"I Quit" Lit
October 30, 2013 4:32 PM   Subscribe

"I Quit Academia" -- An Important, Growing Subgenre of American Essays
posted by paleyellowwithorange (34 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Massive category error here, Ernst's essay and departure is completely unrelated to PhDs who cannot find tenure-track positions.

People leaving academia after someone throws money at them is not unusual.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:40 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I believe the article is about both groups of people.

From the article:

But there’s an important way that Ernst’s essay distinguishes itself: Most I Quitters are like me, which is to say failed academics, or like Lord, whose disillusion hit her midway down the tenure track. Ernst is part of the sub-subgenre of quitters who did the unthinkable, giving up tenure. He joins, for example, scientist Terran Lane, who left the University of New Mexico for Google, and writer Anne Trubek, who ditched idyllic Oberlin when freelance writing was able to pay her bills.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 4:44 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thing is, it's not that unthinkable to abandon a tenured position for a high-status/high-pay position that actually demonstrates some possibility of furthering one's career.

In my office, there are three recent hires, including me, that left tenured positions. Granted our institution has bigger name recognition and bragging rights than your average university, but it's not uncommon to want to focus solely on research and not deal with the drama of academics. Plus, the pay don't hurt.
posted by teleri025 at 5:21 PM on October 30, 2013


Institutional academia is not unlike a cult, in that, by the time you realize that you are the victim of exploitation and are complicit in the exploitation of others, you are in so deep that life outside seems scary at best, impossible at worst (plus, the discourse of the humanities scholar being the recipient of a kind of "holy calling" is alive and well and is sometimes used as a weird pacifier, like we shouldn't mind the increasingly awful situation because we are special snowflakes no matter what).

But it's an unavoidable conclusion: the precarious nature of 'new' academic labour is an absolutely rotten deal for everyone (professors, instructors, students, society more generally), and the corporatization of Universities is simply and fundamentally at odds with the projects and interventions that the humanities are interested in pursuing. That the "I Quit!" essay can even be proposed as a new sub-genre shows just how awful things are. The "sunk cost" fallacy is basically a gigantic soul-eating monster when you're six years deep into a hopeless PhD or you're cobbling together an impoverished living from multiple sessional jobs while trying to publish something, anything. Quitting is a Big Fucking Deal, a courageous and terrifying choice for the majority who don't have a sweet corporate gig lined up.

To that end, and somewhat bizarrely, PhD candidates at my institution are now being given tips on how to 'spin' their PhDs into such corporate jobs. The narrative being that a PhD is like an MBA but better somehow.
posted by erlking at 5:22 PM on October 30, 2013 [26 favorites]


I think this is an interesting post, and I'm glad to have been pointed to the articles...but...the only thing I find all that weird there is that anybody would think most of this stuff was worth writing about.

It was made extremely clear to me when I applied to grad school that it was really, really hard to get a job teaching philosophy. I know lots of smart people who quit, or couldn't hack it, or couldn't get jobs God-knows-why. Of course we all believed-or-hoped that we'd somehow be exceptions...but we were warned, early, often, and in no uncertain terms.

And people switch careers with some frequency, don't they? Or they hope to do one kind of thing for a living, but end up doing something else? How many failed actors are there? How many art-school dropouts? How many failed athletes?

I'm not callous about this--I'm just not convinced that it's some big phenomenon specific to academia. I mean--it may very well be a thing to write about it. And apparently it is. But that's different.

And the dude from Mizzou...well...my guess is that we're not getting an objective account from that guy. Though the stuff about credit for papers being discounted on the basis of the number of authors is probably right. Hell, we do that. What's to whine about? You get credit for half a publication, and you probably did about half the work...

The corporatization of the university is a real problem...and a gut-wrenching percentage of faculty are, indeed, pretty mediocre...but those seem like incidental points here.


My $0.02...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 5:34 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


What further distinguishes Ernst’s giant middle finger to the profession, Mizzou, and the chair of his department (what approximates in academe for a direct “boss”),

It is a very weak approximation. Academic work is one of the only contexts where you can draw a secure professional wage and not have a boss. Autonomy and security are hard things to get at the same time.

