Oliver Lee Bateman, Quitlit, and the Higher Education “Staypieces” We Really Need

In a by-now-more-or-less-viral post to Vox yesterday, Oliver Lee Bateman (posting under the name Oliver Lee) announced he would be quitting his tenure-track faculty position in history at University of Texas – Arlington.  Bateman’s post can be added to the burgeoning list of “quit lit” focused on departures from academia.

Today, some respondents took Bateman to task. Georgia Tech’s Ian Bogost tells Bateman “No One Cares that You Quit Your Job.” Or, as Sarah Conrad Sours writes, “The sum total of [Bateman’s] complaints seemed to be that some people didn’t like him and that some of his students were unmotivated.” Frankly, it isn’t clear what reasonable expectations Bateman had that were not met. Nor is it clear that any of the challenges he faced were particular to academia. I don’t deny that even the best academic jobs can be fraught – I’ve written a bit about that myself, though not necessarily from personal experience – but none of that is unique to academia, and Bogost wants Bateman to know that: “Guess what. Working for a living is a pain in the ass.”

Many of Bateman’s critics, however, seem to have missed his main point largely because he buries the lede. Bateman writes that his dissatisfaction with day-to-day workplace issues in academia is just part “of a larger and even more troubling story. After spending four years working in higher education, trying to effect piecemeal improvements, I’m convinced that the picture is more dire than most people realize: There’s no one single problem to fix or villain to defeat, no buzzword-y panacea that will get things back to normal.” He goes on to identify five challenges in or failures of higher education before concluding that “the academy is no longer an investment of time worth making.”

The driving force behind Bateman’s piece (and perhaps behind his resignation), it seems, is alienation. Bateman sees some significant structural and cultural challenges facing higher education, he does not see adequate responses to those challenges, and he does not feel empowered to address them himself. (Except, perhaps, that quitting actually does begin to address the problem of too many professors, which is implicit in his comments on adjunctification and the inadequacy of the alt-ac movement, and this may be the only sense of agency available to those who are so completely deflated and discouraged in the face of structural challenges.) While I don’t resonate with that sense of disempowerment and alienation (that could, admittedly, be tied to my own privilege, but it is a privilege that Bateman would at least seem to share), nor with the temptation to throw in the towel because of it, I do think that sense is real for some people who not only want their work life to look a certain way, but desire to understand the meaning and significance of their work in the context of the big picture of higher education – its meaning, purpose, and long-term prospects.

This reading of Bateman’s piece puts it in the context not of other pieces by workplace malcontents, but of other pieces highlighting what seems to be a crisis in higher education. What’s implicit in many (not all, but many) of these pieces is a a certain nostalgia – there seems to be, lurking in the background, the assumption that most of higher ed history has been a golden age of stability and certainty. The expectation gap between that assumption and present realities contributes to a sense of impending doom joined by bewilderment and a feeling of disempowerment, all of which can be alienating and cause for withdrawal and disinvestment.

But the assumption that the history of higher education has, for the most part, been marked by stability and certainty doesn’t seem to hold up. The academy has had its ups and downs, its fits and starts, its periods of turmoil and adjustment. It seems to me that a sense of stability and certainty is really the exception, rather than the rule. To be sure, each time has its own challenges and changes – the ones we’re facing now are very real and will require discernment – but challenge and change are old, not new. And higher education would not be what it is today if earlier trials had not been met with creativity, industry, discipline, and energy by those who continued to invest, rather than withdraw. We should be grateful for that. 

The fresh and sometimes seemingly intractable challenges facing higher education are no reason to withdraw or disinvest. Rather, they’re reason to invest even more in the enterprise. So in the face of challenge and change, which are to be expected, we should double down on higher education, not leave it – enough with the “quitpieces.” What we need, as Bogost writes, are “more staypieces.” But we don’t need staypieces that focus on workplace benefits or pretend that structural and cultural challenges don’t exist – in those cases, no one will care that you’ve kept your job, either. Rather, we need staypieces shot through with realism, but ones that match realism with commitment, addressing today’s challenges with the kind of creativity, industry, discipline, and energy that people will thank us for later.

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