A few weeks ago I came across a 2015 essay by a then Assistant Professor of History at UT Arlington, Oliver Lee Bateman, who announced very prominently he was quitting academia (I can't remember how I found that essay, but I suppose someone on Twitter mentioned it.). Then I found out such essays have become so commonplace they have given rise to a whole genre, called quit lit. Others like to take potshots at it or just ride the viral-post wave for their own benefits. (Since the post dates from three years ago, it is safe to assume the viral-post aspect has waned. My post isn't going to ride any sort of wave, which is just as well.) You can read for instance "It's just a job, right?" in The Chronicle of Higher ed, "The rise of 'quit lit'" in Slate and "No one cares that you quit your job" in The Atlantic, among others.
The essay, published on Vox, is titled "I have one of the best jobs in academia. Here's why I'm walking away." From the title you can guess the author might be tempted to indulge in grand pronouncements, perhaps with some justification, since he graduated from college at 19. He went to the University of Pittsburgh for his PhD in history, a program that according to US News is ranked #44 in the country. (Sure, that is not #4, but he did that after he attended law school and got his JD degree.) He landed a tenure-track job at age 29, which in the humanities is no small feat. Yet he might also provide an example of why graduating college too early may deprive some students from valuable social and interpersonal skills.
Here are excerpts from his piece. "First there was sniping, from peers and administrators. Critiques of my teaching and debate team coaching, often made through backchannels and delivered to me secondhand or not at all, centered on my easygoing personal style (He doesn't use the title "doctor!" He teaches in T-shirts!), my effusive student evaluations (If he's pleasing them, he must be doing something wrong!), and my relatively calm demeanor (If a young academic doesn't seem stressed beyond capacity, he's not working hard enough!)." And, later: " I learned that the public outreach in which I engaged — that is, publishing in popular magazines — had ruffled certain feathers. I watched administrators and donors who had championed my career be shown the door, or at least swept under the rug, by an incoming presidential administration — proving that the autonomy I had imagined upon entering academia really was an illusion." He also takes offense at a student watching season one of Breaking Bad on his laptop in a course with no attendance. (My take is that, for better or for worse and usually for worse, students love to multitask. They get to catch up on their favorite show and glean a piece of useful information or two from the lectures! How's that for optimization?)
Arlington happens to be a 25-minute drive from Dallas where I live and work, so I like to think I know something about academic manners in the DFW area. If someone at UTA really complained about him teaching in T-shirts (temperatures may reach 95F in November around here), that person must have covered himself or herself with ridicule when he voiced his criticism. Also, when I was in graduate school at MIT, my research advisors always had me and their other students call them by their first name. If it's good enough for MIT, it's good enough for UTA. So the criticism, if real, seems like an outlier point. But I also think it is perhaps a bit disproportionate from the author to hint that administrators and donors were shown the door because of him, and definitely naive to think that publishing in popular magazines wouldn't ruffle certain feathers.
Academia is a world that values conformity to a master path to a far greater extent than any other industry. While there are some differences from field to field, most tenure-track professors are expected to publish a lot of papers in the best possible journals and demonstrate proficiency in teaching. The expectation in engineering is also to bring in research grants. Fulfilling those expectations is highly time-consuming, especially since they are rarely quantified precisely. Faculty members who evaluate a candidate's tenure portfolio have gone through the same path, and most of them have gotten to where they are by playing by the rules, sometimes at great cost to their health or family life. A prominent deviation from the path such as writing in popular outlets was bound to ruffle feathers, (a) from people who want others to abide by the same rules and (b) from the non-negligible number of petty people who are in academia, a world where the lack of hierarchical pressure especially after tenure and the anonymity of paper reviews and grant proposal reviews can allow such pettiness to thrive in so-inclined individuals, and that's without counting the people who take the idea you presented at a conference to write a paper about it and pretend they worked on it independently, the people who badmouth you behind your back in the hope their misery will travel by osmosis, and other niceties. ("Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small," Henry Kissinger is supposed to have said.)
If you're going to be a non-conformist, you have to have the backbone to take the heat when people resent you for it. You can quit, but you're probably going to take your non-conformist tendencies with you and especially if things have come easily to you, as was the case for Bateman, it is likely that they will continue to come easily to you, meaning you will learn new skills quickly and thrive using them, which will attract a fresh batch of detractors. So the best defense may be to keep doing the things that make you happy (the author of the Vox piece has published recent blog posts on the website of The Paris Review, for instance) and remember that petty people are never happy (if they were, they wouldn't feel the need to be petty in the first place), so that at the end of the day, you're better off in your own shoes than theirs. Bateman has continued to contribute essays in the online world, and to make his voice heard. It's too bad he felt academia wasn't for him, when maybe a bit of mentoring by a sympathetic colleague could have help him sail through a rough patch, or find another academic position that would have been a better fit elsewhere. I'll end on this Bette Davis quote I love: "It’s better to be hated for who you are than to be loved for someone you’re not. It’s a sign of your worth sometimes, if you’re hated by the right people.”