This weekend I attended a fabulous conference about Public Musicology, hosted by Westminster Choir College and organized by Eric Hung. In the coming weeks, I plan to do several short blogs about some of the big conference topics. I’ll start with something easy: my own presentation.
On the first day of the conference, I spoke about how / why I left academia. For the rest of the day and into the next, numerous people cornered me to tell me how brave I am. This is a comment I’ve been getting all too frequently since I quit my job. And it invariably comes from current academics who cop to sharing many of my experiences. I’ll admit I feel just a little worse each time I am called “brave,” because this comment drives home to me just how many people are unhappy or frustrated in their academic positions but have little power to change their situation. I am “brave” because I escaped, because I found a way out, because I was willing to take a big risk and walk away from a broken system. It saddens me to know that so many of my peers are so frustrated. Or maybe there’s a different way to interpret being brave. Let’s talk about it.
I’ve decided to share (a lightly edited version of) my paper here with one goal in mind: to voice the experiences that so many of my academic peers across the country share. I know that my experiences are not particularly unique, and maybe sharing them here can get an interesting conversation going. My goal is not to throw shade at my former university. There are many, many wonderful people there, and I regularly benefitted from their generosity and warmth. By the end of my time there, my family concerns trumped my career, and those concerns ultimately provided me with the kick in the pants to change my life. But I had been less than content for years and it was time to go.
And now for the actual paper:
Going Rogue: On Leaving the Academy and Taking Risks
After twenty years in the Academy (nine years in graduate school, a semester as an adjunct at a community college, and ten years in a full-time permanent position at a public university), I reached a crossroad. Behind me lay years of milestones: completed Ph.D.; first book; first child; tenure; promotion; administrative appointments; and “gifts” of heavy committee work that “rewarded” me for my proven organizational skills. Directly in front of me lay the near certitude of a full professorship, the nirvana to which all academics surely aspire. Down that path I saw even more committee and administrative work; less time to plan new and innovative courses; and most importantly, dwindling opportunities to grow as a thinker and human being. I saw complacency, not security, and I did not like this path. So last spring I did the unthinkable: I resigned.
There’s a growing virtual mountain of Academic Quit Lit out there. (Check out this collection at Vitae, or this essay at Slate.) Quit Lit is built from slight variations on a theme but it boils down to this: academics are leaving academia in droves. You can spend an entire weekend reading first-hand accounts of why people left their jobs: adjuncts with terrible pay and deplorable working conditions; academic couples no longer willing to live apart; extreme cases of tenure-denial; rising workload demands paired with plummeting resources; Ph.D.s not entering the academic job market at all after graduate school because there are insufficient jobs…it’s all there. Harder to find are solid resources—like, say, a web version of the Magic 8 ball—called something like “Should I leave my academic job, and if so, how do I do it?” (Vitae contributing editor Josh Boldt recently asked a similar question, but his personal responses don’t all resonate with mine.) I can’t help you make this decision, but I can describe how I went through the process and what it’s like to be on the other end.
To organize my narrative, I’ve compiled a Buzzfeed-worthy list of 8 reasons why I felt ready to quit and how I minimized the trauma. (Caveat: I compiled this list 8 months after I left my job, not while I was going through the resignation process, so I’ll readily admit that there could be some retrospective romanticizing here. On the other hand, I’ve also had a bit of time to recover, so it may have been even worse than I remember.)
- I felt done with this cycle of my life. Despite all outward signs of success—publications, promotion, tenure, small grants here and there, collegial esteem—I was plagued by the “is this all there is?” question. I was also frequently filled with a pervasive malaise, a had-it-up-to-here reaction with every ridiculous new procedure that came down the line. By the end, I openly rebelled by systematically refusing to comply with new regulations that required yearly mastery of both storm-water drainage policies and fire extinguisher use. Also, I felt like the glass ceiling was just around the corner for me. I was encouraged to reach all kinds of administrative potential. But I did not have sufficient time to think about what other potential I might have beyond writing more, or teaching new courses, or mastering a new, flashier way to report measureable learning outcomes and graduation and retention rates. I’m sure there is a ceiling in most career paths, but I saw limits to the teaching part of my career. After full professor, what then? Overflowing professor? I was already there.
- My life had changed since I entered the academy, and my academic career path was no longer my primary concern. When I started my job, I was single, driven, motivated to write and ascend. I had my eyes on Research 1 job searches and was a finalist for three while I held my job. I took my first book on tour and started writing the second. I got research grants and went out of town. I worked late and on weekends. And at the end of my second year in this tenure-track position, I had a child. And soon I found myself single parenting. And by the time my son was 4 it was clear he would not be an average bear. I spent his entire kindergarten year trying to get him evaluated for special needs and gifted resources. I went to workshops and read voraciously about my rights as the parent of a special needs child so I could be a better advocate in a state where special needs are not well met. That year and the next, I dropped out of committees that were truly important to me, put much of my writing aside, and said no to everything possible. My son had to be my priority. Life happens. I also got married in January 2014 and we wanted our family to be together in one place. That seems reasonable, right?