I mean, I get that I'm speaking from a very lucky and privileged position; I'm a tenured academic in a big public research university. But the article is in large part about a guy who quit a job like mine, so I just wanted to emphasize that these jobs are, for many of us -- and I would guess most of us -- pretty great.
posted by escabeche at 5:35 PM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


To that end, and somewhat bizarrely, PhD candidates at my institution are now being given tips on how to 'spin' their PhDs into such corporate jobs.

Why is that bizarre? We are not training Ph.D's so that we can create little copies of ourselves. Some students want to go into research academia, some want primarily teaching jobs, some want to go into government, some want to go into the private sector. Of course I'm going to try to help my student get the best job they can that's the kind of job they want. Wouldn't it be bizarre not to do that?
posted by escabeche at 5:39 PM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


You also get to pick which 10 to 14 hours of the day you work. Don't forget that perk!
posted by srboisvert at 5:40 PM on October 30, 2013 [12 favorites]


Oh my gawd. One of their examples in this story not only told my ($$$$-competitive-grant-winning) writer friend her opinion didn't matter because SHE didn't have a Ph.D, but also has the shittiest work ethic I have ever seen, leaving a selling event I organize waaaay early because she was (bored? lazy?) -- no idea. I don't see how people like that make it in any job, academic or not.

Then you look at my assistant editor, who left a tenured university professor position, and who works her ass off doing wonders for me and our company, and you want to punch little miss fussy even more. It is maddening.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 5:45 PM on October 30, 2013


(I should have prefaced my first comment with a caveat that I am writing from within the humanities and can only speak to that particular experience)

Why is that bizarre?

My thinking is: surely if PhD students wanted to do MBAs they would have done MBAs. It's strange to me because taking that rhetorical step, drawing that equivalency (PhD in literature = MBA) seems to be sowing even more seeds of future doom. If there is no viable niche for humanities scholars, arguing that they actually make great businesspeople is not going to save them from extinction.

That said, until non-tenured or so-called "irregular" instructors get decent pay, job security, and benefits (call me an optimist), I can make peace with the idea as triage. Because folks need jobs.
posted by erlking at 6:05 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Given how many recent college grads who can afford it are going back to school to get master's degrees, and doubtless some will go into PhD programs afterwards as well to keep up with the Dr. Joneses, will academia have to create more postdoctorate degrees in order to keep the arms race humming along? Until we reach that utopia where schools go back to being centers of enlightenment and discovery, as opposed to credentialism, that is.
posted by Apocryphon at 6:11 PM on October 30, 2013


There is so much gold here, like “Ernst is cynical about the 'academic freedom' of the tenured, whom he believes have been hand-selected for mediocrity and obsequiousness.”

Just slightly off-topic : "The only controlled randomized experiments on student teaching evaluations have found that student evaluations of teaching effectiveness are negatively associated with direct measures of effectiveness"
posted by jeffburdges at 6:14 PM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wouldn't it be bizarre not to do that?

It would be bizarre, but also very common. Many PhDs are aftraid to use their supervisor for a reference for a non-academic job because of it.
posted by benzenedream at 6:14 PM on October 30, 2013


We are not training Ph.D's so that we can create little copies of ourselves. Some students want to go into research academia, some want primarily teaching jobs, some want to go into government, some want to go into the private sector.

This may be true in some departments, like economics or sociology, but in most humanities departments the training is solely oriented on academic positions. Certainly that was true in my department - there was never a suggestion that we should try for anything but academic positions.

Also, there are no private sector applications for my research, and the public sector applications are much more abstract than they would be for someone in certain social sciences or applied sciences.

I am ABD (actually 1/2 D), and I work in a coffee shop. I hope to move into a new career of research administration, but it's in a different field than my training and none of my formal academic training prepared me for it (though the data-base and computer training that I sought outside of my department has been useful).
posted by jb at 6:16 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]




Institutional academia is not unlike a cult, in that, by the time you realize that you are the victim of exploitation and are complicit in the exploitation of others, you are in so deep that life outside seems scary at best, impossible at worst (plus, the discourse of the humanities scholar being the recipient of a kind of "holy calling" is alive and well and is sometimes used as a weird pacifier, like we shouldn't mind the increasingly awful situation because we are special snowflakes no matter what).

