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At the end of summer, I could not face the coming academic year.

I had been feeling morally hinky about my job. Neither my closest colleague nor I could muster enthusiasm to recruit students to attend graduate school without funding. There was little funding available. The result: our M.F.A. track in nonfiction writing was shelved.

The culture of our creative writing program is to teach undergrads in what is essentially a studio fine arts program. The capstone outcome is a portfolio of work that will be useful only for applying to graduate school. Our students, mostly first-gen college, can go into debt, and many leave without degrees and no understanding of how to get jobs. My moral queasiness was continuing to build.

Some faculty have been buying themselves out of courses, opting for salary reductions rather than heavy teaching loads. I decided to request a leave without pay during the spring quarter.

An associate dean with a Swiss accent and a concomitant (helpful) attention to details ran some scenarios for me. It meant that my winter quarter would require a teaching load I was ill-equipped to bear.

Then he mentioned that the dean had an idea for me to consider. She had read a grant proposal where I mentioned, in passing, a book manuscript I’d completed to help students position themselves for the job market. Would I be interested in exploring course release to do work related to that?

I wrote her a long email. We met. I pitched my ideas. Dean’s office staff members told me about initiatives underway in the college and said there were plenty of opportunities to develop these further. I saw ways I could help. Figure out what you want to do, they said. I spent 15 hours over the weekend writing a proposal.

Reader, the act of doing that helped me go from wanting to quit my job to hoping to load myself with more and different work. I outlined a plan for this academic year. That felt great. Even better was the sense of having been seen and appreciated by an imaginative dean.

I provided a timeline. First, I’d research and report on what people in the college were already doing to help prepare students for life after college. I’d start by asking chairs and directors to see which of their faculty might be counted on to get involved.

I knew I’d get resistance from those who believed that a liberal arts education and career readiness should not be uttered in the same breath. And I knew, too, that I’d find a handful of like-minded colleagues who were already doing this kind of work but in isolation. I wanted to collect a bunch of best practices and share them with others in the college.

My timeline included deliverables along the way, and I paused only briefly before typing the word “deliverable.” I am not immune from the reflexive, characterological disdain that many academics have for the corporate world and its jargon.

And I knew there was no good reason to get hung up on no-win identity politics. If the dean’s office wanted “deliverables,” that is what I would produce. Our students need to be able to find meaningful work, be paid a living wage and have health insurance. I’ll do what it takes to help them get there.

A few days later, I met again with the dean’s office folks and went over my detailed proposal. Their response: How can we support this?

And so, just like that, I went from being another sad and disillusioned full professor to getting fired up about a new role, from leaning out to diving in. A new dean was able to think beyond traditional campus roles and figure out how to deploy interests and strengths of faculty members like me beyond the classroom.

I offer my personal details here because I know that some of you may also be similarly fed up with your current job. Not everyone will have administrators so much in agreement about ways to change the university, and not everyone will have deans willing to think creatively about reassigning time.

But if you can see a new niche for yourself, start having conversations with smart people. Much of what I’ve accomplished in my career has been the result of a failure of imagination (mine) and a response from others about next steps (which seem obvious to all but me).

What do you have to lose?

It’s better than fiddling while Rome burns, or as enrollments continue to decline and the public loses even more confidence in higher education.

Administrators and big thinkers all over the world are trying to figure out next steps for higher education. There are plenty of good ideas and some that are not so appealing. This is the time for us in the professorial trenches to find ways to adapt before change—possibly of the icky sort—is foisted on us from on high.

Over this academic year, I will update readers of Inside Higher Ed on our efforts to foster career readiness in students at a regional public comprehensive. I’ve already discovered amazing work being done by people in the college that will benefit the rest of us. And I’d like to invite folks who are engaged in similar initiatives on their campuses to be in touch with me.

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