Tired of academic quit lit? Another view on academic labor.

dontquitApparently responding to the recent spate of academic “quit lit,” Matthew Pratt Guterl writes:

Let me tell you why not to quit.

You’ve been told that the university is a back-breaking neoliberal machine. That it encourages a certain solipsism and inhibits any sort of solidarity. That it will wall you off from colleagues and comrades. That it wants you to be happy but also to focus only on your own happiness. And that, by doing so, by finding happiness in the profit you glean from your own labor, you are complicit in someone else’s tragic undoing. In their erasure from life on the tenure stream. And in their own chance at happiness. That the ideological work of the institution dissolves your identity as a worker, and that it makes it impossible for you to connect with someone else with a different pay grade or institutional status, even if you both work in the classroom.

The architects of this story are scarred survivors of a dystopian landscape. Brilliant and talented, they’ve walked away from the tenure stream, spent a few years questing for a bright future, or never quite got close. The university they describe is bleak. It features: people tearing down other people; days and weeks spent alone in the office; a job market that resembles Lord of the Flies; faculty who are either preening peacocks or back-stabbing social climbers; students who will suck the life out of you, or who too closely scrutinize your tone and your words; administrators interested only measuring things, in taking away money, or in expanding their own ranks. They describe a life set to the lonely rhythm of the keypad and warmed by narcissism.

He appreciates the totalizing effects of this academic dystopianism:  “Full of strong colors and clear divisions, it is a magnificent, totalizing, overdetermined work of art.  Dystopian landscapes serve a purpose. They do great political work. Their broad brush strokes are meant to persuade, but also to focus the eye on a single, instrumentally conceived big picture. I might disagree with them on the details, but I also see their truth out there.”

But then he makes his point, which is an important one:  “other realities are out there. Other landscapes for you to inhabit. Or to create.” 

Stick around. Fix the place. For others.

You have to build this idyll. Like installing hardscape in a garden, along with the flowers and plants that accompany it. That stuff is heavy. Or delicate. None of it appears naturally. It isn’t regular feature of higher education, but it can be a big part of it, if you want. You just have to set each block, one at a time, and move mountains of earth, here and there. And then you have to cultivate it. It requires your attention. Every. single. day.

But Guterl teaches at BROWN UNIVERSITY, a bastion of privilege, you might say.  He teaches students who are college-ready, and only a few classes a year, and has a research budget and talented graduate students who do most of his grading for him!  Well, so what?  Do you think that Brown University appeared as a mirage in a desert staffed by magical unicorns and fairies who make everything beautiful for the lucky few without a lot of work on the part of faculty, administrators, and students?  Of course not.

Guterl hits on something that has bothered me about academic dystopian quit lit, which is the presumption that it’s someone else’s job to fix our work environments as though they exist outside of us, the workers.  There are times when you just have to walk away in self-preservation–I’ve done it!  But there are also times when it might be appropriate to “be the change” and improve your work environment yourself.  As Guterl points out, there are some faculty who are working to create positive and productive workplaces for colleagues, staff, and students alike.

After Winston Churchill’s famous comment about democracy, “academia is the worst possible work environment, except for all of the others.”  Academics would know this if they talked to a few police officers, physicians, pipe fitters, retail workers, and waiters.  Yes, for-profit universities were founded to rip people off and suck government money out of the system.  Yes, too many public universities appear to be organized primarily to provide free farm clubs for the NFL and the NBA (mine included).  Yes, elite private universities are too generous with legacy admissions and too addicted to monster alumni donations to do much but perpetuate the inequalities of the status quo.

No one feels particularly in control of the conditions of their labor, but some of us faculty in academia still have some kind of say over our work conditions.  And some of us work with first-generation college students who come to us in order to educate themselves as well as to improve their chance of economic success in life.

Here’s what I tell myself when I get frustrated:  I work in what used to be called a “helping profession.”  That is, my job isn’t ripping people off or selling them garbage they don’t need.  My job is offering education and critical thinking skills to students who volunteer, and mentoring and advancement to junior colleagues both at my university and around the world.  That’s it.  And I’m striving to use my tenure to try to make other people’s work and study conditions better.

I feel pretty good about that, but I sure appreciate Guterl’s reminder that it takes work, work, and more work.

19 thoughts on “Tired of academic quit lit? Another view on academic labor.

  1. I find myself in almost total agreement with your sentiments here, particularly the point about academia versus all the other professions. I’ve often explained away the various travails of graduate school, and the uncertain and volatile job market I’m about to enter, by reminding my conversationalist that, despite everything, I love what I do and believe in its value. I agree that academia isn’t perfect (not even close), but it’s not beyond hope either. As hard as academics work, I reckon what we do gives a lot back to us in a way many other professions (especially those that involve teaching younger students) simply don’t.


    • Thanks, Craig. Good luck in your job hunt. As they say in the old song: it’s nice work if you can get it.

      I also think there are other things one can do with a graduate education, but only those of us with Ph.D.s can work in academia, so some of us at least need to stick with it. Working for a corporation can be easier or harder, but it’s rarely as self-directed as our work must be, if we’re doing it right.


  2. It’s a useful reminder, even for those of us who don’t have tenure, but do have a certain degree of job security, and good reason to think we could find useful and reasonably remunerative work outside the academy if we chose (so yes, there’s probably a reason we stay, and an argument that, if we’re going to make the choice, even by inertia, to stay, we need to look around and see what we can do to make things better).