- My teaching was suffering. I worked at a “teaching” institution; the typical teaching load was 4+4. (For non-academic folks, that means four separate classes per semester.) I prepped nearly a dozen new courses from scratch in my first 2 years alone. I waited 4 or 5 years for a semester with no new preps. I never had teaching assistants, and only rarely had grading help. My teaching also suffered because of increasing pressure to take on tasks that were not teaching related, such as storm-water drainage training; mandatory attendance reporting several times per semester; and meetings about whether or not we should have more meetings to discuss scheduling meetings in the following semester about bold plans to re-structure the university, plans that were never realized, despite the many meetings. I’ll admit to heaping some of this workload on myself: that’s what you get when you take on administrative duties. But my non-administrative colleagues were just as burdened by the endless of paperwork, meetings, and training modules. Morale was often terrible.
- I was tired of research being an addendum to my job. I had some help with research funds. They were competitive, irregular, and not abundant, to be sure, but I received funding, even a sabbatical in my final year. I didn’t have much time to write, given my teaching load, but sometimes research funds meant a course release, a small breath of air, a semester in which life seemed almost possible instead of downright implausible. I did have a small amount of travel money every year, even in the worst budgetary years. But my publications were limited. I knew that with each passing year, moving on to a position at a research university was less and less likely. I had no time to think, much less write.
In fall of 2013 I won the lottery. That is to say: I was granted a sabbatical, one of six granted in a university-wide competition. Some universities provide regular leave to their faculty members but that was not my reality; we had competitions. And for several years there were no sabbaticals at my university because of budget cuts. I was one of the first to get a paid leave after those cuts, so this is why I think of the process as “winning the lottery.” (Fun fact: sabbaticals are called “non-instructional assignments” at my former school, to make it clear that although one is not teaching, one could still be pressed into committee or administrative work during leave. Also, since there were only six, many of my colleagues around campus were positively green. Some refused to talk with me during my semester off, clearly irritated that I had time “off” and they did not. I can’t say I blame them. I had numerous colleagues who had been there for fifteen or more years with no leaves.) During my sabbatical I wrote 4 ½ chapters of my new book; put a new project in motion with a bit of archival work; gave several conference papers and proposed a few more; went on a mini speaking tour; got engaged; and remembered that in college, full of dreams, I described my imagined future as “teaching to support my research habit.” I reveled in the self-directed breathing space. I dreamed. And like everyone else who has ever had a sabbatical, I didn’t want to go back to work, especially since I knew there was no guarantee I would ever be granted leave again.
- I was not overly burdened by feeling I had let my colleagues / department / university down, even though I probably did just that. My sabbatical application included a clause about intention to stay at the school for two consecutive semesters after the sabbatical ended, which would have meant staying through December 2014. Once I decided on my path, I went to my department chair armed with several strong arguments for a May 2014 resignation. First: a national search for a tenure-track position is easier to fill for a fall semester starting date than for a January starting date. I could make this argument knowing that the university tended to retain tenure-track lines. Second: my particular children (because I also have a step-daughter now) would need the summer to transition. A mid-year move would have been much more catastrophic for them. Third: I offered to train my administrative replacement, and helped my boss make key decisions about who in the department would take on my extra duties.
I knew before I went to see my director that at every step in this process there would potentially be conflict and anger, but my various administrators surprised me with their warmth and understanding. My director was disappointed but supportive. We went to the Dean together, and the Dean was equally big-hearted. The Dean then emailed the Provost in support of my resignation and release from contract a semester early despite the sabbatical. Within days the Provost responded by accepting my resignation and approving a tenure-track national search to replace me. All of these conversations took place within a week, right after Thanksgiving vacation. By January the search committee was looking at applications. (And in case you are wondering, the search was successful.) Removing myself from the sabbatical contract was the most difficult part of my resignation process. I would not have felt at peace about leaving if my situation had been more contested, but I would have done it anyway. Predictably, there were lasting reverberations at the university; disgruntled colleagues started up a protest, angry that I had been given a sabbatical and then allowed to resign. I had to adopt a mantra that I later stitched: “not my circus, not my monkeys.”
Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys (in Polish)
As part of my resignation letter, I offered to spend my final semester training the colleague who was to replace me as Director of Graduate Studies. I also offered to continue to be available by phone and email in the following academic year, and I am still fielding queries. I made it clear that the continued health of the department was important to me. I participated informally in the search for my replacement. I gave permissions for wide departmental use of the innovative online Music History course I had developed and shared files with several colleagues. I created reports that I knew would come to naught in the short term but might help the graduate program long after I was gone. I kept going to meetings. I continued to write letters of recommendation late into the summer after I left. I tied up all the bows. My conscience is (mostly) clear.
