Grieving the Academic Life

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Years ago, when I told a friend I was searching for more work in academia, she laughed and said she was looking for ways out of academia. Now that I’m in it, I understand what she meant. Most industries have their peculiarities and struggles. Media purges too many talented editors and writers too often. Freelance writers spend more billable hours chasing their checks than is reasonable. Public school teachers have to spend their own money on school supplies. But universities have created profound complications for devoted, educated workers by making tenure difficult and by increasingly reducing educators to adjuncts.

On her blog, history PhD Erin Bartram examines the emotional effects of having to leave academia for an unrelated career, and how unequipped the scholary community is to deal with that. Tenure, once the goal of many PhDs, remains an increasingly elusive golden ring. Bartram’s identity as a historian suffered when her final attempts at tenure-track work failed, but she realized she wasn’t the only highly specialized scholar who struggled to grieve the associated losses. Bartram says scholars in general don’t know how to grieve the loss of their colleagues when they leave academia. They don’t know how to grieve the loss of their personal investment, the way it renders years of research useless, and the loss of a vision of a career that seems too willing to lose them. Worse yet, she asks: if academia isn’t willing to financially support qualified researchers and educators, why should researchers contribute to these academic fields after they leave academia?

Even in our supportive responses to those leaving, we don’t want to face what’s being lost, so we try to find ways to tell people it hasn’t all been in vain. One response is to tell the person that this doesn’t mean they’re not a historian, that they can still publish, and that they should. “You can still be part of the conversation!” Some of you may be thinking that right now.

To that I say: “Why should I?”

Being a scholar isn’t my vocation, nor am I curing cancer with my research on 19th century Catholic women. But more importantly, no one is owed my work. People say “But you should still write your book – you just have to.” I know they mean well, but actually, no, I don’t. I don’t owe anyone this book, or any other books, or anything else that’s in my head.

“But your work is so valuable,” people say.  “It would be a shame not to find a way to publish it.”

Valuable to whom? To whom would the value of my labor accrue? And not to be too petty, but if it were so valuable, then why wouldn’t anyone pay me a stable living wage to do it?

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