When do we quit? This existential question – and others – is asked, and answered, in the essays and blogposts collectively known, in a cheeky reference to the oeuvre of Terry McMillan, as “Quit Lit.”
As a new genre, Quit Lit – featuring tell-all, “take this job and shove it” essays written by former and would-be academics – has a certain set of established conventions. The pursuit of a tenured position must be described as if the academic world is abusive, soulless, and unfriendly. If the quest is fraught with peril, though, the quester is not. He or she is noble, deserving, kept away from the grail by forces beyond his or her control. The villains are the coldblooded administrative agents of neoliberalism, the dishonest professorial guild masters of the academe, and a scrambling cast of desperate hustlers, so determined to make it that they are willing to push down their rivals.
Readers of the genre will find not an idealized university, but an academic industrial complex, a version of the gruesome nineteenth century millworks. Quitting – casting aside the 4/4 load, or the endless grading, or the competitive rivalries of the committee meeting – is always, inevitably, a tragic release. It brings bitterness, not joy. A grim offering to a churlish public, it provokes – in the ribald comments section – a loathsome response, ranging from character assassination to psychological assessment.
In a sense, much of Quit Lit is the logical outgrowth of two simple factors: the overproduction of eloquent, talented, experienced doctoral students and the severity of the jobs crisis in the humanities, especially since the late recession. Previously engaged with the inner workings of higher education, many in this smart, underemployed group have taken advantage of the new social media to exact their revenge on a system that seems (and often is) inhuman and unfair. They were, as they recall it, promised jobs upon graduation. Disenchanted and adrift, they have the skills they need to write, write, write against the tweedy overlords who refuse to give up their privilege.
In another sense, the genre’s recent emergence is a result of bigger, structural factors that make the gothic medievalism of the campus look like the banal box tower of the corporation: the defunding of public universities, the rise of assessment culture, the increasing bottom-line orientation of students, the scandalous ascent of executive compensation, the diminishment of benefits, the reduction of full-time employment, the expansion of uncompensated labor, and the rise of adjunct itinerants.
This is dark material. In a fitting capstone, pieces of this literature in the Chronicle‘s “vitae” section – or on personal blogs, or mainstream media sites – often seem pre-occupied with the social death, not life, of today’s graduate students and faculty. Don’t go, the voices whisper. Leave. Quit. Or stay, and try to blow the place up. Higher education is broken. Tenured faculty are sell-outs. So just go, go, go.
In its harsher tones, Quit Lit gestures, as well, to other radical critiques of the dwindling liberal establishment: the debate over allyship, the distrust of conventional reform strategies, the rebuke of institutional patience, and the disinclination to slowly and carefully build and curate consensus around a pragmatically agreed-upon set of goals, the celebration of institutionally unachievable ideals. These other critiques match, in affect and in vigor (though not in morals or ethics), the ideological litmus tests of the far right.
I wanted to set Quit Lit in context like this because it frustrates me. It makes me instinctively double down on the democratic mechanisms of the university – like boring committees, and face-to-face meetings, and consensus that involves sacrifice – because I cannot countenance the opposite. It forces me to work harder to ensure that our students get jobs, and that our faculty have fulfilling lives and careers, that our staff are treated well. To not take it personally – to not read in the narratives of quitting academe a stinging rebuke of my life’s labor – I need, in the end, to treat it academically.
But I also don’t think it represents the world I know from the inside. I don’t recommend going to graduate school often – exactly twice in 10 years – and I don’t know anyone who does any different. I think that the students we teach don’t have to be professors to lead fulfilling lives, and I’m hardly alone. I don’t know anyone anywhere who says that tenure-stream jobs are low-hanging fruit, and that includes graduate students, who get this right away. No faculty member I know considers this a calling instead of a job. And if we get burned out, and think about leaving, it isn’t always because the reality didn’t match the myth, or because our dream turned into Wal-Mart, but sometimes simply because the job is really damned hard. And, like every job, it doesn’t always treat us well.