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:
Hey academics, sometimes people change jobs/careers. It can be a tough decision. You want a cookie too? http://t.co/QnNcF5ydec
— Ian Bogost (@ibogost) October 25, 2013
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.