Take This Job and Shove It

A (Not Going) Back to School Post

No, not me. Y’all know I’m too attached to things like food and my pretty house to walk away from lifetime job security, even in the dying world of American higher education. (Tim Burke explains that higher ed isn’t the only thing dying in our sorry, twisted, clueless nation. Go read his latest here.)

Pardon me while I take a sip out of my half-empty glass. It’s hot here today. This is not the Labor Day post I thought I’d be writing, in part because it is kind of downbeat and I prefer to be a chirpy, uplifting blogger, but also because it involves matters not often discussed in public. Quiet, please. Nice people don’t talk about personnel issues.

Newsflash: People are leaving academia, and they are talking about why. (H/T to Historiann for the first of those links.) Those of us who haven’t left had damn well ought to be listening — and thinking and acting on our own campuses to improve working conditions before it’s too late. Too late for what, you ask? Too late to save the dying world or the generation of scholars we helped to train? Maybe. Maybe it’s already too late, but shouldn’t we try to do something?

I am haunted by the words of the departing: “I found that I couldn’t do the work I used to love. My motivation stalled. Something broke, and it seemed irreparable.” “I was tired of a system that served black students badly, promising an education that it failed to deliver, condemning them to repeat classes, to drop out, to believe they were stupid; I was tired of colleagues who marveled when I produced an intelligible sentence; I was tired of attending conference panels where blackness was dismissed as ‘simple,’ ‘reactive,’ ‘irrelevant,’ ‘done'; I was tired of being invited to be ‘post-black’ as the token African, so not ‘tainted’ by the afterlife of slavery; I was tired of performing a psychic labor that left me too exhausted to do anything except go home, crawl into bed, try to recover, and prepare for the next series of assaults.

On my own campus, it isn’t just adjuncts who are quitting, worn down by brutal teaching loads and appallingly low salaries. The second quotation in the paragraph above is from my friend and former colleague, Keguro Macharia, who resigned his assistant professorship in May not to take a job elsewhere but to return to Kenya to focus on building not just a career but a sustainable life. He is not the only person to walk away from a tenure-track position without a firm offer or a clear sense of what’s coming next. I won’t go into detail, because others haven’t been as public as Keguro, but I know of at least three other assistant professors in the humanities at QTU who have resigned in the past three years.

The Woman Formerly Known as Goose points out that, when it comes to personnel issues, academics tend not only to be quiet but also maddeningly particularistic. We view each case in isolation and as somehow unique or exceptional. Oh, well, this one had health issues, you know, and that one had aging parents in a remote part of Never-Never Land, and I hear that other one was having problems with the book. For all our critiques of neoliberalism, we privatize personnel issues and fail to look for patterns and the structural inequities that might produce them. Is it a coincidence that all of the resignations I know of were from women or people of color? Given the glacial pace of hiring in recent years, shouldn’t we be concerned about this rate of voluntary attrition? I know I’m just a numerically challenged English prof, people, but this data feels significant to me. Shouldn’t we be paying attention to it?

I have worried for years about how assistant professors were faring in the cash-strapped, technocratic, lawyered-up, outcomes-obsessed postmodern university. Tenure has never been a sure thing, but it is a far less certain prospect than it once was, even for those who spend six years running themselves ragged on the hamster wheel of hyper-productivity. We mentor them to death, mostly, I suspect, to protect the institution from liability in the event of a negative tenure decision. We fill their heads with conflicting advice about what and where and how much they should publish. We urge them to focus on their research but worry if their anonymous student evaluations of teaching lack the now-expected comparisons to Jesus Christ. And some of us undermine them in ways large and small, treating them as a servant class or as children in need of hand-holding. In most cases, our actions are well-intended. We don’t want to lose them. We want to support them. We want to smooth the uncertain path toward tenure. And some of them are saying, “Thanks, but no,” and stepping off the path.

“I quit!” is both a refusal and an affirmation. It is a screw-you to working conditions that have come to feel unbearable, inimical to sanity or well-being. It is a declaration of the need/right/desire for something more or other than the hollow, uncertain promise of “security” in a broken, hostile, dying professional world. I applaud those brave enough to state their “I quits!” publicly and in thunder, though I mourn these losses to my institution and, perhaps, to my profession.

On this Labor Day weekend, I challenge those who are going or have already gone back to school this year to look around and notice what’s happening with assistant professors on your campus. Do you have data or observations that comport with what we’ve noted at QTU? How do you think your junior profs are doing these days? What great ideas do you have for supporting the up-and-coming without making them feel that they are being infantilized or surveilled?

While you ponder those deep questions, take a listen to the song that inspired the title to this post. A guy named Johnny Paycheck did the original back in 1977, but the Dead Kennedys did a cool cover in 1986. No, I am not cool enough to know that, but fortunately the Google machine is. Happy Labor Day, workers and ex-workers and non-workers of the world. Unite.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this. I find myself increasingly concerned by what I think of as the speed-up of academic expectations, that pressures people at all stages. Instead of seeing teaching and scholarship as really joint obligations, most people think of their scholarship as their primary work. I don’t entirely blame them, because at least where I am, that’s the key to all promotions. But we expect people to do too much too fast… Many scholars in the generation that trained me didn’t write a book every 4 years, or one or two articles a year. They let things take their time. There were some advantages to a more “gentlemanly” world. Humanists have, I think, paid too much attention to productivity models from the sciences.

