Liz Norell, associate director of instructional support at the University of Mississippi, reached out after reading my piece “Failure, Academic Careers and ‘Right Kind of Wrong.’” In that post, I invited Inside Higher Ed readers to reach out with stories of their academic failures and what these setbacks have taught them. Liz bravely stepped forward.
Q: First, let’s get to know you a bit. Tell us about your role at Ole Miss and the academic background that brought you to your current position.
A: I’m an associate director of instructional support at the University of Mississippi, a team I joined in July 2023 after spending more than two decades teaching writing and political science. In this role, I work with three other teaching center colleagues to support excellent teaching and meaningful learning at Ole Miss. I was hired because I have a social science background, so I am well equipped to take the lead on evaluating our center’s activities and to consult with faculty who want to engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).
I also contribute to our suite of services, including classroom observations, running student feedback sessions and working with faculty on anything related to their teaching. I started my career in journalism, which is what my undergraduate and first graduate degrees are in. I later decided to get a Ph.D. in political science. Every graduate degree I’ve earned—and there are several—was undertaken with the goal of teaching in higher ed. I’ve done so as an adjunct, teaching as many classes as I could snatch up, then as a tenure-track faculty member at a community college in Tennessee.
Q: What are the academic career failure stories that you want to share with our community?
A: The first came when a couple of mentors encouraged me to apply to a prestigious Ph.D. program in political science. That program clearly wanted to graduate students who would seek and obtain Research-1 faculty positions, which I didn’t fully grasp until I was a year or two into the program. This was a cultural mismatch, as I just wanted to teach—and teach as much as possible.
Research is interesting to me, but it doesn’t motivate me. I began feeling like I didn’t quite fit in, but I was prepared to make the program work for me. Then one day, the director of graduate studies saw me tutoring a high school student at a local coffee shop. He approached me about it later, wanting to know the scope of what kind of work I was doing outside of my doctoral studies and assistantship.
Fast-forward a few months, and I was told that I had failed my major field comprehensive exam—but I was given no feedback on where I’d gone wrong. It was clear at that point that the program wanted me to leave. A faculty mentor told me many years later that I probably could have successfully fought that effort but that graduating from the program would have required a constant fight. In the end, I went to a different (less prestigious) Ph.D. program, where I was able to complete my Ph.D. in relatively short order.
The second big career failure I experienced was just a couple of years ago. When I went up for tenure at a community college, quite unexpectedly I was met with a concerted effort by my dean to deny me tenure. I wasn’t prepared for this, as the previous five years had been marked by largely positive evaluations and statements about the department’s expectation of my successful tenure candidacy.
The grounds given for my tenure denial were that I was “unprofessional” and “lacked collegiality.” By their own admission, both my department head and dean noted that my teaching, service and scholarship exceeded the expectations for earning tenure. It was my inability to meet their expectations around communication and following the institution’s hierarchy that they pointed to in their recommendations against tenure. Ultimately, while I fought their efforts with every strategy and policy maneuver possible, I was unsuccessful.
Q: What did these failures teach you, and what do you think all of us can learn from your experiences?
A: As an enthusiastic and motivated student and colleague, both of these failures surprised me. No, more than that—they shook me to my core. I didn’t see either coming, and I was left wondering whether I could trust my ability to see the world accurately. Each was deeply destabilizing.
But in the end, as I wrestled with how I’d failed to see each of these experiences coming, I found a lot of peace. (Eventually.) That’s because, in each situation, the failure was really just about a mismatch between my values and those of my colleagues. In the case of the Ph.D. program, I needed mentors who understood my deep desire to teach, and a prestigious doctoral program was an unlikely place to find them.
It hurt to be forced out, but in the end I was able to obtain a degree that has served me well and allowed me to pursue the kind of career that I find fulfilling. In the case of the tenure denial, I learned so much about the actual institutional values of the college (versus its professed values) that, at some point during my appeals, I knew that I could not be persuaded to stay, even if my appeals were successful and the institution granted me tenure. I was so horrified to learn how colleagues I thought I could trust characterized my work habits during the process, particularly after I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain emails of those who worked to deny me tenure.
Because of the latter failure, I sought testing for and obtained a diagnosis of autism. I learned that I don’t always communicate with others in the ways they want and—crucially—that I don’t always perceive how others are interpreting my actions or words.
My hope is that my experiences, which I’ve shared often in the last couple of years, will help others avoid something similar. If my colleagues and supervisors had granted me the benefit of the doubt when they perceived me to be doing something subversive, if they had asked me what was motivating my words or actions, they might have learned—and I might have learned!—that the issue wasn’t a lack of professionalism or a lack of collegiality; the issue was a neurodivergent brain that didn’t understand the vague requests made of it.
I also hope that others will find permission in my experiences to think through their personal values and the enacted values of their employers. Where there’s a mismatch, there’s also probably a lot of stress generated by that difference. Tremendous peace lies in finding an employment context with greater alignment. I’m grateful to have found that peace and alignment with my colleagues at the University of Mississippi.