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Why I Left Academia (Since You're Wondering)

I didn’t have a choice. Thousands of people are driven out of the profession each year.

· 16 min read
Why I Left Academia (Since You're Wondering)
William Deresiewicz

If I care so much about college—about students, about teaching, about the humanities, about the transformative potential of the undergraduate experience—then why did I leave? Why, in 2008, after 10 years on the faculty at Yale, did I say goodbye not only to that institution but to the profession as a whole? A lot of people have asked me that question; a lot more have assumed they know the answer. Did I quit in disgust at the corruption of the academic enterprise? Could I no longer bear to participate in the perpetuation of the class system? If I didn’t get tenure at Yale, did I regard it as beneath my dignity to work at a less prestigious institution? No, no, and no.

This article is adapted from William Deresiewicz's new book, The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society. (Macmillan)

Here’s why I left: I didn’t have a choice. I not only failed to get tenure at Yale—which was completely expected—I failed to land another job anywhere else. Let me explain how it works. When you are hired as an assistant professor, after you complete your PhD, at a leading research institution like Yale, the hope is not that you’ll get tenure down the line. That almost never happens; for tenure at a top school, you need to stand among the foremost leaders in your field, and very few people are capable of establishing that kind of reputation in the space of six years. No, the hope is that you’ll stay awhile, publish, then jump to another job somewhere else, somewhere that will tenure you. That’s exactly what I saw among the junior faculty who preceded me in the English department. They got jobs at places like Northwestern, Northeastern, Smith, UNC, and the University of Kentucky. And that is what I thought that I would do, as well.

That I failed was not for lack of trying. Once I had finished a book and gotten it accepted for publication (this was in my sixth year), I went back on the job market. I received a few interviews, but no offers. Then I went back the next year. And the next year. And the next. (Yale had an anomalous system; you could stay for a maximum of 10 years rather than the usual seven, with promotion to untenured associate after the sixth.) Here is a list of the schools I applied to:

Brown (twice), Bryn Mawr, BU, Dartmouth, Davidson, Eugene Lang (The New School), Holy Cross, Johns Hopkins (twice), Kenyon, Macalester, McGill, Notre Dame, NYU (twice), Ohio State Mansfield, Ohio University, Penn State, Queen’s University, Rutgers, Saint Louis University, Scripps, SUNY Albany, SUNY Stony Brook, Tulane, University of British Columbia (twice), UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, University of Chicago, University of Colorado, University of Illinois, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, University of Oregon (twice), University of Pennsylvania (three times), University of Portland, University of Toronto Mississauga, Vanderbilt, Western Washington University, and Williams.

That’s 39 schools and 46 applications. Prestigious universities, public and private; non-prestigious universities, public and private; Canadian universities; liberal arts colleges. Institutions in the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, the West, and north of the border; schools urban, suburban, and rural. I would’ve gone just about anywhere. But with all that work and all that hope, I got a total of five interviews, two callbacks (the final stage in the hiring process), and zero offers.

With a name like Yale on my CV, plus a decent publication record, I must have really screwed things up to have experienced such dismal fortune. And I did. Oh, I did.

Let’s go back. I hadn’t followed the usual route to graduate school. I had majored in science, not English (although, by the middle of college, I dearly wished that I had majored in English). That meant that when I got to graduate school, I was several years behind my classmates—a handicap, but not a fatal one. More importantly, it meant that I entered the doctoral program without having been socialized into the profession to even the slightest degree. I entered like an undergraduate, with an undergraduate’s idealism and naïveté. For me, graduate school, which I didn’t begin until four years after finishing college, was a way of finally doing that English major that I’d always wished I’d done. I went, in other words, because I wanted to read books: because I loved books; because I lived my deepest life in books; because art, particularly literary art, meant everything to me; because I wanted to put myself under the guidance of teachers who would inspire me and mentor me; because I hoped someday to be such a teacher myself.

Anyone in the academic humanities—anyone who’s gotten within smelling distance of the academic humanities these last 40 years—will see the problem. Loving books is not why people are supposed to become English professors, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Loving books is scoffed at (or would be, if anybody ever copped to it). The whole concept of literature—still more, of art—has been discredited. Novels, poems, stories, plays: these are “texts,” no different in kind from other texts. The purpose of studying them is not to appreciate or understand them; it is to “interrogate” them for their ideological investments (in patriarchy, in white supremacy, in Western imperialism and ethnocentrism), and then to unmask and debunk them, to drain them of their poisonous persuasive power. The passions that are meant to draw people to the profession of literary study, these last many years, are not aesthetic; they are political.

