Invisible Adjunct (who is she really?) points to an interesting essay by Michele Tepper (updated here) on her decision to leave the academic job market, and take a job at a commercial Web site. It explores the complexity of the decision to move from the academic market to the business world; the reactions of former colleagues; and reflects on the tangled connections between attitudes towards postacademic careers, Ph.D. overproduction, the corporatization of academia, and academic culture. The most interesting argument she makes is that
in the larger conversation among the academic left about our job crisis, my perspective as a PhD trying to build a meaningful professional and intellectual life outside the academy has been consistently denied, denigrated, or ignored. In these reactions, I would argue, we can see the unexamined elitism and unwarranted defensiveness of the rhetoric opposed to alternative career training within the academy
Leftist critics of current academic practices, like Cary Nelson and leaders of the MLA’s graduate student representative body, “have limited ideas about what a PhD might do outside the classroom.” One “seems to base his dislike of the non-academic world entirely on a business writing course he once had to teach.” No one is helped by such attitudes, certainly not the young Ph.D.s who find their options in the academic market closed off.
To me, this is all fascinating stuff, because this entire conversation took off about a year after I left UC Davis for my first corporate job, at Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The one point I would take issue with is this: the essay argues that when Princeton professor Elaine Showalter writes that
“business is way beyond the academy in its respect for emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, team building and principled negotiation” (3), she betrays an utter navet about the actualities of the postmodern workplace that might almost be written off as the charming eccentricities of an unworldly scholar, had it not been backed by the institutional power of the MLA.
I think while that a blanket claim that the entire business world is like this is wrong; but my own experience bears out Showalter’s claim. (Caveat: I once gave a talk at Princeton about postacademic life at Elaine’s invitation, and she threw in an excellent breakfast at PJ’s Pancake House.) One of the biggest differences between academia and the business world is that, by and large, in the latter you simply have no choice but to find a way to work with people, even if you don’t really like them. Academics have the luxury of misanthropy and solitude, and if they don’t finish their next book, absolutely nothing bad will happen to their employers. I, on the other hand, could really screw things up for the Institute if I blow a deadline, or refuse to work with someone. One of the great revelations I had at Britannica was that I did some of my best work with people I had deep, intractable problems with; but in the face of failure, we had no choice but to get along enough to do our work, and do it well.