On leaving academia

Lecture theatre in decay.
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I’ve been reading Rebecca Schuman’s piece on Slate, ‘“I Quit Academia,” an Important, Growing Subgenre of American Essays’ and it got me thinking about my own reasons for leaving the academy in 1999 and also my gradually decaying anger with higher education before and since leaving. Incidentally, I think my anger seems to have a half life of about seven years but that ‘s only because I have continued to work in the higher education sector for almost all of the fourteen years since I stopped being an ‘academic’. If I’d left the sector completely maybe I would have felt better sooner.

At the time leaving was very hard even though I was moving from being an academic in a School of Architecture and Building to being a ‘professional’ staff member working on web based learning initiatives for the same university, in the same building. I knew well enough that it was the end of my illusionary academic career. I would never get back into the academy without a PhD even if I wanted to and, in my new role,  I would be treated with disdain by my former academic colleagues. Mind you, at that point I had been at the receiving end of three years of bastardry from my erstwhile colleagues anyway. Could it really be any worse?

In fact I knew I was going into team of extremely clever, fun and collegial ‘professional’ staff members who were driven about the opportunities that the web provided for improving learning and teaching. A group that innovated their socks off until the people that make stupid decisions decided that there was all together too much of that sort of thing going on thank you very much and promptly re-structured the group out of existence. Obviously being a leader in the field would have just been too much for them. Much better to sit back in the herd and not rock the boat.

So I had a carrot and it was a juicy carrot for twelve months. It appealed to my background as a pedagogue and to my desire to help improve education for students as widely as I could. These factors eased my move, but I was also very tired of the academy. Even though I was still young, just 33, I had  been an academic for twelve years at three universities, two in the UK and one in Australia. Twelve years that I had devoted almost entirely to learning and teaching in my discipline. I was, it must be said, a little slow on the uptake that learning and teaching is not at all important to an academic career. In my defence, my first two universities were former Polytechnics. For those of you that aren’t familiar with pre 1992 binary divide in UK higher education, Polytechnics were the institutions that delivered twice the education for half the cost of the old universities. They focused on vocational studies, delivered degrees and diplomas and carried out applied research often with very close involvement with local partners.

It was at these institutions that I learnt my trade as a pedagogue working with alternative entry students and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. I tried to engage and motivate them through innovative learning and teaching techniques such as role play and simulation. I learnt how to design and develop courses in a team. Never since my time at the Polytechnic of Wales/University of Glamorgan have I seen such rigour and consistency the delivery of learning and teaching in higher education. In fact, the University of Glamorgan spoilt me. Over the next twelve years, first at another UK university and then at the dysfunctional nightmare that was the Australian University I worked at, I saw nothing but declining standards coupled with an increasingly arrogant facultywith an attitude  of self entitlement that continues to beggar belief.

Maybe I should have done what the Senior Lecturer did who negotiated a reduced (minimal) teaching load over ten consecutive years so that he could ‘focus’ on his PhD. Of course, once he finally got it he left the institution for a better better job. Or maybe I should have been like the lecturer who believed that tutorials were not really part of the delivery pattern for his courses. Or like the young lecturer who played the academic game supremely by producing an unfeasible numbers of papers a year, delivering a poor experience to the students and achieving rapid promotion from Lecturer B to Associate Professor in two years before promptly going off to be a Professor somewhere.

Of course all of this sounds like sour grapes and it certainly was. As someone who worked hard for my students I was bitter. As someone who was innovative and creative I was bitter too. Starting in 1995 I began producing web based content for my courses. I knew I wanted to lecture less and do more small group work with students. I wanted the students to learn what could be best learnt on the web from the web and to come to work with me having prepared from online content. They call this flipping the class now. Always remember to give your ideas a catchy name. I never did. Later I developed online submissions for students and the idea of a content repository for students that would build over time. I’m not suggesting I was the first to do these things but I did do them, independently and largely alone and almost entirely without any recognition.

Ironically, when I did my final handover to a very nice young architect with little teaching experience I gave him all of my content and ideas. I’m pleased to say that he was later recognised by the institution for his innovative teaching delivery.

