Please Stop Saying “Not Everyone is Suited for Academia”

Some real talk today, talkin’ ‘bout my feelings ‘n shit.

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[Rockin’ the Catskills today. You jelly?]

I am coming to terms with the fact that I am never going to be a “real” professor—although try telling that to the students whose lives I will enter in a few weeks’ time: their homework and grades will seem “pretty real” to them. But no, I’ll be a mere adjunct at a tiny Honors College inside a regional university in the Middle West (Gatsby style!), an “academic nobody,” as Lee Skallerup Besette has characterized the uncharitable views of some of her blog’s worst trolls.

Most days I am happier than I have been in many years about this. My long-term partner, whom I met my first year of graduate school (and whom I attracted precisely because I “didn’t seem like a grad student”) has remarked that since my postdoc ended and I moved back to St. Louis, that I’ve aged in reverse.

It’s true—there are some “Ohio wrinkles” I don’t see anymore, accompanied by a life in my eyes and a general dearth of the abject terror that lurked below each day in Columbus, like so many pollution-filled mussels on the bed of the Olentangy River. I dye my hair again, a glorious bottle-red, unleashed in all its pigment after years of Professorial Gravitas Brown—or, even worse, my natural color, which is now aggressively peppered with grey.

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[Who’s that sweet redhead who appears to be in her MID-thirties instead of her LATE thirties?!?]

If I was a disciplined and productive academic writer, cranking out journal articles and then finally my monograph—finished and submitted to the press this past May—then now I am a motherfucking locomotive. I have so much to write that I simply can’t get it all down. It’s like eight years of pent-up creativity that had been stuffed back by my own dismissals of anything other than Serious Scholarship as wasted energy have come geysering out, for better or worse.

A few weeks after “Thesis Hatement” came out and all I saw on the Internet was hate, hate, hate, hate and more hate, I lay curled on the couch in St. Louis crying, wishing aloud that I would just die in an accident already, something that wouldn’t be my fault, quick and painless, gone. I had lain extremely bare my own failure after seven years of sacrificing my health and my happiness, I had perilous few new prospects, and I had an Internet peanut gallery making sure I knew I had no future in anything. I wanted to die. One night, I made a list of my positive attributes: I started with “Usually Remember to Drink Enough Water” and was stumped thereafter. Although in my defense, hydration is IMPORTANT. (I know now, of course, that it was far from all hate, but like so many of you, I get eighteen adulatory evaluations and one critical one, and I commit the latter’s complaints to memory forever.)

Three months later, I feel like a different person, though I am drawn sometimes into spats about the vicissitudes of the job market and academe’s cult-mentality in general. Still, now I’m emboldened by my new identity as a curse-spewing postacademic hellraiser, straight-up high on the inimitable sobriety of being able to speak aloud the truths that so many people are still afraid to whisper. I’m emboldened by the simple fact that I live another life now,  one for which I am infinitely better suited.

So it’s true—I was not “suited” to academia. But I don’t want to hear that from anyone but me, and here’s why. First of all, I still adjunct, and because it is not my primary source of income and it’s two sections of the same course I’ve taught before, it truly is part-time and I like it. So when nonacademic friends  said, in attempt to make me feel better during the “die in an accident” stage, that academia cramped my style—well, I’m still a professor, so watch it. I think like a literature professor about everything; I bring my ability to scrutinize texts and take apart issues to everything I do. I may not act like Avital Ronell (shudder), but, to paraphrase the great scholar Young MC:

I had to go to college because I’m an intellectual
I only sleep with men because I am heterosexual

I’ve called myself the “intellectual’s anti-intellectual” as a joke, largely in reference to my equal proclivity to enjoy Bertolt Brecht and The Bachelorette, but I am a goddamned intellectual, so don’t tell me that such things don’t “suit” me, because they “suit me” just fine—my way.

I sew most of my own clothes to fit my body just-so. Because if this, I don’t know what size I am. I’m 36-28-40: me-sized. I’m exactly the right size to fill out the clothes I make to suit me:

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[Bridesmaid dress for my partner’s sister’s wedding, the Sultry Sheath from Gertie‘s New Book for Better Sewing. This wedding was on the day “Thesis Hatement” came out. Can you see the shellshock? And no, I didn’t walk the aisle in the Mickey Mouse flip-flops.]

I have done this with academia as well: I have taken the parts that “suit me”—teaching, reading critically, thinking philosophically, participating in critiques about the present and future of higher ed—and tailored them to fit my personality. And I have done away, for now at least, with the parts that don’t “suit me”:

Research, for example, doesn’t suit me right now. But not because I wasn’t good at it. I mean, I guess, like the hundreds of commenters on my op-eds who either didn’t read my CV or don’t know how to read a CV, you could say I wasn’t good at it, but that would be news to the editors at Modern Austrian Literature, The German Quarterly, and Northwestern University Press; to the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften and the Austrian Fulbright Commission; to the DAAD and the American Council for Learned Societies; and to every department where I’ve ever been interviewed—and even some where I didn’t make the cut, but scrawled in handwriting below the form rejection was a missive insisting my writing sample was “nothing short of amazing” (I love positive academic hyperbole on the rare occasions I get it!).

I’m taking a hiatus from academic writing for one reason only: I am sick of spending years of my life squeezing out meticulously researched and difficult academic prose—which I then have to manipulate, sometimes four times over, to placate the needs of meanie-pants anonymous peer reviewers—that maybe, maybe, seventeen people on Earth will ever read, for the grand sum of $0. I’m not saying I don’t Believe In My Ideas, your Royal Highness FULLPROF Mayhew, I’m saying I want to write things that appeal to a wider audience.

