What happens when academic dreams are dashed?

Disillusionment with the dramatically changed academic landscape has spawned a new literary genre – along with a host of problems for those struggling to adapt

May 23, 2019
Source: Alamy

There are all sorts of niche literary genres that one could, with a squint through a jaundiced eye, apply to higher education.

Those who see university as a waste of students’ time and money might go for young adult vampire fiction, in which fresh-faced youths are sucked dry.

Academics befuddled by relentless change in higher education, meanwhile, might opt for absurdism – or perhaps “new weird” (which, apparently, “combines elements of horror and fantasy and somehow connects them to the real world”).

A genre that is common in the pages of Times Higher Education these days is “quit lit” (more on that term later): the tales of scholarly dreams that have soured because of the myriad difficulties facing early career academics in particular.

These are not, it must be said, uplifting stories, but judging by the article submissions we receive, they are representative of how a significant proportion of scholars in the UK and beyond feel.

You don’t need me to tell you how big a problem this is, particularly when academia continues to come under sustained attack from the outside (last week’s bombardment included a suggestion from the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton that universities should be shut down to rid us of their left-wing agenda, and the right-wing commentator Rod Liddle’s assurance that when he is in charge as a “not wholly benevolent dictator” he will bulldoze universities, the BBC and the Civil Service to deal with these havens of “Stalinist liberal remainers” – but I digress).

In our features pages this week, we have a particularly eloquent example of the disillusionment that many scholars clearly feel, written by Ellen Kirkpatrick.

Her description is of a career conceived at the end of an era, and born into a new world in which so much has changed that the profession is arguably not the one aspired to at all.

An academic career is unusual in having such a long gestation period, which perhaps makes it more susceptible to what Kirkpatrick describes.

But it is worth noting that it is not particularly unusual in facing such dramatic change. There are comparisons to be made with journalism – to revive another genre common to this column – which has had to radically reinvent itself over the past decade.

That reinvention, of course, is a work in progress in both fields, so for those who are suffering there is not much light at the end of the tunnel.

In academia, the impact of the precarity, uncertainty and – as we see so vividly on social media – anger that results is reflected in a new report, covered in our news pages, from the Higher Education Policy Institute.

According to its author, Liz Morrish (who is herself a veteran of quit lit – see “Why the audit culture made me quit”), academics in the UK are experiencing an “epidemic” of mental health disorders, with increases in referrals for counselling mirroring what we are seeing among students.

The data are concerning, but it is personal experiences such as those described by Kirkpatrick that really illuminate how impossible academia can seem as a profession.

In her article, she ponders whether, if she is facing so many unanswerable questions, she still wants to be an academic.

“But I know that I am not a quitter,” she writes. “Indeed, I do not know one person with a PhD who is a quitter. That is why, despite the ring to it, ‘quit lit’ is such a bad descriptor of the burgeoning genre of articles written by academics leaving the profession…People are leaving academia not because they are quitters but because the system is broken.”

Which opens the door for a much rarer genre: fix-lit. As ever, THE is open to pitches.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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