I was dimly aware, when I got to graduate school, that the experience would be different from the few college English classes I had taken—I knew that “theory” was big, though I didn’t much know what it was—but I had no idea what I’d be up against. Fortunately (or not), it didn’t take long to find out. The first week of my first seminar—it was a “proseminar,” designed specifically for entering students—the professor said this: “The most important thing for a first-year graduate student to do is to figure out where they stand ideologically.”

“I know where I stand ideologically!” the young man next to me burst out. “I am a marxist with a small m.” He was pounced upon by two or three of the women. “But Marxism has nothing to say about feminist issues!” one of them said. “That is why I am a marxist with a small m!” he replied. The professor smiled benignly; her pupils were apt. I cowered beneath the table (metaphorically), understanding immediately that, like a dissenter in a marxist (small m or large) regime, I would need to speak my true beliefs behind closed doors, and only to those I could trust.

Gradually, over the next few years, I got the lay of the professional terrain I’d entered into. It was marked not only by a relentless animus against the works of the past (and the “dead white men” who wrote them), but by a constant effort to enlist them in contemporary battles; by an enthrallment with jargon, a commitment to verbal opacity, and a suspicion of clear, conversational prose; by intellectual dishonesty and flabbiness and sloppiness, all implicitly excused by the alleged rightness of the cause; by an adolescent sense of moral superiority; by a pervasive atmosphere of ideological surveillance.

But what disgusted me the most was not the intellectual corruption. It was the careerism. It was the sense that all of this—all the posturing, all the position-taking—was nothing more than a professional game. The goal was advancement, not truth. The worst mistake was to think for yourself. People said things that they obviously didn’t believe, or wouldn’t have believed if they had bothered to subject them to the test of their own experience—that language is incapable of making meaning, that the self is a construct—but that the climate forced them to avow. Students stuck their fingers in the air to see which way the theoretical winds were blowing, designing their dissertations to catch the swell of the latest trend. Names of departmental stars—“Franco,” “Gayatri”—were dropped in the graduate lounge like aces in a round of poker. The whole enterprise seemed completely self-enclosed. People claimed to aim to change the world, to exert some influence outside of the academy, when it was perfectly clear that their highest ambition was tenure. One of the students I started with, among the smartest and most well-read in the class, was a strong feminist who really did want to change the world. She left after a year to go to law school, where she felt that she actually could.

So why did I stay? Because I still loved books. Because I found some teachers to inspire and guide me, mostly by taking classes with people over 50 (there were still enough professors of the old school hanging on, though they were increasingly embattled). Because, as I’d suspected I would and discovered I did, I loved to teach. Because I thought that if I faked it long enough and hard enough—published enough articles, with enough footnotes—then I could slip through the cracks, get a job somewhere, then tenure somewhere, before I was found out. Because I believed in doing things the right way—reading the right way (to learn from books, not lecture them), thinking the right way (with both feet on the ground), writing the right way (like an actual human being), teaching the right way (helping students to be better versions of themselves, not little versions of me)—and I wasn’t going to yield the field without a fight. I wasn’t going to let the bastards grind me down.

The strategy worked for a while. A long while, really. There were some potholes, to be sure, especially to do with the fact that I could never bring myself to read much theory, or to write the way that the discipline wanted me to, with that generic, disembodied voice. One of the department stars, who agreed to read a couple of chapters of my dissertation on the condition that he didn’t actually have to sit on my committee (i.e., make a real effort), asked me if I had been living in a cave for 20 years. Even my graduate advisor, generally sympathetic and encouraging, said that I sounded like I was writing for the New Yorker. One year, the school played host to the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association, the second-most important conference in the field—a fact to which I had succeeded in remaining oblivious, though I should have known that something was up when a fellow student, abuzz with preprofessional pheromones, asked if I was going to “the plenary.” The last day, I bumped into one of my professors headed in the other direction. She was someone who usually got a mild vicarious kick from my subversive attitude. “Where are you going?” I asked her. “To the conference?” she said. Like, where else? “What conference?” I asked. A look passed across her face, as if to say, “How far are you planning to push this charade?”

