Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Leaving Academia was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever do Again)

This is a repost from my old blog, but on a topic I've been thinking about with my first week at my new job looming ahead. In the months that have passed since I first wrote it, I can't say I have any regrets.


The title of this post is a play on one of my favorite Kris Kristofferson tunes, but in this case I think wistfully about the ease of leaving, rather than loving. As long-time readers well know, I have spent the last three years trapped in a dysfunctional department ensconced in a ridiculously backwards university. I was never too sad about the thought of leaving this place behind (although I am sad to be saying good-bye to many great and wonderful people), but resistant to giving up on the acadmic dream. I spent over a decade working my fingers to the bone, sacrificing the flower of my youth and spending several years in poverty that could have been used to amass a down payment on a house. Until very recently I was completely unwilling to walk away under the misbegotten notion that it would mean that all those years had meant nothing.

Over the last two months or so, that resistance and reluctance has turned into a hardened resolve to get out at all costs. Strangely enough, now that my impulse has become reality, I don't really feel like I am losing anything. I have three articles published in top journals and a book contract, I have constructed and taught thirteen(!) different courses over the last five years and have received rave reviews on my teaching from students and peers alike. These qualifications could not even get me an AHA or phone interview with a university during this job cycle. And yet at my home institution these accomplishments have been met not with praise, but with fear and loathing. Why bother sacrificing my life and, quite frankly, my will to live itself to a profession that refuses to give any reward?

I actually was able to truly vocalize my ennui during my job interview, when I was asked why I was leaving higher ed for the less rarified air of secondary education. It suddenly came to me: my work had begun to resemble the factory jobs I did during my summers in college. My students had become raw material to be processed, my job to teach them the "right" material and simplify it into little interchangable parts with an identical stamp on them. Teaching forty-eight students in one class and 165 in a semester is not education, it's intellectual Taylorism.

That thought had already been clear in my mind the previous week when I student came in to be advised. I looked at his transcript, and found that he had close to 100 hours, and had taken several upper-level history courses, earning a "D" in all of them, which was why his GPA was a meager 1.7. It appalled me that the university was still taking this guy's money; he didn't seem to have any real desire to be in school or even to raise his grades. By being expected to fill out his forms and get him signed up for classes the next semester, I felt complicit in something truly wrong. My only job, either as a teacher or as an advisor, seems to be to cycle students through the system, without any apparent concern over whether they are learning anything or growing as human beings. Given the chance to work in a place that cares about these things, even if it means a permanent departure from the ivory tower, is necessary if I want to stop doing violence to my soul.

Last of all, I look to the future of academia, and all I see is a howling wilderness. After thirty years of "efficiency," casualized labor, privatization, and the student as consumer, the rot has set in so deep that the supports are crumbling and the whole thing is about to be reduced to rubble. Don't believe me? A majority of university presidents, those overpaid toffy-nosed technocrats who run everything, now want to do away with tenure. As I have said before, higher ed is undergoing the desacrelization that occurs whenever the destructive beast of unfettered capitalism gets its bloody paws on a public institution. Almost fifty years after Mario Savio's speech, a kind of instrumentalized, unfeeling machinelike university has arisen that makes what he opposed then look positively benevolent. Yet today the voices raised in opposition are feeble and weak. The elderly are serving out their time, the young on the tenure track maintain their lifeboats, and too many contingent laborers lack a sense of class consciounsess.

I love and respect so many of y'all out there in academia, and I wish you all the best of luck and success. As for me, Moloch has fed on my hopes, dreams, and health (both mental and physical) for far too long. I love research, and I will continue to do it, but in an average semester my teaching has a greater human impact than fifty journal articles put together. With the little, precious time I have left to breathe on this earth, I'd at least like to do something meaningful, inside or outside the ivory tower.


Brian I said...

The last part of this post was particularly fitting, as today was the new faculty orientation for my new (temporary) job at a big state university. The provost talked about how the university wanted to work hard to retain all of the wonderful faculty it had just hired. But then in a conversation with myself and another new visiting professor, the vice provost admitted that about half of the 120 new hires were in temporary, non-tenure-track appointments. Talk about a mixed message...

Anonymous said...

Sorry to push too hard. But what do you really feel? When you answer that question you are on to something special and unique brother.

just being a trouble maker. always with love.

chauncey d

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

@Brian: that's because they don't think of contingent people as faculty; you guys are the help.

@Chauncey: No offense taken, but I'm also not quite sure what you're driving at. I did start writing a tell-all book about the hidden underbelly of cheap academic labor, but have set it aside because its bitterness was consuming me.

Anonymous said...

WHB, I think your book idea is important and has a major audience...although I know it can wreak havoc on your psyche. After some distance I hope you return to it. Perhaps not as a tell-all expose'(which sounds vengeful and probably involves too much emotion and energy to sustain) but perhaps as a cautionary tale to warn promising students with few resources and other opportunities to explore other futures.....