Consciously Uncoupling from Academia

Why I am walking away from a train wreck

For the longest time I wanted to be a college professor, and if I’m going to be truly honest with myself, it was because of the movie Dead Poets Society. I first saw the movie when I was young and impressionable. I thought that once I got to college, classrooms would be filled with professors like Mr. Keating—passionate teacher-scholars who wore their hearts on their sleeve and demanded personal growth from their students.

Once I actually got to college, I learned that things were not that simple. There was a whole set of cultural and educational scripts I was supposed to have already mastered and a whole set of assumptions placed upon my body (based upon my race, class, and gender) that I wasn’t ready to accept or understand. To mask my feelings of inadequacy, I shrunk into myself. But, as an outsider at Dartmouth College, I also kept my eyes open. I learned that my social position and identity shaped how I saw the world, and also shaped how the world responded to me. In college, I fell in love with Sociology, the discipline that helped me make sense of it all. I became more curious. What were the experiences of others, how did their social location shape their opportunities and worldviews? I became fascinated with community, identity, cultural scripts, and belonging.

For over a decade, the academic calendar dictated the rhythms of my life. I spent my twenties, and half of my thirties cultivating, or trying to cultivate, the manners and language of the elite academic professional sociologist. Along the way I floundered, slapped about, and found meaning in other disciplinary directions and social spaces. I also fell in love with grand theory, learned how to humbly engage with others, found ways to see patterns in social texts, and discovered I could write deeply and richly.

I chose sociology because I wanted to master a methodologically rigorous practice to examine the social world, and I saw a career as a professor as a way to keep me nimble and allow me to explore, travel, and share what I learned. Nothing gives me more pleasure than being able to pick apart an idea as if it were a scab. I learned to love words and find a powerful sense of accomplishment in my ability to craft textured thick description. Even now as I work to craft a book, sentence by sentence, the process gives me chills. I’ve shared my work and my expertise at conferences, in workshops, with the public in a variety of ways, and, most importantly, in the classroom.

I’m the most present when I’m teaching; I have to be. As an interdisciplinary scholar of race and ethnicity, I have to be constantly aware of how I present and engage with the lived experiences of others. While I am the expert in the room, my knowledge is also partial. I cannot know everything, nor can I truly step into the affective experience of others. This is not a confession of my intellectual or academic weakness; on the contrary, this is a powerful standpoint to teach from. I approach the interactive nature of learning humbly, and, in turn, expect my students to make mistakes, yet strive for growth and excellence. As we work together to analyze and understand important contemporary social issues, I encourage students to speak from their own experience and think of more inventive ways to share their knowledge.

With me at the helm, students learn to speak across divides, take risks that might leave them vulnerable, and, in the process we wind up building coalitions and creating supportive communities. In my classroom, strangers meet, ideas are aired, and problems are diagnosed—all while we maintain respect for each other and support for everyone’s ideas.

For me, the classroom was reparative. It was my contribution to a better and more just world. Nothing has given me more pleasure in life than being a small part in someone else’s journey of discovery. I learned a great deal from my students. From their eyes, I saw different pieces of the world. I also learned how to be brave. If they were willing to trust me to be a mentor and a role model, I had to live it. I could not remain silent about how the structures of higher education were preventing me from doing my best work.1

Higher education in North America is going through serious transformations. The percentage of college students who are Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, and Native American has been increasing steadily while the percentage of white students declines. Unfortunately, increased enrollment and newfound visibility does not necessarily translate into a seat at the table. University administration and faculty do not reflect the demographic shifts seen in student populations. In 2013, 84 percent of full-time professors were white, and 53% white male.2 At Brandeis (where I am currently finishing up a one-year contract), 80 percent of full-time instructional faculty who report a race/ethnicity, identify as white (non-Hispanic), 8 percent as Asian, 4 percent as Hispanic, and only 1 percent as black.3 In this changing campus environment, it is not a stretch to think that sometimes our unconscious actions might lead to someone else’s discomfort, alienation, or subordination.

At the same time, tuitions continue to rise, but rarely do those funds trickle down to the classroom. More money is being funneled into administrative positions and away from tenure-line hires.4 The number of administrative positions has more than doubled in the last 25 years. Rarely is this new top-heavy model successful, productive, or beneficial to students. To balance this bloat, funds are siphoned away from instruction. Salaries for full-time faculty are barely higher than what they were in 1970, and most teaching positions are now part-time and low-paid adjunct positions. According to a 2012 report from the American Association of University Professors, contingent faculty make up over 75% of all instructional staffing. In 1975 only 25% were in these positions. Even elite schools rely heavily on non-tenure track labor. Being part of that 75% really sucks.

With few options for stable employment, early-career academics have to hustle. Wherever the job is, you go. Since 2011, I’ve lived in three different states; this is not uncommon. Multiple moves are now the norm in academia, and, unfortunately, they take their toll.

To keep going, I spent more time in isolation, struggling to balance the pieces of this career that brought me joy with the pieces that academia rewards. I kept shedding the enriching parts of life that sustain me and connect me to others. In turn, my work and my spirit began to suffer. I felt isolated and alone, full of shame and regret that the reality of my circumstance was of my own making, but I am a sociologist, and I know the relationship between troubles and issues (Mills 1967:395; Mills 1959:8).