In this, it is just like primary and secondary public school teaching, especially as conditions get crappier for new/regular hires as opposed to the limited number of tenured folks. (I say this as someone who bailed out of PhD track in history in the early 90s, was directed to teaching at the high school level, discovered she hated that in student teaching, and went on to do other work as happily as one does after figuring out that most work is just plain work and they don't pay you to have fun most of the time.)
posted by immlass at 6:24 PM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Ironically enough, it's easier to do non-traditional scholarship at a comprehensive like mine, where the attitude is, "hey, you've published something--cool!" as opposed to at an R1, where your colleagues are likely to be asking "why aren't you doing X and citing Y?"

The "do Ph.D., then go off on the alt-ac track" approach strikes me as nowhere near as self-critical as necessary. Most non-academic jobs do not require the kind of training one receives in the humanities fields, and the average academic does not have the skill set to provide said training. Yes, those students can go off and get those other jobs--but if alt-ac turns out to be the intended career path, why counsel them to stick around for the Ph.D. in Victorian poetry (unless, of course, they want to)? Why not advise them to stop with an MA, or, in some cases, transfer to a program that will provide the relevant professional qualifications? (The student is free to do as he or she likes; that doesn't mean that the relevant adviser should not, y'know, advise.) There's a certain unwillingness to contemplate a world with far fewer graduate students, which would mean more time teaching undergraduates, more time spent in lower-division courses, and so forth. (And some programs don't actually have the resources to turn out competent students in their actual academic fields; it's not likely that they will magically have the resources to provide adequate non-academic career training, either.)
posted by thomas j wise at 7:32 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


It is still exceptionally rare for a tenured academic to publicly and voluntarily leave the field.

80% of the academics I know fantasize quite loudly about wanting to leave their jobs, mainly because they work 70 or so hours a week and are endlessly being told they have these wonderfully cushy jobs where they get the summers off and swig brandy in oak-panelled offices. And, yes, this is so much better than the job sessionals have where they work as hard as us but get paid much less, and, yes, we have job security, but when you wave yet another weekend good-bye...well the loud fantasies start being spoken about. Trouble is most tenured academics have families and no chance of feeding them if they leave their jobs.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:41 PM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


This may be true in some departments, like economics or sociology

OK, but economics and sociology are really big, important departments. So is math. If people have a problem with the way certain segments of the humanities operate, they should say so, but they shouldn't call that "academia" as if it were all "academia" is.

"The reason why [faculty with diverse interests and really interdisciplinary research] so rare is pretty simple: the tenure process filters out the people who would be most likely to pursue diverse intellectual interests.."

Oh, that blogpost is by the guy who left academia? I guess I can see why he left. But I can't see why he thinks his departure has much to offer most other people. The only students he likes are the ones who think his course is a bullshit time-waster. I don't think my course is a bullshit time-waster. I think mathematics is something humanity has been working really hard to build for thousands of years without a break, and I think it's pretty amazing, and I want my students to see what's amazing about it, and if they ask me what's going to be on the midterm I don't respond with a contemptuous "Why do you care?" because I don't have contempt for them, or my midterm. I know why *I* care what's on my midterm; it's because it's one way the students show me how much math they learned, and I care whether they learned math, and I care which math they learn.

If this guy thinks academic philosophy is time-wasting bullshit then obviously he should not be an academic philosopher. But I think he's wrong about that. One reason I think so is that I've written papers with philosophers at my university, and guess what? Neither I or the philosopher was punished for it. No hidebound disciplinary mandarins gave us the stink-eye.

As for this stuff:

Accordingly, savvy junior faculty members will direct their research to a very specific sub-specialty so that they increase their chances of becoming known within a particular group of senior researchers... It's almost suicidal to write a series of papers on different topics, even if those papers are very high-quality. Instead, it's a far better strategy to try to achieve a "critical mass" of research output in a small, narrowly-focused area.

is so impossibly wrong concerning math that I find it hard to believe it's an accurate description of philosophy. When we evaluate candidates it's a huge strike against someone if we feel they can only do one thing. Whereas to say someone is "truly broad" is among the highest compliments.
posted by escabeche at 9:42 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


OK, but economics and sociology are really big, important departments. So is math. If people have a problem with the way certain segments of the humanities operate, they should say so, but they shouldn't call that "academia" as if it were all "academia" is.

