Tag Archives: Wolin

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.





Political Theorists in Three Words

An exercise I have been trying in my Contemporary Political Theory course has been asking students to come to class with a three word summary of the assigned reading. The idea was inspired by twitter hashtags like #LibertarianismInFourWords. I’ve done it once – for Leo Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?” (I’m not counting the beta version, which was, without advance warning, asking students to pick one word for Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Indispensability of Political Theory.”) Tomorrow I will try it for a second time with Sheldon Wolin, “Political Theory as a Vocation.” At the beginning of the class, we go around the table (there are 22 students in the class) and everyone introduces themselves and their three words. At the end of the class, we do another round, with everyone repeating their initial three words, and then either suggesting a new three word summary or keeping their initial one, along with a short justification for their choice (whether they kept the same three words or chose new ones).

The assignment serves a few purposes. First, it forces all the students to do at least enough of the reading to come up with a plausible three-word summary. One word, as I discovered with MacIntyre, doesn’t do this, because it is all too easy to pick vague adjectives like “intriguing” or “abstract,” or a word that doesn’t indicate they’ve read more than the title (e.g. “Indispensable”).

Second, it forces everyone to talk in class, and gives everyone the space to say something in class. Having said in the syllabus that the best way to learn political theory is to talk about it, I don’t want to have a class where a few students do all the talking while some others remain silent the whole time.

Third, getting students to give three words at the beginning and the end generates some pressure to reflect on how their understanding of the material has been changed by the discussion. With Strauss, about half the class changed three-word summary on the second round.

Finally, the exercise gets students to do what I said in the previous post I would try to do in this course: translate political theory to other registers and discourses. As we discussed in class, few people are going to work their way through dense, abstract works of political theory (as one student put it: “admit it, you don’t go home at night and read Leviathan for fun!”) Nevertheless, as we learned with MacIntyre, all of us, trained political theorists or not, use something like a theory of the political to make our way through the world as the social beings that we are. Or to borrow one student’s three-word summary of Strauss, “philosophy still necessary.” Few things seem as unconducive to thinking deeply about politics as the 140 or 160 character limit that increasingly define contemporary communication. Learning to find ways to converse meaningfully about how we should live together, even within those technologically-imposed limits, is an important skill to cultivate.