or Some Reflections Provoked by #QuitLit
Six years ago I found myself living in an idyllic midwestern college town, working anywhere from three to five jobs at a time.
Here is a list of what my BA in French/comparative literature and recently completed MA in African Languages & Literature qualified me to do: serve coffee, sell books, rent videos, teach piano, teach French, teach English/adult literacy, babysit, dogsit, file documents in an office, go back to school and complete a PhD.
I happen to think that I was qualified to do any number of things. But it was 2009. No one had a job.
The day the coffeeshop called me to say that they would hire me on a trial basis, I had applied for food stamps and was a week late on rent. Had I owned a car, I would have considered living in it. What I’m saying is that steady minimum wage work, after hours upon hours upon hours spent applying for every job from dog grooming to technical writing, was an oasis in the middle of the employment desert.
I should mention that this particular brand of customer service gig came with a certain amount of romance. In towns like these, in the mid- to late-2000’s, barista was still the chosen career of musicians and poets and writers. People like that, whose parents supported them, but only to a certain extent. (That was not me. I was way beyond that point. And I am embarrassed to remember that I kept looking around me wondering why these kids worked the same amount of hours I did, but had way cooler shoes.) The bartenders and waiters of small college towns still held a kind of action figure status.
And so the job came as somewhat of a coup. In fact, I imagine that I beat out a couple dozen of the tight-jeaned, beret-wearing, Camel-smoking, Arcade Fire-listening set. (Who am I kidding? I was one of that set.) It startles me when I think back to just how much street cred was contained in jerking out a double espresso. But there you go. That was the time. And if you were trying to eek out some form of notoriety as an artistically inclined person, who sometimes had things like shows or openings or readings or performances of any kind, there was no better marketing than to position yourself in a role of Pavlovian dependence with an entire town.
“Here’s your latte. By the way, I’m playing a show on Saturday down the street. Here’s the info.”
Glug glug glug…
“Gee, kindly lady who smiles while handing out my morning fix, there is nothing I would rather do on Saturday than that exact thing…”
My shows were full. And my music was okay, but I’m pretty sure it was mostly the caffeine.
Here’s what it’s like to work in a coffeeshop though. Really. The part that does not involve chatting with townsfolk and receiving homemade cookies and fatherly advice from the regulars: cleaning and scrubbing, listening to customer complaints, being told by a short manager with a Napoleon complex that everything about your milk steaming technique is pure idiocy, floor sweeping, floor mopping, more customer complaints, shooing out homeless people after the sun goes down, shoveling snow before the sun comes up, not listening to the music you like, not working the crossword during your downtime, cleaning the bathroom, carrying heavy things, developing acne because of the coffee bean oils, developing achy legs because if you sit down Napoleon will hop out of the woodwork and tell you – again – what an idiot you are…
And all the while, I could barely make enough money to go out drinking after work, let alone pay off my student loans. So coffee was only one of the many jobs I worked, though it was the most steady.
Finally, when I came into the shop one morning, and the manager led me by the nose (I didn’t know what that phrase really entailed until it happened to me) to show off an offensive spot of dust under the couch that I had overlooked during my nightly sweeping/mopping routine, I threw in the towel. (More literally speaking, I through a cleaning rag at him.) I walked out and started applying to PhD programs.
I quit. I quit my life as a piano-playing barista, whose wine-soaked version of poverty was literarily lovely but absolutely untenable anywhere outside of the creative imagination (or a small college town). I quit because I was lost. I quit because I was bored. Mostly I quit because I was tired of being treated as though I were worth nothing. By bosses, by coworkers, by the ubiquitous conversation in society that regarded financial decrepitude as a kind of odd and unfortunate spectacle, but offered no creative solutions for sustained financial independence.
But I did not treat quitting as some kind of social protest. It was a personal life choice.
I felt that, through the years, I had worked hard to develop some talents that were underused and underappreciated (and underpaid) in my current life situation. Given this, it would probably be better to seek out an environment that might put my particular skill set to work. That’s it. It’s that simple. There was no need to write essays about it, nor to throw it down as a gauntlet during conversations with my peers.
The decision made sense. Compared to the little money I earned, the fellowships that I ogled on degree program websites (that were not tied to hourly performance or anything to do with cleaning products) seemed gigantic. I was not naive. I was not tricked into graduate school. I knew about the academic job market – how could I not? All job markets were doing poorly at that time. And I did not care. For me, the university was the only gig around.
Again, it’s 2009. Unemployment is ravishing the country. No one is taking a chance on a smart kid and showing her the ropes as she goes merrily along, learning a brand new skill set that has nothing to with literature – French, African or Comparative. That conversation we’re having now, the alt/post/anti-ac conversation, doesn’t exist yet. Rather, employers (if employing at all) are choosing between twenty candidates who have the exact qualifications they seek, and they are still suspicious of anyone with letters after their name. Simply put, grad school was the only company that would hire me.