    We are not very kind — to ourselves, or to others.

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  2. I haven’t seen this happening because most of the people I know (including me and including junior faculty) are happy, or pretend to be, to have a job in this miserable economy. Is it indeed a trend? Maybe CHE should write about it. As to Susan’s point: Humanists didn’t pay attention to those productivity models until we had to, I don’t think. Want a t-t line? Want a budget for next year? What are your metrics? say the scientists who run things.

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    • I know that the change came when forced, but I am wondering how the increasing diversity of the profession contributes to it. Is this a way of keeping women and those less privileged in their places? I know that the coincidence between the change in the makeup of the profession and the change in expectations is not necessarily causal, but I don’t think it’s entirely accidental.

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  3. Fie Upon This Quiet Life says:

    I fantasize about quitting ALL the time. I think I might be happier at a school that had a smaller teaching load, but I’m not sure I could handle the research pressure. As it is, I have minimal research pressure, but I am being productive (have two articles out for consideration now, a conference coming up, and a book in mind, even though I don’t have to write a book for tenure). But I am sick of teaching because I only get to teach gen ed classes, while my specialty comes up a mere once every two years. If I could teach Shakespeare every semester — or even every year — at least I’d have something to look forward to. Instead, I’m teaching stuff that anyone could teach. I know I’m lucky to have a job in this market, but it’s not a job I’d wish on most people. Do I really want to keep it forever?

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  4. Reblogged this on Corner Store Press and commented:
    I’m still struggling with writing about my own experience quitting academia. Maybe I’ll go ahead and get to it.

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  5. It’s not just academics in the USA that are getting fed up. In Australia, there are fewer and fewer tenured jobs, most of the academic staff are casually employed and the people earning the most money are the bureaucrats who shuffle papers all day. It’s completely disheartening.

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  6. I wonder how much you’re noticing at QTU has to do with the (relatively) high cost of living on the east coast compared with the (relatively) low wages for entry-level positions on the tenure track (even at research universities, and no matter what the location).

    What I’m suggesting here is really an addition to what you say about structural issues in the academy: I’m *not* noticing a similar exodus at my regional institution with a 4/4 load (so this is in no way “living the dream” of a life in the “ivory tower.”). If you live in a place (with your partner/children if you have those, and ideally with some sort of hope of a wider support network, which I realize are all pretty big caveats) where you can buy a house, and afford a family if that’s what you want, on a professor’s salary – or even the more modest full-time lecturer’s salary, then those positions seem much more attractive. If, on the other hand, you are working like a slave and you *can’t* afford those markers of a “middle-class lifestyle,” and you’re not living in a place with a decent social support system, then you might be more inclined to say, “take this job and shove it.”

    So I am not at all disagreeing with what you notice, but rather adding another layer of structural consideration to it. Perhaps the problems aren’t only with the cultural expectations of the twentieth-century academy (the ramping up of publication expectations, the insistence on “metrics” to prove “excellence without money,” the emphasis on customer satisfaction surveys to prove teaching quality) but also with the economic expectations… that a new assistant professor (often with student loan debt) can have a decent life in a place where houses (or even condos) minimally cost upwards of $250K, and where one has no choice of location so would likely not be near to a support network that could help with things like childcare, eldercare, or even just things like house-sitting or pet-sitting or other mundane things that one must ultimately pay for if one doesn’t live near extended family. Add to that commuting costs if one moves away from one’s partner, or the costs incurred when a partner can’t get a job in your institution’s location…. All of these things hit those “younger” in the profession much harder than they hit those of us who’ve been around longer.

    So unless you’ve got an inheritance… yeah, you might think about leaving the profession altogether.

    Honestly: I am so, so lucky I ended up where I did, and not in Boston, where I went to grad school. My grad school BFF got a job at a college there, and she makes maybe 10K more a year than I do. That comes nowhere near to making up for the cost of living difference. If I had gotten her job and not mine? I’d probably have had to quit.

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  7. You may be onto something, Dr. C. Certainly the combination of the sky-high cost of living in the Washington metropolitan area and frozen/cut salaries has added to the stresses of younger faculty at QTU in recent years. I would be interested to hear about rates of attrition among tenure-track assistant profs nationally. I wonder if anybody tracks such things. MLA?

    Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful, honest comments and all the sharing of this post over the last few days. I’ve been blogging for six and a half years, and I’ve never seen anything even remotely close to the traffic this post has gotten — close to 2500 views since I put it up Saturday evening, on a holiday weekend. It seems to have struck a chord with a lot of folks, which is gratifying, but it also makes me sad. There is a lot of misery out there. A blog post won’t relieve the misery or change the conditions that produce it, but, well, talking about it beats hell out of not talking about it, so I’m glad this little post found its way out into the world this Labor Day weekend. Thanks for reading, everybody.

