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The academic job market is still collapsing, but academic “quit lit” is booming. The precipitous decline of tenure-track jobs in the humanities and social sciences over the past decade has meant that more early-career Ph.D.s than ever are leaving academe and writing about their experiences.
As this genre has developed, it has come to be distinguished by its reliance on personal narrative and its authors’ desire to publicly validate their private feelings at being shut out of a profession they’ve spent a significant portion of adulthood pursuing. Although the rise of quit lit feels unique to an era shaped by an epochal financial crisis and an unprecedented accessibility to publishing venues, this kind of writing by ex-academics is not quite as novel as it appears.
In fact, a form of “quit lit” (we might call it proto-quit lit) actually emerged in the 1970s, the first decade in which the number of new Ph.D.s first outpaced the number of available academic jobs. By 1980, headlines like “The Plight of the Ph.D.s,” “Ph.D. Equals ‘Prospects Highly Depressing,’” “Jobless Ph.D.s Rack Brains to Live” and “Untenured Teachers Face Uncertain Futures” had become a familiar sight, and stock types like the itinerant scholar were often invoked alongside anecdotes of Ph.D.s having to take second jobs as taxicab drivers, bartenders or bricklayers.
For all this public hand-wringing, the generation of Ph.D.s who lived through this first wave of academic underemployment did not write essays with anywhere near the frequency or intensity of those of our own moment. Nevertheless, a few young academics were charting the course for the genre in newspapers, professional bulletins and academic journals.
One of the earliest examples is John T. Harwood’s 1974 article for AAUP Bulletin, “Nonacademic Job Hunting.” More gently satiric than incisively critical of the academic profession, the essay peppers Harwood’s eminently practical advice about how Ph.D.s ought to go about securing nonacademic employment with personal stories and a few winking literary references.
A more forceful and personal denunciation of the academic job market appears in “The New Academic Hustle: Marketing a Ph.D.,” a 1978 article by two sociology Ph.D.s detailing the perils and grotesqueries of the academic hiring process. Despite their mostly measured tone, the authors manage to smuggle in a damning indictment of the academic job market in the form of an autobiographical note cleverly placed where an abstract would typically appear. “When we received our Ph.D.s in 1976,” it reads, “we knew we would have to look hard for the kinds of jobs we wanted. But we did not anticipate the often discourteous, unfeeling and degrading reception we were to encounter as job applicants.”
Perhaps the most instructive piece in this vein is a brief article written by a freshly minted sociology Ph.D. in 1975 for The Berkshire Eagle and headlined, “Is a Ph.D. Worth It?” The author’s list of complaints is all too familiar: the constriction of the labor market, the apathy of undergraduates, the consumer-centric focus of the modern university and the pressures to publish.
Yet his conclusion gestures toward wells of feeling yet untapped. “I have no regrets about my decision,” he writes, but “this does not mean I am not bitter; trying to find work during these depressed times is no less anguishing for me than it is for most people.” He hastens to add, however, “whatever anger I feel is not directed towards my seven years in graduate school.” Unlike the quit lit of our current moment, this author explicitly diverts his anger away from his home institution in order to absolve it of any responsibility for his feelings.
Notable in all these bygone essays is how reticent their authors are to give voice to their pain. When grief and anger surface, they are swiftly curtailed with pragmatic prescriptions for institutional change. They display a uniform resistance to soul baring that stands in stark contrast to the recent wave of quit lit.
In light of the proto-quit lit of the 1970s, in the 2010s the genre’s reliance on personal narratives that marshal intense feelings -- of rage and grief and everything in between -- to overturn a broken hiring system is indicative of how intractable the problem of academic underemployment has become. For so many of these authors, the very notion that institutional reforms will resolve this crisis seems absurd given its scope and duration.
There is no better or timelier example of this transformation than Erin Bartram’s blog post, which led to a broad discussion in academe.
Whereas a quit lit essay like Rebecca Schuman’s 2013 barn burner for Slate, “Thesis Hatement,” derives its rhetorical power from the righteous anger of its author, Bartram’s piece appeals to collective grief and sympathy. In this way, it marks the genre’s turn toward sentimentalism, by which I do not mean mere mawkishness but rather a philosophical and aesthetic paradigm -- with a complicated legacy in American social history --- that privileges feeling and leverages it to enact change.
In her essay, Bartram eloquently and movingly mobilizes her personal story to validate her private grief at having to leave the profession. “My feelings are, thankfully, not subject to peer review,” she writes, snatching the legitimacy of her interior experience away from the profession’s preferred methods of scrutiny and authorization.
The piece is far more than the story of one person’s loss, however, as Bartram attempts to extend her grief to those “left behind” -- the ones who have successfully secured jobs -- urging them to recognize “not only the magnitude of the loss [of potential colleagues] but also that it was a loss at all.”
Although the essay is more ethically than politically oriented, Bartram concludes it with a question that gestures in the direction of the latter. “What would happen,” she asks, “if we actually grieved for those losses?” In this, she hints at the political possibilities that would inhere in the creation of a community of mourners who grieve for those individuals chewed up and spit out by the academic job market.
There is much to admire in this vision, yet we should be cautious of relying on grief alone as a catalyst for change.
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote, “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.” According to Georgetown University professor Dana Luciano, this sentence negates the “compelling cultural fantasy that grief can make one better.” Powerful though it may be, grief has as much potential to reinforce the status quo as to dismantle it. That some have already begun to repurpose Bartram’s grief for political projects along precisely these lines is proof of this.
A 1975 profile of an out-of-work professor concludes with her reflecting on a group of faculty recently ousted from a small, rural college where she previously taught. She implores her interviewer to “imagine how they feel.” This imperative is a prescient anticipation of the guiding principle behind the most resonant academic quit lit of the 2010s. As we look to the genre’s future, we ought to consider whether simply getting others to feel right is enough.