Why I am consciously uncoupling from academia

Jillian Powers is leaving academia, and believes she is only one of many walking out the door

June 12, 2016
Spiral staircase by an exit door
Source: iStock

As the semester draws to a close, and colleges and universities across America prepare for graduation, I keep thinking about my last day in the classroom. It was really anti-climactic.

All morning I felt torn and pulled, torn and pulled. I couldn’t focus on course prep because I was too hyper-anxious. I walked through my morning routine with laborious melancholy. While I know I need to move on, it’s so hard to leave something so enriching (and also so masochistically familiar). Once class was over, all the tension left my body, and all I was left with was a headache.

Have I eaten enough today? That’s usually the reason for my mid-afternoon slumps. But this headache was deeper. This was a headache of hypoglycaemic transition.

For the longest time, I wanted to be a college professor, and if I’m going to be truly honest with myself, it was because of the movie Dead Poets Society. I first saw the movie when I was young and impressionable. I thought that once I got to college, classrooms would be filled with professors like Mr Keating – passionate teacher-scholars who wore their hearts on their sleeve and demanded personal growth from their students.

Once I actually got to college, I learned that things were not that simple.

There was a whole set of cultural and educational scripts I was supposed to have already mastered and a whole set of assumptions placed upon my body (based upon my race, class and gender) that I wasn’t ready to accept or understand. To mask my feelings of inadequacy, I shrunk into myself. But, as an outsider at Dartmouth College, I also kept my eyes open. I learned that my social position and identity shaped how I saw the world, and also shaped how the world responded to me.

In college, I fell in love with sociology, the discipline that helped me make sense of it all.

For more than a decade, the academic calendar dictated the rhythms of my life. I spent my twenties, and half of my thirties, cultivating, or trying to cultivate, the manners and language of the elite academic professional sociologist. Along the way, I also fell in love with grand theory, learned how to humbly engage with others, found ways to see patterns in social texts and discovered that I could write deeply and richly.

I’m the most present when I’m teaching; I have to be. As an interdisciplinary scholar of race and ethnicity, I have to be constantly aware of how I present and engage with the lived experiences of others.

While I am the expert in the room, my knowledge is also partial. I cannot know everything. This is not a confession of my intellectual or academic weakness; on the contrary, this is a powerful standpoint to teach from. I approach the interactive nature of learning humbly, and, in turn, expect my students to make mistakes, yet strive for growth and excellence.

For me, the classroom was my contribution to a better and more just world. Nothing has given me more pleasure in life than being a small part in someone else’s journey of discovery. I learned a great deal from my students. From their eyes, I saw different pieces of the world. I also learned how to be brave. If they were willing to trust me to be a mentor and a role model, I had to live it.

I could not remain silent about how the structures of higher education were preventing me from doing my best work.

Higher education is going through serious transformations. The percentage of college students who are Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, black and Native American has been increasing steadily while the percentage of white students declines. Unfortunately, increased enrolment and newfound visibility does not necessarily translate into a seat at the table.

University administration and faculty do not reflect the demographic shifts seen in student populations. In 2013, 84 per cent of full-time professors in the US were white, and 53 per cent white male.

At the same time, tuition fees continue to rise, but rarely do those funds trickle down to the classroom. More money is being funnelled into administrative positions and away from tenure-line hires. The number of administrative positions has more than doubled in the past 25 years. Rarely is this new top-heavy model successful, productive or beneficial to students.

With few options for stable employment, early-career academics have to hustle. Wherever the job is, you go. Since 2011, I’ve lived in three different states; this is not uncommon. Multiple moves are now the norm in academe, and, unfortunately, they take their toll.


Read next: Five cities, seven years: my life post-PhD


To keep going, I spent more time in isolation, struggling to balance the pieces of this career that brought me joy with the pieces that academia rewards.

While many professors are satisfied with their jobs and are emotionally committed to their universities, recent studies reveal that professors are under extreme levels of stress. We’re all feeling the crunch of the corporate university. Unrealistic research expectations and metrics for “productivity”, challenges to academic freedom and expertise, lack of job security, the reliance on adjunct labour, the dismantling of tenure, the emerging student-as-customer model, and the increasingly administrative nature of academic work and the shrinking role professors and faculty have in the management of the institutions they work in has made this a very hostile environment in which to think and share information.

Committed teachers and scholars are walking away, and they’re not doing it silently. Silence will not pave the way for someone else, or make the environment more just. This is why I write this, because, like Audre Lorde, I believe that “what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal, and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood”. I add my voice to the choir of voices. I am consciously uncoupling from academia.

For me, the driving force that shapes my life and brought me to higher education in the first place, to quote Herbert Blumer, has been to “lift the veils that cover…group life”. The veils are lifted, he continues, “by digging deep…through careful study”.

Shaped by intersectional feminism, cultural studies and critical theory, my method of choice is participant observation and ethnography, and I have mainly been lifting veils in the classroom and in my academic writing. However, students and other academics are not the only people who can benefit from a more accurate understanding of social life.

In our increasingly fractured world, the humanist and social scientist must be drafted into service. Their skills and expertise are desperately needed. We must be willing to leave the gilded cage and apply our scholarship and the valuable work of our colleagues all in the pursuit of a better future. In industry, government, thinktanks, policy centres and on the front lines of social movements, we can serve society directly.

As outsiders in these spaces, with keen theoretical foundations and strong methodological training, we see things others overlooked. We offer new strategies based on alternative frameworks and use our experience to envision and enact change.

This is how we make knowledge accessible and create a new generation of nimble public intellectuals. I draw inspiration and strength from a diverse and passionate group of scholars, colleagues, mentors and friends. For example, after leading a teach-in on Duke University’s campus, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva saw a new opportunity. “Another sociology is indeed possible,” he shared on Facebook. “But we must change how we do things. We must appreciate that our intellectual work must be rigorous, but accessible…Knowledge must be democratic, public, accessible, open, critical and disseminated in a faster way.”

Change means growth, and growth can be powerful.

As applied humanists and people scientists, we extend the reach of our knowledge into areas desperate for our expertise. We can forge connections, continue to learn, create change and sleep soundly knowing that our bills are getting paid. Yes, there is anxiety and challenges here, too. Working outside the academy means directing our skills and expertise towards practical outcomes and useful interventions. When working towards something achievable, you have to take budgetary constraints, political climates, short timetables and strict deadlines into consideration. This requires a level of compromise and an acceptance that the outcomes based on our work will always be imperfect. I, personally, will not lose sleep over this.

As I walk away, to paraphrase another of my favourite thinkers, “in my flesh, and in the images of my work”, I will embody the broad and inclusive definition of scholarship.

Yes, there will be a learning curve, and yes, this will require me to first watch and then listen before contributing. It also requires me to be brave and less timid. I’ve let academia wear me down. But, I didn’t get a PhD so I could signal a douchey form of elite smartness; I saw it as a career path that would constantly challenge me.

My dissertation adviser once said that a PhD is like a fishing licence. With it, you are now authorised to do sociology. For me, it’s time to check out other ponds and catch some larger fish.

Jillian Powers was Kay fellow in immigration and American society at Brandeis University. The full version of this blog appears on her website.

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