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  8. I quit my tenure-track job in July, 1-2 years before I would have gone up. The decision to leave happened gradually and then all at once, and I have absolutely no regrets. In fact, one of the reasons it is so easy is because I can’t remember the reasons to stay. (Certainly it wasn’t the teaching anymore. The research? If I cared to do it (I don’t) I could be an independent scholar, but I do miss the feeling of caring about my research.) I’d say “surely someone who wants to be there can have the job,” but since they haven’t replaced the other lines (30% since I started), that would be a bit disingenuous.

    One of the most telling things, to me, is the fact that no one at the institution ever asked me why. And I know, for a fact, that they have to submit the reasons why to the provost. My letter just said, I’m leaving, here are the dates and here are the things I’m doing before then. I expected someone along the way to ask why (#1 salary stagnation and #2 “pursing opportunities elsewhere”) and no one did. This reflects both my department’s approach to the world but also just aninstitutional inability to acknowledge the fact that working conditions are so very bad, at a flagship R1 (2/2, baby), that people on the tenure track and tenured are just leaving.

    The things I care about have changed since I was in my early 20s. I was very successful, got a very good job, and then realized that my work and my priorities didn’t match at all. My partner turned down a tenure track job at a good school in a crappy place, and we’re staying here because it is a wonderful place to live with lots of jobs in industries where former professors get hired. I have no intention of ever going back, and I appreciate how many things I did do at my job that I can list on my resume. It will be rough, it will be hard, but at least it won’t be there.

    See ya, suckers. :)

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  9. Another (anecdotal) data point to support Dr. C’s theory: wage stagnation and cost of living are definitely major subjects of discontent/discussion among my tenure-track colleagues (at a large suburban R2 in a high-cost-of-living, traffic choked — so commutes to semi-affordable housing are even worse than they sound — metropolitan area). (Said colleagues just wince when I point out that the great majority of the 30% of full-time faculty who are contingent make even less than the entry-level wage for a tenure-track assistant professor, which is, indeed, barely adequate to support a single person in modest comfort in our area. And I wince when I think about what part-time contingent faculty/adjuncts are making, especially after cutbacks in adjunct loads designed to guarantee that the university won’t be required to provide health insurance under the Affordable Care Act). There’s considerable expressed concern at administrative levels (both departmental and university) about the competitiveness of TT salaries, with the argument made that non-competitive salaries could hurt recruitment/retention of TT faculty. I’m not sure whether or to what extent the size of offers are actually affecting recruitment; hires are definitely being completed more often than not, though whether with the first-choice or the third-choice candidate (who would probably, in the current marekt, be equally good) I’m not sure. So far the younger colleagues who have actually left have doe so for other TT academic jobs in more affordable climes (often those already occupied by significant others). So there doesn’t seem to be an exodus from the academy; however, I suspect that some of the replacement TT jobs could be described as in some way “less desirable” — e.g. higher teaching loads. So, not quite a “take this job and shove it” pattern, but perhaps what might be described as a considered retreat to a more manageable overall lifestyle of the sort that Dr. C describes.

    We also seem to have a lot of takers among senior TT faculty for fairly generous retirement incentives. I don’t get the sense that most of the people departing are fed up so much as ready to move on to the next stage of life (and, in some cases, to a new place — which is one of the potential upsides of paying down a mortgage in an expensive metropolitan area for a few decades; sometimes, you can afford much more property somewhere else). Some, also, seem to be hoping to open up TT lines for others (and, so far, the department is being allowed replacement hires. If someone retired and wasn’t replaced, I suspect some folks who are considering retirement would reconsider, and perhaps keep reconsidering until carried out feet first).

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  10. Thanks for this post, especially for sharing about Keguro. I was finishing up my grad work at QTU at around the same time I think he started as an assistant prof. I considered the new assistant profs the lucky ones, but that may have been largely because there was (or I perceived there to be) a wall between “us” graduate students and lecturers and “them” — all you folks on the tenure track. I wish I had known Keguro better — and those other assistant profs that quit and the other lecturers that walked away, with or without their PhDs. I think we might have had things to talk about. I quit because I chose to, despite pressure to stick it out and try “just one more year” on the market. Quitting wasn’t a hard decision for me, once I’d had a good look around post dissertation distraction, but it was a very lonely one. I think isolation is part of the problem, particularly how difficult it is for people at different levels within the profession to openly and honestly talk about the situation. In answer to the questions you posed, anything you can do to open up lines of communication would help.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] a great comments thread on when enough is enough; and Madwoman With a Laptop hit the wave with a terrific post about tenure-stream people who walk away from good jobs. Will there a be a third post from Tenured […]

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  3. […] to Lose the Interwebz: Follow up your most ridiculously popular post ever (thank you, Twitters!) with a solid month of the blogging equivalent of this! And watch your hits […]

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  4. […] we might take up later.) My most widely viewed post ever was one I published this Labor Day called “Take This Job and Shove It.” It focused on assistant professors resigning from tenure-track positions, a trend we are seeing […]

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  5. […] Or, A Labor Day Post Quite Different from Last Year’s […]

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