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Academic life

Quiet quitting in academia

By now we’ve all heard the phrase quiet quitting. It’s had a viral moment recently, in the context of a wide array of shifting workplace norms and worker attitudes in the wake of the pandemic. Quiet quitting refers to a situation where a worker does the work required of them and nothing more. They aren’t striving for advancement. Nor are they looking to get fired. They just…do their jobs.

Only in a world where work-life balance is so skewed and hustle culture is so prominent could this banal practice generate so much press and, indeed, controversy. After all, as some on social media thoughtfully pointed out, isn’t quiet quitting just “having boundaries?”

Boundaries and the 9 to 5

For those of us in academia, quiet quitting seems like a fantasy, one that we imagine might be possible in the 9 to 5 workplace. As a coach and as a prof, I’ve often heard people “wish” for the kind of job they could leave behind at 5pm and forget about on evenings and weekends. I’ve had this thought myself. Of course, this isn’t the norm in most workplaces, as the discourse around quiet quitting proves.

Still, I think many academics would maintain that quiet quitting simply isn’t possible in today’s academic workplace. Academic hustle culture is strong. We’re conditioned to make up for institutional failures with individual sacrifices. And we’re steeped in a scarcity/crisis narrative that fosters competition and the belief that we always have to be doing more.

In this context, it’s easy to understand why many fantasize about having the kind of job you don’t take home with you. Paradoxically, though, the very thing that draws people to the academy and keeps them there is a sincere belief that their work is their life: it’s a meaningful vocation, an identity, the thing they’re meant to do.

What would quiet quitting look like in the university?

Is it possible to reconcile these tensions? People have a clear desire for more balance in their lives. Yet, the neoliberal university coupled with the idea of academic work as a calling makes it difficult to imagine the university as a place where you “work to live.”

Indeed, those who appear to have that attitude are often derided. Folks who just “do their job and go home” are not seen as dedicated, collegial, or productive. When I speak with clients who want to set better boundaries at work, they often fear that they’ll become (or be seen as) “that guy.”

In other words, there are quiet quitters or “work-to-livers” among us in the academy, and there always have been. But they’ve never been presented as role models. Is it possible that this will start to shift?

Anecdotally, it does seem as though academics are starting to question whether their jobs truly are their identities. Many are realizing that the institution feels little loyalty toward them, no matter how hard they work. The mental and physical toll of overwork and burnout is becoming more apparent and more openly discussed.

Should you quiet quit?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I strongly believe in boundaries and the need to say no. I don’t think setting a few boundaries and lightening your overall workload amount to quiet quitting. However, it might feel that way in a context where excessive work is the norm.

I would say this: if you feel like work has taken over too much of your life, or that you’re burnt out, or that you’re neglecting your health, your family, your friends, or any other part of your life that you value, you should consider whether there are any aspects of your job that you could set better boundaries around or even quietly quit.

For example, not every committee that you’re on requires you to go above and beyond. Sometimes just showing up and doing your share is enough. Not every class needs a complete refresh each year. It’s ok to teach the same syllabus a few times before updating it.

I know the pressure to overachieve is immense. Grad students, adjuncts, and pre-tenure faculty might not feel able to resist overwork. For that reason, it’s all the more important that those of us with tenure don’t keep raising the bar through our own behaviour. Can we model a gentler, slower, more balanced academic life? Can we start to change what we value as evidence of a successful academic career? Is it possible to reward or laud those who show up as whole people, rather than the overworked academic robots we’re incentivizing now?

At least, let the quiet quitters be

These days, I spend as much time thinking about what I won’t do at work as I do planning what I will. This is because I know how easy it is to get pulled into too many projects and commitments. I suspect that to some, my refusal to overwork looks like checking out. Maybe I’m “that guy” now.

My own changing attitude to work, as well as the conversation about quiet quitting, has led me to challenge my own perceptions about colleagues who just seem to do their jobs and go home. Those who work to live in the university are modelling an alternative. It won’t appeal to everyone, and there are those who love to “live to work.” Dispensing with negative judgments of academia’s quiet quitters is a decent baby step toward de-normalizing academic grind culture.