- I was confident that my worth was not measured by my success or failure in academia. I was also confident that leaving academia was not failing. I remember being quite troubled in graduate school about the high attrition rate of our musicology program. Of the 5 M.A. and Ph.D. students who started in my cohort, only two of us finished. One year we had nearly twenty new graduate students. Only two or three of those eventually completed their degrees; many left after the first year. Several of my friends left mid-degree to begin a different degree, career, or life-path. I mourned these musicological losses, in each case thinking like an administrator and wondering how we had “lost” my valued student colleagues. But these friends of mine were clearly happy. They did not consider themselves “lost”; they had, rather, found their path, or at least, a feasible path that felt right. Their years in musicology gave them skills and experiences that helped them create fruitful futures. I had to evolve my thinking. They didn’t fail; they had big imaginations. I like to think that I have a big imagination, too.
- I could see a different path for myself. I was mostly able to objectively see that what I had was pretty good. I landed my tenure-track position one year out of graduate school. I never experienced either the patchwork adjunct life or the nomadic serialism of one-year positions in different states. I went through the tenure and promotion process with little trauma. (I recognize this as a comparative statement; the process is never without trauma, but so many of my colleagues have had horrifying experiences while mine was simply weird.) In the School of Music I had lots of nice colleagues and strong friendships with several. We had game nights, and parties, and happy hours. We cut up at meetings. We visited each other’s classes. We had writing groups. It was a pretty healthy group overall.
I also had heavy committee and administrative work, “gifts” awarded to me before the ink was dry on my tenure letter in recognition of my ability to organize things and people and make cool graphs in powerpoint. I was director of graduate studies for several years, after serving as assistant director of the School of Music. I served on several university-wide committees, including the Faculty Senate and the “powerful” steering committee that regularly met with the President and Provost. I was asked on several occasions to run for the position of Senate President. And when our director resigned, a few of my colleagues encouraged me to apply for his job, indicating their respect for my work. By all accounts, I succeeded in my academic position. And comparing notes with colleagues around the country convinces me that my workplace could have been a whole lot worse.
But I kept thinking, “do I want a tombstone that reads ‘she managed learning outcomes well’ or ‘she had perfect attendance at faculty senate meetings’?” For all of our talk about accountability to a wider public our lives as academics can be stunningly insular. While I was busy rebelling against nonsensical training modules and shuttling to meetings where we discussed grand plans that never materialized, 25% of the children in my state struggled with daily hunger. Maybe I should re-phrase this point to I wanted to see a different path for myself. I want to do something with my life that has lasting impact, and I was no longer convinced that I could do so where I was.
It also helped that I knew I had many skills and could enumerate them. I can write, I can edit, I can index, and I can research. I can motivate and advise. I have mad organizational skills; can whip up cool charts and graphs for powerpoint presentations in my sleep; and bake the best vegan banana bread you’ll ever taste. I can talk to people. I can network. I can manage budgets and administer programs. I can design curricula. And I can certainly teach. I have options.
- I had the basics (food, shelter, health insurance) covered. Basic needs are real. I couldn’t have gone down this path without a supportive partner who can provide the stable platform from which I can grow. I feel conflicted about depending on another person for the basics. My feminist, independent soul often feels sick about not having my “own” resources. Right now my self-talk includes lots of repetition of “it doesn’t always have to be like this.” Not having to worry about basic needs is a freedom and a privilege. I am determined that these gifts not be in vain.
Since I left my job I have been working as a freelance editor, independent scholar, and academic consultant. I did the obvious: set up a website, got business cards and a paypal account for billing, and hit up my network for ideas and connections. I’ve joined the Editorial Freelancer’s Association and am learning about copyediting and indexing. While setting up my consulting business, I also finished writing my second book, gave a paper on new research at AMS, presented at other conferences and colloquia, worked steadily on The Avid Listener, and secured a Visiting Scholar position at the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies at UT Austin. My life as a parent is still a string of endless conversations with teachers and meetings at my son’s school; paperwork, evaluations, and vigilant intervention; medical and therapeutic appointments; and harried schedule readjustments. What is obvious to me now that wasn’t obvious a year ago is that in my present life I simply cannot work full time. And I haven’t had as much time to dream as I had hoped. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I may or may not teach again. But each day presents the opportunity to try new skills. And there hasn’t been a single day when I’ve woken up and thought “I REALLY miss the demands of academia.” I have, on numerous occasions, fallen into bed at night with the question “how did I ever hold a full-time academic job?” It was a different time in my life. I am eager to see what’s next.