When To Quit Academia (Ought Experiment)

When To Quit Academia (Ought Experiment)


Welcome back to Ought Experiment! Today’s question is from a full professor that has done everything right, built a successful career, and yet finds her/himself miserable in professional philosophy. S/he wants to know whether it’s just a case of burnout or whether it’s time to go:

Dear Louie,

Help. 

I have been a professor for almost 20 years. I’ve worked hard, fought my way “up” from a state school job to a research university, I’ve published a lot of papers, done a lot of presentations, done more than my share of service (multiple committees in multiple societies) and mentored grad students and new faculty, I’m a full professor who is well respected in my subfield and is somewhat known even outside my field. In short, I have done everything that I am supposed to do and been successful at it. 

I am miserable and thinking about quitting the field entirely.

Before you (or others) dismiss this as problems of the privileged (for indeed I am privileged), you have to understand that I am truly stuck and deeply unhappy. There are many contributing factors, surely: having taken on too much service work, frustrations with the state of the field and frustrations with the state of my department, but I don’t think those are the main reason.

The main reason, I have come to realize, is that, even though (unlike most academics) I went into this because I wanted to teach, teaching is killing me. I think that I don’t have the personality for it. Preparing for class is a constant burden that blots out everything else in my life; it is a weight hanging from my neck. It is long and slow and stressful. Then there is teaching itself. I actually think I am fairly good at it. I am good at explaining things clearly and at engaging students in discussion. But the teaching day ends and I am wrung out, exhausted, brain dead. Lather, rinse, repeat; it’s time to prepare for class again. Over and over and over again. For years I told myself it would get better, that I would be more efficient or less stressed or, I don’t know, have a life outside of academia. But recently when I had a moment to think I lifted my head and realized that despite everything I have tried, it isn’t going to get better if it hasn’t gotten better in 20 years, and everything I might do to try to improve my situation is just fooling myself and stringing myself along. That’s how I got here in the first place.

So, do I quit? At my age? And do, what? Do I just chuck out all the work I’ve done to get me here, in a position that is envious to many? Is there any hope for me, or are there some people who just are not cut out for teaching, even as they realize it is a worthy and in many ways fulfilling endeavor?

— Retired of This

 

Dear Retired Of This,

Even though you’re at an advanced stage in your career, one of the reasons your question is so important is that it resonates with struggles we academics face at every stage in our careers.

Why, when the work gets taxing, do we so often pour more of our energy and emotional bandwidth into the job, instead of holding something back in reserve? How do we create a robust work-life balance in a career that’ll readily gobble up every spare moment we leave unguarded? Considering just how many different professional obligations compose our jobs, how do we mitigate the parts of our days we don’t like so that they don’t overwhelm our enjoyment of the rest? What should we do if we find ourselves unhappy after sacrificing so much on behalf of a job that so many people are fighting so hard to have? And if we do ultimately quit (or get drummed out), what does that say about us and what our lives have been about? Was it all for nothing? Was it all a mistake?

We spend so much time wondering how to get these jobs or how to be better at these jobs that we often slip into thinking that academic success and a fulfilling life are one in the same. It’s a trap, as unhealthy as it is common. Surely I’m not the only one that routinely has thoughts like “If this R&R comes back an acceptance, then everything in my life will be okay” or “I need this project to go well, because I’ve been down for a while and could really use a win” or “This semester flew by, and on a totally unrelated note, I’m afraid that my life is just going to be a series of things I’d like to do or be one day but can’t because there’s always more work to do instead.”

It can be difficult to prevent the profession from dominating our self-conceptions. Ours is a prestigious career, one that allows us to do something suitably ambitious and worthwhile with our time, and to prove that we’ve delivered on our potential. It can also give meaning, as if a big part of our lives has suddenly snapped into place—one less struggle, one less thing to figure out. And all that’s true, from a certain point of view.

So if you find yourself unsatisfied in your career, it’s only natural to feel guilty in turn, like you’re insufficiently appreciative of what you have, or selfish for wanting more. It makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you. And because of how entangled our careers and lives become over time, the idea of changing direction can send us into a disorienting tailspin. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is admit that you have a bad feeling about this.

No, I don’t think being privileged means you ought to be happy or that it’s unseemly to want something more, or something else. Academic success and fulfillment in life aren’t one in the same. So your concerns aren’t going to get dismissed here. If anything, your situation demonstrates that academic success isn’t the panacea those in earlier career stages take it to be.

Given your feelings, should you quit? There are just so many considerations in play here. Let’s start with a few that shouldn’t inform your decision:

¬1. “What right do I have to hold on to a job I don’t like when there are people out there without jobs?”