One of the big complaints among all these authors is that socialization in humanities grad school causes a kind of sick tunnel vision where people forget about everything outside their little corner of the theory-world, and I suspect some of them are still suffering from it.
posted by vogon_poet at 9:53 PM on October 30, 2013


Huh. Apparently I quit academia before it was cool.
posted by Rangeboy at 10:34 PM on October 30, 2013


If you became the keeper of resources designated for the social good and had a choice between paying 100 English Professors to teach Shakespeare in class rooms to small groups of students OR pay 10 programmers the equivalent wages to write a game that allows potentially millions of people to experience a virtual gamified version of those books... What would you choose?

I am really sad that we haven't made far more progress than we should have by now overthrowing the whole entrenched hegemony of Feudal feces throwing monkeys that man the walls and halls of the supposed castles protecting our shared human heritage of knowledge.

Consider choices like the above. Every decision that supports shoddy quality controls (a generous 1 in 10 professors suck), low quantity (why educate a village when you can educate the world), finite (vs. infinite) potential for accumulative curriculum refinement (static re-runs of a tenured profs. lazy notes from a decade ago vs. persistent and evolving decision branches of a common code base)... everything about academics as it continues to be practiced today at most institutions is simply a really bad use of limited resources.

Let me illustrate by pushing my example; I'll guess the sum total of money spent nationally paying sub par minds to regurgitate crap-they-read about Shakespeare to students that need to be trapped to prevent them from going to play GTA would probably have paid for one heck of a Shakespearean themed GTA type game by now. We pick the ugliest ways to share beauty and leave the most beautiful expressions of today's generation to tell the ugliest of narratives.

We are all morons when taken as individuals and compared to the intellectual capital of our emerging collective intelligence in the hand of any twelve year using that smart phone under the desk to look at cats or porn. So, if you got a Ph.D. to teach students you suspect think you are a moron during most of the class; don't take it personally. The era of the single-mind authored document and associated heuristic methods - and the institutions built to support them - are blatantly walking dead animated by a deficit of societal imagination, focus and will. Worse, they are impediments to progress on new frontiers and potentials for post-industrial-academic-military complex enlightenment.

Today's genius authors are writing code. Not novels. The scale, depth and sheer beauty of what is enabled by the technology that has emerged in recent decades means any university that survives into the 22nd Century won't be built on boxes filled with students facing a wall with a single moronic ego stapled to it. If your idea of education can easily be described to someone in academics from one hundred years ago: you are doing it wrong.
posted by astrobiophysican at 10:38 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


OK, but economics and sociology are really big, important departments. So is math. If people have a problem with the way certain segments of the humanities operate, they should say so, but they shouldn't call that "academia" as if it were all "academia" is.

At my university, both Economics and Sociology (as well as Math) were smaller departments than my department, History, which happened to be the largest department in arts and sciences. (Biology would be larger, but they seem to just split into more and more departments).

My point wasn't that economics and sociology are not just as representative of academia, but that you can't generalise from one department to another -- and that many departments, large and small but especially in the humanities, are failing to deal with the fact that the academic job market isn't expanding like it used to and that many if not most of their students will not be working in academia.
posted by jb at 11:03 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Today's genius authors are writing code. Not novels.

That's a ridiculous statement. Today's genius coders are writing codes -- the genius authors are still writing novels (or short stories, etc), and their audience is larger than ever. Literature, popular or literary, is at a height of production we've never seen before in history.

Maybe today's Newtons or Leibnizes are writing code - actually, I know one (PhD in Maths, now a coder), but genius isn't interchangeable. A brilliant writer maybe a dunce at maths or logic, just like a brilliant scientist can write like a wooden log.

Whatever you may think of the usefulness of the humanities - and trust me, as a good socialist I have questioned the morality of public support of some humanities research (my own included) - it's not simply interchangeable with other forms of intellectual pursuit, nor are most talented people talented in all ways. (And those who try to be tend to be jacks rather than masters).
posted by jb at 11:11 PM on October 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


I know Ernst. There's a whole backstory you don't get from the Slate article. I feel badly about how this has played out for those involved, but I suspect he'll be quite happy with the new gig.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 12:24 AM on October 31, 2013


I would have more sympathy for Ernst's position had he not made so much of the "Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence" issue. LNAI is not a "journal", and the fact that he tries to present it as one rather undermines his argument in that respect.
posted by gene_machine at 4:48 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


If there is no viable niche for humanities scholars, arguing that they actually make great businesspeople is not going to save them from extinction.

