Public Good-byes

Recent Dear John letters from academics leaving higher education signal a resurgence in 'quit lit.'

September 9, 2015

Like most breakups, those between higher education and the academics who choose to leave it typically happen quietly. But as in romance, sometimes these breakups become very public affairs -- usually when an academic decides to reflect on the decision in a blog or other medium. The genre, called “quit lit,” has been around for several years, at least according to social media. And it’s enjoying a resurgence of sorts, thanks to some recent high-profile Dear John letters.

Oliver Lee Bateman, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington, attracted lots of attention this week with his Vox column called “I have one of the best jobs in academia. Here’s why I’m walking away.”

Bateman says that he was looking forward to spending a lifetime in academe after triumphing in the “Hunger Games” that is graduate school, but then “it all began to fall apart.” First there was the “sniping” from peers and administrators, he says, including critiques that he was too casual and calm for someone on the tenure track. Then there were “official pushback and politics,” he says, such as criticism for performing public outreach by publishing in popular magazines such as The Atlantic. Finally, he says, recalling a student who was watching old episodes of Breaking Bad instead of listening to a relatively dynamic lecture, “I realized not even the students were too invested.”

“Op-eds about the failings of higher education are like certain unmentionable body parts: everybody's got one,” Bateman wrote. “But these are just parts of a larger and even more troubling story. After spending four years working in higher education, trying to effect piecemeal improvements, I'm convinced that the picture is more dire than most people realize: there's no one single problem to fix or villain to defeat, no buzzword-y panacea that will get things back to normal.”

Late last month, Alice Dreger, a longtime professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University who had previously criticized the institution for censoring a controversial article in a faculty-produced journal, publicly announced her resignation. On her website, she shared a fact sheet about her decision and her resignation letter to the administration, alleging that Northwestern’s medical school was more interested in corporate interests than academic freedom.

“In short, I can’t work at a medical school where my dean is allowed to censor the work of his faculty in the name of the hospital brand’s welfare,” Dreger wrote on her site, saying she was planning to pursue research and writing that didn’t require a university affiliation.

It’s not just faculty members who are publicly turning their backs on academe. Jean-François Gariépy, a former postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at Duke University, said in a Facebook post this week that he is leaving higher education behind because it doesn’t support the purer aims of science.

“By creating a highly competitive environment that relies on the selection of researchers based on their ‘scientific productivity,’ as it is referred to, we have populated the scientific community with what I like to call ‘chickens with no head,’ that is, researchers who can produce multiple scientific articles per year, none of which [have] any significant impact on our understanding of the world,” Gariépy wrote. “Because of this, science is moving forward similarly to how a headless chicken walks, with no perceivable goal.”

Gariépy says he’s not “bitter,” as some friends have wondered. Rather, he said, “The reality is that throughout the years, my attention has drifted away from research academia, because I found other ways to satisfy my scientific curiosity that seemed more appealing and more genuine to me.”

He added, “Academia is a weird thing; it is populated with very intelligent, motivated and brilliant people, who are operating in a system that is simply defective to the point of impeding on the very ability of these individuals to engage in a true search for knowledge. In this sense, I am leaving research academia for the same reason that I joined it 12 years ago: in search for a better way to satisfy my hunger for a scientific understanding of the world.”

Within two days, Gariépy’s post had been shared some 1,700 times. Responses generally expressed solidarity, from a simple “Word,” to “Agree! I chose science because it would be so great to make an impact on society with scientific progress. When I was a postdoc I decided to leave academic research as I realized that societal impact was not that much a priority/concern to most scientists. The science system has gone astray, it is high time that academia retakes responsibility.”

In an interview, Bateman said he’s received similar praise from peers, as well as some criticism from those who say he simply can't “hack" academe. Bateman said that was partially true, since he’s rejecting the overwhelming “pressures” of academic life for one closer to family, practicing law. He said he hopes his essay -- which includes a point-by-point analysis of what he thinks is wrong with academe -- opens up a conversation about how to improve it. He stressed that it’s not the people in higher education who are to blame for its faults, but rather a deeply flawed system.

Beyond hopes of spurring discussion, Bateman said he thought he and other academics were probably drawn to write about their departures for the same reason they write about a lot of things: to work out complex ideas. And that makes for interesting reading, he said.

“I’ve read a lot of these pieces, and it’s fascinating how people come the conclusions they do,” he said. (It’s worth noting that Bateman’s something of a quit lit master, having written several other pieces in the genre, including a viral piece for Salon about quitting the clothing retailer Abercrombie and Fitch, where he once worked as a store manager.)

Quit lit’s been around for some time, and it ranges in tone from highly critical to matter-of-fact to inspirational. In a 2014 interview with The Hairpin about her decision to leave academia for a job as a news editor at BuzzFeed, for example, cultural studies scholar and blogger Anne Helen Petersen said that “much of academic writing prides itself on being as inaccessible as possible, and I mean that both literally and figuratively -- you can’t understand it unless you’ve had at least five years of graduate school, and you can’t actually get your hands on it without affiliation with a major institution.” Petersen also said that academe was “drunk,” in that it tended to be myopic in its interests.

In a less controversial but widely viewed post to his personal blog in 2010, Matt Welsh, a former associate professor of computer science at Harvard University, said he was leaving his faculty position for Google for the simple reason that he loved the work he was doing for the search engine giant.

“I get to hack all day, working on problems that are orders of magnitude larger and more interesting than I can work on at any university,” he wrote. “That is really hard to beat, and is worth more to me than having ‘Prof.’ in front of my name, or a big office, or even permanent employment. In many ways, working at Google is realizing the dream I've had of building big systems my entire career.”

Welsh added that being a professor “is not the job I thought it would be. There's a lot of overhead involved, and (at least for me) getting funding is a lot harder than it should be. Also, it's increasingly hard to do ‘big systems’ work in an academic setting. Arguably the problems in industry are so much larger than what most academics can tackle. It would be nice if that would change, but you know the saying -- if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Quit lit can be encouraging, too. Dr. PMS, an anonymous female scientist who has blogged about leaving academe after losing a research grant, recently wrote about how much she's enjoying a new scientific sales position.

"I feel I finally found something that seemed to combine all my requirements for happiness in a new job outside academia," she wrote. "I love to talk about science and now I spend most of my time in the phone with researchers, trying to understand their work and helping them to find the right equipment for them …. Indeed, there’s life after academia, and I’m enjoying it a lot!"

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, president of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, left a tenured faculty position in the department of African-American studies and sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago to found her organization. She said that some academics leave higher education because they feel pulled towards something else, while others leave because they feel pushed away by negative circumstances. 

Bateman’s and others’ critiques of higher education probably ring true with those who have felt pushed away, Rockquemore said. She guessed that Gariépy’s post, for example, had been shared so many times because “he's not only speaking his truth, but a larger, widely-recognized truth about the politics of publication and the negative impact of a hyper-competitive environment on knowledge production.” 

Rockquemore, who blogs about faculty career issues for Inside Higher Ed, said she didn’t feel the need to write a quit lit piece when she left academe because she wasn’t going far away: she still works closely with academics and doesn’t believe higher education is so structurally flawed that she can longer be part of it. 

But for those academics who do make a public statement upon departure, she said via email, “I imagine that writing this kind of post fulfills several needs: 1) to publicly explain your choice to leave, 2) to be seen and heard after years of feeling ignored, devalued and dismissed, 3) to be a role model for others thinking about leaving, and/or 4) to provide your own critical analysis of the state of the academy on the way out the door.”


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