On 8 March 2018, the online Chronicle of Higher Education published Joseph Conley’s “Just Another Piece of Quit Lit.” In the piece, which seems to have been prompted by Erin Bartram’s own piece of quit lit–about which more here–Conley puts forth the idea that more people ought to leave academe than have–and earlier than tends to be discussed. After acknowledging the difficulty in making the decision to quit, he notes to readers that, at least in his case, nobody made much of his decision to leave–and few were willing to extend him any consideration for having studied as he did. Conley also acknowledges that he was wrong to begin his course of study, summarizing years of undergraduate and graduate experience as a slow decline into self-destructive, alienating behavior encouraged by academe. After repudiating that way of life, he pivots into noting that things get better–with time and effort before making an attempt at humor and concluding that sticking with a choice made in early adulthood, rather than exploring other options, is what quitting really is.
As someone who has largely left academe and who is in a “real world” position that acts with more care and respect for me than my teaching largely seemed to, I found myself nodding along with Conley’s piece at many points. Like him, I am better off for having (mostly) left the field, for taking a job that is just a job and that I can leave behind me at the end of the work day. (That I have been largely able to treat the teaching I still do as that kind of thing helps. And even these comments are done as relaxation and practice, something I enjoy doing rather than something I have to do.) Too, I am married to a wife who made a similar decision; we met in our MA program, and I moved to New York to be with her as she pursued her PhD, but when she moved to Stillwater because I landed a job and we found out that our daughter was on the way, she decided that a doctorate in support of a career she did not want and could not really expect to have was no longer worth pursuing.
She, and later I, found that the sense of shame inhering in giving up, which Conley describes, does not fade quickly. My wife seems at peace with things, but I clearly do not, else I’d not continue to follow quit-lit pieces or comment on them, or bring up my own status as an academic expatriate so often as I do. Other people do seem to be happy with us, our value not bound up in dwelling in the ivory tower, and both of us scrabbled to find jobs that now afford us a better standard of living than we had enjoyed for several years–certainly since leaving New York, if not ever. So the experience of my family is much like what Conley describes; his account rings true for me.
If only I’d been able to get my piece in the Chronicle…
One thing that comes out for me in Conley’s piece, though, is a certain amount of bitterness. Comments he makes throughout the article–many of which amount to “nobody cares about you or your academic work”–may be accurate, but that they are made at all betrays dissatisfaction with the state of affairs. That would not be a problem, except that the purported point of the article, the sentiment on which it concludes, is exactly the opposite of it. If we are better off for quitting academe, why the jabs at those who remain in it, those who are already suffering (if Conley is correct)? At best, they come off as jokes that fall flat. More likely, they represent a bit of sour grape-ism, bitter swipes at those who were able to enact their long-held dreams.
I understand the allure, certainly; I am not without my own bitterness in the matter. Having seen people objectively less qualified than I get jobs for which I applied stung, and the sting has not yet faded; it is not to be wondered at that I would harbor some resentment while I still feel the pain. And I can easily imagine that Conley does, as well, despite the therapy he mentions and the good job he reports having, just as I do despite the many good things in my life and the greater freedom to be me that I have more or less outside academe than I had while trying to nestle deeper into it.
Perhaps there may be some balm for that hurt for Conley–and for me.