The problem isn't that there is no viable niche for humanities scholars, just that there isn't one for all of the people who want to be humanities scholars. I think that's important distinction.
posted by empath at 4:57 AM on October 31, 2013


Ernst’s “Why I Jumped” is thus not unusual in and of itself: Academe is a profession full of erudite free-thinkers who feel disillusioned by a toxic labor system in which criticism is not tolerated

I am jumping.

I love teaching. As one of those useless Humanities people, I am at the bottom of the bottom in terms of academia, teaching writing at a community college as an adjunct.

What I discovered this semester is that the college rewards teachers who don't discipline students. I have been discouraged from submitting plagiarism reports, regardless of what the college code says. I have been discouraged from asking/telling students to leave the classroom when they are being disruptive. In one class, I asked disruptive students to leave, and now we have a gorgeous class -- the students who want to be there are there learning without the disruption of others, others who are slacking are not disruptive.

Now, I am completely lowly on the academic spectrum, but I work very, very hard for my students. I don't enjoy disciplining people. I only ask people to leave the classroom if they are making it hard for others to learn or for me to lecture. But if I ask people to leave the classroom, I have created a problem for administration.

The end result is that I got a horrible schedule for next semester. The lack of job security is a horrible stressor. I am completely sincere that I would take a job licking envelopes all day if that meant job security, if that meant not dealing with a labor system that is just not right.
posted by IwishIwasFordMaddoxFord at 5:08 AM on October 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


I know Ernst. There's a whole backstory you don't get from the Slate article.

From what I heard there was a lot of sexism directed towards his wife, a fellow philosophy professor?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:01 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


I enrolled in UBC graduate studies as an MSc student thinking that I was going to apply to the doctoral program from the MSc program, read for a doctorate, get a professorship after only two post-docs, and then happily research until the end of my days.

Seeing two post-docs in my lab alone that had been there for five years (and for one it was their third post-doc), seeing the job market for tenure track positions, the eternal hell of adjunct positions, and academia getting shat on from every direction in the public sphere I began to reconsider.

When my PI asked me if I was still going to do quals that spring, I said no. There wasn't a whole lot of good will generated in that but I wasn't going to go through the ritual hazing of a post-doc or two to get a job. Even a private sector one.

So I guess I pre-emptively jumped?
posted by Slackermagee at 6:39 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think a lot of the despair that people feel depends on what age they get their phd. If I had gotten into programs when I was in my early 20s, I would have done anything, gone anywhere to do a humanities degree. Now, I'm prepared to enter a social science phd program, will only go if I get into the best programs, and will not relocate. I'm older, so I know what makes me happy, and I'm not going to sacrifice everything for a career.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:44 AM on October 31, 2013


Slackermagee, I've seen a number of professors disappointed when they discover that they're not going to get to abuse somebody as a Ph.D. student, typically in the form of becoming completely unresponsive to those students who are still trying to graduate with an MS. When you say "There wasn't a whole lot of good will generated" in your decision to leave, that's a good sign that you made the right decision and avoided getting victimized by one of those lowlifes. If he cared about you he would be happy that you were making the right decision for your circumstances.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:17 AM on October 31, 2013


I quit a PhD program at a prestigious university. It was fully funded and I had a generous stipend.
Today I believe that it was actually killing me. At one of our annual conferences there was a terrible, sterile memorial held for another student who had taken their life. "Unimaginably."
I left. I'm in recovery.
I make good money and do work that I love with good and kind people. I am not sorry that I left. I still mentally punish myself when I recall that I left a "good and prestigious" doctoral program... until reality comes back into focus.

That's it, I wrote my "I Quit" essay and published it on Metafilter.com, the only peer-reviewed journal that has ever meant much to me anyway.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 5:49 PM on October 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


Solidarity spoof exam paper, 1972
posted by jeffburdges at 4:35 PM on November 21, 2013


« Older Point Here If ...   |   "reading into poems nasty little messages that... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments