I am quitting academia. I am leaving philosophy and stepping down from being a co-director at MAP UK. While not a decision I made lightly, I am confident it is the right one for me. I love my subject and I still believe in the PhD proposal I had worked on for a long time as well as the values and goals of MAP UK, but I need a space away from it all.
This decision had been a long time coming when I reflect on it, but several factors pushed me to make up my mind and move on. Three stand out to me: the atmosphere I was experiencing as a queer person, the struggle to access support with my long-since diagnosed but under-treated depression, and of course the sheer pressure of academia’s expectations and structures compounding the prior two. I hope to explain my decision to step down from MAP UK in this blog post, and more importantly offer the comfort of solidarity to those feeling the same way. I have personally found value in letting go and wish those who face the decision peace and clarity. I also want to offer an opinion: that letting go is not always giving up, and in allowing myself to step away I have found other ways to contribute to what I consider essential work of naming and fighting injustice.
To begin with the obvious, the atmosphere. I am proudly queer and newly taking steps out as nonbinary. This cannot be ignored as a contributing factor as the transphobia in academic philosophy has grown louder and more dispiriting to those of us for whom this discussion is not merely theoretical. We speak to each other; we share our experiences. Many people more eloquent than I have shared theirs publicly and I urge anyone unconvinced to find and read the testimony from LGBTQ+ people in academic philosophy right now who are finding things hard. I have had positive experiences too, especially in spaces where marginalised people came together to share both work related to our identity and work that is independent of it. I am so grateful to have met many people with powerful voices. I want more than anything for philosophy to listen to them. I want trans philosophy to be read and understood and engaged with in good faith.
As a slight aside, I have heard many times that we should not take Twitter seriously, yet established philosophers often hold discussion or put forward their views on there. I think it needs to be taken seriously as a platform with great potential, but as a place where the debate has become more open in its nastiness, with many facing hostility and abuse. It has contributed to the atmosphere where I felt less welcome, less safe. This spilled into conference season 2019. I was coming back from a period of absence due to my health and ready to re-engage. I was keen to talk to my peers and hear new work being shared. There was a space on my badge for pronouns, and I was so excited to tentatively write she/they. The shine wore off when friends confided in me about discriminatory comments brought after panels when the room was empty enough, whenever trans people were brought up and it was all a debate, an object of academic discussion and not real people in the room. People who have already done the work because it is asked of them to justify their existence in a way that is profoundly unfair. My point is that marginalised people so often end up, as I did, theorizing their own existence to make it easily digestible and to prove over and over our expertise. I want people to understand that this is tiring. It is tiring to explain yourself, tiring to worry about covering your pronoun badge, tiring to scope out if a group of academics will be welcoming to you or if they liked and shared a post on Twitter which mocked or dehumanized you or accused you of being unreasonable and somehow threatening.
In addition to feeling uneasy in the environment as a queer person, I also felt like my mental health had made me invisible. I have had adjustments made and some support available since I was given my formal diagnosis in my first year of undergraduate study. When I expressed interest in a Masters degree I was discouraged by several people in the department: I was told how hard it would be, how both funding and the work expectations would be unlikely to be flexible around my mental health needs. It was my dream though, I did well enough in undergraduate despite all the challenges I faced through it and I knew I had the support from student disability services. I was accepted onto the course and loved my studies. When I was struggling with my mental health in a serious way towards the end of the academic year, I was told I had the option of becoming an external student. I was warned up front that many who opt for this withdraw from study eventually, but I knew I needed the time to complete my work. I was not prepared for how cut off it would make me feel, and how I lost contact with everyone in the department almost instantly. There was no check-in, no support in planning the path forward. Every resource I got was something I had to ask for, with the sense that I was taking away resources from “real” students. I was told lecturers were not obligated to offer me assistance beyond the contact hours mandated by the course. I felt lesser and alone in a time I was already low and fighting a different battle to get appropriate mental health treatment. I was told I needed to appeal to extenuating circumstances to continue, despite student services telling me the whole process should have been prevented by my already evidenced support plan. It did not seem worth the energy anymore, so I made the decision then to withdraw.
Departments: Consider what you know about your procedures and options for disabled students. If there is a high rate of withdrawal, ask why. What about it is turning students away? Can anything change to reduce this rate? Perhaps a better map of what being externally registered means will help some. Perhaps reassurance of what resources you can still access. Perhaps the unspoken and spoken rules about which students get your time and to feel included need to change.
Neither of the reasons I have spoken about exist entirely apart from each other, and obviously this was a very personal decision made in the context of my experiences over the last few years. I am not advocating for others to make the same choice as me. I want you to feel seen if you are in similar circumstances, and I want you to hear me if you are someone who supports students: Offer support, reach out, know what resources can be passed on. Consider carefully what you say to the marginalised student in front of you when they ask about their future.
If you are considering your future in academia, I ask you to think of your own needs and energy. There is no shame in needing rest from what is agreed to be a challenging environment by those who do not face the same barriers. Correspondingly, if you are in a position to help people through this in any way, consider what you can do to dismantle as many barriers as you can. Listen and respond to what marginalised voices tell you, so more of us have the chance to fully thrive and bring change to the systems you may not have considered to be constraining without encountering them the same way as we do.
To close, my very best wishes to all who work with and for MAP UK, it was a pleasure to be involved with you and I hope to see your continued efforts achieve success for all of us who are marginalised and tired, but still love philosophy at heart. I will take philosophy with me, and I will never rule out a return to it. I offer my full support to everyone who remains supportive of equality and justice in philosophy, to everyone who supports LGBTQ+ people and helps make space for us. Respect and admiration to marginalised people in academia. It is long, hard work, and many of us will come and go along the way. Thank you for letting me walk some of the way with you.