Before I get into this, I should try to make a few things clear. This post isn’t about the structural problems facing higher education right now (issues of cost and access, the changing cultural-economic role of universities nationally and globally, or shifts in media-information technologies that are reshaping our work). It’s not even about the increasing politicization of those problems as they become bullet points in campaign stump speeches or the subject of legislation. No, this post is really about the rhetorical response to these exigencies among academics and in the higher education press (and as the two become difficult to separate).
So I am willing to accept that things are as bad as they have ever been in higher education…. well, at least for a century? Of course, Bill Readings published University in Ruins in the nineties, detailing the increasing corporatization of the university. In the eighties, when I was an undergrad, students on my campus protested in the hundreds or thousands for a variety of issues related to apartheid, the CIA on campus, and, yes, tenure and rising tuition. Of course, as the song calls us to remember, students in 1970 were shot and killed by national guard at Kent State, resulting in a national student strike. Maybe the Golden Age of the American university was in the 50s when women were English majors, commie professors were pursued by senators, and non-white students had their own colleges. Look, I assume you all know this history at least as well as I do. So what’s my point? It’s not that “the more things change the more they stay the same.” I’m willing to accept as a premise that things are worse now than they have been in the last half century as long as we are all also willing to accept that there is hardly some ideal moment to point back to either.
My interest is in this post is in the rhetorical responses to this situation, specifically our near-viral interest in “quit pieces.”
For example, one student at one university posts on a Facebook group page that he doesn’t want to read the optional summer book because he finds it offends his sensibilities, and somehow that becomes national news. Elsewhere, this or that professor decides that academic life isn’t for him or her, quits, and then writes about it. They cite multiple reasons: students don’t pay attention or come to college for the wrong reasons and colleagues don’t respect their work, but it’s mostly about structural issues with institutions and higher education in general. As Oliver Lee Bateman, in a recent performance of this genre, writes:
In a university system like ours, where supply and demand are distorted, many promising young people make rash decisions with an inadequate understanding of their long-term implications. Even for people like me, who succeed despite the odds, it’s possible to look back and realize we’ve worked toward a disappointment, ending up as “winners” of a mess that damages its participants more every day.
Sure enough there’s plenty of response to this genre as can be seen in this Inside Higher Ed article (and the comments that follow) and Ian Bogost’s provocation that “No One Cares That You Quit Your Job.” I guess it depends on what one means by “care.” After all, I’m not writing to Bateman and asking him if he’s ok. Bogost is clearly right that people quit their jobs all the time. The argument of quit pieces is that the quitting signals that something is wrong with higher education. No doubt something is wrong. I’m just not sure that the person who is quitting has some special insight to offer about it. That’s an ethos question I suppose. On the other hand, it is apparent that people do care in the sense that they pay attention to these pieces. Perhaps there is some martyr-like quality imparted on quitting professors, that their giving up on their professional aspirations affords them some parting shot attention, much like the Oscar-winning actor offering a political monologue while the music swells.
I can understand quitting a job you don’t like. Those of us who are professors likely all know people who have been (or feel they have been) treated unfairly by colleagues, administrators, etc. and felt forced to leave (or been forced to leave by the denial of tenure). We also all know colleagues who have left for (what they hope are) greener pastures. Only the smallest portion of these folks write quit pieces. Why do they attract so much attention?
I think it must be an appeal to pathos. Bateman’s piece ends, as many do, with an enumeration of the problems that led to him quitting. While I think the problems he identifies are real problems, I don’t think he has anything particularly insightful to say about them. As such, I think because other academics are feeling the same frustrations as Bateman they respond emotionally to his (and others) expressions of that frustration. In that sense we do care and pay attention.
And I get it. Typically students go into graduate school with the goal of becoming professors because they envision a cloistered, scholarly life where they will focus primarily on the research questions they love and teach students who share their curiosities. Most of those students never make it to tenure-track jobs and then those that do arrive only to discover that those jobs are nothing like they imagined. It’s understandable. I suppose you could say I became a professor to study and teach what we today call digital rhetoric. And I do publish in that area. But I never really teach that subject and most of my career outside of publishing has been about trying to solve departmental and institutional challenges. So I can understand why someone might find that frustrating and disillusioning. I can understand quitting. I’ve left two tenure-track jobs. I just haven’t left academia.
Rather than watching quit pieces go viral, it would be interesting to see some vision of a future higher ed that imagines what the arts, humanities, and sciences might look like in a less dysfunctional academia, something that ends up being more than a performance of commonplaces about the present moment or an ubi sunt reflection on some mystical golden age of yore.