Quo Vadis? Or, On Quitpieces

“Quitpieces?” That’s what Ian Bogost calls them in The Atlantic, writing “No One Cares That You Quit Your Job.” He’s right, but I’m more interested in what they say about our profession and what we can learn from them than in anything about any individuals.

Two such quitpieces were posted two days ago, one by someone fleeing Wisconsin and the other by someone fleeing academia completely. Different reasons, different personalities. Different articles. Together, however, they paint one picture of our profession. One that we should care about.

Before looking at them, however, I want to quote Bogost: “Here’s the truth: academia is an amazing sector with some of the best features of any job, even if it also has substantial problems.” Absolutely. For all the complaining I may do, for all of the attempts to make change, I love my job and wouldn’t want to be in any other profession. But Bogost goes on to exhibit something of the circling-the-wagons mentality that I’ve seen so often in academia and that is also troubling. He claims that quitpieces are “just more fodder for legislators, corporations, and the general public to undermine the academy.” They help “nobody in the long run.” The writers of quitpieces don’t care about that, but I doubt that their articles make one whit of difference to attitudes outside of academia.

They should, however, make a difference to us who remain.

Academics can be nearly as sanctimonious as the businesspeople who are so smug about the efficacy and honor of their vaunted “free market.” We believe in ourselves and the truths we defend almost as strongly as do fundamentalist congregants in themselves and their truths. We are just about as loathe to change as the most stalwart of the Amish or Hasidim. We are almost as frightened of outside scrutiny as were the followers of Jim Jones in Guyana. Quitpieces, as puerile as they may sometimes (but not always) be, do serve a purpose: They can hold up a mirror to our worst impulses. They might even help us change.

The first of these two quitpieces is the saddest, in part because it is not about someone leaving the profession but leaving Wisconsin. Jesse Stommel was on the tenure track at UW-Madison but is leaving for a non-TT position at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. He writes that, as a result of actions by the state government:

The institutional climate at UW-Madison has suffered. It has become, quite frankly, an unfriendly environment, and my own efforts at collaboration have been repeatedly frustrated. Public scholars have come under direct attack. In our work as educators, we must leave no stone unturned, and suddenly there are snakes under some of the stones. And, in order to do our work, we now have to put our jobs at risk.

He goes on to say that:

the community of UW has changed, and the changes will have a direct effect on the learning that can happen here. The attacks on shared governance, tenure, and academic freedom are part of a divide and conquer mechanism that deters all of us from advocating for each other. I am in favor of lifting up non-tenure-track faculty, students, and staff so that universities are not caste systems with an oppressed contingent labor class. I am not in favor of making everyone and everything in education adjunct.

Each institution and each state has its troubles. And those troubles do seem to get worse over time. We can’t stop fighting, though. The AAUP, for a century, has been struggling to make things better for college professors–or, at least, not worse. Without it, we would long ago have slipped into a much worse position than we are in now. Benefitting from the struggles led by John Dewey and the rest, we owe it to our spiritual children never to give up.

On the other hand, we also need to be protective of our individual careers. The reasons for switching jobs are myriad and most of them legitimate, Stommel’s included. In leaving UW and writing her quitpiece, he is trying both to remain in the fight and to do the best for himself: Sometimes fighting requires quitting. The rest of us can now look at him and his decision and to ourselves, asking if we would jump ship if opportunity arose, and what sacrifices we would be willing to make—what sacrifices we are willing to make–to stay. Wisconsin may be worse for the moment, but the situation faced there is little different from that anywhere, and we on the faculty have done little about it other than complain.

Stommel’s piece should motivate us to do more.

The other quitpiece brings no sadness at all, either for the individual or the profession. Oliver Lee should leave academia—read the article and you will see why. However, he does raise points that we who remain should consider. First, we can and do make our own lives miserable—in part through the way we treat each other. One of the union reps at my school drives me nuts by addressing his colleagues as “Brothers and Sisters” in his emails, but he does have a point. We rarely see each other that way, especially if that “we” is extended to contingent hires. Somehow, we need to learn to be more supportive of our colleagues though, at the same time, we have to be a bit more self-sufficient. Lee writes, “I watched administrators and donors who had championed my career be shown the door, or at least swept under the rug.” He was lucky to have such champions in the first place but should have planned for the day they would not be there.

One of the more ironic bits in the article is this: “Activism informed my teaching; I exhorted my students to transcend and transform the status quo.” Yet the activism he details has nothing to do with the structures of his institution or profession.

Lee leaves us with a list of what he sees as wrong with our present academic structure. It shows a colossal misunderstanding of the role of a college education in a democracy, about the ways people learn, about relationships between people in different faculty roles, about alternatives to academic careers and about where the problems with American higher education lie, but some of it can lead us to important re-evaluations of how we see ourselves within our institutions–even if only through what he gets wrong.

Lee finishes with this:

Until something is done — something that isn’t just a quick fix, something that looks long and hard at the structure of the present university system and tears it up from the foundation, if that’s what it takes — the academy is no longer an investment of time worth making.

If Lee were really as wonderful as he tries to make himself out to be, he would be trying to do that “something” rather than simply asking others to do it. To me, what his article tells me is, “OK, he’s right. Unless we make changes, we might as well be like him. So, let’s make changes.” It certainly doesn’t make me want to leave academia.

How to make the needed changes?

I don’t know, for I haven’t had much success–yet.

One thing we can do, though, is join the AAUP. Get involved. If your campus lacks a chapter, create one. Start with an advocacy chapter that can work to highlight campus problems and develop concrete solutions. Get active.

Inactivity, after all, leads to little more than quitpieces. And we don’t want to go there.

2 thoughts on “Quo Vadis? Or, On Quitpieces

  1. It’s noteworthy that the AAUP was founded upon quitpieces: Arthur Lovejoy and several other faculty quit Stanford to protest the dismissal of Edward Ross. In fact, one of the great accomplishments of the AAUP was the virtual elimination of the quitpiece: professors were much less likely to quit their jobs in protest of a violation of academic freedom because they could turn to the AAUP to speak out about the problem, and because the AAUP could help prevent such violations and seek to resolve them when they did happen. Nowadays, almost no one quits a job over academic freedom concerns (which is why Alice Dreger’s recent quitpiece on AcademeBlog attracted so much attention). Stommel’s quitpiece is about a severe threat to one state’s system of higher education, which makes it important. Lee’s quitpiece is a much different kind of article, the whining of an attorney who pursues a much less lucrative career as a history professor and is disillusioned by indifferent students. Bizarrely, Lee imagines that the problem is too many students go to college, and if only we cut federal aid and get rid of the impoverished students, then the problem of students watching Breaking Bad on their iphones during class will disappear.

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