There’s been a lot of discussion the last couple of weeks about whether there are too many philosophy PhDs (here, here, and here), so I imagine that a number of folks will be tempted to suggest a new strategy: let the rookie win. And I think that’s a mistake. A career isn’t like lingering at a cafeteria table after you’ve finished eating, while a long line of people stand around with trays looking for a place to sit. Careers aren’t usufructs to be surrendered. Setting aside all the reasons why a vacated senior position is unlikely to go to a recent PhD (the possibility is approximately 3,720 to 1), strangers simply don’t have a claim on you to make life-altering decisions because they happen to desire what you have more than you do. This is your life, and it’s permissible to focus on what’s right for you.

¬2. “Can I really give up on a position that’s so valuable?”

Sure! If you’re miserable, then it’s not exactly valuable to you, is it? Particular careers aren’t objectively valuable, or at least not to the extent that individual preference gives way. True, others might consider your position valuable—they might even envy you because of it—but paying attention to external attributions of value is a great way to guilt yourself into sticking around when you’re unhappy. Believing you should be fulfilled just ignores the problem. Do you really want to spend your life pretending, saying things like “Uh, everything’s perfectly all right now. I’m fine. I’m all fine here now, thank you. How are you?”

¬3. “How can I leave, after spending so much of my life getting where I am?”

The sunk costs fallacy has a bad motivator. Absolutely you can leave now, if that proves to be the only way to ease your misery. First, quitting doesn’t automatically mean that you failed to make it work. It might just mean that your career is complete, that you’ve gotten everything out of it that you could. Admitting that you don’t want to remain an academic doesn’t retroactively devalue the decades you spent in the discipline. That’s a little like saying that if a marriage doesn’t last a lifetime, then the 20 years it did last weren’t valuable. They were. Second, life is long—long enough, at any rate, for more than one adventure. Assuming material circumstances and other obligations cooperate, you can reinvent yourself, and make the second half of your life about getting somewhere else. Tenure can make us think that we’re supposed to spend our whole lives as academics, but job security aside, why would that be necessarily true? Step down, and you might become more fulfilled than you could possibly imagine.

Unhelpful thoughts banished?

Okay, now on to some considerations that I think are relevant, along with several strategies to try before deciding that leaving is the solution:

  1. Address the smaller, contributing factors

Even if frustrations with committee work or the state of your department aren’t the main reason for your malaise, resigning from a few committees or trying to move to another institution might change how you feel about academia. Because there’s only so much we can endure, removing the peripheral irritants can make the main problem tolerable, even in cases where the main problem remains basically unchanged. In fact, sometimes 1,138 tiny irritants are actually worse than whatever the main problem is, because the high baseline of frustration they create distorts how we experience and evaluate everything else. Either way, enough small changes can make a massive difference. And if anyone gives you flak for walking away from responsibilities or burdens that you’ve voluntarily undertaken, politely but firmly state that you’re altering the deal.

  1. Create boundaries at work and from work

I want to compare two things you wrote:

“For years I told myself it would get better, that I would be more efficient or less stressed or, I don’t know, have a life outside of academia.”

“Everything I might do to try to improve my situation is just fooling myself and stringing myself along.”

When I read that conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear whether you’ve just tried to make these changes, or whether you’ve actually been adamant about creating and enforcing boundaries at work (ex. I will spend exactly 30 minutes prepping for class, and no more; I will insist on, say, teaching evening courses so that I can minimize how many days of the week are taken over by teaching; I will cash in chips earned over decades to make my teaching load and schedule whatever I need it to be) and boundaries from work (ex. I will spend my evenings on hobbies that I love and my weekends exploring a city that I love). Trying simply isn’t enough. Do or do not, there is no… promising yourself that things will get better.

In my own case, attempted work-life boundaries usually fail in one of two ways. Either I keep agreeing to things on a case-by-case basis, because individually they’re not so large or I feel a connection to the person asking, or my boundaries are mere aspirations, like resolving to cultivate a hobby “one day”, when I have more time and energy. For all my trying, I actually have few boundaries at all.

You mention that preparing for class is “a burden that blots out everything else in my life… it is long and slow and stressful”, and that sounds like a boundary too generously drawn. Maybe it isn’t that the experience of teaching is so genuinely awful for you that there’s no way to make it more efficient or less stressful, or to have enough energy left over at the end of the day or week to have a life outside of academia. Instead, maybe your attempts to limit its impact on you have given way to your desire to do your best, or your sense of professional obligation. Maybe you feel you owe it to your students, or to the job itself. Maybe you think that giving more of yourself will make the class go well enough that it’ll actually be less draining overall. Maybe you do set real boundaries, but let the needs of others too easily override them. If any of that’s true, then you’re not fooling yourself when you imagine that things still might get better.