You know what else doesn’t suit me? Going on the job market. Spending months crafting individual 70-page dossiers for each school because every search committee demands something different: a three-page teaching philosophy! A one-page teaching philosophy that pertains specifically to the courses taught by that department (but not THOSE courses you like, those are the purview of Mean Senior Prof Everyone Hates, and even displaying the slightest interest in them is enough to make the committee go nuclear on you)! A five-page research statement! A twenty-page writing sample (even though all of your articles are twenty-five)! A six-page abstract of the dissertation you finished four years ago! Your three most recent evaluations and your three least recent! Your ten most negative evaluations! And then pretending not to check that goddamned baby-killing Wiki, but then checking it anyway and watching as the interviews start piling in for everyone, it seems, but you. x4! x12! xEveryoneButSchuman! And do not get me started on conference interviews, because I have such exquisite bile for them that I think someone will pay me to share it. And the waiting. And the searing, wrenching rejection that “isn’t personal, so move on.” After four years, you know what? Don’t mind if I do.

And you know what else doesn’t suit me? Politicking, preening, ass-kissing; servility, sycophantism, cowardice. I’m not saying that every department ever is filled with, or requires, these things, nor that other industries don’t run on them. I’m saying that there is enough of this bullshit in academia that I’ve had my fill, and I would rather hang out with people who don’t treat a coffee date like a comprehensive exam.

And you know what else? Getting sneered at every time I let slip that I have any hobbies besides alcoholism. “How do you have the time to sew or watch TV?” I get, over and over, from people who spend three nights a week belligerently drunk. I have time, in part, because I write very fast, and in part because I don’t drink. I spend all day, every day, 100% sober, so I lose no time to either drunkenness or hangovers. But the thing is, for a lot of academics (not ALL OF THEM, Vim, so lay off), drinking somehow counts as scholarship, as long as you’re yelling about Kant and Kleist when you do it.

I am fully, painfully aware of the ways in which academia doesn’t suit me—but that doesn’t mean that I like it when FULLPROFS and others say this, because it smacks of that heartbreaking dismissal so many disillusioned PhDs get when they fail to become adequate replicants of their mentors: “Well, not everyone is suited for academia.”

What they mean is this, and this only: you weren’t good enough. You weren’t cut out for it because you aren’t smart enough. You failed. Academia’s only for winners like me, and you’re a loser. Academia is only for the best—like me. This is an unbelievably cruel thing to say to someone who already feels like a failure. It is inexcusably, searingly cruel, and I really wish that people would stop.

If I had been willing to squelch my natural “pluck” and remain servile, to lose my wonderful relationship while I moved, alone, from one Midwestern town where I didn’t know a single goddamned person to the next, to withstand (or even enjoy) departmental politics and conferencing, then academia would have “suited” me fine. I am coming to terms with the fact that those sacrifices weren’t worth it—but that is my journey to take, and my conclusion to reach.

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113 comments

  1. Thank you for your honesty and for sharing. As a contemplate exiting my tenure-track job for a different career path, which I hope will be more fulfilling, I find life excerpts such as yours to be refreshing and affirming.

  2. I just stumbled upon here from a friend’s fb post. THANK YOU!! I’m trying to complete a diss that is difficult enough already, without the doomsaying from various “advisors,” “mentors,” and colleagues about the job market. The pressure to craft everything to meet the criteria of some vague academic Ministry of Truth takes the joy out of writing. Not that I envision all dissertation writing as gloriously joy-filled, but I seem to remember a time when writing was what I LOVED to do. This post has articulated for me the anger and uneasiness I feel about tailoring so many aspects of my intellectual life to the nebulous, but always cutthroat, demands of “the academy.” I feel much better now. Thank you.

  3. It’s nice to read some pushback against the equation of “leaving academia” with “failing at life.” I’ve been “out” for about eight months now, feeling like I’ve been starting life over again. Linked to this post in a post-script to one about my (probably) last academic conference. I was fortunate enough to avoid even implicit shaming there, but have encountered it in many other places.

    1. I look forward to reading it! I’ve been out for the same amount of time as you, and alternate between feeling like I’m starting life over and wondering how in the world I ever let myself be sucked into that life to begin with, and then feeling very, very angry when people try to tell people like us we’re failing at life.

  4. I just wanted to tell you I enjoy your writing a lot and I’m sorry to you went through such a low time when the Thesis Hatement article came out. I read it and got a lot from it. (My husband was finishing his PhD at the time, and I my Master’s, and it resonated with both of us.) Keep your insights coming!

  5. rebecca, i’ve never heard of you, but just read your article on aldi, googled you, read this and….you are a breath of fresh air. i can’t say i’ve read any two things by one person and been so entertained. keep up the strong work.

    richard
    atty in memphis

  6. I appreciated reading this a lot. This summer at my defense one of my examiners told a somewhat long story about a baseball pitcher who could throw an incredibly fast fastball but struggled to find the strike-zone. As a result, he didn’t make it as a professional baseball player and ended up becoming a mailman. What I was supposed to take away from it was that I was often brilliant but also erratic, and if I wanted to make it in the big leagues, I had to “find the strike-zone.” Given that I had just had an interview with Barnes and Noble (for a part time job I didn’t get), what I actually took away from it was, “I’m a huge asshole who wants to emphasize to you the precariousness of your impending joblessness.”

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