While many professors are satisfied with their jobs and are emotionally committed to their universities, recent studies reveal that professors are under extreme levels of stress. We’re all feeling the crunch of the corporate university. Unrealistic research expectations and metrics for “productivity,” challenges to academic freedom and expertise, lack of job security, the reliance on adjunct labor, the dismantling of tenure,5 the emerging student-as-customer model, and the increasingly administrative nature of academic work and the shrinking role professors and faculty have in the management of the institutions they work in has made this a very hostile environment in which to think and share information. Collectively, we are so stressed and slammed for time that we no longer read the work of our peers. Academic journal articles, heavy with jargon, collect virtual dust behind expensive paywalls.

Committed teachers and scholars are walking away, and they’re not doing it silently.6 Silence will not pave the way for someone else, or make the environment more just. This is why I write this, because, like Audre Lorde, I believe that “what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal, and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood” (1978). I add my voice to the choir of voices. I am consciously uncoupling from Academia.

As I reconcile this change in identity, I keep thinking about the Introduction to Ann Cvetkovish’s book, Depression: a Public Feeling. In it, she uses memoir to understand how the expectations and culture of higher education contributed to and colored her own struggles with anxiety and depression. Living through this, and now safely tenured, she wonders: “what kind of projects might emerge out of these conditions”?

I think the real question is where else will scholarship come from, and what forms will it take when all the talent leaves and floods different markets? We’ve seen the rise and popularity of the data scientist. Is the people scientist right behind? Can we envision a productive future for the humanities and social sciences that happens to grow out of the systemic failure of higher education?

For me, the driving force that shapes my life and brought me to higher education in the first place, to quote Herbert Blumer, has been to “lift the veils that cover… group life.” The veils are lifted, he continues, “by digging deep…through careful study” (1969). Shaped by intersectional feminism, cultural studies, and critical theory, my method of choice is participant observation and ethnography, and I have mainly been lifting veils in the classroom and in my academic writing. However, students and other academics are not the only people who can benefit from a more accurate understanding of social life.

In our increasingly fractured world, the humanist and social scientist must be drafted into service. Their skills and expertise are desperately needed. We must be willing to leave the gilded cage and apply our scholarship and the valuable work of our colleagues all in the pursuit of a better future. In industry, government, think tanks, policy centers, and on the front lines of social movements we can serve society directly. As outsiders in these spaces, with keen theoretical foundations and strong methodological training, we see things others overlooked. We offer new strategies based on alternative frameworks, and use our experience to envision and enact change.

This is how we make knowledge accessible and create a new generation of nimble public intellectuals. I draw inspiration and strength from a diverse and passionate group of scholars, colleagues, mentors, and friends. For example, after leading a teach-in on Duke University’s campus, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva saw a new opportunity. “Another sociology is indeed possible,” he shared on Facebook. “But we must change how we do things. We must appreciate that our intellectual work must be rigorous, but accessible…Knowledge must be democratic, public, accessible, open, critical, and disseminated in a faster way.” Change means growth, and growth can be powerful.

As applied humanists and people scientists, we extend the reach of our knowledge into areas desperate for our expertise. We can forge connections, continue to learn, create change, and sleep soundly knowing that our bills are getting paid. Yes, there is anxiety and challenges here too. Working outside the academy means directing our skills and expertise towards practical outcomes and useful interventions. When working towards something achievable, you have to take budgetary constraints, political climates, short timetables and strict deadlines into consideration. This requires a level of compromise and an acceptance that the outcomes based on our work will always be imperfect. I, personally, will not lose sleep over this.

As I walk away, to paraphrase another of my favorite thinkers, “in my flesh, and in the images of my work,” I will embody the broad and inclusive definition of scholarship (Anzaldúa 2007:102). Yes, there will be a learning curve, and yes, this will require me to first watch and then listen before contributing. It also requires me to be brave and less timid. I’ve let academia wear me down. But, I didn’t get a PhD so I could signal a douchey form of elite smartness; I saw it as a career path that would constantly challenge me. My dissertation advisor once said that a PhD is like a fishing license. With it, you are now authorized to do sociology. For me, it’s time to check out other ponds, and catch some larger fish.

1 Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “Whose Public Sociology? The Subaltern Speaks, but Who Is Listening? In Public Sociology, University of California Press. 2007

2 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). The Condition of Education 2015 (NCES 2015-144), Characteristics of Postsecondary Faculty.

3 This evaluation is limited to the full-time instructional faculty who specified a racial/ethnic group membership (90% of all full-time faculty).

4 The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters, by Benjamin Ginsberg and David Bernstein. 2013.

5 The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education you Pay For, by Naomi Schaefer Riley. 2011.

6 See, for example, here, here, here, and here.

Header image: simpleinsomnia, ‘Men inspecting a train wreck 3’. Creative commons license.

About Jillian Powers

Jillian Powers is a rogue academic/people scientist and the 2015-2016 Association of Jewish Studies’ Berman Early Career Fellow. Previously, she was a lecturer in American Studies at Brandeis University, a Florence Kay Fellow with a specialization in Immigration and American Society at Brandeis University, and a Postdoctoral Fellow in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her Ph.D. in Sociology from Duke University in 2011. Powers’ work examines issues of American heritage, culture, and racial and ethnic group identity. Currently, she is working on the book manuscript, Traveling to Belong (under contract with New York University Press). She has spoken widely on topics of diversity, immigration, race & ethnicity, travel, & tourism. Recently, she gave a Tedx talk entitled, the New American Normal.


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