Look, you mentor grads and junior faculty, so nothing I’m saying here is news to you. I get that. But sometimes it helps to hear our own advice mirrored back to us. So for what it’s worth, it’s very possible that teaching makes you miserable. But it’s also possible that you let it.

  1. It’s okay to teach less well

Speaking of which. This might be borderline heresy, but since most of your misery stems from just how draining the classroom experience is for you, have you tried being… just okay at teaching? Perfectionism is a recipe for unnecessary exhaustion and unhappiness. We’re in part educators, and I would never encourage anyone to be indifferent about that aspect of the job, but nor do I think it’s obvious that we have an obligation to give our all in the classroom. Especially when giving our all undermines our ability to do the rest of our job effectively. Some professors are natural communicators or entertainers, try their hardest to make sure that students not only learn but have a memorable and transformative experience, and feel invigorated as a result. Some just discharge their duties, presenting information and answering questions until the bell rings and they’re free to go do something else. I think you should give yourself permission to be in that latter camp. It’s not coasting – you contribute plenty in other domains, and again, your very happiness is at stake.

  1. Reevaluate why you’re here

You went into philosophy because you wanted to teach, but does that mean that your negative experience with teaching should determine whether you stay? Maybe there’s something else you value about the job, and the job can become about that something else instead. Disillusionment and disappointed expectations might be contributing to the misery you feel, and if so, making peace with the fact that you’re not cut out for the classroom can ease some of your misery. It won’t make you like teaching, but it can make the fact that you don’t less crushing.

When you ask “Is there any hope for me, or are there some people who just are not cut out for teaching,” that sounds a lot like a false dilemma to me. The two claims are perfectly compatible. You might not be cut out for teaching, but there might be a new hope for you because you’re cut out for other aspects of the job. Some gifted teachers feel like publishing is pulling teeth, and are wiped for weeks every time they send off a draft. Some gifted writers detest conferencing, and need long stretches of time to recover afterward. And when it comes to service and department meetings, well… okay, bad example, everybody loves those. The point is, a lot of academics dislike wide swathes of their wildly varied professional obligations. Maybe the classroom experience is so awful for you that you can’t be happy, no matter how good you are at everything else. I’m not dismissing that possibility. But before reaching that conclusion, it’s worth exploring if some of the misery you feel is the result of still thinking of yourself as primarily a teacher. A teacher not cut out for teaching is a lot different than a researcher not cut out for teaching.

  1. Consider what you’d do instead

What I didn’t see in your letter is an indication of whether there’s anything you’d rather be doing instead of professional philosophy, or what kind of work you might take up if you left. Those omissions tell me that it’s not really about falling out of love with philosophy or falling in love with something else. You’re not contemplating a career change. It’s more like you’re the frog in the gradually boiling pot of water—this is about how much academia you can tolerate before you jump free. And if teaching is so profoundly unpleasant that you’re considering leaving without entertaining career alternatives, then that itself might be evidence that leaving is the right call.

If strategies #1-4 don’t work, and you can neither alter the dynamics of the job nor endure the job in its current form, then your choice is between a guaranteed paycheck and the possibility of finding happiness. And here’s one benefit of being relatively privileged: having the luxury to pick the latter. As soon as that’s the choice you face, then it’s not really about which you should pick, but rather about laying the groundwork to weather the pending career change. Your level of risk aversion, available alternatives, competing obligations (ex. the familial sort), and so forth will affect when and how you leave, and where you go next, but if the only things stopping you are the sunk costs fallacy and the fact that others envy your position, then there’s no real choice here at all. Don’t let shame or imposed expectations root you in place.

So here’s the question I can’t answer for you: is that really where you’re at?

  1. Sometimes making any decision can reveal the right decision

Thinking of quitting can be healthy at any career stage – it’s a stress release safety valve. If you believe that academia is your last hope, it’s important to remind yourself that no, there is another. But once you cross over from fantasizing about a change to realizing that you should quit and that it is okay to quit, the emotions that follow can offer evidence of what you ought to do. Maybe you’ll feel a sense of release or even liberation, confirming that you’ve made the right call. Maybe you’ll recoil, and come away from the experience with the resolve necessary to enforce the kinds of work-life boundaries that you’ve only gestured at before. Alternatively, decide that you’re staying in the profession no matter how miserable you feel, and that you’re just going to try and make the best of it from here on out. Now, how well does that decision sit with you? Do you find the lack of exit disturbing? Then you’ve learned something important. Are you surprisingly okay with it, or even relieved to be past all the uncertainty? Then your misery might be more manageable than you thought.

