Teaching Like a Motherf@#%er: Finding My Mid-Career Mojo

What mid-career means something a little different to me.

June 26, 2012

My parent publication here has launched a mini-series of columns by faculty development expert Kelly Ann Rockquemore on  how to manage the transition into tenure-hood. Her first installment jumps off from a recent study documenting the relatively “unhappy” state of the Associate Professor class as compared to their Assistant and Full bretheren. The study identifies a laundry list of grievances: lack of support for research, the time suck of mentoring, committee obligations, etc…, but Prof. Rockquemore has a deeper insight into what underlies this discontent, “The problem for many post-tenure faculty is that they have grown so accustomed to being in a position of external constraint from the tenure track that when they pass into the next stage of their careers (one in which the primary benefit is the ability to choose), they struggle in choosing a path.”

Prof. Rockquemore believes the newly tenured are frustrated mostly by choice. The very freedom they’ve been working for becomes the largest barrier to professional happiness.

I suppose by years of service, I should qualify as mid-career. I finished my graduate studies in 1997. I’m about to start my 12th year of teaching college. (I had a four-year dalliance with the Corporate America.) If I’d joined the traditional professional academic path when I started teaching, even with a job switch or two, I’d hopefully be tenured, and therefore one of those dissatisfied associate professors.

But I’ve never been on the tenure-track. Though I spent three years at one institution (Virginia Tech) and six at another (Clemson) I’ve never had a contract longer than one year. Each summer a letter inviting my return has arrived, but it’s never been a guarantee.

And yet, when it comes to the job part of my job (as opposed to the usual issues that confront contingent faculty that cause anyone frustration: security, salary, status), I am deliriously and completely happy.

I think it’s because of the very thing some new associate professors aren’t prepared for, freedom.

The external goal of tenure is self-justifying, so even though its pursuit often involves unpalatable activities, the end result is so obviously worth it that any qualms are easily silenced. It’s like being in one of those professions that requires six pack abs – Victoria’s Secret model, Matthew McConaughey, Matthew McConaughey impersonator – the diet and exercise may kill you, but without, it, you don’t have a career.

As contingent faculty, historically, my actual job performance is by far the least important factor as to whether or not I will continue on in my position. A down economy, or budget and curricular cuts are a much greater threat to my continued employment than anything else. This may make my job tenuous, but it is also freeing.

Without a future, I have only the present.

With my teaching work, my focus is almost entirely on how I can improve my own experience in the classroom, which often translates to working harder and longer, which results in a better experience for my students. With writing, because I don’t have to worry about being judged by academic standards I can publish books done primarily in colored pencil, or the kinds of things that are fun to do, but unlikely to impress tenure committees. I can spend a chunk of my summer blogging for Inside Higher Ed, rather than working on my promotion binder.

This freedom has been excellent for my career. By being able to write and publish whatever is interesting to me at the time, I end up writing better and publishing more, which in turn provides additional income, which eases the pressure of somehow needing to find a tenure-track job, which creates even more space for freedom, and so on and so on, etc, etc.

My hunch is that pursuit of tenure is a significant constraint on academics when it comes to producing their best and most-interesting work. Fear and self-censorship are not proper ingredients for excellence. It makes me think of some good advice that I do my best to remember.

The writer, Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir, Wild, was recently chosen to resurrect Oprah’s book club has a second identity as the advice columnist, Sugar, at The Rumpus. In what has become Sugar’s signature post, a young writer wrote to Sugar, expressing her doubts about her ability to overcome her “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness.”

Sugar responds at some length with wisdom about releasing expectation and ego, and at the end, gives her final bit of advice, “Write like a motherfucker,” that is, to write like you don’t have a future or a past, and all we get is the moment.

It’s advice as old as carpe diem, which means it’s well-tested. I believe it’s working for me. Since there is no external goal to pursue, I do not face, and therefore cannot fear judgment. I cannot be mid-career because there is no career here, just a job that I enjoy and try to do well.

Having a job without any particular future makes this easier, even as I sweat out that re-invitation every summer.


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