Academic ‘quit lit’: power inequity ‘still present at exit door’

Parting shot the privilege of the established, as precariously employed academics choose less risky departures, says anthropologist

February 27, 2020
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Crushed by managerialism and cast off a rickety career ladder, growing numbers of would-be researchers have chosen to fire a parting shot as they leave academia.

Now university “quit lit” has become a subject of academic study in itself – with an anthropologist concluding that power structures are so pervasive in higher education that people even surrender in hierarchical ways.

Lara McKenzie, research fellow in anthropology and sociology at the University of Western Australia, found that while many public proclamations of departure might appear to be bitter and impulsive acts of defiance, they were often written months or even years after people had left.

Only then do doctoral graduates feel on sufficiently firm ground to admit to the world, and themselves, that they have abandoned their dreams of tenure. Far from resigning in grand gestures, would-be academics are more likely to be quietly pushed out in circumstances involving little or no personal choice, Dr McKenzie said.

For her analysis, she examined dozens of quit lit samples from around the world and interviewed 17 young academics employed casually or on short-term contracts.

All 17 wanted to end their precarious employment circumstances, and about one-third wanted to abandon academia altogether. But doing so would not necessarily lead to more secure employment, with non-academic jobs in their fields equally uncertain and sometimes non-existent – leaving retail, hospitality or freelance writing as the only realistic short-term alternatives.

Dr McKenzie said that the inequities that plagued university employment could also be found in quit lit, with immediate public declarations usually limited to well-established academics. Their early career counterparts were only prepared to risk a “dramatic” exit when they had already arranged “some kind of job back-up”.

The study, which has been submitted for publication, also explores the downsides of quit lit. Authors court derision for having failed to succeed in academia, although people who quietly accept secure non-academic jobs – in university administration, for example – risk being branded “sell-outs”.

Quit lit authors also risk crying wolf. The study recounts stories of early career academics who announced that they were leaving but subsequently returned to stave off poverty.

Not all of Dr McKenzie’s interviewees planned dramatic departures. Some precariously employed academics moved cities or even countries to avoid the “temptation” of short-term jobs. Others sabotaged their future academic prospects by declining offers of teaching.

Some failed to maintain the “forced optimism” expected of would-be academics, causing mentors to shun them and recruitment panels to cull them for lacking passion.

Dr McKenzie said that these “open expressions of hopelessness and lost optimism” should be recognised as “small acts of rebellion”, alongside the grand gestures of traditional quit lit. She said that while the love and “passion” that fuelled many people’s academic aspirations were heartfelt, they often masked the shame, grief, anger and guilt bubbling just under the surface – torn emotions typically associated with “toxic relationships”, she conceded.

“You have to show a lot of hope and love in job applications,” she said. “I’d ask [in interviews] what made them pursue an academic career, and they’d go into job interview mode with answers like ‘I am very passionate about teaching’.

“This was obviously something they’d internalised – the kinds of performances necessary to get into academia.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Quit lit’: going with a whimper   

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