  1. Set a countdown on the decision

Following directly from #6, maybe you’ll feel neither relieved nor mistaken. Maybe reaching the decision to quit will just leave you feeling conflicted and uncertain. In that case, replace the “maybe one day things will be better” current that you’ve been drifting in for years with a bounded experiment. Set a timeframe, like one or two years, during which you will attempt x number of concrete strategies to improve your experience. If things improve now that there are real stakes involved, great. If they don’t, then the experiment will conclude, and that will decide the question for you. Or maybe take a leave of absence, and see how you feel with some meaningful distance. There are any number of experiments you might run, but the important point is to make sure that none of them are open-ended. You need a testable hypothesis and a deadline. It’s your very last chance to find a way to stay, not an ongoing existential crisis. Either that framework will light a fire under you that gets you to try new strategies, or it will provide you with the information you’re looking for. Either is good.

  1. Plus whatever considerations folks raise in the comments

Did I miss something important? Did I get something really, really wrong? Please share.

— Louie Generis

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! You can also follow Louie on Facebook. And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

burning paper banner a

guest
33 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Junior anon
Junior anon
5 years ago

That was such a sad letter. I really hope the author will be okay!Report

John
John
5 years ago

I agree with the suggestion to reduce committee work. More importantly, perhaps this professor could benefit from using a teaching coach. I coach professors one-on-one and provide teaching workshops internationally. Some coaching is focused on improving teaching. But much of my effort is focused on the professor and his or her well being. I focus on teaching more efficiently, reducing prep time, finding a few teaching strategies that fit your style, etc. Teaching is draining. We do give our all in the classroom. We must restore ourselves in order to maintain our ability to teach and teach well. I wish this professor the best. This is a stressful time of the academic year. It is high stress for students and faculty. I hope this professor does not make his or her decision at this moment. I wish this person well. I’m impressed that she or he cares enough about the craft to ask such a penetrating question.Report

FanKid
FanKid
5 years ago

Nothing substantive — just that Louie Generis was a GREAT choice 🙂 So much wisdom here! I think I have a little crush…Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  FanKid
5 years ago

Thanks! But really, this column is only as good as the letters we receive. So shameless plug time: need advice on your academic life? Write in at [email protected]!Report

Obi-Anon
Obi-Anon
5 years ago

Two things: (1) I wonder what movie is on Louie’s mind today? (2) There’s a middle ground between ‘care too much about teaching’ and ‘phone it in’, and from Retired’s letter it looks relevant. It looks to me like Retired may be putting too much work into aspects of teaching that don’t have much pay-off, and can be done just as well or better with less effort. We’ve all heard, for example, about minimal marking: spending an hour giving detailed comments on every student’s paper is a waste of time, because students can rarely process all that feedback at once. Making a rubric helps you grade a lot faster, and it helps the students know how to improve. There are lots of similar strategies. For instance, it looks to me like Retired is putting too much work into crafting individual lectures. For one, you have to know your audience, which in this case usually means not requiring that you get every little detail perfectly right, or anticipate answers to any possible question, etc. Second, Retired sounds like a perfectionist, in which case the actual needs of the task take a backseat to the psychological desire to do whatever as well as possible. After 20 years, you ought to be able to trust yourself to do the right thing in class.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

I don’t think there is anything wrong with walking away from a tenured position, but in this case I don’t see any reason to believe that would help.

The OP needs to get clear on exactly why he or she finds teaching so onerous. If it is interacting with other people, he or she should keep in mind that many jobs also involve interpersonal interaction; the better course of action would be to explore ways of making interpersonal interactions less stressful. Moreover, it is unclear why the OP is spending so much time preparing for classes that have been taught multiple times. If the OP keeps teaching new courses, he or she should stop doing that. If the OP finds being in the front of the classroom distressing, he or she should consider giving students discussion questions to be completed in groups. In short, the difficulties associated with teaching are fixable. The OP’s level of despair over fixable issues suggests that teaching may not actually be the source of the misery, and the OP may want to consider seeking out counseling (but the OP should also keep in mind that at this point in the academic year many of us are experiencing our teaching demands as burdensome).

Like many people in long term personal relationships, tenured academics sometimes fantasize about walking away. It is easy to imagine that all the headaches of everyday life will vanish once we throw off our shackles. But the fantasy, by itself, does not ever provide a good reason to act on it.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

This would depend on the health, finances, and personal circumstances of the unhappy professor, but I would suggest arranging a year off (without pay if necessary). Go to live as a semi-scholarly expat in some exotic (to you) place that you’ve always wanted to experience. It could be anywhere sufficiently different and interesting to you, and should be somewhere you don’t know well already. Perhaps arrange some low-maintenance non-stipendiary affiliation with a local university in your exotic locale, so that if you get the itch to visit a research library, converse with students, or give a talk, you could do that. Learn the language, travel around, relax, talk to the locals, write whatever you like. Return refreshed and rejoin the rat race. Or don’t ever return and spend the rest of your days in your chosen paradise.Report

Adrian Piper
5 years ago

I’d like to add a variant on the options suggested by Louie Generis that may warrant separate attention. LG’s very careful and sympathetic suggestions have in common that they offer ways for Retired Of This (henceforth ROT) to either get accustomed to the situation – by making minor but significant changes either internally or externally; or else jump ship.

