KK: I encountered Ian Saxine’s writing on Facebook and invited him to submit a guest post. I am delighted that he has. I encourage you to read and share this.
by Ian Saxine, Ph.D.
Ian Saxine is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Alfred University. He received his PhD from Northwestern University, and has also been a VAP at Bates College and St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where he taught a range of courses, particularly in colonial and Native American history. He’s finishing his first book project, Properties of Empire, out in 2019, exploring the relationship between Indigenous power and the colonial quest for landed property on the Maine frontier.
He loves history—his hobbies include reading about historical eras outside of his specialty—but is tired of moving.
He tweets sparingly: @MainelyHistory
This is not a hot take on Erin Bartram’s much read—and even more needed—essay, “Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind.” That essay stands wonderfully and poignantly on its own. I read it right before lecturing, and my students asked me who died. I suspect I’m not the only educator who had that experience.
Instead, this is a reflection on many of the responses to the piece, which I’d argue is revealing in a different way. I broke one of life’s most important rules and read the comments, as well as other responses in other forums like Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Ed. And much of the response was thoughtful. What surprised me, though, even more than the fact that so many non-horrifying comments appeared on a thoughtful blog, was how so many writers from Inside Higher Ed on down have persisted in calling the piece “quit lit.”
In fairness, the label is often accompanied by a the qualifier “a new kind of” or something of that nature, but nevertheless the fact remains that many (presumably academic) readers keep resorting to that category for Bartram’s piece.
But why do we (and by “we” I mean academics, and, speaking for myself, historians still on the visiting track, a year behind Bartram in the great junior academic life cycle) insist on labeling this genre of writing quit lit? Especially Bartram’s, since she says herself, she’s not quitting. Bartram wants to keep teaching and researching, but nobody will pay her a living wage to do it. Or if someone will, they want her to move to an unincorporated census tract in western Nebraska to teach a 4/4 load for 9 months, and then they’re cutting her off.
So why again do we insist on calling this quit lit? (And now by “we” I especially mean historians?) Why can’t we come up with a better short hand for: there are no jobs available that will pay Bartram and many more like her a living wage because they have been replaced by poorly paid adjunct positions. They stopped paying her? I’m wedded to nothing, but we can do better than “quit lit.”
Historians are far from the only scholars in this position, but we have the least excuse for the linguistic weasel words. Throughout graduate school we bang on about how words matter, and you don’t use the passive voice because it obscures agency, and you don’t say things like “racial tensions” to describe Jim Crow when “state-backed white supremacy” are more accurate. Then we spend our waking hours telling undergraduates the same thing. We also know what is happening. We teach and read and write about the series of decisions we as a society have made since the Second World War that have undermined labor and privatized so much of American life.
When I’m being charitable, I ask myself if we call this “quitting” because we think we’re being nice to someone. “They didn’t leave you, you broke up with them!” Or, maybe, this is a way of telling ourselves we still have “agency.” (Historians love agency.) Bartram therefore made a choice to leave, rather than being forced out because no one will pay her money to do what she does best.
When I’m being uncharitable, which is often the case these days, I suspect that framing work—and experiences—like Bartram’s as “quitting” is a way of deflecting responsibility. If Bartram quit, she just gave up. If she had only hung on for another year, or two, or three, she’d land that tenure track job. Then no one has to talk about how there are many, many terribly paying teaching jobs out there, and that this isn’t just about too many people and not enough chairs when the music stops.
Least charitably of all, labeling Bartram’s piece as “quit lit” lets tenured scholars sitting atop an exploitative system off the hook for helping eliminate the possibility of her having a decently paying career to begin with. Yes, yes, I know, #notalltenuredscholars.
I don’t have solutions to offer. (Historians are terrible at solutions.) But it seems to me that our collective mindset in which we insist on saying someone like Erin Bartram “quit” or “gave up” is one in which we’ve given up hope that we can make things better.
I don’t judge Bartram for her decision to not play the exhausting and degrading game that is the visiting track for any longer. We all have to make that call when the time comes. But maybe if we stop calling her experience “quit lit,” and what she’s doing “quitting,” and instead call it what it is: driven out, then maybe we’ll make it easier for the people who are able and choose to stay and fight, to actually achieve something.
Bartram herself mentioned she worked to unionize her colleagues. And “collective bargaining” is not a term that I was able to find on the website of the American Historical Association, of which I am still a member in good standing. But maybe if the AHA and other scholarly organizations faced the reality openly said on a regular basis that people like Bartram are not merely choosing to “follow diverse career paths,” in the words of Jim Grossman, our president, but are rather being replaced by minimum-wage level workers, that might pave the way for a more widespread mobilization of contingent faculty labor.
It’s 2018. Lots of good people are upset and getting up to do something about grotesque excesses of a new Gilded Age in American life. The least we can do is admit, whenever we discuss it, that Bartram’s (and mine, and your) situation is a part of that.
When you think about it, calling Bartram’s piece “quit lit” is actually about encouraging more people to stop trying to fix the problems in front of us. Personally, I’m not ready for that yet.