Leaving Academia: Rage and FOMO Edition
In the last few weeks, I felt like I'd turned a corner. I'd been applauding myself on becoming such a well adjusted non-academic person. I'd crafted some new goals, planned a structure to get there, and used a reawakened sense of creativity to bring goals and actions together in one coherent plan. I congratulated myself on achieving self-actualization.
And then an academic colleague sent me an email to let me know about an archive in Germany that I should visit because of my work on German anthropology and science in Guatemala. He mentioned a few different German institutions that might even fund me to do the research. My heart leaped for a brief moment.
Friends also emailed me to ask if I was going to one of my favorite conferences in Guatemala. I wanted to tell them that I was, even though I wasn't. Tiny droplet feelings of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) grew into huge storm clouds without warning.
I felt heartsick. My mind flashed back to memories of time spent in archives, which felt like hunting for buried treasure. I remembered how much I cared about my research and how hard I'd worked on it. I thought about all of the friends and colleagues I'd made. All of the places I'd traveled and the adventures I'd had. And the dreams that I'd created around the idea of pursuing my intellectual curiosities.
And then I remembered: I'm not that kind of academic anymore.
Remembering my previous life as a scholar triggered rage that I didn't think I had anymore. I felt confused. After all, hadn't I moved on? Wasn't I over it?
A few short years ago, In a spectacular bout of magical thinking, I'd thought that I'd be the exception to the wholesale collapse of higher education as an institution. I do not for an instant pretend that my scholarship was that absolutely brilliant, breath-taking kind that just makes your head explode and you know you'll never see the world in the same way ever again kind. I would never in a million years characterize my scholarship as brilliant, but I thought it was solid and should count for something. Turns out, it didn't count for much.
I don't want an academic job in the way that people currently have academic jobs. I absolutely refuse to adjunct. (If you're adjuncting, I'm not judging you. We all have to make choices.) I don't want to have a PhD and have to get food stamps because my five semester-long teaching contracts barely pay minimum wage. I don't want a postdoc or the more euphemistic "visiting professorship," both of which are really just fancy names for temp jobs in cities where I do not want to live. I don't want to relocate every few years when my contracts run out. I do not have the time or energy to participate in the marathon required to obtain one of the dwindling numbers of tenure track jobs. (I'm thinking of that article in Vitae recently about the biologist who submitted 112 applications for three job offers. And that's for a STEM job. I cannot bear to think about how many job applications would be necessary for a humanities person to achieve even a single job offer.) I do not have the money required for the annual conferences or consultations about my job materials. I also can't spend any more time losing earning potential (on top of all of the lost years of income while I was in graduate school) in order to join the ranks of tenured faculty.
I want to do my research and write about it for the public. I want to write and publish books about neoliberalism and its relationship to authoritarianism and state terror. I want to write about the history of archaeology and pseudo-archaeology. I want to write about the history of science and race and eugenics and child-welfare policies. I want to help change the ways that people think about these things.
Being an "independent scholar" (read: unsuccessful applicant) isn't easy. I find it hard to keep up with my scholarship while working a day job that grants me two weeks of vacation instead of a summer and spring breaks. Two weeks of free time hardly seems sufficient to do enough research for a book length project. Without an institutional affiliation, I'm ineligible for most research grants. [If you know of any, hook me up?] Lack of institutional library access hinders my ability to keep up with the latest scholarship. I write when I can.
If you've read the blog for any length of time, you know that I'm an advocate for the alt-ac or post-ac phenomenon. I firmly believe that PhDs can make valuable contributions to the world outside of academia. I'm always amazed by the things that I read about people doing their PhDs and I think that the world is a better place for it.
Nevertheless, alt-ac jobs, as neat as they are, won't cure our current malaise. The lack of tenure track jobs itself is only a symptom of institutional rot caused by decades of neoliberal policy and the destruction of social democracy. Neoliberalism has made the wholesale destruction of higher education seem normal and natural, as if the university has buckled under its own weight rather than caved to systematic corporate restructuring that emphasizes profits over students. The crippling student debt that we all carry in exchange for precarious jobs that don't pay us anywhere near our value effectively stifles our criticism of some of the most pressing issues we face today. Academics, particularly the precarious kind, cannot be the cultural critics they once were because we're all worried about employment and how we'll buy groceries next week. We're finding out now that even those people who we thought had stable tenure-track positions aren't as secure as we might like to think.
The growth of the ranks of alt-ac PhDs have highlighted how it is a phenomenon as racial, classed, and gendered as academia itself. It is not an accident that the vast majority of people who identify as "alt-ac" are women. We know so much more about the world now because of the contributions of women, people of color, and other minority groups (such as LBGTQ scholars). I wonder what academia will look like in fifty or 100 years, as these groups find themselves in fewer and fewer university positions and unable to do their scholarship. And then I remember that we already kind of know. If current trends continue, we'll know more about the interests of elite white men then we ever have (as if we have never known about their interests) and so much less about the experiences of marginalized people and cultures. We'll be lesser people because of it. I feel real sadness sometimes thinking about the mountains of scholarship that we'll never know about because so many people could never get any traction in their careers as scholars.
I'm angry at academia, yes. But I'm also angry at the larger structural forces that make having a humanities degree seem ridiculous. And how our freedom as people and as citizens has been whittled down to nothing and repackaged as the great freedom to sell our labor to the highest bidder on the free market. I'm angry that in addition to adjuncting, our career choices are shaped by precarity. We have the "freedom" to be Task Rabbits, Uber Drivers, freelancers, and adjuncts.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. I don't want to get over it.