Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

don't just quit, quitpiece!

I think Ian Bogost is correct about the essential boringness of quitpieces — essays or articles or posts by former academics explaining why they bailed out — but it’s hard, for me anyway, not to comment on this one by Oliver Lee, because of Lee’s almost charmingly absolute self-regard.

While much of the post is supposed to describe what Lee learned about academe in his time as a professor, his thoughts on the State of Higher Education are disjointed and incoherent. One example will suffice: he goes in one sentence from counseling liberal-arts students to skip college in in favor of watching relevant YouTube videos to declaring that “Online education isn't the solution,” and doesn't even notice the disconnect. But his prose becomes vibrant when he’s describing ... well, himself.

It turns out that Oliver Lee was absolutely fantastic as an academic. He “launched several digital humanities initiatives”; he speaks of his “effusive student evaluations”; he “coached [his] university's legal debate team to a national championship bid” — though I was sort of sad to see the vague word “bid” tacked on to the end there, since by this point I was expecting nothing less than, you know, an actual championship. But the self-celebration goes on for quite a while.

But in every Eden there’s a serpent, or several. Lee became the object of “sniping” by his colleagues; he was beset by “politics”; one of his projects was “derided as bewildering and gimmicky.” Even his students let him down: immediately after telling us what an excellent lecturer he was — “By professor standards, which admittedly aren't that high, I could rock the mic” (that apparently humble caveat isn’t really a caveat at all, since the only context of this whole essay is academia, and it just gives him a way to demean professors) — he describes how a friend visiting his class was distracted by a student watching Breaking Bad on a laptop. It seems pretty clear that if someone hadn’t told him, Lee never would have guessed that some students failed to notice his mic-rocking abilities.

By the time I got to the end of Lee’s personal narrative I had developed a very strong suspicion that what he may really have been saying was “You can’t fire me, I quit.”

But in any case, I’m reminded by this feature of the quitpiece genre: it is almost always immensely self-congratulatory. People will describe in detail their levels of commitment and energy and the superb work they elicited from their students, and will imply or say explicitly that they were targeted by colleagues or department chairs precisely because they did their work so well. If they acknowledge that they were criticized, such criticisms are invariably dismissed as motivated either by jealousy or by fantastically misplaced priorities.

Within the moral economy of the quitpiece genre — which is not, I suspect, reliably indicative of why most people who leave academia do so — to walk away from an academic job is to turn your back on an institution that doesn't deserve you, isn’t good or pure or rightly-ordered enough for you. I’m longing for a quitpiece that says “I left my job as a professor because I didn't like it and wasn’t very good at it.”


  • I couldn't find a way to squeeze this into my post, but one of the few quitting-academia stories I’ve read that fascinated me emerged on a blog more than a decade ago: Erin O’Connor described leaving a tenured position in the University of Pennsylvania English department primarily because she simply no longer believed in what she had been taught, what she had written, what she was expected to teach. I can't find the posts in which she originally described that decision, so I’ve linked to a later one on her long-silent blog, which used to be one of my favorites.

  • Chemjobber, a blog that specializes in (no surprise), jobs for chemists in industry and academia, collected a series of stories from students who left PhD programs in chemistry. These tend to be substantially more candid and even self-critical than the big Vox-type essays and shed some light on the labor force in academic science. Collected works here:

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