Essay: Segal on leaving tenured position and advice for faculty considering such jobs
According to the chair of the department who called 16 years ago to say that I’d been hired as a faculty member, I would be “a good fit” for the college. It seemed like high praise at the time; in fact, it was academic code -- and proved quite complicated, somewhat insidious, and ultimately heartbreaking.
The most recent issue of the college’s publication for alumnae and friends (the latter, like “fit,” a code word) described one of the newest faculty members as an “excellent fit.” And even though I am now retired, I felt, for just a moment, a reflexive stab of envy — why was she considered excellent, when I had been only -- merely -- good? But then I just as quickly recalled that this competitive response is part of the mystery and trap of being -- or not being -- a good fit.
Several pages later in that same issue, a current trustee and former acting president of the college (and graduate of the school) was commended for being a good fit. These pronouncements would perhaps be more meaningful if it were not for a story that had run just a few weeks earlier in the local paper, about the abrupt resignation of the college’s most recent provost. The reporter quoted the president as saying that the provost was not a good fit; the article also included the president’s comments when the provost started at the college 16 months earlier, proclaiming that she was “a perfect fit.”
As for the current acting provost? Well, she’s a very good fit. At least for now.
It might be best to counter any proclamations of one’s being a good fit for a particular college or position with Marx’s (Groucho, not Karl) famous dictum that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him. Like other academic buzzwords, “fit” sounds decisive and straightforward.
But, like other masking terms, such as innovation and efficiency (and its even more ominous form, efficiencies), fit can be stretched to suit almost any argument. It’s ironic that in this age of assessment, in which we cannot use words like “understanding” or “appreciation” in our lists of outcomes, goals, and grading measures for our students, we allow ourselves as academicians to answer to the subjective, shifting, and arbitrary “fit.” To help you determine if you’re a good faculty fit for a small, formerly-known-as-liberal-arts college, consider the following:
Are you willing to teach four or five different courses each semester?
Are you willing to teach up to three writing classes each semester?
Are you willing to teach evenings, weekends, summers, and holiday breaks?
Do you understand that you will spend more time on service commitments than on prepping for your classes?
Are you willing to serve on multiple committees whose meeting times will add up to as many as eight hours per work -- the equivalent of a full business day?
Are you willing to serve on multiple committees after repeated evidence that there is no such thing as faculty governance?
Are you willing to serve on ad hoc committees that do not publish minutes?
Are you willing to vote yes on whatever the administration sends down to committees?
Do you understand that, even if you are on sabbatical or furlough, you may be called in for meetings?
Are you willing to create new assessment forms each fall?
Are you willing to work on new versions of the liberal-arts core curriculum every 2-3 years?
Are you willing to approve a transfer policy that does not require either adult or traditional transfer students to complete the college’s liberal arts curriculum?
Are you willing to create a new two-year rotation for course offerings every two to three months?
Are you willing to endorse a strategic plan based on an academic program review that you do not recognize even though you served on the review committee?
Are you willing not only to read the handbook but also to participate in its ceaseless revision?
Are you willing — and this is a question that appears on the new course evaluation at my college — to take a personal interest in all your students?
Having expressed a personal interest in your students, are you then willing, per the college’s request, to report any indications or confidences that particular students may be considering leaving?
Are you willing to attend prospective student days, knowing that by the time these prospects enroll the college will have undergone sea changes?
Are you willing to welcome with applause each person hired to fill a new administrative position?
Have you carved out two hours per week to devote to scholarship and writing? These hours will most likely fall after midnight or on weekends.
Are you willing to hear repeatedly from the administration that you can be replaced?
Do you understand that your liberal-arts major may be downsized to a concentration or eliminated?
Do you understand that you may feel some or all of the following emotions: shame, fear, self-loathing?
Do you have, or have you ever had, an aversion to any of the following academic buzz words or phrases: transition, strategic plan, tactical plan, assessment, sharing, governance, seamless, collaboration, allocation, reallocation, vision, mission, collegiality (a synonym, as a friend of mine recently pointed out, for “fit”)?
And yet I tried, until, at the end of fifteen years -- the minimum requirement for retirement -- I submitted my letter of intent. I recognized, with a good deal of guilt, that I was fortunate to have a full-time position. How could I complain? How could I just walk away from a (tenured) dream job? After a spring semester in which I went back and forth -- incessantly, it seemed -- I sent my letter in June, announcing my intention to leave at the end of December. My ambivalence continued through the summer and the first days of the fall semester -- right up to the point of the first full faculty meeting, when all my doubts ended. The college was no longer a good fit for me.
Here is what I miss: the view from the porch of my building, seeing certain fellow faculty members on a regular basis, spending time with my students. It is working with my students -- traditional and adult -- that I will miss the most. Still, on one crisp December morning, just before the new year, I told them good-bye, reassuring them that they would be my advisees for life; handed in my keys; and loaded several boxes filled with papers and books into my car, which happens to be a Honda Fit, and moved on.
Carolyn Foster Segal will be an adjunct professor of English at Muhlenberg College.