Quit Lit and Academia as a Vocation

“Academic quit lit” has become a thing over the last couple of months years, now with articles in non-academic venues like Slate and Atlantic Monthly. ICYMI, the term designates academics who publish essays about why they are quitting the academy.

On Twitter a while back [when I first drafted this, it was “a few days ago”; now that I have time to come back to it, it is a little over a month], @brennacgray had a thoughtful series of tweets about it, including:

gray-quitlit tweets

I agree that academic work is a job and academics should be compensated fairly. The working conditions for adjunct faculty in particular are horribly exploitative, and part of the reason that is perpetuated is because of the belief that academic work is not just (or more than just) “a job.” Similar kinds of justifications are offered for the exploitation of college or minor-league athletes, for example. And it probably does “harm the most vulnerable members of it.” (But then again, what defines people as vulnerable is their susceptibility to harm. And I’m not sure that a model of the academy that sees academic labour as “just a job” is any better at protecting vulnerable workers.)

So I want to suggest another way to look at the academic quit lit phenomenon, that involves asking what it is an expression of, other than the capacity of institutions in a capitalist society to take advantage of individuals’ self-deceptions. The latter is a real problem, to be sure. But we can also read the quit lit genre more sympathetically and symptomatically: why would someone write a 5000-word essay about why life is unfair when they quit their job? We can do so by taking seriously, rather than dismissing, the idea that academic work can be understood as a vocation.

Sheldon Wolin, in his 1969 essay “Political Theory as a Vocation,” made the argument that some kinds of intellectual work, like political theory, were vocational, in the sense that they responded to a deeply felt need to do that particular kind of work. In the case of political theory, Wolin describes it as a desire to effect a Copernican turn in the world, so that the world is made to correspond to our normative/theoretical concepts (justice, democracy, equality, etc.), rather than taking the political world as given, and adjusting our ideals down to fit it. Part of Wolin’s argument was that most academics (ok, most American political scientists in the late 1960s) weren’t engaged in a “vocation” in this sense, and for him, that was a tragic outcome, precisely because it rationalized a political system that made some people particularly vulnerable. Wolin argues that most political scientists, who don’t see their work in the vocational terms of political theory, reduce political ideals to correspond with actual contemporary political practice: everyone is just doing their jobs, and so the world we have is about as good as we can expect. Then,

And while American political scientists have laboriously erected “incrementalism” into a dogma and extolled its merits as a style of decision-making that is “realistic,” it is apparent to all that the society suffers from maladies – the decay of our cities, the increasing cultural and economic gap between our minorities and our majority, crisis in the educational system, destruction of our natural environment – which call for the most precedent-shattering and radical measures.

It is only the pursuit of a vocation (for Wolin, a particular kind of vocation) that affords the vision necessary to see that everyone “just doing their job” can produce irrational, dysfunctional, and oppressive results.

One of the features of a vocation is that it is something you feel “called” to do, beyond the instrumental reasons for engaging in work. You would feel compelled to do that kind of work, even if you didn’t need the paycheque that it provides. Of course, most people do (also) need a paycheque to survive. So one way to understand the phenomenon of academic quit lit is the expression of the fact that that kind of work is increasingly difficult or impossible to pursue.

Before pursuing this to its conclusion, we can note that from this broader perspective, seeing “quit lit” as the expression of the unsustainability of certain vocational commitments, or more broadly, the unsustainability of certain forms of worklife, means that it is not restricted to academia. Consider, for example, Greg Smith’s public resignation from Goldman Sachs. An investment bank is a very different kind of organization from a university. But Smith says that he quit because of the “death of Goldman Sachs culture.” So, when Gray says:

gray-quit lit tweet 2 copy

I think she is taking too narrow of a view. Coal miners, cleaning ladies, and middle managers aren’t trained to “write 5000 words on why life is unfair.” But as I’ve argued elsewhere, this kind of lament or elegy, about the impossibility of engaging in particular kinds of work cultures, finds expression in plenty of other ways, from Greg Smith’s op-ed to films like the original Wall Street (1987) and more recently The Company Men, to the music of Bruce Springsteen. All kinds of work develop a particular culture, which gives that work meaning, beyond the instrumental value of the pay received.

Maybe we could and should live in a world without coal mining. But that doesn’t mean that the cultural loss, the loss of meaning, that happens with the end of that kind of work isn’t real. Although I obviously have the biases that come from being embedded in academia, I don’t think that the world is made a better place if fewer people are capable of engaging in unfettered pursuit of the truth, and the moulding of young minds to dedication to truth. (I know that this doesn’t describe the vast majority of what actually happens in academia. But it is the vocational commitment that is aspired to – what virtually every instance of the academic quit lit genre claims is disappearing.) One way of parsing the difference between something like coal mining and academic work, is that with coal mining the meaning (work culture) is derived as a kind of after-effect of the transactional exchange of labour for wages. With academic work, the vocational commitment in some sense comes first. And in an increasingly neoliberalized economy, there aren’t too many of those kinds of things left.

To me, academic quit lit is an expression of that disappearance, in the same the way that a particular charged moment is described in Steven Hayward’s short story “Strava“:

When he was finished he handed the phone back to me, and there descended into the office an awkward silence which I immediately recognized as the same silence that descends at the end of Chekhov plays as the characters contemplate their impossible future. It is the sound of a way of life ending.





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