A Kinder Goodbye

Job changes and losses can happen anytime, even when you think you are indispensable, writes Maria Shine Stewart, so it’s good to prepare.

June 21, 2017

Exits are never easy, most of us would agree. They’re awkward, emotional, even stressful. Sometimes for the person departing, it’s an act of being set free for new opportunities, whereas for others, it is a dash into the unknown. Or a slow walk.

I suspect that one reason academic tenure is so appealing, as well as the academic protection for research and teaching, of course, is the guarantee of not having to say goodbye over and over. Maybe that’s among the less acknowledged reasons why so many are willing to fight for it. And for those of us who are untenured, adjunct, contingent, term, temporary or whatever your institution’s favorite word, goodbye is not optional. It can happen anytime.

And yet a farewell or auf Wiedersehen counts. If the department and/or one’s immediate colleagues can’t offer it, perhaps it is time for a contingent faculty member’s own contingency planning.

Not long ago, a group of us, all adjuncts, were not renewed for the forthcoming term (and, perhaps, indefinitely). I’ve spent years teaching for the institution; others were also firmly committed.

Sure, it’s possible -- though not probable -- that we could be rehired in the fall, if schedule times are open and there is a need. And after decades of examining the teaching agreement each term, of course I know what it says: No guarantee of continued employment.

And yet we are staples, like flour and sugar in the cupboard. We may not seem like much to some people, often lumped together and pushed to the back. We may not seem like much until we are gone.

With our Midwest winters and sun deprivation, scant work during spring semester does not come as good news. If any reader thinks there is a burgeoning job market in publishing, editing, K-12 education or other fields an academic might seem eligible for, that is simply not true in every part of the country. “Go get another job! Stop griping!” I’ve read countless times in comment queues, usually posted anonymously. “And if you don’t like the jobs available, just suck it up and work somewhere else.” Many of us do. And we also teach.

As a group we knew this was coming. The department certainly gave us word as the curriculum changed, courses were condensed and other factors -- like enrollment figures -- emerged.

Colleges, like other businesses, pursue measures to cut corners -- even cutting staples.

Expectedly, some of my colleagues jumped ship as the news got bleaker and bleaker. Some of us held on, and some new folks were hired, as is the department’s prerogative. That is perhaps the oddest part of the revolving door of the adjunct world. “No class for you” concurrent with “Welcome, newbies!” Again, maybe it is indeed easier to say hello.

Contingency Self-Help for the Contingent

  1. Your mind may want to replay what happened, but you should gently try to let go of it, says the inner voice within -- what psychologist Marsha Linehan might call “wise mind.” You are more than your work.
  2. At the same time, do find somewhere appropriate to vent. It need not be a therapy setting. It could be in a house of worship, a community group, a support group for job seekers. Adjuncts who are renewed may or may not be the best listeners -- only you know who is attentive to your own needs.
  3. Have a C.V. or résumé ready. Keep a foot in one or two other worlds, whether volunteering for the greater good or some other venture not directly connected with your training and passions.
  4. Stay connected with students you care about, if you choose. You know, the ones for whom you’d enjoy writing letters of support.
  5. Even with preparation for the unexpected, expect some depressed and anxious feelings. I am a licensed counselor, and I know that adjustments take a toll. Even the most stoic can be blindsided by their own reaction. Free clinics and some counselors do pro bono work. Take care of your emotional needs.
  6. Expect some bait and switch. Sometimes organizations may not know better. My husband, not in academe, discovered after 32 consecutive years in his industry before being laid off that a gulf exists between the preparation one feels and the actual event. The day he was terminated several years ago, he was expecting a (positive) performance appraisal. His company had been bought and sold several times. Assertive job searching takes confidence. Don’t expect that to bubble up all at once.
  7. Stockpile for lean times. My father struggled so hard for employment as an immigrant to the United States -- and a survivor of the Holocaust -- always looking for work or creating tasks at home. Regrettably, there were language barriers. So we learned to be resourceful -- sewing, recycling before the word even existed, stretching wholesome food, living without a car.
  8. Be prepared. An unexpected professional farewell may threaten to derail you at some point in your life, even if you strive to do everything “right” in your career. Programs might be cut. Budgets could slashed. Department politics on unkinder campuses can be ruthless. Adversity will happen sometime, as little in life is permanent.

I don’t mean to sound like a doomsday prophet if I predict that someone in your circle, inside or outside academe, is, has been or will be displaced or replaced soon. If you’re involved with students -- as a teacher, counselor, coach, adviser or otherwise -- you know that the realities of your students’ future lives is also beyond your, and their, prediction.

In her graduation speech “The Fringe Benefits of Failure” at Harvard University in 2008, J. K. Rowling offered insights on both the power of the imagination and the importance of failure. Not every termination or ending of a job is necessarily a failure, but it can feel like it.

We are always more than our jobs, more even than our vocation or calling -- which I believe transcends the specific job description. But when the work abruptly ends, you can feel a jolt. Based on my experience, it’s good to prepare, even when you think you are indispensable.

When a longtime neighbor of my mom’s died of a sudden heart attack, the eulogist said, “Maybe Glenn was someone who preferred saying hello rather than saying goodbye.” I could not beat that logic, and I think that could hold true for many of us.


Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing and is a licensed professional counselor. This is part of a column, “A Kinder Campus,” that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact [email protected].


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