Internet-era tradition mandates that upon departing from academia, one must write the equivalent of a “Goodbye cruel world” note, a vituperative recounting of the lengthy list of slights, wrongs, and injustices we begin compiling on the first day of grad school. This genre is sometimes referred to as Quit Lit. I have no doubt that anyone who knows me expected the Quit Lit equivalent of Remembrance of Time Lost, filling volumes. I am sorry to disappoint. There's no anger, just a bit of sadness.
I like teaching. I like being a professor. I’ll miss it. I think I’m good at what I do, so in a sense it feels like a waste not to do it any longer (although who knows what the future holds). Academia will not miss me; there are hundreds of talented people out there waiting to fill a void on the tenure track. That, fundamentally, is the problem.
The thing called “fit” is real and the job market is abysmal, especially for people like me who are middling at best on paper. I am by any measure extraordinarily fortunate to have landed a tenure-track job, any tenure-track job. That said, it was a bad fit. I was not happy and I didn’t want to be there. Ideally I could have moved on to another institution where the fit might have been better. Unfortunately I could not make that happen.
If you read no further, before I tell the longer version of this tale, I want to emphasize that my colleagues at various institutions have all been kind and professional. My department chairs were fair and reasonable. The students were, well, students. That comes with the territory.
What this all boiled down to is that it was massively detrimental to my health and well-being to live in a dying Rust Belt city by myself. And my “solution” to that problem – moving to Chicago and driving seven hours round-trip to work – was never anything but a stopgap that negatively affected me in different ways.
In the fall of 2011, in what has been an annual ritual for the past decade, I applied for all of the available academic jobs in my field. For some reason I actually got several interviews that year. Unnamed School in Peoria, IL, interviewed me early in the process and offered me the first and only tenure-track job I’ve ever been offered. I took it, obviously.
Everyone in academia tells you, “Take the job. You have to take the job.” Tenure-track jobs are rare, hard to get, and almost universally seen as the end-all of academic existence within the field. The logic behind the advice is hard to dispute. However, there is a big catch: everyone else only has to tell you to go there; YOU actually have to do it.
People have attempted to debate me on this – usually people living in Chapel Hill, Athens GA, Portland, Boston, California, Atlanta, and the like. – and I have no desire to debate it any further, but I knew the second I visited for the interview that Peoria was going to be bad. Anyone who lectured me that it’s “not that bad” or whatever, all I can say is: knock yourself out. Move there. Move there by yourself at age 33, no kids and no spouse. Let me know how your mental health is after two or three years, and what your social life is like. There is nothing to do and nobody to do nothing with. Faculty who move there with a spouse or kids do alright. Faculty who do not tend to have a pretty rough time.
There are dozens of medium-sized cities just like it and they are all the same. Everyone with the ability and wherewithal to leave leaves. You are left with people who can’t get out, are too old to leave, or both. The economy is dying and gets worse every year. Again, if you choose not to believe me on this point there’s nothing more I can say except, go give it a try. In the summer of 2012, that's what I did.
After three years of living there, I was miserable and it was affecting the way I interacted with everyone around me. I was irritated and irritating. Unpleasant to be around. I spent ungodly amounts of time on social media, just to try recreating the feeling of interacting with other people. I didn't want to be, at less than 40, a grumpy, shitty old man who others disliked working with or being around.
In a Hail Mary bid to improve things, I moved to Chicago in 2015 and began commuting. Felt better immediately. I think I got back on track as far as being effective at my job and easier to work with. Not being depressed all the time helps, it turns out.
However, my routine was both a vast improvement on living in Peoria and untenable as a long-term strategy. For the past four years, I wake up at 4-something on Tuesday morning, drive three hours, teach 3 classes, spend Tuesday and Wednesday nights sleeping in my office (which, believe it or not, is poor quality sleep), teach 3 more classes on Thursday, then drive home 4 hours with traffic. I get home around 9 on Thursday evenings and essentially passed out for that night and half of Friday. It's tiring. I live out of a suitcase, factoring in the trips down to Texas on weekends to see Cathy (for whom and for whose patience I am eternally grateful).
I chose to do this. It was better than my alternative. Still, I was tired all the goddamn time and drinking the equivalent, between coffee and energy drinks, of 8-10 coffees worth of caffeine per day. My blood pressure went up 30 points in the first 2 years. I was happier, which was great. But I also knew I couldn't do this forever.
In 2017, I reached the real decision point, which was Tenure Time. Either I was making a commitment to the university – including moving back to Peoria – or I was moving on. After ruminating for what seemed like forever, I decided I was not moving back there or, more importantly, spending the rest of my life in a place that was deteriorating even in the short time I was there.