Nonetheless, I managed to publish a couple of articles and get some decent recommendations from professors over 50, and when I ventured on the job market, the year I finished my degree, I was offered interviews at five institutions (out of the 20 to which I applied). Four were lower-tier places—Auburn, the University of Montana, Georgia State, and Cal State Los Angeles—and the fifth was Yale. The explanation of this strange assortment is that Yale’s was still a very conservative department—meaning, it was still run by people who shared my intellectual values. Being able to write, for example, was not considered a liability. And since junior hires, who were only supposed to stick around for a few years, were mainly valued for their teaching, the department also cared a lot about how well they thought you’d do it. I withdrew from the other searches before they finished (Yale made its decisions early, without callbacks), but it’s quite possible that if I hadn’t gotten the position I did, I would not have gotten one at all.

After nine years in graduate school, uncertain the entire time about my future, I had been granted a new lease on my professional life. Given Yale’s generous 10-year timeline, plus leaves of absence in the fourth and seventh years, I should’ve been able to make it work: publish, get another job, make it to Castle Tenure.

But there were problems. For one thing, I was still having trouble bringing myself to professionalize. The drudgery of it all! Slogging through a desert of secondary sources (as bad as it is to have to write academic prose, having to read it is brain death). Enduring the endless odyssey of scholarly publication: submitting, submitting, submitting (rejection, rejection, rejection), submitting once more, revising, revising, revising (six months, 12 months, 18 months), all for a single precious line on your CV and a readership of approximately zero. And the conferences. Oh, the conferences. You fly across the country to sit in airless ballrooms, scented with the odor of professional futility, listening to airless talks. You shuffle from panel to panel, with your name tag and your conference folder and your shoulder bag, like a middle manager at a sales convention. You give your presentation—your tiny little contribution—only to have it picked and poked at in the Q&A. (One interlocutor, whom I’d never met before, began her question by announcing that she was going to “torture Bill.”) That is, when anybody’s even there to pay attention. I went to a single conference in graduate school, where my panel was attended by five people, two of whom walked out before I gave my talk because they’d only come to hear their friend’s. I didn’t go to another one for almost five years.

Yet it wasn’t just the drudgery, which might have been endurable if I had thought it served a valid purpose. I was having trouble professionalizing because, fundamentally, I didn’t care about the profession. I didn’t believe in the profession. I didn’t think that writing literary monographs and journal articles, or going to academic conferences, does much of any good for anyone. And I don’t believe that I’m alone in that—I mean, not even within the profession. That is why, I think, so many literary academics need to imagine they’re saving the world, and why so many end up writing about anything, it seems, but literature: Houdini, Hitchcock, Buffy (this is known as “cultural studies”), law, history, human rights (subjects that are felt to have more gravitas). I was just less interested than other people in participating in the pretense.

Besides, there were things I did believe in, things I thought more worthy of my time. Above all, teaching. Books had blown my mind open when I was a young adult, they had literally changed my life, and I wanted to enable that for other people—college students in particular. Graduate students are there to be professionalized. College students come to you because they’re hungry for enlightenment; books, for them, are still about life. Graduate students need to demonstrate how much they know; they’ve settled into their intellectual position, and they’ll defend it to the death. College students are open, fluid, still exploring, still being formed; they have not yet learned what they’re supposed to think, and they don’t mind saying “I don’t know.” They are still alive, in a way that many of my colleagues, and many of the adults I knew in general, were not. But teaching, for me, was also about developing relationships. It was about office hours, and the open-ended conversations that can happen there, as much as it was about the classroom. It was about having a student freshman year, seeing them again—in other classes, or as their advisor, or just because they felt like dropping by—for the next three years, then continuing to hear from them after they graduated. It was, in other words, about mentorship.

The other thing I believed in was writing for a general audience: participating in the wider culture, sharing my love of art, sharing my understanding of art. Communicating with people beyond the narrow circle of fellow subspecialists. I had done this in graduate school, as a dance critic (one of the reasons it took me nine years to finish). I continued to do it, at Yale, as a book critic and, eventually, an essayist. I thought that it was something academics ought to do, a way of contributing to society, but mainly I did it because I liked to. I liked to write: to tinker with sentences, to make sounds and patterns with words, to give myself, and hopefully others, a thrill. I liked the chance to read like a reader, not a professor, the way I used to read, and, since my specialty was 19th-century literature, to read contemporary fiction, to find out what novels were saying about the world that I was living through. I liked having a presence in that world. It certainly seemed a better use of my ability than writing another journal article.

