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Evaluating Exit Modes: Resign or Be Fired? (How Academia Got Pwned 11)

This is the eleventh post in a series about the glorious completion of my academic career, the internet, and the future of intellectual life. This will probably become a book. If you'd like to hear about that when it happens, be sure to subscribe.


I am considering the benefits and drawbacks of simply resigning, compared to being fired in my hearing tomorrow. One of the reasons I’m finding it hard to decide is because I suspect it matters quite little in the long run. Yet I've often insisted on deliberate and disciplined internal accounting about one’s motives and decisions, so I can’t help but think it through. But because it hardly matters to me, I have to zoom-in all the more microscopically on details, to find the pros and cons. Even if I resign, they might still fire me, so that’s another layer of it hardly mattering. Well, now that I’ve got you enthralled by the profound importance of this decision, let’s proceed.

In my mind, the most important factor inclining me to resign is simply that it feels the most honest and authentic way to exit at this point — the simple truth is that this disciplinary imbroglio has radicalized my disillusioning and given me 4 months to prepare for exit. So if I’m now eager to exit — in principle, emotionally, and even practically (I’ve ended my lease as of today and we’ve reduced all our belongings to what fits in our backpacks) — then I should tell them I am done. Clearly, I’m done. The main reasons to let them fire me are all instrumental. And if you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that here at Other Life instrumental rationality is the root of much evil. That’s not to say I’m above it, not at all — it’s a root of evil precisely because our survival is largely conditional on it. It would certainly be a new drop in the bucket of academia’s self-destruction, my case would probably become an official milestone in absurd administrative repression. That would be good, funny, and politically desirable. But things are already at that milestone, anyway; the event of a formal dismissal might trigger some kind of category click in the minds of people who think in discrete variables. In reality, most variables are continuous variables, and I’m already about 99% fired. There are also other instrumental reasons to prefer dismissal, such as notoriety/media/sympathy, but as soon as anyone starts optimizing for those things — you’re doomed.

More than a few people seem to think everything I’m saying and doing is for notoriety/media/sympathy, all of which are ultimately convertible to cash. I generally don’t care what idiots guess about me, but given this objection is the exact opposite of my core vision, I feel somewhat motivated to minimize it. Just to pwn the haters, I am inclined to resign with purposeful quietude, minimizing the probability of both infamy and sympathy. The mainstream media revolve around discrete events, and getting fired is an event, so if I get fired then the chance of receiving phone calls from all the Tucker Carlson types probably shoots to what? At least 25%, conservatively, I would think. If that level of media buzz arrived, especially given that my type of person is quite capable of milking it for all its worth, it would have a long-term expected value of what? At least several thousand dollars probably, at least? Of course, media is stochastic, it’s perfectly possible I am fired and nobody cares. On average, though, in the long-term, there would probably be a fairly large, positive financial upside to being formally fired.

Another reason I’m disinclined to the dismissal->outrage->media->money strategy is that I genuinely can’t access any feelings of indignation, victimhood, outrage. And these seem to be performative requirements of the contemporary media charades. From the beginning, I have said that this a hilarious and wonderful experience in which a once-prestigious institution has become so paranoiacally bureaucratized that it is actively empowering me to leave it behind while it further destroys itself. When you were a kid, did you ever do that thing kids do, where they take the hand of a sibling and make the sibling hit them in order to scream to mom, “Johnny’s hitting me!!!” I feel like the university is doing that with me. I’ve never once set out to harm the university or academia as a whole, but they keep grabbing my hand and smacking themselves with it. I can hardly be faulted for enjoying it!

When I try to tell my story outside of the aggrieved/indignant framing, instead asserting my contentedness with it all, I suppose it must read like monstrous or ridiculous gloating or delusions of grandeur or something. I was recently invited to submit an article somewhere, and I wrote up my perspective but with historical backing that would make it more than just a personal thinkpiece — citing precedents for the model of life I am seeking to live — and it was rejected. That was an interesting signal. I could try to perform yet another rendition of the persecuted academic, there seems to be insatiable demand for such stories, but unfortunately that’s not my story. It’s quite possible my actual story is either too dumb, or too idiosyncratic, or not interesting/valuable enough to succeed in even the para-institutional meme pool. But my story is my story, and I’m sticking to it. That's where blogs excel, in fact. My whole wager is that anyone who does this with sufficient intensity wins in the end, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to soften up now!

I'd also be lying by omission if I did not include some instrumental reasons for resigning. To be honest, the only slight negative emotion I have about any of this comes from thinking about my PhD supervisors, and everyone else who invested in my career as an academic. Getting fired could arguably tarnish them. I don't think any of this will have any real effect on them, ultimately, but I would feel bad — a combination of guilty and embarrassed, I suppose — to have to tell them all that I was fired. Same thing goes for my parents, and in-laws, and so on — all the normal people to whom I would like to give a clear and straightforward accounting of myself. "I decided academia is not for me" is much shorter and sweeter than "I was fired but..." As I said, I could still be fired even if I resign, but if I resign I can immediately after inform my family and mentors, simply and honestly, that I've decided to resign and that will be that. If the university fires me the day after nonetheless, I'm not obligated to send everyone an update. If they ask or read about it in the papers, I would tell the truth. This is, admittedly, a pretty superficial and instrumental reason to favor resignation. It's not the main reason, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a reason.

