Academia, You Don’t Own Me Any Longer: Or, Why I Started a Small Business While On Sabbatical

I’m completely untrained to do what I currently do in my small business (handmake my own skincare products), except for the fact that I’ve done a lot of research (e.g: reading cosmetic science textbooks), am good at conducting said research, and have practiced a lot (on myself and on my friends) before selling products on my own platform. But my lack of traditional training is exactly why my small business is so sustaining for me: because it is a way outside of academic noise, because it allows me to learn new things and thus to see the world from a perspective that I’m unaccustomed to. Through Sabbatical Beauty, I’m making something tangible with my own hands, something that I’ve never done before. I’m learning about creating rapport with my customers, about various marketing strategies, about product photography and the ins and outs of establishing a small business.

Sabbatical Beauty started as a part of my self care to recover from academia. In essence, academia is toxic. It’s so toxic that taking the risks of starting a small business in a recovering US economy seemed like a less toxic option. As Jessica Langer has noted, many dynamics within academic culture bear striking similarities to those of an abusive relationship, while others have noted that academia is like a cult (also here, here and here); academic culture asks you to champion some ways of thinking over others (in the humanities: capitalism/neoliberalism = bad!, not getting a tenure-track job at a research institution=failure), in ways which are often completely uncritical, but imperative for one to fit into the culture. At the core of this is what Rebecca Schuman has called “life-boating”, whereby academics who have “succeeded” in the system in the “traditional” ways blame the people who have left for somehow being deficient, and hence being unable to get into the “life-boat” of the tenure track.

Like many others, I’m tired of academia. I’m disappointed and disillusioned by a lot of the promises academia has made and failed to deliver on. Like many a bright-eyed young ingenue, I went into academia because I believed in the power of ideas. I believed that ideas could change people, that knowledge was progress, and that when people knew more, they would use this knowledge to better the world around them. But academia, being composed of institutions and systems, rewards conservatism rather than change. Like the close confines of a warped mirror maze, academia appears to allow change, but what you think is change is often just distortion of the norm echoed back at you. Academic freedom, if it ever really existed, is a joke. More recently, academics who dare to speak out against the endemic, structural racism and sexism of academic institutions (See the Steven Salaita case, the Melissa Click case, the Divya Nair case for a few examples) receive harsh censure for their troubles.

So I started making my own beauty products as a hobby. And then I started making them for my friends, who wanted them after seeing their results on my skin, and then wanted me to open a store. Sabbatical Beauty and the work it involves is first of all refreshing because it is new to me, but also because it has allowed me to see my own value outside of a space whereby affiliations with certain ideologies, certain names and certain institutions are paramount. This is not to say that business is all peaches and cream in comparison, because it is not. The squabbles within the new industry I’m in share many similarities with academic turf wars, and can get even more ugly.

I know that I’m incredibly privileged to be able to start my small business and create a separate space for living for myself while steadily employed in a tenured position. I even work for an institution that I like, for the most part, and with a department of people that I get along with and greatly respect. I also get a lot of joy out of teaching my students, many of whom have blossomed into complex, interesting people since graduation. My problems are not with my job per se. Neither are they with many fellow academics, who are caught in the same struggles and are similarly disempowered. They are with academia as a larger structure and institution.

Sabbatical Beauty has taught me a lot of things. It’s taught me to struggle comfortably with my own lack of expertise, and to ask for help when I need it. It’s also given me a newfound joy in rediscovering abstract research questions after making things with my own hands. I’m also really grateful that through this business finding an academic community of women and men who enjoy doing things other than show off all day about Foucault or some app someone has made. (Disclaimer: I actually like Foucault a lot as well, just not listening to someone wax lyrical about him for hours on end.)

To sum up: I started my small business while on sabbatical because part of my self care has had to incorporate finding other types of work that are rewarding personally and financially. Ultimately, I started my small business so I did not need to take in the continued noise of people on the academic life-boat about what a good academic does and doesn’t do. The funhouse of academic mirrors isn’t enough to base one’s existence on because it is utterly morally deficient in so many ways. Even if you are somewhat successful within the system of academic validation, it doesn’t mean that you have somehow escaped the anxious noise of the system. For me and for many others I suspect, academia does not, and should not, have to be the only, and ultimate measure of your self worth. You are worth more, can do so much more, and can value yourself so much more if you dare to step outside the funhouse.

Adeline Koh would like to thank Maria Velazquez for her comments on this piece.