By Beth U.
I just came across Keguro Macharia’s beautiful post “On Quitting” for The New Inquiry. In it, Macharia tries to make sense of why he resigned from a tenure track job at the same time he completed a book manuscript for publication. Academia rewards self-abnegation in the pursuit of perfectly timed and perfectly placed publications. It demands cycles of fevered writing followed by lengthy periods of waiting as articles and books disappear into the black hole of peer review. For Macharia, the “frenetic activity and prolonged delay” of publishing schedules too closely echoed his own cycles of mania and depression.
Macharia was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years into graduate school. But it took him another decade to leave academia in part because graduate school teaches that The Reward is just around the next bend. The truth is, The Reward is mutable and often unreachable. Even if obtained, another hurdle quickly replaces it: the first paper, the first conference presentation, the first publication, the passing of qualifying exams, the dissertation and its defense, the first job, the building of a tenure file, tenure. If doubts whisper as to the point of it all, we are taught not to listen. To believe in this track and to stay the course is to prove that the system is still working. Yet perseverance covers for the crisis that academia has become.
Macharia writes: “We are trained to hang in, hang on, hang together. This, after all, is the lesson of graduate training. ‘It will get better,’ we assure students who struggle to learn. We are so definite. Were we more honest, we would say, ‘it might get better,’ ‘perhaps,’ ‘maybe,’ or, simply, ‘we don’t know.’ Instead, we say, ‘there are no guarantees, but.’ And that ‘but,’ that barely uttered, barely hearable ‘but’ carries so much weight. Everyone wants to hear the ‘but.’ Everyone invested in the academy is always hearing the ‘but.’ We are a community organized around ‘but.’ Lauren Berlant calls this ‘cruel optimism.’”
In her book Cruel Optimism Berlant explains how, as neoliberal economics erode promises of “the good life,” we become attached to fantasies that are unattainable or goals that are unachievable. In turn, the very pursuit of these fantasies or goals may mean our undoing. But we continue to invest in what we cannot have because this process somehow keeps us going day after day. We adapt when, over and over, what we pursue is not what it is cracked up to be. We adapt, in Macharia’s case, to the expectations of academia and its promises of reward despite the toll it levies. And in the process of wanting or pursuing that which is harmful to us, we may lose the sound and the heft of our own voice.
“I’m wrestling with my own disorganization,” Macharia shares. “My own ‘persistent undoing’ given the occasion of the social. I am ‘undone’ when I leave the house, walk down the street, encounter an absenting normality. I have learned not to trust myself.”
Self-trust breaks when we try so damn hard to believe indoctrination over embodied truth/s. Selves shatter. At least three of my fellow graduate students broke into bits during this process of hanging in there–one to repeated institutionalization in a mental health facility, another to chronic depression, physical disintegration, and, eventually, suicide.
Why psychic breaks? Because it is difficult to leave something that you have believed in for years. Because it is difficult to decide for yourself what is right or healthy when everyone around you tells you that if you just wait a little bit longer it will get better. Because belonging at all means not saying any of these things. Because saying that you want to leave and leaving is also saying to your mentors that their mentorship was not enough to keep you there. Because it feels foolish to quit at the same time that you publish a book or obtain tenure. Because by the time any reward happens you can no longer see the starting point of the goal itself, woven as it is with all the trials of intervening years.
For Macharia, his psychic break/s were because of all of these things, perhaps, but his is also “a story about slavery’s long shadow and racism’s insistent pressing.” He writes about the contempt, the thingification he encountered as a man from Kenya in the US academy: the everyday “affective weight deracination entails.” The reductive banality of everyday othering, the absolute and unrelenting racist violence of a post-racial America, the poisoning of self and affect.
While a graduate student, I watched a talented and heavily published feminist scholar overlooked when a tenure track position opened up in the department. She was in a non-tenure track position and the search committee chose an outside ABD candidate over her. At my first full-time teaching gig post-PhD, I watched a 10+ year veteran of the institution (again, immensely accomplished and an activist to boot) get denied tenure because of the pacing of her publications, not that she didn’t have them. Both of these “rejected” scholars were women of color. Both had families and college-aged children. Neither had the privilege of a funded, straight-through trajectory from undergraduate to the PhD. This lack of privilege made them better teachers and simultaneously less desirable tenure track material.
Both of these women left academia after not obtaining tenure. Their careers are but two of the many that academia has discarded because of a tenure model predicated on gender, race, and class privilege. Macharia shares, “at one meeting I attended, presented with statistics that over 50% of women and other minorities were so dissatisfied that they planned to leave, administrators said that such ‘threats’ were a constant feature of academic life and moved on to more ‘pressing’ issues.” Macharia summarizes this reaction as “an administration that is indifferent to its workers’ affects,” including his own. He explains:
I was being poisoned. It happened in big and small ways: the surprise on some professors’ faces when I understood what they said; the insistence of many white people, even friends, on naming me as “black”; warnings from well-meaning people about “bad neighborhoods,” by which they meant predominantly black neighborhoods; demands, implicit and explicit, that I join an Afro-centric project predicated on disciplined blackness and gender normativity; unsubtle comments from academic peers that I had received “special” favors and that I was “disruptive” and should be “disciplined”; my own guilt and shame for dissociating with forms of blackness I found “distasteful” and “criminal,” by which I meant class-based; a growing, all-encompassing inability to engage with anyone without my racialized armor on; an inability to trust black men; an inability to trust myself. Encounters seemed too weighed down by history, treacle-thick, and I felt something about myself changing.
In the end, Macharia abdicates from the psychic labor that “banal and uncomprehending racism” demands. He steps out of the linear progression of the tenure track life and all the erasure of living this track can entail: “I’m not sure this is ‘the life’ I want to imagine,” he muses. “I worry about any life that can so readily be ‘imagined.’ Where is the space for fantasy, for play, for the unexpected, for the surprising?”
I hope that, in quitting, he has found all of these things.