  3. I’m glad #2 is blissfully happy on her honeymoon in Italy right now and is almost certainly going to miss this piece when she returns happily to her non-tenure-track job helping people that pays almost 2x as much as her terrible tenured academic job. Sure, she mentored her junior colleagues and taught some worthy students, but when the state legislature is actively draining resources from the system, getting out and moving to a blue state makes a heck of a lot more sense than trying to fight.

    Self-preservation before self-sacrifice. It can be a lot more rewarding to make more money and put one’s charitable work and dollars towards helping people (and kitties) in other settings. Academia isn’t the only way, and nobody should feel trapped in academia by the notion of self-sacrifice. (I have stayed in academia, but I’m not being treated badly!)


    • Not being treated badly: a sadly low bar. We can do better! But there are plenty who do worse, I guess.

      You make “getting out and moving to a blue state” for twice the money at less than half the grief sound pretty great! However, the market for historians (vs. economists, or chemists, etc.) is sadly more limited, and for literature or philosophy Ph.D.s even worse. Harumph!


      • #2 is not an economist or chemist etc. She’s in a social science with a much lower demand for PhD-level skills. In fact, her current position advertised for a MA-level degree (“in [X social science] or a related social science field”). It is truly alt-ac.

        (Unlike my DH’s private industry position which requires his specific engineering PhD, though his job also pays more than 2x what he was making as an assistant professor. But I did not mention him.)

        What she likes most about it is that her boss treats her with respect. Though money and benefits are also nice.


  4. Many blue state academic institutions have some of the same problems, a lot of the same problems, actually, as red state ones do, although also a lot of differences–see the recent post on faculty unions, for example. Students at non-elite (non Brown state?) institutions here face the same cultural presumptions of subordination, of complying with structural rules and demands both intra- and extra-mural, that can make teaching them hover between being an interesting and a frustrating challenge. Nothing that I see on the outside, however–except perhaps a high-impact, robust, academic retirement–that would make me want to trade. I’d like to drive the Mars rover once and a while, but that’s probably out of reach.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I do think it is important to note that not everyone who walks away from academia does so because they are disgruntled, or angry, or feeling under valued. Or had a bad experience with colleagues or students. Or weren’t able to get a tenure track job. Or get tenure.

    Some of us walk away because we realize there is something else we would rather be doing. Quitting doesn’t always equate to giving up on something because it isn’t working in general. Sometimes it just isn’t working for us personally. Which is not an indictment of academia. But I’m certainly not compelled to stay to create a better environment for others.

    Maybe the administration can work on that…


    • I think most of the quit-lit essays that Guterl was responding to were written by people who left BECAUSE of their disillusionment, and maybe also because of their inability to find TT work. Some of the most dramatic essays were by people quitting TT jobs.

      As we’ve discussed here before, the cost of a full-time TT job is sometimes just too high, esp. considering two-body problems and family responsibilities.


    • I left because I tried high school teaching for a year and loved it. Granted I’m in the equivalent of an Ivy in the high school world (or at least an R1 – 4 courses, 3 preps, <80 students and 9 advisees plus some other jobs) but it's a great fit for me. It's one of the reasons I still counsel former students to work first before grad school. And I couldn't do what I do as well as I do without the PhD. It's a shame I haven't figured out how to make this scalable for more PhDs who like teaching.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for this–I’m pretty demoralized by my job (an adjunct appointment) and the whole system right now, and am usually one to sneer at this kind of post, but somehow this one was actually inspiring to read!


    • Thanks for keeping an open mind. If you’re looking for full-time/TT employment, I wish you good luck, but there are other worthwhile uses of your time and education beyond the academy too.


  7. Be the change you want to see in the world? Or maybe I should dust off that old Girl Scout dictum: “leave the place better than when you came to it”?

    Honestly, I get what you’re saying and I try to do this. I agree with you that it’s hard because the universe is entropic. Things are always falling apart and it’s much easier for them to fall apart than stick together, so they fall apart there while we’re fixing them here and so on. And sometimes you’d like a chance to step off the hamster wheel for a little while, but then another crisis becomes evident and, well, here you go again. I think that life is like that in most every workplace that I’ve seen but academia tends to have a lot of ways in which entropy manifests, from feckless colleagues to interfering politicians and disconnected administrators.


  8. Thank you for this post. There’s a part of my admin job where I could either do what’s quickest and get back to my own work or think about the person whose life and time I may affect in some small way for the better. The latter takes more time, but it’s far more satisfying. “Be the change you’d like to see,” indeed.


  9. I love teaching. I know my discipline so well, I truly impress people. But I just can’t seem to teach, do all my marking, and also do research. I have two children. For me, it just really hurts seeing life pass me by – but I’m not blaming anyone else.


    • Life can’t pass you by. This is YOUR LIFE!!! You must embrace it and make decisions that will permit you to do the things you think are most important. If you make your living as a professor & have to teach to eat, that may be either research or family. Most people won’t turn away from rapidly growing children, but you might be able to keep a research agenda alive in a limited way by creatively incorporating it into your teaching and your family life.

      I’ve done both–with putting books I need to read on syllabi, and taking several “family vacations” over the last decade to Quebec City and New England, where I can peel away and do some research. Sometimes, it’s the only way to get ‘er done.


  10. Pingback: Preemptive quit lit, or, does history have a future? | Historiann

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