This year, I turned 39 and left academe to pursue public writing and community education. By stepping beyond college walls, I’m entering a space that feels exciting and entrepreneurial -- although largely unknown and differently risky.
I’m not alone in making this decision, as “quit lit” offers numerous stories sharing how and why academics leave higher education. As both an ethnographer and Reiki practitioner, I see patterns in this storytelling. Those patterns reveal processes for career discernment: for determining when one’s work is inside and when it’s outside higher ed.
Those patterns include pushes away from academe and pulls toward something else. They include the experiences of burnout, accumulated microaggressions and institutional and individual wrongdoing. They include stories of trauma in graduate education and healing from trauma, whether named or not named as such.
In short, the patterns speak to larger conditions and conflicts that characterize academe and that differently impact people who don’t fit the “mythical norm,” to use the powerful explanatory language of Audre Lorde. They relate to why scholars of color and other marginalized scholars are “presumed incompetent” and “conditionally accepted.” And they relate to the social and economic positioning that allow for or, alternatively, limit the range of career decisions one might consider.
In this piece, I trace origins of my own quit story. My decision came later than many people’s, as I’d been a faculty member for seven years and had the good fortune of earning tenure. Also, my ability to make this decision is wound up with my positionality as a white, cisgender, able-bodied, U.S.-born, middle/upper-class woman in a stable partnership with many privileges. My positioning is part of the story, as is the pressure not to leave higher education after putting in many years.
Exploring the stories that we tell about and to ourselves has value, as stories shape our lived experiences. With the value of storytelling in mind, here are some possible origin stories for my decision to leave. I share these with the hope that they help other people in telling and retelling stories that underlie and shape similar decision making. So, starting most recently, I remember:
Wanting my priorities to be priorities. Last summer, when preparing materials for tenure and promotion, I wrote a lot about my projects and priorities. When sharing my materials for feedback, other academics told me to cut the public pieces with feedback like, “Don’t talk about your blog. That will just confuse things,” and “You have plenty of academic work. Why are you writing for websites and newsletters?”
I took the feedback but experienced it as a sort of final straw, showing explicitly what I already felt: that my commitments to community education and activist writing were at odds with institutional and disciplinary mandates. This moment was symbolic of other “pushes” away from academe that I was beginning to identify.
Resisting overwork and related burnout. The more I observed mentors working around the clock and faced pressures to do the same, the more I found myself experiencing energy loss -- recognizing the signs of burnout that I could see not only in myself but as a collective experience for academics at the end of each semester. Last spring, I even dreamed that the semester had given me a concussion. (This spring, it actually did.)
The recognition of energy loss led me to ask some tough questions about where my energy was going and why. It led me to talk with others about their work expectations and to writing exercises and contemplative practices that have been key for career discernment.
Getting stubborn about “retiring” early. Two summers ago, when returning to my university after a yearlong leave, I was talking with a friend about my desire for days to be structured as they were at the time -- with writing and hiking, writing and hiking. Although my friend didn’t use these exact words, what I remember her saying was: “You can’t do that. That’s retirement!” Something about the strength of her response kicked up a stubborn voice that asked, “Why not?” And I began to think seriously about ways to make writing and hiking the core of my life and the structure of my days.
Believing that I have options. The sort of questions I’d been asking as a faculty member weren’t entirely new, as I’d begun asking them in graduate school. I remember conversations with an amazing counselor who really understood the trauma of graduate education and worked primarily with doctoral students. When I shared that I was thinking of leaving graduate school since my back pain was indicative of too much stress, she encouraged me to keep open the decision of whether to stay or go. As long as I felt I could grow, contribute and heal in my discipline, I had reasons to stay, which she had me itemize. If or when I felt that I couldn’t be myself, then I could consider how to leave and for what.
Those conversations instilled in me the sense that I have options. They also made clear to me that options needed to be carefully considered and more than my first fight-or-flee response.
Recognizing the value of previous experience. Instead of going straight through higher education (from undergraduate to master's to doctoral studies), I’d had a few years of working with nonprofits, piecing together odd jobs, teaching high school and even running my own tutoring business. I hadn’t considered that past experience as an origin story until one of my mentors said she wasn’t surprised that I was leaving, as I’d always had an “entrepreneurial spirit” that had served me well in academe but could also be at odds with it. Now, when I think about this “entrepreneurial spirit,” I can claim the courage that it takes to build something new -- and how having even some small business experience made it feel like an option once more.
Crafting my identity as both educator and writer. Locating the origin even earlier, fourth grade was the year when I wrote my first book, while also having my first positive experience with school. As soon as I began articulating my desire to be a writer and teacher, people started encouraging me to teach. It made sense for me, a young girl, to be a teacher, but being a writer … well, that was impractical, unlikely, impossible. Seeds of my identities as both an educator and writer were being planted, but they were also being put in contradiction. Higher ed felt like a way to bring them together, until it didn’t -- until the two felt at odds. Until I felt brave enough to claim identities as both educator and writer.
Tracing those origins backward in time, I can see how I developed into a professor of writing studies, and I can also see how my sense that I was “stealing time away from my writing” to prioritize teaching, service and university commitments grew into conflict. Many academics do write and teach and find ways to align time with commitments, but as I’ve shared through previous articles -- “Using Your ‘Strong Yes’ to Guide Career Decisions” and “Making Career Moves by Saying No” -- I came to feel that the nonnegotiable core of my faculty life was misaligned with my priorities. Now, what originated as pushes away from higher education have grown into pulls toward my enduring interests in writing and social justice entrepreneurship, which feel especially urgent now.
These origins are only the beginning of the story. In the next piece, I will share my process of career discernment, building off the work I did to identify and follow my strong yes. As I’m still learning, the clearer I am about my yes and no, the truer I am to myself and my commitments. And commitments are what help me bring my disciplinary orientation, research and teaching along with me, as I move “outside higher ed” and into new roles as public writer, business owner, workshop facilitator and more.