Last week Inside Higher Ed published an anonymous piece by someone who has decided to leave academia entitled, "Because."
The author writes of feeling "degrade[d], demean[ed], and disempower[ed]" by academia. “Because” struck a cord because of its emotional directness, but also because it it seemed, to some, an attack on academia A tenured professor, Will Hochman wrote a response defending his decision to remain an academic. As much as I like companion poems, I believe that Hochman’s piece misses the point: most PhD.s would love a tenured position. There are many equally qualified PhD.s who are working in conditions that tenured faculty would not tolerate (poverty wages, no job security, and little control over academic matters) and who are often treated as second-class citizens by the very profession for which they have sacrificed.
Many of the comments to Anonymous's poem suggested that the world outside academia is just as inhumane and frustrating. However, I think it's important to read this piece in context: not as an indictment of the academic life, but as an critique of the current system that uses part-time labor in unconscionable ways. Teaching full time and making a paltry sum, having no say in faculty governance, no job security, and little status or respect from one's peers is dreadful. The fact that we -- tenured faculty—are not working harder to change this system does demonstrate the "elitism" and "arrogance" the poem charges.
I’m tenured and hence a member of an elite, almost extinct group, yet the piece spoke to me as well. It reminded me of how I felt in graduate school and while I was on the job market. Sure, every profession has its hurdles and difficulties. But the length of academic training and apprenticeship, the demand of relocation, and the fact that our labor is not valued by society makes academics particularly prone to an isolating allegiance. We invest so much in our academic careers -- years, thousands of dollars of tuition -- no wonder many find it difficult to leave, even when these careers are not making us happy.
As a tenured professor I realize how lucky I am. Yet if I attended the MLA, my subject's most prestigious conference, I doubt I would feel elite, or even successful. I don’t teach graduate students, and I’m not at an elite college. Although I’ve published a few books, I’m not remotely famous or important in my profession. Happily, in midlife I no longer measure myself by my profession’s standards. I have the luxury, as a tenured professor, of not being forced to depend on other's judgments of me to survive. That would be a horrible way to life. I remember it too well.