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Sarah Lindsay

My Quit Lit Post

Radcliffe Camera second level
Radcliffe Camera, Oxford University | image © 2009 Stickinho | via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

When I resigned from my academic job just over a year ago, I promised myself not to write a piece of “quit lit,” a genre to which many academics have contributed. Many of these articles point out the troubling realities of higher education, realities that I have seen and experienced. But the thing is, I still love academia.

After spending nine years in graduate school, then a year as a post-doc, it was incredibly painful to walk away. More, my PhD program, like most programs in the humanities, left me with the impression that an academic career was the only acceptable outcome of all that labor. I was leaving not just a job, not even just a career, but an identity.

I don’t regret my PhD, or my four years as a professor. I got to immerse myself in the beautiful and bizarre literature of the middle ages. I spent my days researching, writing and teaching. I was surrounded by brilliant people who shared my passions and who helped me become a better thinker and teacher. I taught many wonderful students.

But for me, the good wasn’t enough to balance out the bad. So here’s my quit lit.

I quit a tenure-track job in my fourth year. I worked at a small, Christian college in a mid-size city in the south; because our teaching load was heavy and research expectations were light, I would have gone up for tenure in my fifth year. I didn’t want to go through the time-intensive process of tenure in bad faith, knowing that I had no intention of staying, so I resigned without having landed a new position.

Leaving was one of the most painful, difficult decisions I’ve made. I had some wonderful colleagues who challenged and supported me, who pointed me towards opportunities and commiserated over grading and brought me coffee and donuts. I had students who I feel privileged to have taught, the type of students who made me a better teacher.

But this is not a good time, economically or culturally, for second-tier small private colleges. My school, like many others, tried to remain appealing by focusing on professional and pre-professional programs. However, the administration did this while also insisting that we were still a liberal arts college, a school that valued the humanities. And I get it: a core humanities program certainly distinguished our professional degrees from those at the nearby regional state school.

The problem, though, was that the administration didn’t back up their professed admiration for the humanities with any tangible actions. Instead, they cut language programs, expected faculty members to do the work of two people, and paid adjuncts so badly that it was nearly impossible to find someone to teach courses like beginning Spanish or French.1

The administration’s disregard for the work performed by faculty, and not just faculty in traditional liberal arts majors, became abundantly clear to me in the first faculty meeting what would be my last year. Our president, addressing the faculty, summarized an article he had read about the top indicators of a healthy college — and faculty didn’t make the list at all.

Our president, speaking to the faculty about how wonderful our college was, didn’t mention our work as part of what made the college successful.

That hurt. When an 18-year-old blows off my class, I chalk it up to immaturity. I couldn’t do the same when my president disregarded my work. Or when he praised our work while making it more difficult for us to do it. Or when he froze our salaries but reminded us that, as faculty at a Christian college, we should be more concerned with the good we were doing than the money we weren’t earning.

Added to that was the deeply entrenched good-old-boys culture at the school, exacerbated by the insularity of the whole region that made it incredibly difficult for an outsider — especially a female outsider — to gain influence.

All of these factors wore me down. I have great admiration for my colleagues who continue to fight to make things better, to provide an excellent education for our students, to create enthusiasm about humanities majors. But I didn’t want to fight to do my job, and I didn’t want to stay and keep my head down and hope for the best.

So I left. And because the academic job market is tight, to put it mildly, and because after five years of being on the academic job market I couldn’t keep trying to land an elusive job, I left not only my college but academia. I’m figuring out what comes next, blogging here and regrouping.

I called this blog Into Resurrection because I want to think through what it means to live into the reality of the resurrection, what it means to do the work of God’s kingdom in this world. So I find it deeply ironic that I left a job where my purpose was to train young Christians to think carefully and critically about the world around them so that they could do kingdom work, resurrection work.

Leaving my job felt a little bit like death. I lost not only a job but an identity, and I’ve been grieving that for the past year. I’ll probably still be grieving it for a while; I imagine I’ll feel a twinge for many more Augusts when I walk into Target and see the display with dorm room essentials.

But resurrection is coming. Easter is approaching, and spring; as my grief begins to clear away, I can see that this loss is not the start of endless winter but instead a fallow time before something new begins.

  1. The problem of adjuncts and low pay is endemic in higher education, but setting aside the larger issue of contingent labor it’s notable that my college’s pay for adjuncts had dropped below what the local community college payed.

Tagged: personal | academia