Why Academia is Different

I could not be more delighted that my Slate piece on “I Quit Lit”  in (out of) American academia went viral this week. It’s my first ever viral piece that didn’t involve a highly personal rumination on my own failure, a bare and honest display of my guts for all to devour. So, hooray.

But first and foremost I am happy for Zac Ernst, who is a very nice guy (my husband has met him, and as my husband is pretty much the nicest guy ever, anyone he deems a “nice guy” is officially a nice guy). I am happy that his story is being shared, even if some people don’t like what they see.

I can’t remember who told me that the Cool Thing to do on Twitter is to retweet your h8rz without comment, but that is what I did yesterday (if you click on the little number by the Twitter logo above the Slate article, it will take you to all Tweets about it), and it was a lot of fun. My favorite was this one, by Georgia Tech professor and video game theorist/programmer Ian Bogost:

First of all, yes, I always want a cookie. Anyone who has a cookie that they would like to give me, please bring it here, and I will deal with the WeightWatchers(TM) carnage it causes later. I prefer double-chocolate cookies, but I will also accept ginger snaps, snickerdoodles, and on special occasions a Whoopie Pie, which I realize is technically a cake, but whatever.

IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: Second of all, I want to make it crystal clear that in his Tweet, Ian is talking about Zac, who made a calculated decision to leave one job at which he was successful for another, and not about people like me. HOWEVER, I get crap like this from people who are not Ian Bogost all day long, and so in the following tirade, I am going to treat him like a straw man, because he has double-tenure and a goatee and can take it. Out of respect for his actual position, however, I will change his name from here on out, to Person Who Is Not Ian Bogost But Who Has Said Shit Like That To Me Before, or FULLPROF for short.

Ian Bogost makes a good point–though, not in the way he intends. He is a recent PhD (2004) in Comp Lit–the least favorite discipline of several of my commenters, though I refrain from judgment, as many of My Best Friends are in Comp Lit–who now holds a full fucking professorship in computing and an endowed fucking chairship besides, at Georgia Tech, one of the finest schools in the world. I cannot imagine how someone who may very well be younger than me managed to do what most academics never do in their lifetimes, in a different discipline than the one that graduated him, whilst also (NBD) designing a bunch of video games and (probably) making a boatload of cash. This is someone who finished a doctorate six years before I did, and has a job better than most people who are 40 years older than he and the most distinguished scholars in their field. He seems like a fascinating person, and he has been and continues to be tremendously, tremendously successful.

So if a person in a position like his said tough titties, leaving a job is leaving a job (and they do, to me, every day, but usually anonymously), that is kind of a dick move.

The reason, FULLPROF, that it is indeed a big deal to leave academia (which has treated you, and continues to treat you, astoundingly well), is that for some people, the act of spending ten years of your life in the singleminded pursuit of a passion you value very much and a job you very much want–a job that your betters have made sure you know is the only viable option, lest you want to turn into a leper–has a marked psychological effect.

I’m no spring chicken, but even I, at 36 (the age I was when I decided to leave academia), had spent over a quarter of my life in its grip. Its rules had become the rules of my existence: personal worth is determined by the whims of your advisor and committee, of search committees, of peer reviewers, of your “friends” (who are actually just waiting for the right moment to stab you in the back). Its heroes had become my heroes. Its values–if you want to be taken seriously, sacrifice everything, including and especially family life and having children, in the service of the Life of the Mind; move anywhere for any reason, no matter how alone you have to be there–had become my values.

The totality of the academic institution had become my only reality, but not, FULLPROF, because of a personal failing on my part, but because I was just that dedicated to becoming a professor and a scholar. I took the example of other successful people in business, sports or whatnot: put everything into it. Give it everything you have. Nothing less than your absolute most will do. And for awhile, that worked–I was by many accounts the best student in my department.

But when that didn’t matter–when, actually, my publication record worked against me at several schools where the people interviewing me had never written a book and I had one under contract, when the unconventional nature of my research failed to impress most search committees enough to grant me a first interview–I suddenly realized, far too late, that I’d been doing it wrong. I should have had my hands in multiple vats. But my reason for not doing so wasn’t, and isn’t, a personal failing: it was the mark of complete and focused determination and dedication.

My single-minded and at times insane focus is what allowed my scholarly work, when I was doing it, to be as rigorous and original as it was. No literary scholar has ever used the philosophy of Wittgenstein to the extent, and with the disciplinary correctness and rigor (with respect to analytic philosophy), as I did, and I mean ever. Eh. Ver. No analytic philosopher knows or cares enough about the conventions of literary study to use Kafka with the depth and love that I did. My work was truly interdisciplinary and 100% unique (here’s the sample of which I am proudest, in the journal of record in my discipline), and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without a full and complete surrender of my life over to it.

