Academic Fragility & The Strength of Those Who Left

For Every Alt-Ac Out There, We are all Better than Academia.

We are not failures. We are strong and have carved out a new path for ourselves with absolutely no training. We entered a career field in which we were not well-versed, and made a goddamn life for ourselves.

It’s time to release the internalized shame we have about “not succeeding” in academia and be proud of ourselves.

This post is for all of you alt-acs who are on the path to becoming something new, to claiming your identity and your life as your own, and are finding other ways to apply your hard-won set of skills.

The phrase “alt-academic,” by the way, only reinforces our “otherness” to “real” scholars. Perhaps instead of alt-academics we should go by another name, or perhaps just simply “Scholars.” We have earned it.

Alt-academics, or scholars, have come together in amazing communities, online, in person, on twitter, to support each other, and to give moments of much-needed positive reinforcement and humor. We are resilient. We are strong.

This post is based on emails, followed up in some cases by phone conversations or coffee meetings with those of you who continue to reach out to me. I’m touched that a year later, my blog is still able to provide some insight and help some of you heal as you leave academia. Thank you all, I am so glad my words have been able to help you. It makes everything that I have been through (and am still going through) worth it.

One thread that runs through my emails and conversations with my fellow alt-academics is the emotional turmoil caused by the toxicity of academia. The devastating sense of loss, futility, and depression amongst us is real. We never alone in this, so I hope this post can give some solace to those of you currently in the throes of separation anxiety from academia.

Let me be clear: It gets better. Hang on, for dear life, and give yourself permission to slow down and investigate who you are outside of academia. It has been one of the most profoundly validating experiences of my life.

This is not to say that I am not still haunted by academia or the potential of what-could-have-been. But one thing that I have been released from is what academia thinks of me, especially with the onslaught of hate mail, reddit forums, and comments invalidating my legitimacy as a scholar, and even as a person. These have had the paradoxical effect of allowing me gain a stronger sense of self. I no longer give a flying fuck what academics think of me. It’s very liberating, and I recommend it heartily.

I still believe in academia and believe even more strongly that we must continue to fight for its reform. So do not take my critique of academia as a sign that I somehow hate it, quite to the contrary, I love it, which is why I critique it.

In researching white fragility for another project (I think it’s high time white people start doing the labor of explaining this to other white people, so that we can be true allies to POC, if you're interested, this Medium article by Leslie Mac is amaze ), I realized that the metaphor of White Fragility can also be extended to academia. This does not mean that I see the problems of academia as equal to those of racial discrimination. On the contrary, racial discrimination and its critique are the most important issues we face today.

Rather, I see the concept of White Fragility, and its class indicators, as intimately connected to what I term “Academic Fragility.”  (Further, White Fragility frequently co-occurs with a sense of Academic Fragility in certain individuals, resulting in a nearly unbearable person, to counter those peoples' loud voices, this is a great blog.)

Here’s a definition of White Fragility that I found useful:

White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibriumRobin DiAngelo

Translated, Academic Fragility means that even the smallest amount of critique triggers a range of toxic and defensive reactions. In refusing to engage with a meaningful critique of academia and the ways in which academics are complicit in its corruption, the status-quo in academia is upheld.

The increased corporatization of Higher Education (meaning they more profit driven than mission driven), and the presence of only a very few (at times in the single digits) full-time professor job listings in any given field for an entire year, has incubated and encouraged a toxic academic culture of backstabbing, larger than life egos, and an obsession with one’s own research. This exhausting position to maintain replaces the time professors originally spent on their teaching or mentoring responsibilities. All of this has produced a very real “Academic Fragility” syndrome that functions very similar to the concept of “White Fragility.”

This fragility appears when graduate students and professors pejoratively whisper about a former colleague “oh they’re no longer in academia, they are ________”  Or, when academics describe those who speak out against academia as a “bad scholar” or “not good enough to make it” or just plain “unstable.”

These petty attacks, born out of a cult-like obsession with an absolute intelligence-dominance, perform the function of instilling shame, and a sense of profound failure in the academics who were not well-connected enough or lucky enough to get a full-time position, and thus have either had to either resort to multiple adjunct positions, usually spread across a city, for less than 30,000 a year. Or to leave academia entirely.

This is but one example of the way in which scholars are treated by academics. A million tiny paper cuts. It begins when we are all still within the increasingly dingy confines of academia, overhearing (or even participating in) whispers about the professor who didn’t make it or the grad student, who is, gasp, is teaching high school now. The horror! We internalize this: those who leave are not good enough, they are bad. So, when we leave, we believe that we must also be not good enough.

Have you ever spoken to a fellow scholar who is still within the confines of Academia? I have. Not all of them are like this, but enough of them are like this to poison the well for everyone. Let me share my story:

I was recently at the funeral of beloved former colleague from my academic days. Following the funeral, we were in the church rectory mingling awkwardly, as academics tend to do. Once a middle-school like circle of academics had congregated together, they all began discussing themselves, or rather, their research, often talking over one another to get a word in. Standing silently amongst them,  I felt nothing but relief that I no longer had to posture myself in such an exhausting way.

Seemingly out of nowhere, one professor, who had been eagerly talking about her new book, paused to look directly at me and asked, what are you working on?

 Cheerfully, and not without a little bit of sass, I responded, Oh, I’m out of the Academic game.

This professor looked puzzled at this, perhaps confused for a moment because she refused to be aware of the current hiring climate of higher education. Luckily, she also had no idea of who I was and how my story had rocked my department and the PR team at our shared university (it has been stated that my story “upset the entire functioning of the art history department”).  

Sensing she wanted more of an explanation, but not wanting to engage in a discussion about the real reason why I had left, I said: I saw the writing on the wall, and that I would never be able to support myself because I am not independently wealthy, so I decided to do something else.

What happens next is something I think every scholar who has left academia has already faced: the professor reflexively responded with a look of absolute pity. Her forehead wrinkled together and her lips turned downwards as if to say oh, you poor thing. This professor then turned quickly to the other scholars in our nerd-circle to ask them what they were “working on.”

She did not make eye contact with me again.

I assumed it was because she did not think I was worth her time anymore, but now that I’ve had the luxury of distance from it, I think it was actually more profound  and complex than that.

I made her nervous. My reality forced her to confront some awkward truths about academia, about what my reality as a non-academic signaled for the future of higher education. 

Could it be that the mere idea of being outside of academia, of no longer defining your entire sense of being on your research,  signals a violent psychological rupture to academic's sense of self? The conceptualization of Academic Fragility suggests this could be so. 

My point in all of this is: those toxic academics are afraid of us. Afraid we might have figured out something they have not quite grasped. Afraid of what our exit from academia signals.

Of course, Academic Fragility is but one toxic outcome of the culture of corporate academia. But we need to call out our fellow scholars who remain within academia, because they have an important job to do. And the only way they can do it is if they first grapple with their Academic Fragility.

As always, I'm here to listen to your story, talk, and connect, contact me here

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