teachers leading them. If I hadn’t been a grad student, already scraping to pay the monthly student rate, I would’ve been so susceptible to my own teachers’ appeals: to my ego, but also to my desire to cultivate a side hustle I was “passionate about.”
I know a lot of people go to teacher training knowing full well that it’s basically Advanced Placement (AP) Yoga, not a direct conduit to actually becoming a teacher. But certainly not all — and they’re the ones still struggling to pay off the cost of the training, taking whatever classes they can at the local 24 Fitness. (Not that there’s anything wrong with 24 Fitness — it’s just not what most yoga practitioners imagine when they imagine themselves teaching).
The yoga teacher recruitment model is strikingly similar to an MLM (Multi Level Marketing scheme; think Avon and Amway, but also think LuLaRoe and Herbalife and Lipsense and DoTerra, and absolutely read Meg Conley on what got left out of the LuLaRoe documentary). MLMs are called pyramid schemes because the person at the top — the very first recruiter — is the one who reaps the benefits of every other recruit. But I find the metaphor of the pyramid useful in terms of structure: the integrity of the whole is contingent upon the retainment of each individual part; at the same time, growth can only through continual expansion of the base.
When I tweeted about the CorePower piece, an academic responded:
“This sounds….familiar: ‘CorePower churns out thousands more “certified” teachers than the company offers to employ.’”
She was referring to what’s known as the “overproduction” of PhDs: too many people come to grad school with the intent of finding employment within academia, and far too few sustainable academic jobs there at the end. As anyone in any field understands, when there’s way more qualified applicants than jobs, the existing jobs can demand more of applicants (more qualifications, less money) while applicants lower their own expectations (for compensation, for benefits, for job security, for course load and service, for location).
So why don’t academic departments just decrease the number of PhD students they accept? Because those students have become an integral cog in the contemporary university. All the way back in 2000, the National Research Council’s report on "Addressing the Nation's Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists" found that the number of new PhDs awarded every year “is well above that needed to keep pace with growth in the U.S. economy and to replace those leaving the workforce as a result of retirement and death." The report suggested that there should be no increase in the number of PhDs, but does not call for a decrease: “to change suddenly the numbers of people could be very disruptive to the research that’s going on at the present time.”
Put differently, those PhD students are providing (bargain) labor in labs; to decrease the flow of incoming students would necessitate a dramatic rethinking of the funding/viability of various labs. The Humanities don’t have labs, but they do have massive numbers of undergraduate courses that need teaching. In English programs, it’s some version of “comp,” or composition; in foreign language programs, it’s intro language classes; in communications, it’s public speaking. Many of these courses are mandated “core” in some capacity, ensuring an unwavering stream of students, and an unwavering demand for graduate student labor to serve them. To decrease the number of graduate students, again, would be to decrease the supply of labor. To rectify the loss, you’d either have to hire adjuncts or more professors (both more expensive than graduate students, although in many cases adjuncts may cost less but are more “complicated”) or decrease the number of admitted students (a significant loss to the university). So the system remains.
Some schools start PhD programs — even though they know that their institution is not prestigious enough to place its graduates in “good” jobs, unless they are truly stellar — as a sort of labor generator: lure students with the promise of tuition remission, and you’ve got at least four years of their labor. Some MA programs also provide tuition remission in exchange for TA’ing; others are Master’s Traps with no opportunity to TA, just the opportunity for 10-40 students to pay full tuition, even if the chances of moving on to a PhD program (or full-time employment in their field) is small. (You can read the Culture Study series on Master’s Traps here, here, and here).
We talk a lot about how “for-profit” colleges (Cappella, Phoenix, dozens of others) exploit students’ internalized belief that the only way to pull themselves and their families up through the capitalist system is a degree — no matter if they have to take out massive amounts of debt to do it, no matter if they’re steered towards degree programs (massage therapy) in which there’s little chance to find employment that will even cover a student loan payment, let alone allow the student to pull themselves up the class ladder. (Of course, a degree can provide that route — but usually it can be obtained for much, much less at the local community college.)
For first generation college students with little or no inherited knowledge of how college or student loans work, for-profit colleges can be incredibly appealing. They target you; they tell you that you could have a different life, a secure life, a career, everything you’ve dreamed of, just by enrolling. (For the twentieth time, read Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed for an in-depth account of how for profit colleges target, recruit, and exploit these populations)
But academia — specifically, higher ed — does something different. Like my yoga teacher, it affirms what so many of us wanted to believe about ourselves: that we’re good enough, smart enough, potential-filled enough, to go to grad school. Maybe it started when you wrote a paper you were particularly proud of, and your professor told you, off-handedly, “maybe you should think about grad school.” Maybe someone else in your life — the parent of a friend, someone you nannied for, your parent — told you the same. When my undergrad professor told me as much, it was like someone had unfogged the windshield of my life: oh, yes, there’s the road in front of me!
Everyone I met in grad school had some version of this story. Once the aptitude was discerned, it morphed in our minds into something like destiny. You ask for letters of recommendation, and your professors write them. You apply to grad schools, and some accept you. Instead of thinking about should I go to grad school, it becomes which grad school should I go to? And because you’ve already made the decision, it’s difficult to divert when the road conditions become more and more difficult.
Bad funding situation? You’ll make it work. Too many MA and PhDs means you have to “professionalize” (go to many conferences, publish many peer-reviewed papers) on your own dime? You’ll make it work. Take out loans to cover that conference travel; take out loans to live over the summer because there’s no funding available; take out loans to finish your dissertation because your school ran out of it; take out loans to travel to MLA to be one of 15 people interviewing for a job you don’t want. Again: You’ll make it work. You’re already too far down the road.
Job market’s so tight that you have to move away from your partner for a year of a post-doc, then another post-doc across the country, then a job in a place far from family that pays less than a high school teacher? Again, you’ll make it work. You get to do something you love, the refrain goes. All jobs are bad, someone will tell you.
To give up is shameful, but why? Where does that shame come from? We internalize the failure as our own, instead of a failure that was set up, save for a select few, from the start. Put differently, getting spit out by the contemporary academic establishment isn’t a mark of failure; it’s a sign that the system is working as intended. Those who aren’t spit out are absorbed into the pyramid — as adjuncts, as non-tenure track. And no matter how much they advocate for ethical treatment, no matter how much they support graduate unions, there’s only so much you can do when your university keeps admitting graduate students.
Which isn’t to say there’s nothing. I’ve always deeply admired the Communications program at the University of Wisconsin, which only accepts as many PhD students as it honestly believes it can place in jobs. That means incredible selectivity, but it also means keeping its numbers incredibly low. (I didn’t get accepted there, which maybe should have been a sign that I should’ve have kept going!) I know a number of professors who are increasingly working with graduate students from the beginning on how to “professionalize” towards career paths that may or may not lead outside of academia. I know tenured professors who fund graduate student travel to conferences, and who only publish in open-source journals, and who speak frankly to their undergrad students about the realities and debt and burnout incurred through the graduate school process.
There are so many good and ethical actors within the system. But it’s not enough to counter the absorbing, flattering, hope-igniting energy of contemporary academia, which subsists on the infinite stream of students so eager for someone to tell them that the thing they love to think about it, the thing that feels nourishing and explosive and electric, they can have that thing all the time. That’s how I used to talk about my path to grad school: I wanted a way to think about the things I was thinking about for the rest of my life. All I needed was that one teacher to tell me I could. What I didn’t realize is that there were, and are, so many paths, professional and otherwise, to think about those things for the rest of my life.
To suggest as much, though, feels subversive — or at least un-American in some weird way. Of course you should pursue your dream! But what if “my dream” was actually just a fear of other options, an addiction to compliments, and a few well-written undergraduate papers?
When I first suggested that yoga teacher training was an MLM, someone rightly responded: “it feels like everything today is an MLM.” That’s what happens when an industry is fully enveloped by capitalism: when a hedge fund buys a yoga company — or when universities are figured as money-making businesses, with actual consultants hired to lead them.