It used to annoy me that I felt as though I was working in an area of human endeavour in which the quality and conditions of what we were doing was going down year by year. Weren’t things supposed to be getting better as time went by? As lessons were learnt, as resources improved. But perhaps what got to me most was my disillusionment with the academy. I was a ‘first in family’, I loved my degree, I loved my time as a Research Assistant and then my time as Lecturer in the first few years building great courses and applying them with rigour. But by the time a left my experience of the academy was as a simplistic, mechanistic, dysfunctional, commercial, free for all, almost entirely lacking in collegiality and most definitely not a meritocracy.

Rebecca Schuman’s piece talks about those that quit as being ‘failed academics’. I think she’s right. I am a ‘failed academic’. A proud one. I failed in a system that simply wasn’t very good for me because what I wanted and believed in wasn’t what the system valued. Values that I happen to think were misguided.

Having said all of that and despite the fact that I will never be an academic again I still believe in the critical importance of higher education for all and I believe that higher education institutions can and will find their way back to being genuinely positive friendly and enjoyable places to work and study. That’s why I still work with higher education institutions and I still try, every day, to help improve, if only in a small way, the outcomes for students. But it’s not just learning and teaching; the academy has an important role to play in modern society, collectively we can’t afford it to be as dysfunctional as it is and I’m sure it will revert eventually.

Edit 06/12/2013 – I’ve had some feedback on the last part of the last sentence. Am I being unduly optimistic? Maybe ‘revert’ is the wrong word because it implies going back. What I hope and believe is that we will end up with something much better than what we have now or, indeed, have had in the past.

6 thoughts on “On leaving academia”

  1. I share a similar experience and view. But I exit at your last paragraph. I don’t stay because “I believe”. I’m trapped in wage slavery and servitude.

    1. Hi Leigh,
      Even though everyone says I’m a pessimist I have to believe in a better future for higher education. I suspect that you do too or you wouldn’t put as much thought and effort into what you do.

  2. Ahh this. This has concerned me from the day I signed the contract for my associate lecturer gig. Because the pace of change in higher ed is glacial (to be generous) all of what you have written still rings quite true for me on my more cynical days. I have very little respect for the constructs of academia and from the point of view of playing the game I am a rather rubbish academic. I’m staring down the barrel of needing to do a PhD if I ever want to get past the lowest pay scales and I’m struggling to find an adjective that conveys accurately how much I do not want to do this. Certainly I would get paid more if I quit and became professional staff (some days I toss up starting a tumblr called ‘things that pay better than academic A’), although that would be madness because I have what these days is as rare as hen’s teeth, a permanent position.

    And yet.

    Other than permanency the thing that keeps me here is not so much a belief in the ‘positive friendly and enjoyable’ but that if everyone who is disgruntled with academia quits academia, nobody is left to provoke change. The only thing worse than a profession full of disgruntled people is a profession that isn’t. So I figure me hanging around is kind of the professional equivalent of sneaking vegetables into hamburgers so kids will eat them.

  3. Hi Sarah,
    I had wondered about being on the inside pissing out as opposed to the outside pissing in. Being a slow learner I eventually realised that I only have one life (YOLO, as the kids say now) and I’m no longer prepared to spend my life like Sisyphus. Been there, done that. I will certainly never work as either an academic or professional staff member in a university if the role involves implementing organisational change. To coin a phrase, I’d rather eat my own kidneys with a rusty spoon.
    With regard to your last point. I think there will always be disgruntled academics. It’s part of the culture of entitlement. You don’t have to want the system to change to be disgruntled. In, for the professionally unhappy academic, it’s better if things don’t change.

  4. I’m in a very similar position and looking for options outside of the academy. I think the main reason I didn’t manage to hold onto my lecturing position was because I spent so much time caring for the students and not much playing the game that you spell out so well. Thanks for writing this, gives me some hope.

  5. The rise of professional staff ability to not only do their job, but provide a feed for thin academic ability is a key turn off. More than once I’ve discussed and set up complex virtual environments for an academic colleague only to see them rush off to put in a grant and fly off to conferences, without so much as a hat tip. Fortunately what they do solo is no better than the average 12 year old can do. I simply don’t see any need to provide anyone with ways to improve their status if they insist on hegemony.

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