The problem with spending time with students, or on students, or writing book reviews or essays, is that none of those activities do anything for you professionally. Academics are rewarded for one thing and one thing only: research. Scholarly publication. Nothing else counts; anything else is a step toward professional suicide. I knew this, of course, and it tormented me. But, to quote a phrase, I could do no other. I believed in what I believed in, and if I had to do it the other way, the way you were supposed to—shaft my students by doing the minimum for them, enclose my mind completely within the profession—then I would rather not do it at all. Besides, I didn’t think that I could put my soul aside for 10 or 20 years and still be able to find it at the end.

So I tried to have it both ways. I did my scholarly work with one hand and my teaching and non-academic writing with the other. I tried to beat the system; I tried to write my own rules. And I came pretty close to succeeding. I got those five interviews my last four years on the job market, all of them, essentially, at liberal arts colleges, the kinds of schools that place a greater emphasis on teaching and that I was hoping to work at in any case. But in the end, I came up short.

And maybe that was for the best. Maybe the truth is that academic life—not as I imagined it going into graduate school, but as it actually is—was not the proper place for me. Certainly, in terms of my intellectual life, I’m much happier doing what I’ve been doing since I left: writing these kinds of essays, and other things besides, but doing it full-time. Following my curiosity wherever it leads, unconstrained by disciplinary boundaries, academic shibboleths, or the crotchets of peer referees. Back when I was still at Yale, whenever I got an idea that didn’t pertain to my research or to a course I was teaching—an idea about the world around me, about something that I’d noticed in the culture—I would tear off a strip of paper, jot it down, and stick the paper under the stapler on my desk. Once a year, after spring semester and before I returned to my scholarly work for the summer, I would gather up the strips, take a seat in the garden, and transcribe them into a notebook, expanding on them as I went—letting my mind off its leash, dreaming of essays to come. Those were some of the best hours of my year. Now it is the way I make my living.

And maybe my fate was also just. If there are any academics reading this, I’m sure that’s what they’re saying to themselves. Who am I to think I’m special? Who am I to think that I can thumb my nose at the profession and get away with it? And that’s fair. I’m not special. I just made different choices, and I need to live with them. But let me just say this, now that professors approach me and tell me that they want to “write”—want to do what I do (though without, presumably, losing their jobs). To do what I do, you have to have done what I’ve done. A writer isn’t something you decide to be one day; becoming one takes just as much work, just as many years and tears, as becoming a tenured professor. Our paths diverged a long time ago, and now they’re very far apart. There’s no going back, for either of us, and no way of getting from one to the other. You can no more expect to be able to “write” now that I can expect to be offered a faculty job. You also made your choices, and you also need to live with them.

No, I didn’t play by the rules, so I can’t expect to have won. Unless the problem is the rules. Because it wasn’t so much that I wanted to be treated differently than everybody as that I wanted everybody to be treated differently. I wanted the rules to change; I played by the ones that I thought we should have. I insisted on behaving as if I existed in an environment that valued teaching as much as scholarship and intellectualism as much as specialization. Where opening the eyes of a hundred undergraduates was worth as much as supervising one more dissertation, and publishing an essay in a periodical that’s read by tens of thousands was as valuable as adding one more item to the pile of disregarded studies.

For this isn’t just my story, and if it were just my story, then it wouldn’t be very important. It’s a story of misplaced institutional priorities. And beyond that, it’s a story of a profession that is eating its young. You see, I could have done everything I did, and not done everything I didn’t, and managed to survive, if not for a reality that far transcended my individual choices. I could have spent too much time on my teaching and writing, I could have published academic work that refused to clothe itself in jargon or to pay obeisance to the latest trends, I could have even had a white penis (which put two strikes against me on the job market), and still have found another position, were it not for this: there were fewer and fewer positions to find. Institutions were shifting their teaching to adjuncts on a monumental scale. They were destroying with one hand the professoriate they were creating with the other. And, of course, it’s only gotten worse since then: worse and worse and worse. Which means that while the particulars of my story may be unique to me, the outcome is not. Thousands of people are driven out of the profession each year (and thousands more agree to settle for the adjunct life). And the ones who get screwed, at a time when the general level of undergraduate instruction has become truly abysmal, tend to be the dedicated teachers, the ones who made the same mistake that I did, of caring about their students. Ultimately, the reason I left academia (since you’re wondering) is the same that many others have. My story is a personal disappointment; the larger story is a tragedy.

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