What I Learned as I Was Leaving

Beth Godbee shares three responses that surprised her when she announced her decision to depart higher ed.

January 16, 2019
 
 
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Last May, I left a faculty position after being at my institution for seven years and having just earned tenure and promotion. I announced my decision to leave in March, the week before spring break, after a period of planning I’ve described in previous articles. My announcement involved scheduled meetings with my department chair and mentors, emails to departmental and disciplinary colleagues, and many phone calls, conversations and lunches that surrounded the official announcement.

Previously, I’ve shared my motivations for leaving academe, the practices I used for career discernment and the extended planning that led to this announcement. Now, in this piece, I’ll share what I learned through the announcement itself by relating three common responses that surprised me.

No. 1. “Good for you. I wish I could leave.” Before making my announcement, I worried about others’ reactions and wondered how the news might influence my relationships. I anticipated both support and disappointment, along with surprise and shock. And I was right that many relationships changed following the announcement: some have grown stronger, while some have fallen away.

What I didn’t anticipate was how frequently (and I mean incredibly frequently) I heard comments from other academics about wanting to leave. I began receiving stories of friends who’d left and never looked back. Many people encouraged me by sharing complaints, engaging in troubles-telling and imagining their own lives outside higher ed. I heard a chorus of statements like, “Good for you!” and “If only _______, then I’d totally leave, too.”

Some of those stories felt encouraging, others left me with a sense of relief or gratitude and still others stirred feelings that I was somehow betraying my duty as an academic by following my own strong yes. I was definitely confronted with my privilege for being able to leave and the conditions that keep many people in place. Months later, I still have many questions about why academe acts as an all-consuming force, as though you’re either in or out. People often expressed their desire to leave with tints of sadness, paired with a longing to make a change without having to leave their career entirely.

No. 2. “You’re so brave.” When tracking responses, I began noticing which adjectives were used, and common ones included “courageous,” “adventurous” and “brave.” A few times I heard “risky” and once “foolhardy,” leading me to see those qualifiers as related -- as obverse positive and negative assessments of my decision.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but hearing time and again that I was brave shook me. Not only did I not see myself as brave, but I also felt incredibly scared when making each new announcement. I feared that colleagues would be upset or angry. Although I mostly found support and affirmation, the varied assessments reminded me that both the decision and I were up for assessment, and we were often being assessed as bold, even daring.

I certainly didn’t want to be brave if that meant others would be assessed as vulnerable, weak or cautious. Precarity exists in and out of higher education. Yes, leaving has downside risks, but so does staying. And I couldn’t ignore my dreams any longer.

Troubled by implications of “brave,” I had to reconcile the both/and coexistence of fear and courage, vulnerability and strength, risk and reward within myself and each conversation. Still today, I’m thinking about why leaving academe might be characterized as “brave,” and I’m wanting us to recognize bravery within a wide range of decisions. Those include staying in academic positions when so much is stacked against people, especially marginalized people and people of color -- people “presumed incompetent” and “conditionally accepted” in academe.

No. 3. “That’s a really big decision. Will you be OK?” Despite characterizations of bravery being tough for me to handle, tougher still were statements of concern and questions like “Will you be OK?” Luckily, such questions came infrequently, but whenever I felt that someone saw me as vulnerable, I didn’t respond well. Too often, I puffed up as if to say, “I’m more than OK” and immediately regretted it.

I understand this idea of “puffing up” from Brené Brown, who shares in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Whenever I’m faced with a vulnerable situation, I get deliberate with my intentions by repeating this to myself: ‘Don't shrink. Don’t puff up. Stand your sacred ground.’” Tough moments with colleagues had a lot to teach me, including that my natural tendency is to “puff up” when feeling vulnerable. I found Brown’s mantra helpful and began repeating it, wanting to be not more or less than I am, not more or less “OK” than anyone else.

As I’ve considered those comments over time, I’ve realized that they are essentially the flip side to being called brave. Both indicate a perception of something drastic (dauntless or daunting) taking place. In many cases, perceptions led to storytelling and relational disclosures after I’d opened up about my decision. But in other cases, I received a sort of piercing gaze, wondering what could motivate such a drastic decision, questioning what could be wrong with me: “Are you OK?”

Learning I’m Not Alone

What surprised me more than any of these responses was learning that I’m far from alone.

In story after story, I’ve learned that I’m not alone in experiencing frustrations with overwork and burnout. I’m not alone in struggling to address rape culture, accumulating microaggressions, the trauma of graduate education and other injustices in academe. I’m not alone in experiencing various pushes away from higher ed and pulls toward something else, especially public writing and community education. Only when announcing my decision to leave did I hear others’ stories and realize that, truly, I am not alone.

It was only after announcing my news that other academics opened up to me about exploring options outside higher education but keeping this exploration quiet for fear of how colleagues might react. I hope that sharing these three common responses might help other academics bolster their own courage to talk about career decisions and to make announcements. For if we are to follow our commitments, we need courage -- regardless of whether we stay or go.

Bio

Having recently earned tenure, Beth Godbee announced the decision to leave academe to pursue public writing and community education -- saying no in a way that hopefully will lead to more yeses. You can find her online at Heart-Head-Hands.com -- a blog about feeling, thinking and doing (everyday living) for justice.

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