Off Track, On Point

Yes, I would like to be a tenured professor, writes Julie Shayne, but I decided to choose happiness over self-implosion.

May 13, 2016

I should be an advanced associate professor by now. I am not. I should serve on tenure review committees. I do not. I should have had one sabbatical at my current institution by now. I have not.

I earned my Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2000. I cannot lie; I do feel a twinge of frustration watching assistant professors whom I helped to recruit and mentor earn tenure while my position stays relatively unchanged. I have one tier above me on my track (principal lecturer), for which I recently became eligible. But after that, I hit a glass ceiling.

I certainly feel that I am long overdue for a well-earned sabbatical. And I do wish that my primary title were associate professor, not senior lecturer. I am confident that I have the academic qualifications congruent with that title: three books, decades of teaching and service, awards, yada, yada, yada. The longing for a title that equals my years and accomplishments post-Ph.D. is fleeting, especially when I reflect on why I am where I am today.

In 2006, I resigned from my tenure-track assistant professor job about a year before I submitted my tenure portfolio. Yes, I wanted tenure -- who doesn’t, especially after going through the hell of the tenure track? But I wanted a happy family and personally rewarding life, as well. And being a West Coaster living in the Southeast made the nonwork happiness an unattainable reality, tenure or not. So I resigned. (I discuss that decision and move in an essay called “Mother’s Day,” which is the afterword in my newest book, Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas.)

When I resigned, I had no idea how things would work out. As a straight, white, upper-middle-class woman, I had the privilege of knowing that my family and I had my husband’s salary and health insurance to fall back on if my career move proved unsuccessful. Fortunately, I had very good timing. I showed up at the University of Washington Bothell just two years after it started admitting first-year college students (as opposed to just transfers), and the campus needed people to teach new freshman classes. I am now housed in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, a unit that encourages me to frame my research, teaching and even service in a way that prioritizes passion and social justice over the treadmill of self-doubt and limiting professional norms. (I have written about this part of the story here.)

Like many academics, I was a professional organizer before I was a professor; that is, a grassroots leftist turned institutional leftist. I became an organizer in 1984 as part of the U.S. sanctuary movement and Salvadoran solidarity movement, working with the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador. I started as an undergraduate student at University of California at Santa Barbara. But not long after getting sucked into the movement, I decided to drop out of college. (Every Jewish parent’s dream: a child who’s a college dropout, right?) I moved to Washington, D.C., ironically, to be CISPES’s full-time national student organizer. I went across the country, campus to campus, traveling with Salvadoran refugee activists, in order to inspire college students to organize on their campuses in solidarity with the Salvadoran revolution. It was a heady time, to say the least.

Health issues forced me to reroute my path, and eventually I returned to college, this time at San Francisco State University, where I earned a B.A. and M.A. in what was then called women’s studies. During my very first semester there, I decided that I wanted to be a professor. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in rooms full of leftists, mostly women, discussing things like black women, music and politics with Angela Davis (who taught at the university at the time) -- and I was getting credit for it! Who would leave that reality? Plus, the institution was full of nontraditional students like myself and had great ethnic studies departments and a wonderfully diverse student body. (Very sadly, the future of ethnic studies at San Francisco State is presently under attack.) I wanted to teach at a place like that. And as many of us probably know, when we decide we want to be professors we are not thinking about writing books, academic service or moving to the middle of how-the-hell-did-I-end-up-here U.S.A.

After San Francisco State, I went back to the University of California at Santa Barbara to earn a Ph.D. in sociology. The longer I stayed in academe, the more I could feel my passion being pushed to the margins. I landed my tenure-track job and read the memo all lefty academics get: leave your politics at the door. I didn’t quite realize what was happening as it was happening, because when you’re on the tenure track, you’re not given a lot of time to stop and think, let alone second-guess any earlier decisions.

But leaving the tenure track allowed me to remember why I wanted to be a professor in the first place: to teach about and inspire social justice activism, especially feminism. The longer I teach, the more invested I become in this profession as my locale for social justice activism. In having Latinx students who have never seen their histories taught in a class, I know that fleeing the tenure track for what I originally thought were incredibly personal reasons was also my way of bringing my long-buried activist back to the surface.

And the longer I stay at an institution that lets feminists reshape old and build new degrees to center intersectional analyses, the more I am convinced that prioritizing personal quality of life is invariably connected to our political sanity. It is actually quite embarrassing that it took me so long to notice this.

Colleagues, including feminist colleagues, have invariably looked down on me for presumably prioritizing family over career. Put another way, happiness over self-implosion. In retrospect, I think others have mocked me because I haven’t played by the rigidly outlined rules, rules that say profession first, family and activism, at best, next. I don’t like those rules. I decided to be a professor to teach and do social justice activism, and I am grateful that I have accidentally figured out a way to make that a reality.

But I cannot lie: I do still wish my primary title was associate professor and that I would be submitting my dossier for promotion to full professor in a few years, as many of my grad school colleagues probably will. But not if that means exchanging the emotional and professional satisfaction that I experience in my current reality for what, in the end, is only a title.

I suppose my message here is to ask, why did we decide to become professors in the first place? Did we even know which titles and tracks existed? (I certainly didn’t; I didn’t know what tenure was until a few years into my Ph.D. program.) Are we really advancing a social justice agenda if our so-called professional pursuits are forcing us to abandon our convictions?

I am not suggesting everyone jump ship. As I said, I am very privileged to have the family resources available that allowed me to take the risk, combined with impeccably good timing. From where I sit now, I am quite confident that if I showed up unannounced at my university today, as I did eight years ago, the trajectory would be very different and far less secure.

That said, I do think it’s important for people to pause and ask themselves, “How did we end up on the path we are on, especially if it’s not where we hoped to be?” Although we do not often talk about it, the reality is that there is more than one path through academe. Despite the dominant professional narrative that suggests otherwise, all of us are not meant to be on the tenure track.


Julie Shayne is a senior lecturer in interdisciplinary arts and sciences at the University of Washington Bothell and affiliate associate professor of gender, women and sexuality studies and Latin American and Caribbean studies, as well as faculty associate, at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington Seattle. She was born and raised in California and seems to be living happily ever after with her family in the Pacific Northwest.


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