Being Replaced

The time comes eventually for most professors: watching a tryout for an eventual successor. Lezlie Laws considers the implications for herself and her institution.

March 6, 2013

“How do you feel about being replaced?” a friend asked me recently.

This in response to a candidate for my position at Rollins College being here for campus interviews. As a part of the interview process, she taught a class. It happened to be my class that she taught. The question troubled me, and it’s taken a while to decide why.

It was almost an out-of-body experience for me, which is what we say when we don’t entirely know how to process an event. We were in 105 Orlando Hall, my preferred classroom home for the last 24 years. She was sitting in my place at the head of the table when I walked into the room about three minutes before class was to start. 

I was a little startled by that -- undoubtedly my ego taking offense at her taking over my place at the table without being graciously shuttled into it. You don’t sit in Dad’s chair when Dad is home, right? She had her books arrayed around her, and she was sitting complacently. She might have been chatting with a student. She was soft and low-key. She wore a diaphanous, summery blue print dress that seemed decidedly unlike the tailored blue suit graduate students are advised to wear at interviews.

I went up to her and introduced myself; she rose and shook my hand with the appropriate amount of obeisance. Told me how much she had heard about me and that she was happy to meet me. New guard greeting the old guard. It was an archetypal moment, both players well aware of the importance of the moment – the changes coming into their lives. I spoke to her jokingly about “my babies” as I looked out over the large class, and said how pleased I was to hand them over to her for a while. They deserve the best, I said. And then several other department members arrived to observe her and we got started.

I went to the back of the room and sat at the table with the students instead of positioning myself at the room’s periphery with other faculty members. I didn’t want to judge this event; I wanted to participate in it fully. I watched her closely. She is young and attractive. She has a book coming out. She has an MFA from the best university for teaching writing in the nation. She’s got creds. She’ll be good.

And there she stood in my place. And there I sat at the back of the large oval table I’ve walked around for 24 years. And then I realized: I don’t see myself as “being replaced” because, to be honest, there is no way I can be replaced by a young person right out of graduate school. Something bigger than “replacement” is happening here.

I watch her teach; I float around the room, disembodied. 

She is a highly competent person; otherwise she wouldn’t be here. She’s just not very filled out as a human being. I recognized a necessary wafting and waning that takes place in the workplace. The department gets something new when it hires a young person: fresh skills, new information, high energy, and more. But my retirement means the department is losing an old soul -- a teacher clear about what is important about life, with the confidence and finesse to actually bring that into the classroom. Yes, we must teach knowledge and technique, but at this stage of my teaching life, I’m interested in teaching wisdom and awareness, nudging students to think in new ways about themselves and the nature of their realities.

This is the real work that we human beings have to do on this planet. Skills and techniques are nice (oh yes, vitally important); but the heart of the matter for me is grappling with the Big Questions. And I know how to grapple. So this fully credentialed candidate will bring exciting new things to us, and that’s good. She will grow into her own skin in time. Hopefully sooner rather than later. Because our little babies at Rollins need to know about their souls. They need to begin the work of saving themselves.

Look at the care and effort the college applies to taking on a new colleague. The process is thorough and rigorous. Much is at stake. Do we do the same in letting our old souls go? Are the same questions and evaluations made with a candidate for retirement? Is consideration given to ways to hold on to the methods and wisdom of experience? With each coming and going, do we forge deeper clarity about our mission, and make enlightened decisions aligned with that mission?

Essentially, I see this process of retiring and hiring as a part of the evolution of the college, and ultimately as a part of the larger evolution of the planet. The candidate and I are small pegs in a deep evolutionary process that is going on around and in each and every one of us, one in which we are at the least mere pawns, at the best co-creators. The college must release those who need to move on to quieter times or to other projects, and it must take on new blood, new energy, new knowledge. It’s the way any organism changes, and we hope those changes bring about more benefit to our students and our community.

But keeping equilibrium between the old and the new is a job of delicate balance -- in organizations and in individuals, too. Here, I call upon the philosopher Ken Wilber’s notion of evolution as a process of “transcending and including.”  Molecules evolved into cells, but didn’t get rid of the molecules in the process; that’s the concept as applied to biology. As we grow as an institution, we, too, must transcend and include the best parts of who we have been in order to become the next best version of who we can be.

Which finally leads me to question:  what experience and knowledge am I transcending and including as I leave 105 Orlando Hall and that fabulous oak table I’ve walked around for years? What am I taking on that is new and energetic?  What new knowledge, new skills, new insights — new ways of being? Can I move through this delicate process unfettered by the need to cherish too dearly and protect too assertively a self that needs to change? That’s my new job.


At the end of May,  Lezlie Laws  will conclude a 44-year career as a teacher, the last 24 as professor of English at Rollins College, in Florida. She will be teaching yoga, coaching creatives, and offering workshops in creative living through her new project, LifeArt.


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