Thursday, April 11, 2013

At The Chronicle: Anne Trubek on quitting after tenure

A long time ago, I read Sara Davidson's Loose Change, a memoir of the 1960s. What I was supposed to learn from it, I think, was about the excitement of radical movements during those years and feminist empowerment--consciousness-raising circles and all that.

What I actually took away was that people in those days could quit, drop out, or do any damned thing they felt like doing, and there would be someone or something to pick them up afterwards: plentiful jobs, more jobs than there were applicants, seemingly;  a network that would allow the main character, with just a phone call from one of her parents, to go to Europe and work as a translator in Italy; and a generous system of social service benefits that wouldn't let them fall into poverty.  They could change the world--or at least the upper-middle-class white women in the book could--because the world was going to support them financially no matter what they did.  I realize that that's probably not true, but it has a truthiness to it and seems true, given what Davidson describes.

I don't think I really envy that generation, but I did think about it when I read Anne Trubek's  "Giving Up Tenure? Who Does That?"  over at the Chronicle. Trubek's article is cheerful and upbeat, and she gives a lot of examples of people who've given up tenure and are the happier for it.

Trubek is right: people should be able to give up tenure and do something else, if they want to. I love my job and wouldn't quit, but I don't get the "Academia is a Holy Calling" idea where you're a failure if  you want to go into another line of work--or, more self-righteously still, owe it to all those not hired to stick it out even if you're miserable, as one of the commenters suggested. A tenure-track job is work, not a life.

And it's an  increasingly unattainable one, given the job market, as William Pannapacker and others, including the Slate columnist, have pointed out.  There's a prevailing idea or myth in every single one most* of the articles about this (and it appears in the Slate column): the job market in these stories always peaks just before the author went on the market and crashes spectacularly just as she looked for a job.  But if you look at the MLA's numbers, it's been bad since the 1970s, with a couple of blips upward, and that doesn't even include the crash dive it took in 2008. And as Jonathan Rees points out, MOOCs aren't going to make the situation better.

My point, I guess, is that giving people grief for quitting tenure, like giving them grief for taking a non-academic job, is head-shakingly misguided. This isn't Sara Davidson's 1960s, when safety nets abounded. People who take those risks ought to be applauded for their courage, not excoriated for Abandoning the Sacred Banner of Academe.

Your thoughts?

[Updated to add: I just read Historiann's post, which presents the other, darker side of the 1960s coin.]
*See William Pannapacker's comment in the comments section.
[Updated to add: And Kathleen Fitzpatrick didn't quit for good, despite all the publicity in Trubek's article. She's now a tenured professor at Michigan State after her stint at the MLA. That doesn't invalidate her thoughts about the terror of giving up tenure, of course.]


William Pannapacker said...

Thanks for noticing my columns on the academic job market. Just for clarification: I have never said that the job market tanked for my generation in particular (PhD '99). I researched grad school before I applied in 1990, and the MLA data showed that the market collapsed around 1971. There were stories everywhere about PhD-holders driving taxis in 80s. I went to graduate school at the prompting of the 1989 Bowen and Sosa report combined with "emergency meetings" to recruit students for humanities graduate programs because of the "dire" shorting expected in towards the end of the 90s. My advisors reassured me that it was a smart choice. A lot of people in my cohort had that experience.

undine said...

Hi, William, and thank you for stopping by! I enjoy your columns at the Chronicle.

I wasn't thinking of your column when I mentioned "tanking right before going on the market"; rather, the Slate column and some others over the years have had this as a consistent feature. You are, and have been, right about the state of the job market not being news.