Another possibility would be for ROT to explore in very thorough detail what would be involved in jumping ship – that is, to the point of ascertaining that there, are in fact, many other fulfilling career options out there for philosophers to explore (and there definitely are); *and then* pulling out all the stops to fight for the major institutional changes that would significantly reduce ROT’s level of misery *within the field of philosophy*.

For example, much of ROT’s misery has to do with teaching conditions. No matter what one’s personal inclinations, whether toward teaching, research or administration, teaching can be a joy if one isn’t forced to do so much of it that it becomes impossible to perform at a level that delivers significant intellectual and emotional rewards. Similarly, committee work can be very satisfying, if there is not so much of it that it’s impossible not to view 90% of it as soul-destroying busywork. So why not try fighting *hard* to change the institution in such a way as to establish better working conditions that facilitate these rewards for everyone?

To be more specific, why not fight hard for, e.g., a maximum teaching load of two three-hour/week courses per semester, maximum class enrollments of 15 students per instructor; a maximum of administrative responsibilities equal to no more than 20 hours per week; research leaves of six months every three years; and the immediate hiring of sufficient additional instructional faculty to fill the additional positions that would be needed in order to realize these conditions?

ROT’s initial reaction to this suggestion may be that it is pie in the sky. But that is only true if ROT is unwilling to, for example, demand hard numbers comparing the financial compensations of instructional faculty with administrative staff; organize his/her equally overworked colleagues to back this demand; and question whether the available funds are being fairly allocated between them. Or, even more radically, ROT could fight for equal compensation for everyone at the same professional level, regardless of how individuals are distributed among teaching, research and administration (of course this would mean giving more than lip service to the principle that all three are of equal importance in a well-functioning academic institution). ROT could demand full transparency with regard to all faculty and staff salaries, and use this essential information as a basis for proposing the restructuring of the institution in such a way as to realize those pie-in-the-sky ideal conditions for everyone involved.

Now of course ROT would be going out on a limb professionally by doing all this. ROT might lose his/her job, and develop such a reputation for troublemaking that it might even get him/her kicked out of the field of philosophy. But (and this is the punch line) ROT doesn’t care, because ROT already knows he/she has other career options. If ROT doesn’t get the working conditions that make the profession of philosophy a satisfying one, ROT, and his/her equally fed-up colleagues, are ready and able to jump ship and move on to greener pastures.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Adrian Piper
5 years ago

“[W]hy not fight hard for, e.g., a maximum teaching load of two three-hour/week courses per semester, … [etc]”
“…demand hard numbers … organize his/her equally overworked colleagues…”
” Or, even more radically, ROT could fight for equal compensation for everyone at the same professional level…”
“ROT could demand full transparency…”

All of that sounds f-ing exhausting – especially for someone who already feels overworked. Why think all that incredibly hard (and likely unrewarding) work wouldn’t be better spent trying to find or create other venues to teach philosophy? Other than the paying job (which your advice presumes they don’t need since they have other alternatives), what’s so special about academia that makes it worth fighting for?Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Actually, at least in my experience, fighting for what you believe in is extremely rewarding. The energy comes from conviction, not from fear of not being able to make it to the end of another exhausting day.

Of course, as you point out, you do have to believe that academia and/or your field and/or your institution and/or your department is worth fighting for, and worth investing the effort to reform. I find that warrant in the education, knowledge and skills I received from academia etc., which in my view are invaluable. But I recognize that not everyone may feel that way. If one thinks that academia etc. gave one nothing of value, then one has no basis on which to invest in its reform.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Adrian Piper
5 years ago

On the contrary, I think that the education, knowledge, and skills in question are too valuable to be made available only on terms that can be made to fit within the economic and other institutional needs of universities.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Again this seems to me to be a matter of individual perspective. At the college admissions and application stage (a very long time ago), I did consider and visit some alternative, experimental “learning environments,” and was not impressed. I personally couldn’t have acquired the education, knowledge and skills in question outside of the kind of universities I attended and in which I taught. Although they are usually very seriously dysfunctional, they also contain an enormous fund of accumulated wisdom and expertise about how to impart knowledge. That’s why I value those institutions and consider them worth reforming. My feeling is that universities need to be and can be made to fit within the human and intellectual needs of its students and faculty. As much work as those reforms may be, they’re probably less costly than beginning again from scratch.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

And another thing, Derek! Actually those reforms would not be that difficult to implement, were it not for the Seven Sins, to which I’ll add Territoriality.