But, when it turned out that nobody gave a fuck about it enough to let me come work for them, it was like a death.

Yes, walking away from academia was like a death for me, and I suspect it is like this for a lot of people. It was like leaving a family, albeit a dysfunctional one. It was like leaving a religion. It is not just changing a career–which I did about seven times between 1998-2005, by the way, and which was fun and exciting more than anything else.

You can tell me tough titties if you, too, have spent ten years of your life in the unusually rigorous and single-minded pursuit of one goal, and then the discipline you gave yourself over to in its entirety shut the door in your face. For Zac Ernst, it was more like 20 years, and the door-shutting was far more complex and I probably wouldn’t even characterize it as that, but still, he and his wife have been through shit, and they have a right to be damaged about it and express that damage, and the displeasure they have with the institutional realities that caused it.

Haven’t had that happen? Then you don’t get to dismiss my pain, or anyone else’s.

I’ll take that cookie now, even though that Tweet wasn’t about me. Because look, I really love cookies.

17 thoughts on “Why Academia is Different

  1. Very true–and as much as I hate the whole “real world”/academic world divide (because I’m not sure it’s as divided as we think), I believe that academia is different for a lot of reasons:
    1. Much of the time that academics spend in their “jobs” is spent in an apprenticeship that may or may not pay them and in fact that they may pay to do. While there other professions that charge their apprentices to practice, how many of them do so for so long?
    2. People change jobs, yes, but in other fields, you can generally make a lateral move if something doesn’t work out, or at least use the work you’ve done before to launch into something new. At the very least, even if you change to a field that is completely unrelated, you’ve proven that you have “real world” work experience. Leaving academia is partly so difficult for people because it’s difficult for them to frame their experience in terms “real world” employers understand.
    3. Taxpayers don’t foot the bill (or at least part of the bill) for people to move forward in most other professions. Yes, in law, and in medicine, to some extent we do, but in most other professions, people are not paying taxes for the direct support of the profession or the institution. Not to get all “the taxpayers need to know where their money is going” on everyone, but really, there is truth to that. Public schools should have some responsibility to the taxpayer who is contributing to them–and the way the system is now, if most people knew how “their money” was being spent, I think they’d get very upset.

    So while I do to some degree agree with the whole “academia is not special” argument, I think that, like the military, in some ways it IS special, in that it’s difficult to translate the experiences one has had in the field to positions outside it. And of course there are also the psychological aspects of the socialization and indoctrination that go on (in both the military and in academe) that make it even more difficult to leave. In general, I think the longer someone’s in a job, the harder it is to leave, no matter what that job, but I do think that is particularly true of institutions like the church, the military, and the academy.


  2. One absurd oversight in this guy’s remark is that not everyone in every profession leaves voluntarily, and/or is able to find another job. Remember that time around, oh, 2008, when lots of people left their jobs involuntarily and lots of them still are trying to figure out how to make ends meet? I taught at a community college around that time and was horrified at how many of my students were working multiple minimum-wage jobs _and_ going back to school to re-tool after their decades-long promising careers as IT professionals / nurses / mechanics / gallery directors / lawyers name the profession and it was probably represented, and by someone who had put his/her life into getting trained for that career and the pink slip or other moment of fate hit (e.g., move for a family where there were going to “always” be jobs in that profession, except suddenly there weren’t).

    It is perhaps easy to think that there are always jobs for (see any of the above professions and anything else out there). But plenty of recent graduates and mid-term professionals in the legal and medical world found themselves in the last years the object of newspaper and radio discussions with the message that, “There is no such thing as a guaranteed job, so think twice before paying the money for the education / buying that house / living your life normally.” Yes, people leave jobs of all kinds all the time, for all kinds of reasons. But no, they do not always manage to figure out how to make it work in a way that does not involve financial crises, emotional damage, and general suckiness. Why be dismissive of others who did not manage to achieve what you could? Criminey, surely such people who have managed to make it could put their job-seeking advice to better use than being smug.


    • “Why be dismissive of others who did not manage to achieve what you could?”

      Because this is how neoliberal capitalism cum American individualism works: it’s all on you for ‘failing’, you just didn’t try hard enough and/or weren’t smart enough. When this is seen as an acceptable answer by those benefitting from the status quo, then there’s no need to look at structural causes of ‘failure’/inequality–and no reason to acknowledge that the success of the few is parasitic on the immiseration of the many.

      Sad the lack of empathy by the ‘tough titties’ crowd. Sad, too, that they are fundamentally deriving pleasure from others’ suffering.


