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An Alt-Ac's Take on 'How to Leave' the Big City

Rejecting the superstar city in favor of the college town.

December 17, 2018
 
 

How to Leave: Quitting the City and Coping with a New Reality by Erin Clune

Published in October of 2018.

I didn’t realize that Erin Clune was an alternative academic when I decided to read How to Leave. In truth, including Dr. Clune in our alt-ac club may be a bit of a stretch.  

Her bio reads, "Erin Clune is a freelance writer and humorist. She has a doctorate in American history from NYU, which looks fancy on the wall of her home office.”

Higher ed needs as many funny writers as we can get, however. I say we claim Clune as one of our own.

The non-alt-ac reason that I read How to Leave is that I’m highly interested in the relationship between place and work.  At a time when every force seems to be pushing us to build our careers in dense urban areas with multiple academic employment options, my wife and I are trying to make it work in our small college town.

The story that Clune tells of leaving Gotham to Madison WI should speak to my own family experience. Madison seems like the big city compared to our small college town.  But compared to the final list of 20 cities that Amazon considered for its HQ2 before choosing NYC and northern VA, both are tiny.  

In moving to Madison from Manhattan, Clune’s family took an 80 percent pay cut. What they gained was the ability to live in a house where their younger daughter was not sleeping in a converted bathroom, access to a high concentration of Targets (which Clune refuses to take advantage of), and the possibility of achieving a degree of work/life balance.

Life in superstar cities, as Clune points out, is usually accompanied by the necessity of working all the time. Affording their NYC apartment meant that Clune’s husband had to be a high-earner, which in turn meant that he worked 80 hour weeks. In medium city-sized Wisconsin, both parents can be home for dinner.

How to Leave is destined to be turned into a network TV sitcom.  Or at least it should be. I hope that Amy Poehler reads the book and realizes that she’d make a perfect Erin Clune.

In reading How to Leave I kept picturing Poehler saying things about Wisconsin like:

“…the two main cooking seasons are grilling and Crock-Pot.”

and...

"From the minute we arrived, the number of weekly conversations we had about quilting went from zero to five. And oh boy do people here knit. They do it in public. Like, anywhere, anytime. People also still use snowshoes, mostly for fun, but also for transportation."

and...

"Restaurant employees were always reminding her that she wasn’t legally allowed to bring her kids into bars, which is just called “family night” out in Wisconsin."

The irony is that Clune and family downsized their NYC life to move to college-town Wisconsin, and if things go as I suspect they will soon be pulling in more income (from the TV show royalties I’m imaging) than any one-earner attorney family could hope to achieve.

What other funny books by classically trained but non-practicing academics can you recommend?

Might How to Leave signal the leading edge of a reaction against superstar cities, as well as emerging collective desire to move to college towns?

What are you reading?

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