(1) Put into strict and consistent practice the principle that teaching, research and administration are all of equal value.

(2) Pay all faculty at the same academic rank from Lecturer to Full Professor the same salary, regardless of which of these three tracks he/she is on.

(3) Allow faculty to switch tracks, as appropriate and approved by the relevant departments or committees.

(4) Publish all such salaries annually, at least within the institution (at the University of Michigan, they used to publish them in the Ann Arbor News).

(5) Abolish the practice of giving employees extra rewards for merely doing their jobs in exaggerated quantity (e.g. of publications, committees, course preparations, student enrollments, etc.).

(6) Limit merit increases (but not institution-wide cost-of-living increases) to externally recognized achievements (prizes, grants, fellowships, etc.).

Under these circumstances, I would be very confident that course loads could be limited to a maximum of two per semester (most research universities in the US already do this), enrollments to a maximum of 15 per instructor (Bard College Berlin already does this), and that sufficient numbers of faculty could be hired to teach those courses. Although I agree with you that most academic institutions are at present in very sorry condition indeed, I doubt that they could not be reformed to this degree. If they were, perhaps ROT would be less inclined to jump ship.Report

Saint-Exupéry
Saint-Exupéry
5 years ago

I second the crush. Dear Louie, dude/dudette, you are awesome! Smart, thoughtful, and full of great suggestions.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 years ago

This is also good advice if you replace “teach” with “research”.Report

Retired of This
Retired of This
5 years ago

Thank you very much for this, LG. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your sympathetic and thoughtful approach. You were able to clarify and expand upon many of my not-fully-expressed emotions and claims in a really helpful way; I greatly appreciate this because being in touch with where I am is not my strongest point. And you have given me many things to try and to think about. I still don’t know what I am going to do, but just having some things to try and think about is helpful. Thank you. Whatever else happened to you today, please know that you helped someone who has been feeling at the end of a tether for quite some time.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  Retired of This
5 years ago

I’m glad I was able to be of some small help. Your situation has touched a lot of people here, and that means that you’re not alone. Good careers don’t ward off misery, and sometimes they can even become the source of misery themselves. Things are better when we can talk about that openly.

I hope you’ll keep in touch as you reach your decision. Column aside, I feel invested, and I sincerely hope that things will turn out well for you. Whatever you decide.Report

Jeff Yoshimi
Jeff Yoshimi
5 years ago

I resonated with ROT’s note. My situation is different, but I do think I’ve found a solution, and in case it’s helpful to anyone else to hear (and maybe ROT?) I’ll share it. My situation is that for many years I loved teaching, and felt I was pretty good at it. But in the last 5 years or so, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with device-use in classrooms. As has been discussed here before, looking out on a sea of students texting, checking social media, etc., is disheartening. I had strict no-device-use policies, but then ended up spending much of lecture time policing the students. They simply could not be de-coupled from their devices. There were almost always a few students checking cell phones beneath the desk, etc. It pissed me off, ruined the nice vibe I was accustomed to getting into for a good discussion, and created some kind of me-them wall or something. Teaching became sort of dry and formal, and at the end of the day I too felt ” wrung out, exhausted, brain dead”, and in my case demoralized. Clearly something was not working. So I decided to try to embrace the device-coupled-generation, and taught a version of an on-line course this semester. I later found out that what I was doing was a variant on a “flipped” classroom. The idea is that students watch the lectures on their own, and then when you meet in-person you work on problem sets, etc. (so instead of lecturing live and student’s doing problems on their own, it’s lecture on their own and problems together). So I recorded all my lectures in my office, edited them–sometimes with animations and other cheesy visual effects–then ran discussions online in a kind of video chatroom where we just talked about stuff, and also had one live “working session” each week where device use was allowed and where I did things like going from desk to desk helping students with problems. The students reported loving it, and once again I felt myself loving teaching! There is a lot more to say, and perhaps this only worked because I am such a techno-nerd myself, but it fits the more general suggestions that you try something new with teaching. In my case I shook things up a bit in a way that fit my personality, with excellent results.Report

Sondra Bacharach
Sondra Bacharach
Reply to  Jeff Yoshimi
2 years ago

I bring playdough to class – you can’t be on a device when it’s in your hands; and it’s relaxing. Not as innovative as the flipped classroom (very cool solution for plugged-in kids!), but very easy. Report

Teresa
Teresa
5 years ago

Seems that something is going on and I’m wondering if it really is between professor and student? Who is draining you? Who are you giving to endlessly with no return? What are you looking to get from teaching that you are not getting? Who is making your life miserable? What have you tried to make work for a long time and never succeeded? You sure it is teaching and students or is it some template from the past being superimposed on your classroom experience? Maybe what you want is to be free of some psychological burden that probably doesn’t have to do much with students. You have to admit if you step back and look at it objectively, students are, by and large, harmless creatures in our life. And having people listen to your ideas is not a bad way to make a living. Sure new is always good after 20 years of anything. Look for a new job, administrative work with less teaching. But if you face the tiger straight in the eye, you may feel that you don’t need to run. . . anywhere.Report

Anca Gheaus
Anca Gheaus
5 years ago

@Adrian Piper: Given (1) and (2), why have academic ranks at all?