  3. Gosh, could it be that patterns of disciplinary supply and demand might have something to do with who gets a tenure-track job and who doesn’t? It’s depressing that U.S. departments of German, of Comp Lit, and especially of philosophy (applied ethics aside) have shrunk since the middle of the 20th century. If anyone implicitly or explicitly promised you that this particular historical pattern wouldn’t occur, you have a right to be angry at them–though not necessarily angry at another person vaguely in the same field who found, and occupied, an interdisciplinary niche right at the point where ‘digital’ met ‘humanities.’ I’m not justifying that historical shift, merely noting that it occurred. But why are you taking it so personally?


    • Uh, I don’t resent Ian his success. I don’t resent anyone their success in capitalism, because it is a cruel and dehumanizing system whose supply and demand whims have nothing to do with someone’s inherent work. What I got down on Ian for was pulling rank and telling all us Untermenschen that leaving any job is tough and academe isn’t special, when he’s never had to so he doesn’t know how it feels. I could give a fuck about supply and demand because capitalist whims should not dictate the fate of the university. The university should not operate under the systems of Nozick and Ayn fucking Rand. And please spare me the faux incredulity, like because I was too stupid to get a tenure track job I am also too stupid to understand supply side economics. I wonder sometimes how stupid people must think I am when I get comments that are like, “I am going to let you in on the huge complicated secret of PhD overproduction. Nobody promised you a job.” I don’t want a fucking tenure track job anymore for one, and the machinations of capitalism in no way justify the morally abhorrent treatment of contingent faculty.


      • Capitalism is only cruel and dehumanizing to those whose work is not valued. Supply and demand are not “whims”, they are based on real needs. Some people are good at predicting the needs of society, and are first to the table–it has everything to do with their inherent work.

        Your idea of what a university’s role should be seems like some sort of museum of learning, where the classes offered don’t change according to the needs of society. If capitalist “whims” didn’t dictate the fate of the university, we’d have no computer science departments, or business departments, or engineering departments. How would that work?


  4. In reply to comments here –
    1) How can one not take at least part of the process personally? When we make it, it is considered a personal achievement and not a one-off fluke or chance of fate. The way in which people treat the system puts the responsibility on the individual.
    2) The question of any kind of “whims” is a major one in departments. I remember decades ago being part of a discussion in a department that the “market” deemed less important than computer science. Is computer science important? Of course. But so is the history of childhood. Or the philosophy of ethics. Or languages that only a few people in the world speak. As a colleague stated at the time, “It takes decades to build up a viable department. It can be destroyed overnight with a few complaints that it is not ‘pulling its weight’.” The U.S. is not an entirely capitalist economy, of course, and Ayn Rand was ready to have everyone stop paying taxes… if we are at present all caught up in the hell of _accepting_ that universities are being treated as businesses, then we are all in trouble (and I contrast that with knowing, criticizing, etc.).
    3) Needs of society – of course societies’ needs change. But it is neither good business nor good academia to make decisions based on short-term thinking and/or a few loud voices. I am glad that gender studies is – more or less – an accepted part of most disciplines, where it was not fairly recently – not least since this has been the core of my work for which I have been hired at various places, although in grad school I was warned that “the market” would soon collapse on “that sort of scholarship” by people I respected – luckily I did not listen. But I do not want to throw out, for instance, military history in the place of gender history – I want the two sub-fields to speak to each other, if only over coffee at the campus coffee shop.

    If universities are not places of learning – I will not use the word museum here, since I _think_ I understand you to mean that a museum is a static place, which it is not in the least, but that is another issue – then where do we go to learn?

    What do we want as a society? Societies? Why – for quite awhile at least – did much of the IT sector turn not to computer science majors but humanities majors for hires? A close friend was an art historian before going on to programming – it turns out that the two fields have much more to do with one another than he would have guessed entering a freshman art history class.

    I think I always end up sounding optimistic and naive in my comments on this blog. So be it. I am not the only person in the world who can both see where universities would like to be heading (and some have gone down that rabbit hole and will not be coming back) and who is nonetheless active in calling them back before the dive. And, while we are at it, there are universities and colleges and colleagues and students and even a few administrators who do think that all those plaques posted in the 19th C. on university buildings about the importance of this particular place being a place of looking for truth should be our guiding motto, and not “bottom line,” which doesn’t work very well when (for instance) not that long ago most historians were told to go to law school for a “sure job”, only for the bottom to fall out of that market and, mid-new-career, former historians found themselves unemployed as lawyers.