You can blame massive constructive initiatives intended to lure students, and the competitive summer-camp-ification of private institutions trying to out-prestige each other in an attempt to win a dwindling number of applicants is certainly part of the problem. But the bigger problem is that higher ed used to be understood as a public good: like roads, and sewers, and elementary schools, we understood it was sustainable only through significant investment of public doors. But right about when Black and brown students began matriculating in larger numbers, that understanding of higher ed began to falter, and public funding was slashed (again, and again, and again). It doesn’t matter how much the head of a graduate department wants to increase graduate pay when the budget has been squeezed so tightly and tuition has already exponentially risen to counter it.
The fault with thinking of academia as a pyramid scheme is that there’s no one at the top — just the increasingly ambivalent structure, the ever-reproducing base. You could say highly salaried administrators profit, or football coaches profit. But it increasingly feels like a system in which no one wins: not the students, not their parents, not the graduate students, not professors facing increased belt-tightening, axing of departments, and continual fights for whatever meager resources remain.
Most of the academics I know have weathered a heinous job market and continually heinous budget cuts. Some have found something like equilibrium. Others struggle against the omnipresent atmosphere of lack and precarity, like treading water but knowing one day the will to keep going will go away. Some — and they are almost entirely those whose experience of the academia remains rooted in a model that hasn’t existed for 40 years — are sick of people’s bitching.
The MLM model is contingent not just on exploitation, but on absorbing and muting testimony of it. And that’s how it felt when I first published this piece, back in 2019. It wasn’t anything as nefarious as censorship; it was more that most of the people who’d made it through the system had a very real case of survivor-bias, those about to enter the system didn’t want to hear it, and those who’d left the system were often too busy processing their own trauma, trying to get out of a financial hole, embarrassed, or siloed. Sounds like an MLM, which is of course to also say: sounds a whole lot like cult.
Like anyone who’s left an emotionally and financially exploitative system, I need the refrain repeated: Just because we convinced ourselves it was okay, doesn’t mean it was — or is. And since the pandemic, I actually think this reality, particularly when it comes to academia, has become un-ignorable. The structure is no longer ambivalent; the base, increasingly resistant. I don’t think the radical disintegration and reimagining that’s necessary to actually build a non-MLM version of academia is happening anytime soon. But I do know the turning point in every MLM’s narrative is right about when people, en masse, start to call it one.
Recommended Reading: The Death of an Adjunct
In the comments, I’d love to hear more about how you think the scheme at the heart of contemporary academia has and has not changed since 2019 — and/or the barely cloaked MLMs you see elsewhere in your life.
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Jessica Dore wrote about the difference between cognitive behavioral therapy and narrative therapy in her newsletter (“Offerings”) this week. She posits that the former puts all of the blame and responsibility for maladaptive behaviors on the individual, while the latter acknowledges the role of other actors, communities, and social structures - and does so through re-telling one’s story to oneself.
This piece gave me the foundation for a new story about my decision to pursue a PhD, do a million self-destructive things to earn it, but ultimately take a different path.
There should be no shame - the different path is a thriving legal practice that allows me to think about the thing that “feels nourishing and explosive and electric all the time” AND comfortably support my family. It’s great, I’m grateful, there but for the grace of grantors go I, etc.
Yet, there is still so much shame. I ultimately didn’t make it work, and that means I wasn’t as “good enough, smart enough, potential-filled enough” as everybody thought. Right?
Or maybe I “left an emotionally and financially exploitative system,” in an act of self-care, strategy, and emotional maturity. Maybe I stopped hanging out in all the wrong places and asking for affirmation from all the wrong people. Maybe I deliberately got out, and just can be grateful for the freedom and opportunity to do so, which isn’t available to everyone.
That’s a hell of a new narrative. Thank you.
I wonder about the class dimensions of academia as a MLM, too. When I was in graduate school I lived on a maximum of $17K a year, which had to cover research trips and conferences etc. I couldn't get another job because I was an international student, and I couldn't get loans for the same reason. But I couldn't wrap my head around the exploitation, because I grew up without money. To get paid (something) to sit and read books of an afternoon blew my mind. I wasn't working a physically demanding job (my dad was a tire fitter), or on a job site for hours and hours (it didn't occur to me that I was actually working hours and hours, because so much of it was from home). I was the equivalent of the Steve Zahn character in "That Thing You Do" who goes, "a man in a REALLY NICE camper wants to sign us to a label!" It felt like abundance. It absolutely was not.