A professor tries to convince himself not to leave the university (review)

I am writing this essay instead of quitting my job.

I’m a tenured professor of creative writing at a regional comprehensive university that, like many others, circles the chasm.

I’m writing this at dusk on my laptop in a van. We camp in northern Idaho and are now settled for the night.

This afternoon my husband and I passed the sign at the trailhead warning of grizzly bears. We ran past the sign telling us to stay 100 feet away from mountain goats and not let them lick our salty bodies or gear.

We ran (OK, quick hike) for four miles, climbing almost 4000 feet, saw some lazy critters that showed no interest in us, and then back down. Earlier, my husband said, “Moose!” and I saw a black butt walking in the trees. It was a rejuvenating, if tiring day. However, for the first time, I dread the return to university.

During this hike, I tried to think of ways to keep doing my job.

The idea of ​​complaining about being a tenured professor when so many talented people do casual work is, I know, gross. Save yourself time on the computer writing hate mail to me; better watch videos of cute animals. I understand.

And, above all, I feel grateful for doing what I do.

Except in this pandemic era of silent abandonment, I want to abandon.

As I ran through these rocky mountains, I thought that if I tried to write about what might get a person going when they want to quit, maybe I could put myself in a better place and offer a small consolation to the many others who feel like I do.

Because I’ve been writing about higher education for a long time, I have an amazing set of (virtual) colleagues all over the country. It’s a rich source of intellectual pleasure and, to be honest, provides some needed ego stroking.

But like many professors, at my own university, I feel invisible. I’ve had deans who wouldn’t recognize me if I gave the opening speech, provosts who had never seen my signature. When I get noticed, it’s often not in a good way. Administrators called me “feisty” in meetings and joked, dismissively, “Why don’t you tell us how you really feel, Rachel?” My colleagues have no idea what I post, just as I don’t hear about most of their accomplishments.

As I climbed that steep peak towards potentially nagging mountain goats, I thought about what sustains me and what I need to remember to feel grateful.

I know I’m supposed to tell students.

And, usually, it is. When people who have taken classes with me post or receive rewards, I’m happier than if I got those freebies myself. Some have become friends. Real important friends.

That said, I am not a beloved or even particularly effective teacher. My grades are good – well above average, as I suspect most are – but there are still students who hate me with a burning, happy passion.

Often, it’s twenty-somethings who start by saying to me: “You are the woman I hope to become. I learned to understand this as “you are the teacher whose approval I need the most”. Those who have been fed a diet of complimented sandwiches find my neat approach to whiskey hard to swallow.

Plus, as a sharp-featured woman with a sarcastic wit, I know male colleagues can get away with saying things that are a thousand times more inflammatory than anything I’ll ever say.

As everyone knows, teaching is more difficult these days because the life of students is more difficult. My creative writing students have long since come forward with their diagnoses, but now the mental health issues are more serious. I feel for them, but I’m ill-equipped to help on that front.

In higher education, we all start at least with a passion for our fields and a belief that we bring real value to the world. We tell ourselves it’s a more honorable job than earning billions of dollars in an investment bank or working for Major League Baseball. Then we wake up to the reality that being good at studying is just something we love and have been rewarded for.

When I want to quit, I think of the advantages we all know: the fact that I can write about anything that interests me. Reading newly published memoirs for pleasure results in additions to the curriculum. Going to a 100 mile mountain run? Tax-deductible research for a new book. Not being micromanaged, having a flexible schedule and little time in an office. Yes, it’s a good concert.

And yet, two weeks before the start of term, I received an email saying that one of the classes I had been assigned to teach had been canceled for low enrollment. This type of uncertainty is well known to those on the circuit of academic contingency. I don’t think I’m at the “dead wood” point. (Does anyone ever think that of themselves?) But I’m not as flexible as I once was, and it’s time for the bend or the break.

If I quit my job, there’s no comfort in knowing that I’ll be replaced by a more talented and hardworking writer – of which there are many. No, my warrant line will disappear. The job description might as well have been written on parchment.

But if I can convince myself that I have a whole new role, one in which I help prepare students for careers completely different from my own, maybe I can continue. This means I have new challenges and have to ask tough questions about what they need to learn, not just what I like to teach. As I finished hurtling down the mountain, having avoided kissing goats, I decided that would be my mission. This would allow me to continue.

Your mileage may vary.

If, as it is for me, the golden handcuffs of tenure start to chafe, I urge you to find ways to feel useful, even valued. It could come from doing more academic service, or a lot less. This may include setting new goals, such as publishing for the general public or learning a new sub-discipline. This could be creating a writing or reading group with people from different fields or using Zoom to connect with people in your own specialty. Or you can offer to read a junior colleague’s manuscript.

You may be able to find ways to mentor students outside of the usual channels. Last year, I became the counselor for a new student group, COW — the Overwhelmed Writers Club — simply by encouraging what its members were already doing. The contact with the student affairs people always broadens my vision of the university and brings me out of my little corner of the campus. For those of us who have become comfortably numb in our work, tweaking them can bring relief.

But my message is different for many people who have earned graduate degrees and failed to secure tenure-track positions. To them, I mean, like many others, Go out! Now.

Think about the skills you’ve learned and don’t be afraid to be creative, rethink and, most importantly, reimagine your life.

I just finished a book manuscript that offers job search advice to recent college grads, I’m trying to follow some of the advice I’ve heard from employers. Figure out what excites you, what your core values ​​are, what lights you up and makes the time go by so fast it doesn’t feel like work.

Start talking to people. Contact us (LinkedIn makes it easy). Ask those in interesting and enviable positions how they got their jobs, what the culture of their organization is like, what they need help with. Treat the search for a new career path as a research project. We are trained in academia to disdain “skills”, but we value critical thinking and careful reading and interpreting of evidence and forming hypotheses. These are, my friends, skills. You know it. You may not have thought about how to translate them for roles outside of academia.

Learn how to write a great one-page cover letter, summarize your experience in a short resume instead of a 30-page resume, and google “how to beat AI bots.” You’d be surprised how many mistakes you might not know you make when it comes to job applications.

Our industry has not changed for hundreds of years. It’s a giant, slow-moving ship that now has to turn quickly. You can learn to spin with it. You can stay and listen to the strings play “Nearer My God to Thee” as it sinks, or you can head out to a lifeboat. They’re over there.

When you find one, maybe save me a spot.

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