My point is not that I went into academia out of desperation, although that pretty much sums it up. My point is that, if you have known what it is to scrape by, you realize how unforgivably privileged it is to complain that any job – particularly those jobs that are nearly impossible to get (and I’m not just talking about the TTR1 jobs; some of those adjunct positions are pretty competitive too) – does not treat you as well as it should. Many, many, many people do not have jobs that treat them as well as they should. Most people, in fact.
I’ve heard academia compared to a bad relationship. And I get the comparison, I really do. But here’s the thing: putting a roof over your head in a bad economy can sometimes feel like a bad relationship, and it’s one that most of us cannot leave.
So that’s my quit story. I quit my jobs for academia. And that experience provides a unique perspective when we’re talking about what it means to up and leave. Imagine, if you will, that grad school is just another job. It pays the bills. Not very well, but better than some other jobs. It is steady and reliable work at a time when steady and reliable work are nearly impossible to find. It is no more; it is no less. It is not an identity. It is not a calling. It is collection of services performed in exchange for tuition remission, a small stipend, and some invaluable career training (by which I mean both intellectual apprenticeship as well as “professional development” if you are so lucky as to receive any of that). It’s actually not a bad deal. But that becomes impossible to recognize if you have never been out in the actual economy, performing actual work for actual hourly wages to put an actual roof over your actual head.
Given this perspective – where training is training and a job is a job and neither of these are composite features of an identity – it might not seem so shocking to exit a PhD program only to confront the dire straights of academic employment. It would be a bit like apprenticing to become a welder for five years (which is actually about what you’re looking at if you want to become a fully qualified craftsperson) and then realizing that welding jobs are fairly few and far between. Well, you know, the market changed. But what do you do? You get some other kind of job.
Again, I get it. Academics are highly specialized individuals, whose knowledge is the product of many years of training and hard work. Society should appreciate them. With jobs. Jobs that pay steady money. Jobs that they can count on from year to year. And we don’t have that, and I’m sorry. That makes us, the highly trained academics, exactly like everyone else in the world. And I know that makes us angry and disappointed, and rightfully so, because we were promised more. So was everyone else. We were all promised more. Whoops – we fell for the hard work-y bootstrap-y fantasy of the American Dream just like everyone else. And that sucks. And it’s hard. But it’s not exactly a dead horse worth beating. It doesn’t deserve a hashtag. It doesn’t deserve a genre.
People quit their jobs every day. When they do it, we call it a life choice, not a social protest. And those who cannot quit generally have no choice at all in the matter, and so, sadly, become undeserving of public attention.
I’m writing this not because I think the #QuitLit genre is necessarily a bad thing. I have read some truly intelligent and truly moving and truly brave pieces, some of which have been tremendously beneficial to my own mental health as an academic. The reason I’m writing down these somewhat unpolished (yes, I will totally admit it) thoughts is that there must be some way of saying “check your privilege” when it needs to be said. And really I’m just trying to politely utter it as something to consider, more so than shouting it as a command across the board.
As powerful as I have found these #QuitLit pieces – everything from “I’m walking away from a masochistic job search” to “My adjunct position does not pay for my medical condition” to “I am a tenured professor and I’m fed up” – I also have trouble with them. (That’s allowed right? We can have complicated and sometimes conflicting opinions about things, right?)
There were a couple of years there, not long ago, when I would all too often be found helping various friends and family members move out of houses that they had lost to foreclosure. I knew hardworking, formerly six-figure-salaried people who were waiting on second interviews for salesclerk positions at Kmart. People with advanced degrees around me would talk about waiting in line at churches for boxes of food.
Given this context, yes, the idea of quitting a job for reasons of personal satisfaction – because of this YOLO, do what you love culture that has somehow instilled in us the idea that work should be pleasurable – strikes me as ludicrous, although I understand why to others it would be a rallying cry. (It would be ideal if this could be the same rallying cry as raising the minimum wage, or providing healthcare to lower income Americans, or making community college free, but at the moment I’m not seeing it.)
So if I have a particular aim here, it is simply to gesture in a different direction (principally the direction outside of this rather specialized world we inhabit) in order to provide some perspective. Yes, there are many traumas being lived in the academic world, but we should remember that these are reflections of an economic trauma that many people are still living through. Publicly priding oneself in quitting a job would have sounded exceedingly crass five years ago, because there were so many people who scrambled for any employment whatsoever. Who were grateful for the smallest paychecks because they needed to buy food. Who did not pick up the phone for several years, and so were only too relieved when their home phone lines were eventually cut off by the phone company.
This – the experience of those who lived through the financial downturns of the past decade and the incredibly deep psychic wounds that come with unemployment – is what I think we are too quick to forget when we write and praise the literature of quitting.