I Quit

I Quit.

May 15, 2011

I Quit.

Or, at least, I wish I could. Returning from my program in India and travels in Thailand this spring, I was faced with the worst bout of insecurity I’ve experienced in years. I sat down to a desk of uncompleted work, half-baked manuscripts, unanswered emails and unreturned phone calls. A grant I had applied for (and rather counted on) didn’t come through. My teaching evaluations consisted of a single student evaluation (yes, one), from the student who refused to listen to any advice I tried to give her as she struggled--and blamed me for it. A senior colleague continues to ignore me for some imagined snub or insult (or maybe he just doesn’t like me). The oil bill was overdue. On top of that, I am facing terrible writer’s block. And I’m really tired of hearing myself whine about it.

All of this is panic inducing: I am keenly aware that I must produce an article and a book manuscript in the next few months to beat the tenure clock next year, and to prove wrong some of my most ardent critics.

The tenure process is harsh. It’s pretty lonely. Academics are sensitive people, and I know I’m not the only one wracked by insecurities. But I’m finding it more difficult to get past them: I’m the type who can’t (and won’t) put something out in the world until it’s ready (often trapping myself on the “perish” side rather than the “publish” side of the Law of Academia); I don’t have the talent for self-promotion that others seem to practice so well; I find it impossible to stroke the egos of those who seek to “break-in” junior faculty rather than truly mentoring them.

Lately, instead of just fighting through it, I’ve been entertaining fantasies of quitting academia altogether. Surely, I think, there must be some other career that would pay more money and cause less stress. There must be some job I could perform that wouldn’t depend on constant scrutiny by my colleagues and bitter battles with administrations. There must be some service I could provide that wouldn’t be critiqued due to my lack of warmth or empathy towards irresponsible, complaining post-adolescents. There must be some profession that wouldn’t require working nights, weekends, or holidays—or cause me to feel guilty when I don’t.

Academic burnout is a real phenomenon, and I’m interested in knowing how others deal with it, while I also wonder if there is a way that academia could be structured to be more supportive of faculty to prevent it. I’m not talking about coddling over-inflated egos (which doesn’t hurt); rather, I’d like to find ways to mitigate the effects of sour relationships among the faculty that could result in personal vendettas, or to institute clear guidelines for promotion that are stringent, yet attainable, and promote healthy life balances. The irony of academia is that we value our independence, yet our professional lives are fraught with restrictions, expectations, and often self-destructive professional ethos that serve to polish our gilded towers rather than promote the cause of knowledge and creativity. Something, surely, must be done to change this.

I say all of these things to myself when I’m at my most frustrated (which, lately, is often). I then take a step back and look around. Yes, I work at odd hours. But they are my hours, and often those hours are at home, in my own office, and no one cares when I check in or not. I face the scrutiny of peers, yes, but the projects I choose are those suited to my own interests, not theirs. Some of my closest friends are also academics and I bask in the glory of long dinners discussing big (and small) ideas. While I agonize for hours over a disparaging comment made on an evaluation, I can look anywhere in my office for thank you cards from former students and pictures of those who stay in touch long after graduation.

Something must be done, it is true. But today what must be done is what I have to do in order to become someone who can change the system. So, I won’t quit my job; I’ll just quit complaining.

Boston, Massachusetts in the USA

Denise Horn (denise.horn@insidehighered.com) is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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