Coffee with Recovering Academics

Since I’ve left my position as a tenure track assistant professor, I find myself regularly sitting across a coffee table from academics or former academics — often women and minorities — who are having a tough time. I guess by virtue of quitting a job in the academy I have a new qualification: I can talk about what it’s like on the other side.

Sometimes these folks are just considering their options, sometimes they’re struggling to make a bad situation work, and sometimes I’m just listening as they narrate the traumas that forced them out and the resulting wide-eyed “What do I do NOW?” when they realize that they have exhausted their academic options.

Usually the most helpful response is to affirm that they are not crazy. So many of the experiences that women and minorities in academia face is a form of systemic gas lighting. Situations that people outside of the academy would find horrifying are considered typical. We see these stories in academic “quit lit” and we watch public intellectuals and administrators wring their hands but do very little to change things.

Yet from across a coffee table, these stories become so much more personal and heartbreaking:

  • My advisor was physically, emotionally, and verbally abusive to everyone in my lab group, including me. I tried everything to make things better, but after years with no changes, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I left.
  • I did one visiting position after another and finally started to understand that no matter what I did, no matter where I published or how amazing of a teacher I was, I was never going to get a tenure track position.
  • My university is systematically dismantling my department by refusing to replace my colleagues when they leave or retire. I love teaching, but I’m now the only full time person in my department and it’s not sustainable.
  • I am a minority and was regularly harassed in the location where I taught. Dating was awful. I took a non-academic job in a bigger city so I could have a life.
  • I was harassed and bullied by a departmental colleague. It got so bad that we went to mediation. Afterward, this colleague wouldn’t speak to me but instead tried to create a coalition to get my tenure revoked.
  • My department chair hated my research topic so much that they tanked my review. It didn’t matter how many publications I had, the promise of my research, or the number of students clamoring for my classes. In the end, the department voted against me because they didn’t want to go against the chair’s wishes. The university overturned the ruling, but after that, who wants to stay?
  • I was sexually harassed by a colleague. Any recourse would have negatively affected my career. It was incredibly stressful.
  • I’ve scrambled and adjuncted and done everything I could to scrape together a life as a professor, but I just can’t seem to make ends meet. I’m exhausted.

Calling these stories simply “quit lit” glosses over the shame, anxiety, and pain that comes from leaving the vocation that one has spent years pursuing. It suggests that the quitting is the most important part of the story, when in fact the people I see across the table are facing a crisis born of organizationally encoded and systemic racism, gender discrimination, and questionable managerial practices that create deeply toxic work environments.

These folks are often disillusioned and wounded by their experience. Women in particular may believe themselves to be unskilled even though they’ve spent years working at what most non-academics would consider a highly, highly skilled job. Often, women who leave academia have had their confidence and self-worth shattered.

I point out that the very work they did suggests that they have skills. I assure them that it is possible to find a life that doesn’t revolve around a group of over-educated people deciding if they’re good enough. I tell them that the world needs them and their particular skills and abilities.

I want women who are considering leaving the academy to know that they aren’t alone. I want women who have already left the academy to recognize their skills and expertise and to use them to make the world a better place. I want a space for those who have struggled in the academy to talk to others who know what they’ve been through.

So I’ve created Athenas. It’s a peer support slack channel for women and female identifying people to offer one another advice, resources, and encouragement.

If any of these stories resonated with you and you’re female or female identified, you are welcome.

This project is not about job counseling or one of those post-ac consulting services (please go talk to those folks if you need them!). This is a supportive environment of women who encourage each other in sharing our wisdom and knowledge outside of the academy.

Why? Because the world needs us.

Join us by sending an email to: postacathenas@gmail.com.

Photo: coffee lover — Camila Tamara Silva Sepúlveda

Beth M. Duckles is a writer, researcher and ethnographer based in Portland, Oregon. Find her at www.beth.duckles.com.

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