Another benefit of resigning is that it will improve the generalizability of my practical enterprise model for exiting academia. If getting fired and receiving publicity and sympathy increased my patrons and book sales and so on, and then I’m successful in my plot to achieve a financially successful independent intellectual model, in the future people could say that my plan for exiting academia is not realistic or practical for most people. And they could be right, in that case. So exiting quietly, and succeeding without any huge brouhaha, would make the social value of whatever I’m able to make greater, and more impactful.

Finally, I’m just tired of talking about myself — believe that or not. I’d like to get back to work, on projects that are not just telling the story of this protracted controversy. If I get fired, it kind of makes the story more interesting and longer and spicier, but I'd rather it be over sooner than later.

What would you do?

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6 comments on “Evaluating Exit Modes: Resign or Be Fired? (How Academia Got Pwned 11)”

  1. Don't quit and don't get fired. Get a lawyer and take them to court. The legal system is the best way to correct corporate overreach.

    You can make a case that the implied contract between a university and a professor contains the ability to express yourself freely as long as you can show how that expression might conceivably lead to some future educational benefit.

    The law is deeply concerned with equity so if you can demonstrate that the corporation, in your case, applied a unique set of standards because of your beliefs then the law should take your side.

    The common law tradition is pretty much all based on the idea that you can fuck people over with impunity if you do it in a disciplined and uniform way but if you try and dick someone around in a haphazard, ad hoc manner then you get punished.

    It seems to me that you're a bit of a lab rat in a chaotic disciplinary system. Perhaps the best thing you could do if force the academic corporation to apply its evil policies in a consistent and uniform manner.

    This would of course lead to the end of the stupid policies since in order to apply them equitably they would have to fire most of the professors!

    Good luck...

    1. Thanks for this, I appreciate it. The drawback to this approach — which I may or may not also have brewing on the side — is that I really no longer want the job, if this is what it involves. Fighting for my job, then, would be strange at best and disingenuous at worst. Unless you believe in reforming the system, that would be a perfectly valid reason for fighting the case legally. But I don't believe large mainstream institutions can be reformed at this stage. Voice is futile as far as I can see, and exit appears the order of the day. Exiting with sufficient intensity can tend to the overthrow of currently existing institutions, I believe, but fighting them to maintain their consistency would do nothing but waste my time and forestall their collapse. At least that's how I see it, if I'm being honest.

  2. Hi Justin,

    I hope you're looking after yourself and that this all works out for you in the end.

    My advice would be not to resign: you don't want to do their dirty work for them. If they are trying to get rid of you, you should make them take that decision and to have to live with their conscience. As Solicited Advice says, resigning potentially closes down some of your legal options (you may think you don't want to go the legal route now, but will you still feel that way in a month's time). FYI I believe the time limit for filing employment tribunal claims is 3 months from dismissal.

    Are you in the UCU? Have you been assigned a case worker? Whatever you think of the Union's campaigning positions, the case workers are a really supportive bunch, and it can be good to talk things through with them.

    Finally, although you've gone through a tough 4 months, and probably just want it to be over, the outcome will live with you for some time. Everything is actually still very fresh and raw (ongoing in fact!), so I'd be wary of taking such major decisions under these pressurised circumstances. If it's still an option at all at this stage, I'd try to de-escalate things and defer any life-changing decisions until it's calmed down and you can take a more considered approach.

    There's probably plenty of people goading you on in twitter, enjoying the show, but how many of them have sacrificed their careers over what was (initially) a very minor issue? None, I imagine. Even at this stage I'm sure that your position at the Uni. could be salvaged, if that's the way you wanted to go - or even if you're just not 100% sure.

    I think the market for the work of disgruntled academics unproven. On the other hand, it is still just possible to forge a path in UK HE doing valuable work and challenging the status quo and management.

  3. I very much agree with you about the importance of truth-telling and truth-seeking in the realm of beliefs as opposed to a more instrumental use of rhetoric, but I think there are many situations where it's fine to be instrumental in the realm of actions, at least if it doesn't require being dishonest about your motives (if you think the one necessarily leads to the other, or that there are problems with being instrumental about actions even if it doesn't compromise one's commitment to truth and even if the end goals are good, I'd be interested to hear more about your thinking on this sometime).

    Even if you felt the same way this wouldn't really resolve your dilemma since as you say there are instrumental arguments both for and against waiting for them to fire you. One other "pro" argument I might add is just that it would be an interesting data point on how far academic freedom goes these days, whether an academic can really be fired for seemingly trivial things like posting about using psychedelic drugs on social media (and it would also make an interesting ending to your story of academic trials 'n' tribulations to hear exactly what reasons they gave for your firing, even assuming you tell the whole thing in a detached and analytical way rather than a way designed to serve as outrage-bait). So if I were in your place I might want to see the firing process to the end for those reasons.

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