My graduate school experience was probably one of the best experiences a person could have in the academy. In both my MA and PhD programs, I worked with outstanding scholars, had amazing teachers, and even better mentors. My mentors and advisors were all truly invested in my success and gave me practical advice about how to proceed in the next steps. This is far from the case for most people, and the pitfalls of grad school could be an entirely different blog. I say this, simply to point out that the reasons I am saying no to the academy are not based on any personal horror story. I’ve had mostly positive experiences in the academy. And despite that, I am still saying no. Even though the institution has treated me well, and may even continue to treat me well if I stayed—I’m walking away.
When I decided to pursue a MA and again a PhD, like most of us, I had a naïve perspective on what the academy was. Because my graduate courses was where I learned about things that are important to me such as social equity and social justice, I naively thought that inside the academy is where I could continue to pursue these goals individually and collectively with others. However, over the past couple of years I have realized that the academy is anything but just, and my goals of working toward social justice will be anything but honored in most spaces in the academy. The academy is an institution; and as an institution it is still steeped in racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and all the other isms. No matter how much we pretend that the academy is an oasis from all this ish that we say only exists out in the real world, it is not. This is even the case for fields and departments that are meant to offer a critical perspective, such as WGSS and American Studies. These spaces are also a part of the institution and are often just as culpable in perpetuating the ish.
Clearly I’m speaking from a white perspective. Minorities, particularly people of color, have long known this. White liberals, like myself, need to recognize how steeped and tainted the academy really is. It is not a safe haven or some benign entity that stands for good and justice. We especially need to recognize this of departments and fields that claim to offer critical analysis on issues of social inequity and injustice.
This may be obvious to you, and on a certain level I knew this about the academy. But the thought of saying no and getting a corporate job felt wrong, or that it went against what I thought I should be doing with my life. Working for a corporate, capitalistic system, just felt wrong. Are we not taught in countless graduate courses, that “they” are the enemy? Only academics who can theorize about capitalism and its effects are good and true. Right? Not quite. What is the academy if it is not a corporate, capitalistic system? We can claim it is something else, decorate it up with flowery language and make it sound like we’re really about educating people. But given recent high profile events in universities all across the country (I’m looking at you Urbana-Champaign, Illinois), this façade is quickly falling apart.
Certainly I could stay in the academy and work to change the institution from the inside. This is the entire premise of the founding of my field, WGSS. And many people I know and love are doing this good work. However, this option overtime has become less and less appealing. I cannot ignore the reality of the current job market, where the odds of getting a TT job are very slim even with a stellar CV. If I were able to get a TT job, or even a visiting position, the chances that it would be in a livable and viable location for me and my family are next to 0. Over the past year I’ve come to realize how much of a privilege it is to pursue an academic career, or any career for that matter, regardless of where it takes you. Place matters. I can’t simply go where the job is because that would mean most likely taking my Black partner far from any community that they desperately need to feel whole and normal.
From my perspective now, I can see several other advantages to saying no to the university, and working in a corporate or government setting. One, I will not be subjected to constant disappointment from colleagues, administrators, and other leadership who say they stand for one thing, but then whose actions negate those principles. Two, I will be appropriately compensated, and overall simply treated with more respect as an employee. If I work overtime, I will be paid. Period. Three I won’t have the constant feeling of dread that I’m not publishing enough or doing enough service. When I leave work, I can leave it there. Of course this will vary depending on the job, but for the most part, work email will get answered during work hours. It sounds like a small thing, but it actually has huge ramifications on a person’s life. Four, I can still write, publish, and engage in activism outside of the academy on my own terms. One of the things that excites me the most is writing for a broader audience. We all know that most academic work is only read by other academics because that’s what gets you tenure. But without the ever looming tenure clock, I can write and publish whatever I want for whatever audience I want. I can still use my skillset of writing, research, and analytical thinking to engage in activism. And dare I say, I think I can do it better outside the academy than in.