Dear Commons Community,
Erin Bartram, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Hartford, wrote a farewell letter to colleagues on her personal blog after yet another tenure-track job rejection, and has given up on the academic job market for good. Her essay struck a chord among the throng of the academic jobless. The Chronicle of Higher Education reviews her story. See below.
We wish her well!
She Wrote a Farewell Letter to Colleagues. Then 80,000 People Read It.
By Sarah Brown FEBRUARY 15, 2018
Last week Erin Bartram was a little-known visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Hartford. On Sunday night, she published an essay on her personal blog about why, after yet another year of coming up short on the tenure-track job market, she was leaving academe.
The piece, “The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind” (a not-so-uncommon example of what’s known in higher education as quit lit), has become a sensation. Bartram framed her discussion around the emotions involved — specifically, grief. “I didn’t feel I had the right to grieve,” she wrote. And faculty members, she said, often don’t think deeply about the departure of countless Ph.D.s each year.
“If we don’t see the loss of all of these scholars as an actual loss to the field,” she wrote, “is it any wonder I felt I had no right to grieve?”
Her piece has sparked responses on the Ph.D. career crisis, whether there’s too much pressure on students to publish while they’re still finishing their dissertations, and how advising might temper unrealistic expectations about academic jobs. Bartram estimates that her post has been viewed 80,000 times.
She spoke with The Chronicle about her 15 minutes of fame and how academe might wrestle with the questions she has raised.
How are you feeling now that the essay is out there, compared with how you felt when you were writing it?
I have been writing it in my head for a while. Honestly, I thought I would put it out there, and the historians I know on Twitter and the people who read my blog would read it and be like, “Oh, this is a shame.” And then it would kind of fade away. I sort of wrote it as a goodbye to my colleagues.
I had no idea that it would resonate with so many people, and I still don’t think I have grasped how much it has meant to people. I almost feel bad, because it’s clearly made a lot of people confront stuff that they hadn’t fully dealt with — last year, five years ago, 20 years ago.
But I also noticed that very few people said, “This is new. I never thought about it that way.” Most of what people said was, “I felt this way, and I never thought that I could say it out loud. So thank you.” Which is good, but also a problem in and of itself.
Why do you feel bad?
Obviously we need to have this discussion if there’s been all this — not just all this grief, but all of these people feeling like they didn’t even have a right to be sad. And I’ve heard from a lot of friends with tenure-track jobs who are feeling just horrific survivor’s guilt.
It’s hard to get emails from people who say they had to pull over on the side of the road and cry. Or, “I read this out loud to my wife so that she would finally understand what this was like.” Or, “Thank you. I was finally able to cry over this thing that happened 10 years ago, and I didn’t realize how much I hadn’t let myself do it.”
I also got messages from historian friends who were like, “I can’t bring myself to read this because I know what it’s going to do to me.” It’s hard to know that you’ve made so many people upset, even if it’s a good upset.
A lot of people who responded to your piece also feel stuck in a seemingly never-ending cycle of adjunct and visiting positions. Many of them are grappling with the same question of “Do I stay or leave?” Do you advise them to leave?
It’s weird to hear from people who are like, “I’m going to be in the place that you are in soon — I know that is coming.” I don’t know what to say to people other than that it’s OK to listen to your own feelings on the issue — and not listen to other people, particularly when those other people, as supportive and caring as they might be, may have come through academia in a time that does not resemble the one we’re in now. You’re the one who has to decide. You’re the one who would have to live with the consequences of adjuncting for another year.
You had this life of the mind, and you imagined a future in it, and that’s great. But if it didn’t turn out to be a healthy and stable life for you, you’re not obligated to stay in it.
What has surprised you most about the response?
It’s how all I had to do to write something different in the quit-lit genre was to write about how I felt. Yeah, there’s a lot of analysis in there, and obviously I’m thinking a lot about the larger structures that have shaped this. But apparently the thing that resonated most with people was to talk about grief and loss — not just the loss that’s felt by the person leaving, but to actually say, “Are we losing a lot when these people leave? What does the field lose?”
It may have punctured this very useful coping mechanism. We all come out of grad school, and we all might be brilliant, but the thing that determines whether or not our work is worth anything is whether or not we get this job. And then as soon as we don’t get the job, the only way for people to deal with that brain drain is to say, “Well, clearly their work can’t have been that good anyway. We’re not losing anything when they go.”
There are countless people who have — and more people who will, after reading this interview — go look at my CV and find reasons why I didn’t get a job. It’s absolutely their right to do that. But we’re training all of these people, and giving them these degrees, and they’re producing all of this knowledge, and then most of them are leaving. Either we’re giving Ph.D.s to a bunch of people who were actually not good scholars, or we are losing a lot of human capital and a lot of future knowledge production. It’s got to be one of those two things. I don’t know what we do if we reckon that it’s the second.