    Capitalism or not, there is no crystal ball that tells us what we should be doing and how, where, or for how long. And it takes time to train anyone into any profession. That means a guaranteed degree of uncertainty. And that means that some sort of common sense has to be instilled (or be revived) in all sorts of sectors of all sorts of societies – surely a good work ethic value to recognize that what the market needs tomorrow is not what it might need 2 years from now? Or that just because we try to put a price on everything doesn’t mean that we should be doing that, or that that price is valid?


  5. This was a painful piece for me to read–because it’s as if you’d looked into my heart. Not being taken by academia is a heartbreak and a divorce from a dysfunctional family (granted, it’s also liberating).

    I’m also struggling on another front: I want to keep an independent research agenda,but this means that there is an inevitable need to engage with The Academy, Personalities and Secondary Literature.

    I’m fine and happy go lucky when I do my primary research at the archives and my writing at home (the joy of my life) but then when I engage secondary literature and visit campus for resources, the pain hits me anew, especially if I meet up others for coffee: the snobbery, the pity stares, the pain one experiences when passing glossy flyers with scheduled visits from (backstabbing) peers who made it (while one has become a Nobody Wants To Invite Pariah).

    I don’t know how to reconcile the satisfaction of being an independent researcher with the inevitable toxicity and pain that comes from having to inevitably engage academia –it takes me three days to recover from these brutal exposures. I’m still in a purgatory of sorts (adjunct-ing while finishing my first manuscript) but I hope, I must, I strike a healthier modus operandi for the future. Otherwise, I won’t be able to continue as an independent researcher because I will lose my mind and soul over and over.


    • @Paula – It is certainly true that some people pity you and anyone else who did not “make it” or whatever phrase you care to use, and it is best to figure out your best coping mechanism after that encounter and it ready when you head off for more books at the library (chocolate? writing another paragraph for the ms.? a mystery novel?). But there are others who see you whom you make nervous. Some of them are aware on some level that they could just as easily be in your position. Others are, however, worried that their position is not so important that it is the only way to be a scholar, teacher, or have a real life. And, surprisingly, people who offer platitudes about how much freer you are and/or how they wish they had the courage to jump shit and become an independent scholar often do mean that.

      That doesn’t mean you have to feel for how hard it must be for them to be caught in the golden handcuffs of a secure job. 🙂 Still, perhaps it helps a bit to know that they really are envious of you – enough so that some of them will (as we have seen discussed in this blog) leave the profession (not all of them voluntarily) and you are suddenly a pioneer at that point and it doesn’t matter to them how you got there. Perhaps others have different attitudes for the uncomfortable positions, but my suggestion would be – Put on your dazzling-ist smile, try and only hear white noise from anyone who is being snarky, get the books you need from the library (anyone there who expresses surprise is thinking that s/he would not have the energy / courage to keep doing what you love doing – which is all about their insecurities and understanding of their shortcomings, not yours), and if you want to be on a poster then invite yourself to give a lecture somewhere or make one of your friends invite you even if you have to pull out all the guilt trips (and make them add the byline “Paula X., who is finishing her ms. on happy clams” and not “Independent Scholar Paula X”)… talk over coffee about how much fun you have doing this particular phase of your research and writing (a startling number of people hate both of those things, one more thing to put in your column of reasons not to go crazy).

      If this sounds like some peppy how to be super happy without the pain, I don’t mean it to be. Grieving takes time, it comes back in odd ways at odd times, it hurts, it makes you angry, bitter, doubt yourself … the list is long, and people can be cruel in their attempt to make you feel even worse. Save your scorn for them, not yourself, so that you can keep your mind and soul intact-ish.


      • Wow, thank you, just thank you! I needed this perspective and pep talk after a very unfortunate day on campus last week (I was seriously, seriously dissed by people who have otherwise treated me with respect –which made the whole thing even more painful and denigrating).

        I keep hopeful that we are all making an increasingly visible, vocal and yes, disruptive, example of what it means to be a scholar. But, as Rebecca has implied through her critique of academic capitalism, there unfortunately needs to be more $ involved. It would be lovely to tap into some millionaires committed to funding grants for this type of emerging scholarly trend/vision….wishful thinking I suppose.

        I definitely do need to be more proactive in getting invitations (for some reason, it had not really occurred to me to write to people asking for this). Thanks for the byline tips–that’s really important. We’ll see how it goes.

        Thank you for your perspective, for taking the time to reply and for being a model for this alternative life (liked your blog/page!!!).


  6. “Not being taken by academia is a heartbreak and a divorce from a dysfunctional family” meant to put that in quotes, sorry.


  7. How have I only just discovered this blog? I am officially bookmarking it for use (likely compulsive, please don’t be afraid) as the anti-Wiki. P.S. Your fellow firebrand Sarah Kendzior, I’ve just realized, is my beloved high school English teacher’s daughter. Somehow, it seemed important to note this.


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