I also made the decision in the summer of 2017 that I was not going to get another academic job. I still wanted one, but I concluded that it was not going to happen. Too many excellent candidates fighting for too few jobs, and no way for me to really stand out among them.
So, I needed another plan.
I stopped doing my academic research altogether. Couldn’t see how it would benefit me anymore. If x publications didn’t get me a job, x+1 wouldn’t either. Instead, I decided I would use my last 1-2 years at the university doing the teaching part of my job – I never slacked on that, and gave it 100% to the last day, which is today – but replacing the research and “service” (don’t get me started) with trying to ramp up a writing career. When I made that decision I had never been published in a media outlet (only self-publishing) and I had never been paid to write anything, ever.
I was starting from scratch and not at all confident that I could make it work. But I decided I had to get creative in finding ways to generate income for myself. With the help of Mike Konczal, my best friend going on nearly 3 decades, I got in touch with some editors and pitched a few freelance pieces. Once I got the first one, everything felt easy after that. Ten-plus years of blogging made me pretty effective as a writer within certain subject areas and in a particular style. The money isn’t great but it’s something. After two years of this I’ve published over 50 pieces, slowly increased what I can get paid for it, and established some useful contacts.
More importantly, I devoted a lot of time to finally, finally putting together a book proposal for a non-academic book. I’ll say more about that when the time comes but the simple fact is, “a writer” is all I’ve ever really thought of myself being. If I do not try to make a go of it now, I never will and I’ll always regret it.
I also started a podcast, another thing I talked about forever but never tried. “Talk about it a lot but never try it” is a bad habit I fell into for, oh, 35 years. I started it from scratch and was surprised by the modest but tangible success I have had with it.
Neither podcasting nor writing freelance pays a lot. However, in less than 2 years from the moment (summer 2017) I decided to change directions, I am making about what I made as a professor. Let me quickly point out that this says a lot more about academic salaries than anything else. In seven years the faculty at my institution got two 1% raises. Think about that, and ask yourself in what other profession that would be considered acceptable.
Long-term, I have no idea if this works. I could end up tending bar, doing this forever, or magically landing another teaching position. Or all three. I don’t know. I’m 40 and I don’t know if what I’m doing will work. Fortunately I have no kids or spouse to support financially. I can take the risk. Writing and telling stories are the only things I’ve ever really been good at, fundamentally. Now's the time to see what I can do with that.
Academia is a weird thing. I began grad school in 2003. From 2003 until today, all I’ve done or thought about doing is being a tenure-track professor. And make no mistake, being a tenure-track professor is just about the greatest job in the world. But there's more to life than a job, and that's the rub if you're not an elite academic: you can get A Job, but you can't get a really good one. You can maybe be competitive for the ones that people who have a choice in these matters do not want. I ultimately decided against sacrificing all the other parts of my life to have what amounted to a middling academic job, living in a crap place and making the same salary for 40 years. I kept asking why I would do that and I had no answer.
Teaching is great. I will probably find some way to teach again – a community college course here or there, or whatever – in the future because I will miss it. I will not miss the politics of the profession and its delusions of "meritocracy." I will not miss having no leverage over what I get paid, where I live, or any other conditions of my employment. But despite those sour notes, I will miss being a professor. I’ll miss the classroom, the students, the colleagues, and the conferences even though all could be frustrating as well as rewarding.
Thanks for hearing me out, if you did. Thanks to everyone who helped me along the way, especially my faculty mentors during grad school, Marjorie Hershey and Ted Carmines. Thanks to everyone at University of Georgia who not only temporarily employed me as an adjunct but also helped me on the job market and in my career in every way I could have hoped. Thank you to everyone who put up with me in Peoria; the department deserves a colleague who is 100% committed to being there instead of looking for a way out and spending as little time on campus as possible – and they have one now. That is better for everyone, including me. I will miss going to the office, but I will not miss sleeping in it. I'm exhausted after four years of this, and the three years of talking to myself that preceded it. This whole interminable experience was unhealthy and wore me down mentally and otherwise. I am happy for it to end, despite all the things I will miss.
I’ve said enough over the years about the things about academia that suck. People tolerate the lows because the highs are great. My last day and last class are still going to be sad. I feel extremely strange about this, because I have spent so much time – nearly 20 years – focused on Being a Professor. The adjustment to life beyond that is not going to be without turbulence. It is possible, and I am living proof of this every day, to make a decision that is equal parts painful and absolutely necessary.
Let’s see what happens next. I’m excited.