(P.S. I find the new comments system very difficult to figure out.)Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Anca Gheaus
5 years ago

I can only offer my own reasons for thinking that academic ranks are a good idea. First, the longer you’re in the job, the more skills, experience and knowledge of the institution you develop, and so the better you get at carrying out tasks of various kinds and the better grounded your decisions become. This holds across the board, from doing your research to teaching to discharging administrative responsibilities. The more you learn the ropes, the better you perform and the more authority you acquire. It’s useful to mark these various stages of development with graduated academic ranks that attest to increasing degrees of authority and responsibility.

Second, (2) does not require that all faculty *within the institution* are paid the same salary; but rather than all faculty *at the same rank* are paid the same salary, regardless of whether their focus is in teaching, research or administration. I view this as an essential corrective to the false assumption that, for example, those who do mostly research are somehow “more important” than those who focus on teaching; or that those who do mostly teaching are somehow “more essential” to the institution than those who do research.

But above all, it is very, very important that those who choose to devote their energies exclusively to administration recognize that their contributions are no more or less important or essential to the healthy functioning of the institution than those of their colleagues who focus on research or teaching; and therefore that their contributions to the institution do not justify any greater financial compensation than those of their other colleagues at the same rank.

Although salaries should increase with increasing authority and responsibility at whatever one’s type of contribution to the institution, they definitely should *not* increase merely because of one’s status as an administrator or high-profile researcher or teacher. Once these three kinds of colleagues understand that they must meet one another at eye-level financially, many unhealthy hierarchies that ascribe decision-making to administrators and crass obedience or demoralized resignation to faculty members will disappear … as will the seemingly inbuilt structural conflicts and the unhealthy financial disparities between them.

Once you get rid of those financial disparities, you can expect to find a lot more money suddenly available to fund new faculty positions, in sufficient numbers so that the number of courses each teaches can be kept reasonable and humane, and class enrollments can be kept small. Once you create working conditions that enable both students and instructors to do their best work, everyone involved will have reason to take pride in their contribution to that.Report

Thecla
Thecla
5 years ago

So what are the alternatives? I hate teaching–but had no other viable options. I like preparation. I love putting together a course: researching for it, choosing readings, structuring the syllabus, researching for it, making handouts, making powerpoints. I don’t even mind grading. I just hate doing the performance in front of a class–and discussing with students individually. I get no gratification out of teaching because it has simply never mattered to me whether students learn the stuff or not. I hate the exhausting acting job I have to do pretending that I’m interested in getting the stuff across to students and working to please them. I love the preparation and find it rewarding, but after a day of teaching I’m stressed out, exhausted and have nothing (that matters to me) to show for it. It’s like waitressing–but the hours are shorter and I get to do other stuff.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Thecla
5 years ago

To me you sound like someone who would be great doing 66% administration, with a focus on curricular development, and 33% research, with a focus on whatever particular topics you enjoy doing course preparation for. I see no reason why a properly run academic institution (i.e. one that gave equal weight to teaching, research and administration, etc. – see above) could not accommodate and benefit from your particular mix of skills and interests, in such a way that even the students whom you can’t stand dealing with would appreciate! 🙂Report

Thecla
Thecla
Reply to  Adrian Piper
5 years ago

‘Properly run’ indeed. We’re now in the throws of ‘Core Curriculum Revision’ and the No-Child-Left-Behind version of curricular development being promoted leaves me and what I do out entirely. The latest: logic doesn’t count for ‘critical thinking’. I’ve been involved in this Core Curriculum Revision program, trying to promote Truth and Justice, but found that it was hopeless. So I will sit on my tenure, crap through my courses, which I hate teaching, and take every opportunity I have to get release time so that I can minimize teaching and pursue my research. And isn’t it a stinking shame that this is the way things have shaken out? So, tell me, how do you fight that?Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Thecla
5 years ago

Pull a Rosa Parks. Just refuse to cooperate. Not alone, of course; but rather *together* with all of your colleagues who feel as you do, which, from your description of the situation, is very likely most of them. It’s called passive resistance, and has a very long, distinguished and inspiring history. Of course you all have to be prepared to accept the consequences; that’s where the close attention to other career options part comes in. But if you can get enough of your colleagues to join the fight, you can get a lot done – as long as you’re prepared to FIGHT for the Truth and Justice thing.

