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I am writing this essay instead of quitting my job.
I am a full professor of creative writing at a regional comprehensive university that, like many others, is circling the drain.
I am writing this at twilight on my laptop in a van. We are camping in northern Idaho and have now settled in for the night.
This afternoon my husband and I ran past the sign at the trailhead warning of grizzly bears. We ran past the sign telling us to stay 100 feet away from the mountain goats and not to let them lick our salty bodies or equipment.
We ran (OK, fast hiked) up four miles, climbing nearly 4,000 feet, saw some indolent critters who exhibited no interest in us and then hoofed it back down. Just now my husband said, “Moose!” and I saw a dark butt amble into the trees. It has been a replenishing, if tiring, day. Still, for the first time ever, I am dreading the start of the academic term.
On this trek, I tried to think about ways to keep doing my job.
The idea of complaining about being a tenured professor when so many talented people are scrounging as contingent labor is, I know, icky. Spare yourselves the computer time composing hate mail to me; better to watch cute animal videos. I get it.
And, mostly, I feel grateful to do what I do.
Except, in this pandemic era of quiet quitting, I want to give up.
As I ran through those rocky mountains, I thought if I tried to write about what could keep a person going when they want to quit, I might be able to get myself into a better place and offer some small consolation to the many others who feel as I do.
Because I have been writing about higher education for a long time, I have an astonishing set of (virtual) colleagues all over the country. That is a rich source of intellectual pleasure and, to be honest, provides necessary ego-stroking.
But like many faculty members, at my own university, I feel invisible. I’ve had deans who wouldn’t recognize me if I gave the commencement speech, provosts who have never seen my byline. When I do get noticed, it’s often not in a good way. Administrators have called me “feisty” in meetings and have quipped, dismissively, “Why don’t you tell us how you really feel, Rachel?” My colleagues have no idea what I’m publishing, just as I don’t hear about most of their achievements.
As I climbed that craggy peak toward potentially harassing mountain goats, I thought about what sustains me and what I need to remember to feel grateful for.
I know I’m supposed to say the students.
And, generally, that’s the case. When people who have taken classes from me publish or get awards, I am happier than if I got those goodies myself. Some have become friends. Real, important friends.
That said, I am not a beloved or even particularly effective teacher. My evaluations are good—well above average, as I suspect most are—but there are always some students who hate me with a burning and gleeful passion.
Often, it’s twenty-somethings who start out by saying to me, “You’re the woman I hope to become.” I’ve learned to understand that as “you’re the teacher whose approval I most need.” Those who have been fed a diet of compliment sandwiches find my whiskey-neat approach hard to swallow.
Plus, as a sharp-featured woman with a sarcastic wit, I know that male colleagues can get away with saying things that are a thousand times more inflammatory than anything I would ever utter.
As everyone knows, teaching is harder these days, because students’ lives are harder. My creative writing students have long introduced themselves with their diagnoses, but the mental health issues now are more dire. I feel for them but am ill equipped to help on that front.
In higher ed, we all at least start out with passion for our fields and a belief that we are contributing real value to the world. We tell ourselves it’s more honorable work than making a bazillion dollars at an investment bank or working for Major League Baseball. Then we wake up to the reality that being good at academics is just something we like and have been rewarded for.
When I want to quit, I think about the goodies we all know about: the fact that I get to write about whatever interests me. Reading newly published memoirs for pleasure translates into syllabus additions. Going to a 100-mile race in the mountains? Tax-deductible research for a new book. Not being micromanaged, having a flexible schedule and little time in an office. Yes, it’s a good gig.
And yet, two weeks before the term started, I got an email saying that one of the courses I’d been set to teach had been canceled for low enrollment. This kind of uncertainty is well-known to those on the circuit of academic contingency. I don’t think I’m at the “dead wood” point. (Does anyone ever think that about themselves?) But I’m not as flexible as I once was, and it’s bend or break time.
If I quit my job, there is no comfort in knowing I will be replaced by a more talented, harder-working writer—of which they are plenty. No, my tenure line will disappear. The job description might as well have been written on parchment.
But if I can convince myself I have a brand-new role, one in which I help prepare students for careers completely different from mine, I may be able to keep going. That means I have new challenges and must ask hard questions about what they need to learn, not just what I enjoy teaching. As I finished running down the mountain, having avoided French-kissing any goats, I resolved that would be my mission. That would allow me to keep going.
Your mileage may vary.
If, as is the case for me, the golden handcuffs of tenure are beginning to chafe, I urge you to find ways to feel useful, if not valued. That might come from doing more university service—or much less. It might be setting new goals, like publishing for general readerships or learning a new subdiscipline. It might be creating a writing or reading group with people from different fields or using Zoom to connect with folks in your own specialty. Or you could offer to read a junior colleague’s manuscript.
Perhaps you can find ways to mentor students outside the usual channels. Last year I became the adviser to a new student group, COW—the Club of Overwhelmed Writers—just by encouraging what its members were already doing. Connecting with folks in student affairs always broadens my view of the university and gets me out of my tiny corner of the campus. For those of us who have become comfortably numb in our jobs, tweaking them may provide relief.
But my message is different for many of the people who have gotten graduate degrees and not managed to secure tenure-track positions. To them, I want to say, as have many others, Get out! Now.
Think about the skills you’ve acquired and don’t be afraid to be creative, to rethink and, more important, reimagine your life.
Having just finished a book manuscript that offers job-seeking guidance for recent college grads, I’m trying to take some of the advice I heard from employers. Figure out what you’re passionate about, what your core values are, what lights you up and makes the time pass so quickly you don’t feel like it’s work.
Start talking to people. Reach out (LinkedIn makes this easy). Ask those with cool and enviable positions how they got their jobs, what their organization’s culture is like, what they need help with. Treat searching for a new career path as a research project. We’re trained in academe to disdain “skills,” yet we value critical thinking and close reading and interpreting evidence and coming up with hypotheses. Those, friends, are skills. You have them. You just may not have thought about how to translate them for roles outside academe.
Learn how to write a great one-page cover letter, boil your experience into a short résumé instead of a 30-page CV and google “how to beat the AI bots.” You would be surprised at how many mistakes you may not know you’re making when it comes to job applications.
Our industry has not changed for hundreds of years. It’s a giant, slow-moving ship that now must turn quickly. You can learn to turn with it. You can stay and listen to the strings play “Nearer My God to Thee” as it sinks, or you can head for a lifeboat. They’re out there.
When you find one, maybe save me a seat.