Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On The Persistence Of Quit Lit

Yesterday a friend from my crummy old "visiting professor" days posted a link to a new piece of academic quit lit on his Facebook page.  Unlike many others, this was not on a blog or the Chronicle, but published in Vox.  It's a piece I've described as neoliberal hot garbage mixed with an insane level of self-regard, basically the author saying "I am too cool and great for academia."  I won't get too much into why I didn't like it, since the reasons seem pretty obvious if you read it.

What sort of surprised me was that on Twitter today a lot of folks were expressing their dislike of and fatigue with the whole genre of quit lit in response to this one piece.  As you would expect, this sentiment almost always comes from people who have good academic jobs, and almost never from anyone who actually quit academia.  A lot of people have written a lot of poignant stuff about the experience of leaving the profession.  While it might be easy to dismiss and say "hey man, it's just a job, and there isn't a deluge of quit lit by lawyers and stock brokers," I think that sentiment is mistaken, even if there is a grain of truth in it.

Being a prof is in fact just another job.  I tell this to friends who are thinking of quitting the life, and I think one of the great things about quit lit is that it helps others realize that quitting can be done successfully, and that the water's fine.  Because while being a prof is just another job, academia is not just another profession.  My father had studied to be a priest and quit after several years in the seminary, and quitting academia, while not on the same level, feels closer to quitting the priesthood, rather than quitting being an accountant.  It's supposed to be a calling, and not a career, basically.  Like the clergy it demands poverty, lack of choice over where one lives, years and years of study, and often sacrificing a stable family life, or a family life at all.  (This was my primary reason for getting out.) Quit lit helps demystify the transition out of academia, at the very least.

On top of that, the reason for so much of the quit lit is that working in academia is getting massively, demonstrably worse, meaning that a lot more people are quitting.  From adjunctification to constant cutbacks for tenure track faculty, the pay is lower or stagnant, the course workload and research expectations higher (even at teaching schools with 4/4 loads), security undermined or non-existent, academic freedom restricted, control from above by administrators increased, and so on and so forth.  Bad quit lit, like the aforementioned Vox article, can be irritatingly narcissistic, but the good stuff is moving and helpful. It also feels good to vent spleen at a system that's let you down and exploited your labor.  (Trust me, I know.)  It feels especially good when you're told that the system is a meritocracy and you only have yourself to blame for your failure.  Living in that world gets pretty lonely sometime.

I mused on Twitter today that quit lit might go away when when being a prof becomes just another job.  We aren't there yet, and for that reason quit lit performs an important function, especially for those of us moving on with our lives.  If you are in academia and aren't quitting because you like what you've got (and hey, I was like you once), but seem inordinately upset by the existence of the quit lit genre, you might want to do a little self-examination, or at least develop a little more empathy.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment of that piece that has been circulating the last few days; it is very narcissistic and annoying. Regarding "quit lit": I find it hard to read because I almost quit. After several frustrating years on the job market, the idea was starting to feel really good. Then I got "lucky" and landed a tenure track job that prompted me to move far away from friends and family. Now I'm lonely and unhappy, and seeing other people able to walk away depresses me even further.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Sorry to reply so late, my current job had me on a camping trip with fifty 16 year olds. There are ups and downs, strikes and gutters. Had my personal life been different, I probably would have stuck it out in my old position. If you want to walk away, you always can, don't forget that.