Things haven’t shaken out until you shake them out.Report

Thecla
Thecla
Reply to  Adrian Piper
5 years ago

@ Adrian, I have tried, but it just doesn’t work that way. A slim majority of our department, and all the math dept., voted against Core Curriculum Revision, but everyone else caved. I have fought for all I ws worth but the pressure was intense, and the view was that it was inevitable–they would keep pushing until we knuckled under. So everyone else, most of whom didn’t like the program, just gave up. I try to compare notes with colleagues elsewhere, and it seems that we’ve had it worse than most, but at my place we have lost. The repeated suggestion here is: ‘we’re a ‘liberal arts’ college so we’re prima facie worthless. We gotta make the case that we have something of value to offer. So we gotta do this stuff or else they’re gonna close us down’. I am sick at heart.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Thecla
5 years ago

Actually it does work that way, if you and your colleagues choose to persist. I don’t know the specifics of your situation well enough to comment any further. But your description of it leads me to infer that in fact you and your colleagues do, in fact, have quite a few unexplored, constructive options. In the end I suppose it depends on how one orders one’s priorities. It’s often difficult to put this sort of protracted struggle at the top of one’s list if it seems too costly.

As for losing, you don’t lose until you lose your life. I would say rather that you gave up. I hope you and your colleagues find a way to live comfortably with the circumstances you have chosen.Report

Dale Miller
Reply to  Thecla
5 years ago

Perhaps online or hybrid teaching would be a good option in your case, since that removes much of the “performance” aspect of teaching. I do one course online most years, in addition to several traditional classes, and it’s a nice change of pace. I do my course entirely text-based, e.g., no video lectures, so there’s really no performance at all on my part. But probably you need to be thinking, as Adrian suggests, about trying to take on more administration and less teaching. I don’t know of many jobs that would let you trade all of your teaching for administrative duties while still keeping a full research component in your position. I’m not saying that such things don’t exist, but at my school you’re either in a position like chairing your department, where you have less but still some teaching, or you’re some sort of dean or provost (associate, vice, etc.) in which case any teaching or research you do is really just as a hobby.Report

Thecla
Thecla
Reply to  Dale Miller
5 years ago

Not feasible. I’ve tried to get into administrative positions to cut down on teaching with no success: you have to be on board with the (No-Child-Left-Behind) program and respectable–which I am not. This is the way it is, IMHO for most of us. Let’s be realistic. What we need to think about here in general for many of us is how to minimize teaching and direct contact with students.Report

Dale Miller
Reply to  Thecla
5 years ago

Well, your school isn’t the only one, so perhaps you need to be testing the market. But you might also consider whether your extreme aversion to teaching is really a given that can’t be changed. Your unhappiness with your school’s gen ed reforms suggest that at bottom you really aren’t entirely indifferent about whether students learn philosophy. If neither a new position at your current school nor a new position (inside or outside of academia) is possible, then it may be that you’ve got more control over your own attitudes than over any other factor in your situation. I hope that things work out in the best way possible for you.Report

JustMe?
JustMe?
5 years ago

I usually think that these letters aren’t from real people. I tend to imagine that Louis just wants to get something off their chest about someone they know, and then writes a letter from what they think is that person’s perspective is, so that they can unload unsolicited advice under the guise of solicited advice.

Am I the only one?

P.S. I would say this in a seminar room, and everyone would laugh -because it’s funny. Report

Sam
Sam
3 years ago

Leave. Life is short. This post mirrors my sentiments exactly. I’m a tenured full professor at a decent University and I had a good run for about 15 years, including an administrative stint. I stretched it another 4 years getting into (and enjoying) online class development and teaching. I went into this field for the research, not the teaching, although I became a decent teacher and a good online teacher. But ultimately, I found that about 80% of my time was taken up with work that I didn’t enjoy at all. The service obligations, politics, and abuse from students, colleagues, and administrators finally wore my ass down. I was considering very early retirement.

I was then awarded a semester research reassignment (no teaching or service obligations) and spent long hours learning, developing and programming a research project and enjoyed every single minute of it. That experience made me realize that I wasn’t “done” with work, I was just “done” with academics. I’m leaving my job at the end of this semester and going back to school in an MA program in a tangentially-related area that has always interested me. I cannot tell you how life-changing this decision has been on my outlook, health, energy level and hope for the future.

I am amazed by how tenaciously other academics cling to the fold and try to convince people not to leave. For any other job in the world they would tell you to run. I don’t derive any personal satisfaction from the academic aura. If you don’t like teaching, get out. You’re not dead yet!Report