You talk in the essay about how, when someone decides to leave, academics tend to say the same things: Your work is still valuable, you can still publish, you have all these great skills. What’s driving that?
You don’t want to think that it was all a waste. You’ve essentially as a field told people they’re not valuable enough to hire. But on a one-on-one basis, you want to tell someone, “No, no, no, I think you’re still valuable. It’s just that the market didn’t think you were valuable.” And, “I liked your stuff, but nobody could find a place for you.” And, “All of that stuff you packed into your brain, all of that knowledge, all of those analytical skills are still worth something.” And, “We know that you loved doing this — and you can still do it!”
It does ring kind of false. I don’t think that’s necessarily how people mean it, but that’s what it can feel like.
One of your key points is that those who remain should grieve the loss of these Ph.D.s who give up and move on. What might that look like?
Honestly, take a minute and think about all the people you’ve known in your academic career who didn’t make it. Not because of something else, but because the system didn’t find a place for them, and they left. Write down what they were going to do that they didn’t do. The books they were going to write.
I have friends who were going to write such amazing books. They took a unique perspective with them when they left, things that needed to be written. And those are gone.
In response to your essay, some people have been pointing to a need for better advising for Ph.D. students so they can have more realistic expectations. Would that have made a difference for you?
There’s a lot of stuff tied up in a knot here when it comes to advising. Many people will look at this and say, “Well, of course, she didn’t go to a top-tier program, what should she expect? She should publish more.” I have friends who went to better programs than me who published like crazy and are brilliant scholars, much better than I am, and nothing’s happening for them.
No one wants to actually dig into platitudes like, “It doesn’t matter where you went, it matters who your adviser was.” Stop saying that. That is not the real experience that people are having.
But then do we get rid of grad programs at certain schools? Many people would say if it’s not a top-tier grad program, it shouldn’t exist. But to be an R1 and to have a good faculty, you have to have grad programs. Also, no one wants to get rid of their grad programs because grad students do much of the teaching in most of these places.
It’s better to just stay in this bubble where you’ve ignored all of the causes because to actually confront them, to actually pull the thread, unravels a lot of stuff.
Are you hopeful that academics can get out of that bubble and reckon with some of this?
I’m not hopeful that they will do it. And I’m not saying that this would actually work. But one of the issues for historians — and I think for a lot of fields — is that the amount of scholarship you have to produce is just through the roof. And to put it bluntly, I have plenty of colleagues who I know have been turned down for jobs when their CVs as candidates already had more publications on them than senior members of that committee. That hurts.
It is possible for the American Historical Association as an organizing body to say that this type of productivity, particularly for a book-based discipline, is kind of out of control — that we are setting such unreasonable expectations for scholars that maybe it’s not producing the best scholarship.
Senior scholars say, “Oh, it’s such a shame. Back in the old days, we didn’t have to do that. Nowadays people have to.” We talk about it like it was just some natural thing that happened. Maybe we can imagine that something could be done about it.
You have gained a substantial following within academe right as you’ve chosen to leave the field. Does that mean anything for your career plans?
I needed to say this so that I could come to grips with the fact that it was over. And nothing that has happened in the past week has made me think that all of a sudden somebody’s going to be like, “Hey, here’s a job for you.”
I was thinking this morning: I was the same writer and thinker a week ago. I was the same person. It’s just like how the tenure-track job is the thing that validates you as a scholar. Had I not written this, I would have been nobody. And the essay didn’t matter until other people said that it was worth something. That’s pretty much the problem we’re dealing with in academia.
There are so many other people like me. Every one of my friends who’s left like I did could have written, and has written, really great stuff. But until we’re validated, we don’t exist.
This was your academic mic drop. What do you hope those who remain in the field will do with your essay?
There is a lot of emotional energy put into explaining this problem away and not dealing with what it means. What if we actually took that energy and said, “This is God-awful, and it’s actually very unfair.” I’m not saying I should have gotten a job — I don’t feel entitled to one. But we really want to feel like everyone is where they are because they were the best person.
I’ve had a lot of people admit to me that they got a job by the skin of their teeth. They know that they were on the knife’s edge. Or they VAPed [held a visiting position] for a long time, but as soon as they became tenure track, it was so easy to forget how things used to be. It would be very unsettling to people to have to grapple with this. I’m not saying that everybody in academia who made it didn’t deserve it. But what do we do with the fact that lots of other people deserved it, too?
Maybe sitting with that uncertainty is good and can help you be a little more understanding when you think about how you hire. Maybe it can give you ideas about how to make changes within your own university. I will unfortunately not ever be in a position to do these sorts of things, but lots of people are. Maybe just sitting with the pain and not putting it away in a box is a good thing.