Thursday, January 21, 2016

Why I'm leaving my tenure-track position

A few weeks ago I emailed my dean, and then my colleagues, to let them know that I will resign from my tenure-track assistant professorship at the end of the 2015-2016 academic year.

The decision was nothing short of excruciating. I spent weeks, if not months, staring up at the ceiling in the middle of the night wondering whether something was wrong with me. First of all, I questioned whether I had the right to give up a position that so many others want and never get despite being more than qualified for the position. Second, how could I give up the health benefits? For the first time since becoming an adult, I could go to the doctor or dentist without worrying that I'd be leaving with a drained bank account. And third... I'd worked so hard for this very job. Was I now willing to give it up after all that effort, all those sacrifices?

As Kerry Ann Roquemore has stated, "We feel so grateful and thankful we got from one stage to the next stage that we don’t ever pause to ask ourselves do I actually want to be here?  Again, it is a competitive market, such a competitive space that we don’t even feel we can have the luxury to ask if [we] want to do this."

The hemming, hawing, worrying, and hand-wringing went on for so long that my husband finally told me to just make a decision - he didn't care what it was as long as we could just make a real plan.

And so I did. I called it. I sent my letter of resignation. I started telling colleagues.

In the last five years, multiple writers have described their reasons for leaving the ivory tower. Those reasons - all legit, in my opinion - include the following:

1) Location. Tenure track job opportunities are few and far between, and those that do exist are often located in tiny towns in the middle of nowhere. The position I'm vacating is the perfect example. I'd never heard of the college or the town before I happened to see the job ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The town is located within 60-90 minutes of three major cities, but trust me, there is almost nothing within that radius. I had visions of exploring the region with my family every weekend, but then the realities of teaching prep hit. By Friday night I don't want to get into the car and drive. I just want to sit on my couch, watch Netflix, and drink a glass of wine.

2) Student engagement, or lack thereof: If I want to be diplomatic, I'll say something along the lines of, "Every student is different. We need to meet individual student needs. We're here to serve our students and provide them the best education possible. We need to teach to the students who are here." If I'm not being diplomatic I might instead say, "It is 10 AM and I need a drink because why is it that you are covertly checking Facebook in class after I've spent three hours preparing the activities for today? Who don't you do your assignments? Why don't you put as much effort into your learning as you do into your sorority/fraternity obligations? Also, who is paying thousands of dollars a year for you to come here and miss class? DO YOU THINK THIS IS AN EXTENDED SUMMER CAMP?!?"

And then I might throw my lawn chair and scream "GET OFF MY LAWN" for good measure.

Do I realize that I am turning into an old grump? Yes. I do. Do I realize that I also have many, many students who work hard and think critically? Yes. Absolutely. I also realize I don't totally understand the student perspective. But I think there's something to many teachers' observations that a rather high percentage of students entering college are unprepared, uninterested, and unmotivated. At the same time, professors (especially on the tenure track) are expected to "cater to the customer" and meet every individual's needs even if said individual is only here to appease their parents.

And woe to any TT professor who gets sub-par student evaluations. At my small school, evaluations are everything. Honestly, if students learn but do not like you, you're screwed. And they know it.

3) A negative campus atmosphere: I've been lucky. Although my college does seem to have some factions, and although institutional financial stress my first year on the job threatened to tear apart faculty camaraderie at the seams, I have to say that the atmosphere at my school is pretty positive. I love my fellow faculty members. I love seeing the creative, smart ideas they have. I love the autonomy, and I generally feel respected. That's not always the case.

4) High teaching loads and near-impossible grant expectations: Again, I've been fortunate in these respects. My college is a small liberal arts college; the expectation when you're hired is that you will mostly be teaching. You're welcome to conduct research. You're welcome to seek outside funding. But as long as you're engaging in some way with your scholarly community, nobody's going to knock you down a peg for not roping in a $1 million NSF grant.

5) They just want to check out other, non-academic optionsAnne Helen Petersen and Matt Welsh both left academia to pursue other endeavors - in writing and software engineering, respectively. I can see why. If you can do what you love while earning a higher salary, and you don't have to deal with the quick-as-molasses academic publishing system, a non-academic job is understandably tempting.

6) The lack of jobs and the treatment of adjuncts: Of all the issues in academia, this one sickens me the most. Academics spend years in grad school - often racking up major-league debt - only to discover that landing the plum job they've always wanted (the elusive tenure track position) is basically as likely as riding a magical unicorn or capturing a video of Bigfoot. And so they take on visiting assistant professorships, post-docs, or adjunct positions. Many academics hit the job market year after year and yet end up with no prospects. It's not because they're not good enough. It's because the jobs are just too scarce to accommodate the number of Ph.D.s trying to find a spot in the ivory tower.

And I won't even get into the crap that adjuncts deal with at their institutions: poor wages, lack of mentorship, little respect.

A little bit of all of these reasons contribute to my decision to leave, but in the end I realized that my reason for going doesn't fit into any of those categories. My main reason for leaving is this:

I started to feel trapped. And I don't do well with feeling trapped.

One day I was giving a lecture - I should add that it was going well; my students were energetic that day and we were having a thoughtful discussion - when all of a sudden I looked out at them and thought, "In a year, I will be doing exactly this. And the year after that, I will be doing exactly this. This is it. This is my life for the next 30 years."

I then proceeded to have a panic attack and ended class ten minutes early.

The panic attack underlined months of unease and anxiety wherein I'd been questioning the job but couldn't figure out why I was questioning it. Suddenly the reason was clear.

Why I thought I was ready to "settle down," I have no idea. We haven't lived anywhere for more than six years since getting married. I get bored easily; I like to see new places and do new things. And although I have often wondered if perhaps this means I have some sort of problem, maybe the truth is that I just like adventure. Maybe I'm at my best when I am not rooted to one spot.

To be honest, I do feel somewhat guilty for not being more self-aware when I was considering this position. Shouldn't I have been able to figure out that it wasn't the best choice? If I'd just thought through it more, would I have decided differently?

 I don't think so. This was the job I'd wanted and prepared for. In graduate school, I'd taught and earned teaching awards. I had every reason to believe that a liberal arts teaching position was the ideal choice. And here at my current institution, I seem to be doing a pretty good job: my first year review was laudatory, and overall my students seem happy with my teaching style. So it's not that I can't do the job. I can, and I can do it well.

But until you're actually in the position, you don't really know what it's going to be like or how you're going to feel about it. You don't know if the ivory tower is going to start feeling like a very pretty prison. Sometimes you just have to try. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn't, and you have to give yourself kudos for making the attempt and learning something about yourself.

As we tell our students (and I always mean it sincerely when I say it to them), being wrong does not mean you're a failure. Being wrong means you're learning and growing, and it means you're one step closer to the truth.

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