“Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.”
So wrote adjunct activist Josh Boldt in his essay about why he was no longer willing to remain a contingent faculty member, in an example of a new genre that has exploded on the publishing scene: “Quit Lit.” Teachers and academics who are dissatisfied and frustrated, who feel victimized or ignored, or who have experienced extreme disenfranchisement in a highly competitive system, have taken to public outlets to write about their decisions to quit academia. Individual reasons are myriad — but they shed light on some of the greater systemic problems in higher education.
Who Writes Quit Lit
Oliver Lee Bateman, on the other hand, is currently employed as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, but has announced his intention to quit academia because of its unsustainability, citing a glut of college graduates, ineffective online classes, an overreliance on contingent faculty, and a faulty federal loan system that allows too many students to enroll in college.
Some former academics opt for post-academic careers that might be considered practical, exciting, and even downright fun. Take Anne Helen Petersen, who held a visiting assistant professorship at Whitman College; she’s now a full-time features writer at BuzzFeed. Petersen has written and spoken a great deal about the opportunities as well as the challenges of academia. One such challenge has to do with money; as she tweeted earlier this year: “Those who can afford to wait for plush [academic] jobs” are often those who can rely on financial support from their spouses.
Others use their public declarations of quitting to criticize the system, as did Jean-Françoise Gariépy, a former postdoctoral fellow at Duke University. His “quit lit” Facebook announcement was shared more than 3,500 times.
Some, however, publicly lament the prospect of quitting academia — for want of a coveted tenure-track job — as Patrick Iber did in a Slate article a year before he learned he would be joining the ranks of permanent faculty as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
And then there are the critics of the genre, among them Ian Bogost, contributing editor for The Atlantic and the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His recent article, “No One Cares That You Quit Your Job,” argues that those writing what he calls quitpieces (because he doesn’t view them as literature) have done so because they’ve “lost” the game of academia.
Quitters vs. Stayers
But the genre is popular, driving clicks and comments, and even generating metacommentaries (including this article) such as Colleen Flaherty’s recently-published “The Rise of Quit Lit.”
Academics and the general public can’t seem to get enough of the blog posts, Facebook missives, and opinion pieces lambasting the academy and revealing academia’s core problems. The positive staypieces — articles that explain why people have chosen to stay where they are, and perhaps how they’ve managed to reconcile the issues that are motivating others to leave — that Ian Bogost wants to see more of get less play and seem less likely to be published because they aren’t as exciting or clickworthy. Noah Toly, an associate professor and Director of the Urban Studies program at Wheaton College argues that more staypieces that “match realism with commitment, [and address] today’s challenges with the kind of creativity, industry, discipline, and energy that people will thank us for later” are needed.
Despite these calls, staypieces likely don’t generate as many clicks for publications as quit lit does, possibly because they don’t fit the generally-accepted (and often true) narrative that American higher education is broken.
Why Quit Lit Matters
Anyone interested in academia should at least take note of the important issues raised by disappointed and disgruntled former academics. Academia deserves criticism for an unfair and complicated work environment that constantly requires its members to “do more with less.”
Adjunct professors are often treated like second-class citizens, many Ph.D. holders are burdened with debt, the requirement to publish in academic journals behind paywalls goes against the nature of professors who believe in the public exchange of knowledge, and sometimes, academia is just a bad fit for some individuals. People who choose to leave academia have a right to be heard. Those who remain may perceive quit lit writers as either role models or deserters. The stakes in academia are high, and those who stay often have to fight unreasonably hard for the smallest of changes.
Quit lit remains popular because the larger systemic problems in academia have yet to change. And the people who stay are the ones who can push for the necessary changes, and create a positive environment for teaching, scholarship, and learning. In the meantime, the general public and policy makers should turn a more critical eye toward how education functions in this country, and seriously consider why so many dedicated educators are walking away.
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