With the end of the Spring semester and the end of the 2018-2019 Academic Year, it’s time to add my voice to the many who are leaving academia. It’s heartbreaking–not only because I am stepping away from my what has been my single dream and goal, but also because I am losing an entire community of friends, colleagues, and mentors. To put over a decade of oneself into simply training for an actual job seems like madness to most of my family and friends who are not in the academy. But those of us that have experienced this together are true fellows: we went to grad school, managed our acid reflux and anxiety, sobbed and cursed through our dissertations, and waded through the job market–all together.
This post is not meant to rage against academia. I just feel the need to acknowledge the grief I feel as I leave it. I acknowledge that there are many good things ahead in life; academia is not the only way. But I want to honor the work I put in by also acknowledging the loss that I feel.
When I decided to move on, I realized that much of my negative emotions were tangled up in the intangible idea of Academia or The Academy. The community I gained was and still is valuable. But I feel the need to address this concept of a faceless institution with unspoken rules and a consistent critical voice. So my contribution to what I recently learned is sometimes called Quit Lit is in the form of a letter:
Our eleven-year relationship has been both meaningful and harrowing. You made me feel like my most lofty dreams were possible, and you also turned me into a weeping puddle of self doubt. As an awkward introvert, I was overwhelmed the first time I went to a reception at a national conference. But you gave me an incredible mentor who showed me how to navigate these social situations. I learned to introduce myself to people whose work I admired. I learned to socially circle a room and maintain connections. And I learned how to talk about myself and my own work in a memorable way. I am grateful for these lessons, and now it is time for me to move on.
Thank you for giving me a deeper love of literature and a showing me how to invest in queer culture and my own personal queerness. I had no idea how much we could challenge Jane Austen’s heteronormative narratives or how significant her punctuation could be. I didn’t realize that we could build queer ideas out of pop culture icons like Spongebob or Lady Gaga. And interweaving the old and the new is where we found the most thorough debates and the most exciting research. Who knew that to discuss one word, like ‘gender’ or ‘performance,’ could be so exhilarating? You taught me that.
Thank you for showing me how capable I could be. Because of you, I know that writing will get done if the deadline is near enough. If I have to write fifteen pages in twenty-four hours, I can do it. If I have to write two hundred pages built around a single argument, I can do it. And if I have to read three dozen books which I will then summarize and discuss over the course of a four-hour exam, I can most definitely do it. And I can stay up late working on lesson plans and grading papers, and then I go to a committee meeting early the next day. I can drink an entire pot of coffee over the course of a morning, which will, in turn, enable me to answer all the administrative emails. I can then submit four applications to four different universities asking for a variety of different materials, all in one afternoon. I can do all this. But I don’t want to anymore.
Because even though you have given me much, you have also taken much from me.
You took my peace of mind. Although I’ve always had anxiety (genetics factor in, of course), you stoked it until panic boiled over into every aspect of my life. You called it out of me and made it so much worse than it ever was or could be. Then, after five interviews and no offers, you pushed me down into the blackness. I could barely lift my head. Why should I move forward if I am constantly being rejected? I was stuck in self-doubt. I am not the only one; you do this to many.
I felt like I could never stop working. There was always something else to accomplish in the service of you. Papers to write, classes to prep for, jobs to research, and books to read–so many books to read–there would never, ever not be books to read. Because this was one of the main messages you spoke to me: you will never be enough. There will always be more to know and more to accomplish. It’s one thing to be a “life-long learner.” It’s another to feel that with each bit of knowledge you acquire, your imposter syndrome and shame grows exponentially. Every brilliant new theoretical article you read adds ten more articles to your list and emphasizes just how far you are from ever publishing a piece like that.
Because it’s all about the competition. The scarcity. I actually had to share you with hundreds of thousands of other people and there’s just not enough of you to go around. Even that small part of you I wanted just for me–dozens of other people want that same bit. And only one of us can ultimately have it. Should we hate each other for what you did to us? No. But you want us to. You stoke our jealousy, our envy, and you tell us to assume that we are better than each other while we secretly believe ourselves to be the worst. You ruin relationships and friendships and marriages.
You dangled that dream of tenure in front of us all. We work as adjuncts in the hopes that our teaching experience will get us somewhere. We pray that if we stick it out with you, go to conferences we can’t afford and do unpaid research, than we might get published and that might lead to a position. Meanwhile, the luckiest of us can barely pay our bills. But we believe in the dream, so we keep sending out applications.
Thank you for showing me how much rejection and disappointment I could handle. I now know that I am able to take a three-year barrage of nos from dozens of schools. I know that I will not die if someone tells me my material isn’t worth publishing. And when I have to inform myself of my own rejection through Wiki, I can feel completely worthless and still (eventually) get out of bed. My friends and mentors and colleagues all say I shouldn’t take this personally, but I can’t help it.
So thank you for all the public speaking experience, but I didn’t appreciate all the money you cost me and all the debt you got me into. Thank you for giving me opportunities to mentor students and fellow teachers, but I wish you acknowledged my service instead of just expecting it. And thank you for all the dear friends I made through you; I will treasure them even after we part.
Our relationship has been mostly about you taking and me giving, and I have nothing left to give. I am tired and poor, and I need something more stable. I do wish you well. I believe you can change, and I hope you do better for others that trust in you. As for me, I look forward to taking the skills I learned and investing them in a place that recognizes my worth.