Charles Kenneth Roberts

Politics, History, Culture

The Fake “Quiet Quitting” Phenomenon and the Real Academic Burnout Phenomenon

“Quiet quitting” is a fake idea that emerged last year and which everyone was talking about constantly for a while. The term refers to workers who stop or never will go beyond meeting the minimum requirements of their job. It doesn’t mean what it should mean–it really just means “working at a job” or “doing what you’re being paid to do.” It’s a goofy, anti-employee conception, and the whole discourse about it just made me irritated.

Embarrassingly, Nature used the term to refer to academics striving for a better work-life balance. Nature said “quiet quitting” in the article and headline despite recognizing that researchers don’t like the term for being inaccurate and insulting. I guess it’s good to draw attention to a real issue in higher education, but it’s telling that the magazine starts from the perspective of an out-of-touch middle-management type.

The point that I want to make is that the erosion of the unspoken agreement between faculty and administrators (similar and related to a changed relationship in American society as a whole) has not just been harmful for the professors (and would-be professors), though they have borne the brunt of the cost. College faculty, especially outside of certain relatively lucrative disciplines, are generally underpaid and during the school year overworked. They take years to get degrees during a time of life when they would lay the foundations for their professional future in other careers. They move, often multiple times, to wherever the jobs are, and especially early on face a very precarious position.

Professors went along with low pay and hard work and moving a lot because they used to get jobs they loved and perks like control over working conditions, summers off campus, secure jobs (once you got it), and a general level of respect for what they do. Now, college faculty are losing the perks and security and everything else, but they aren’t generally getting anything more, financial or otherwise, in return.

The old deals are being broken, and mostly it’s at the expense of the bottom of the hierarchy, but not always. At least in the humanities and social sciences, academia can only exist because of unpaid or underpaid service work from faculty and graduate students. Once administrators began to try to quantify every single aspect of academic life, it was inevitable that faculty would follow their example. Why should anyone agree to be exploited by a graduate school to prepare them for a job they’ll likely never get? Why would junior faculty agree to serve on committees or do manuscript reviews or participate in any other kind of service work which, far from being rewarded, sets them back in their career advancement?

I remember a conversation I had several years ago with a recently-retired neighbor who bemoaned that younger people in the community weren’t involved in or weren’t joining local groups and institutions (Rotary, church, the like) anymore, and who then immediately pivoted to praising a regional business for moving overseas, where labor costs are lower. Making everything into a dollar-and-cents relationship means that people are only going to be worried about, well, dollars and cents. If leaders only ask, “What’s in it for me?” or “How does this improve my bottom line?”, then it’s no surprise that the rest of society will ask the same questions, too.


One response to “The Fake “Quiet Quitting” Phenomenon and the Real Academic Burnout Phenomenon

  1. Pingback: Week Links in Education: Mar. 11 – Blue Book Diaries

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