I Can’t Find the Ivory Tower
September 12, 2019
The moment I opened the door to the mailbox and slipped the thin letter in – spare and tersely worded – I expected some sort of regret. Panic at my decision to leave a tenured position, at the seeming impracticality of it. I considered other reactions I might have too. Maybe I’d be visited by a sudden overwhelming feeling that I’d been wrong about the reasons for my accelerating dissatisfaction. Maybe it was something other than the job.
Instead, I felt nothing but elation. Today, I’m six years out, still a scholar and a writer, and now a freelance editor. Not in a lucrative situation. Whatever. I don’t care. I’m happy as a clam. But why?
From the time I recognized the seriousness of the feelings that had gripped me, it took me about 18 months to realize: I have to get out from under this. No matter what.
My deliberations about exiting were, I used to think, atypical. After all, the people around me at the time thought them some combination of haughty and foolhardy. But it turns out there were a lot of people like me in academia, mid-career, not thriving, performing well anyway, at least by objective measures.
For those of you who’ve read plenty of “quit lit” from white-collar professionals, you’ll recognize this kind of essay. For those of you who think, in the scheme of things nowadays, enduring a tenured professorship is hardly like breaking rocks, you’re right. But isn’t the entire point of continuing your education for many long years to enhance your latitude of choice rather than to restrict it? Obviously, if I was without choices, I wouldn’t have made this one to leave. And if tenured and tenure-track positions are now so scarce that I was haughty to leave one while others clamored for it, well, isn’t it better that someone else gained mine, particularly if I didn’t want it?
That’s the only self-justifying thing I’ll say here. I know a lot of what happened was about me. Having had, over those 18 months, many talks with my husband, my friends, my therapist, and my colleagues, I’ve come to accept that the parts of me that weren’t compatible with my job are a fairly solid part of who I am and weren’t amenable to that much change. Lord knows I tried to conform, to find new solutions, to make it work.
Once I’d made the decision to live better, to regain a healthier life, regardless of cost, a rational assessment of my professional situation followed: My job had become a hindrance to my career.
But once I’d made the decision to live better, to regain a healthier life, regardless of cost, a rational assessment of my professional situation followed. My job had become a hindrance to my career. And both of these deliberations pointed in the same direction: to the exit. You might call it ‘hitting the wall,’ but to me it just felt like the moment I realized that my mental and physical health had no hope of improving unless I left.
I was in a job that required a minimum of 60-70 hours per week, unless I shirked. My situation was both universal and particular. Universal, in the sense that everyone was under pressure. Particular, in the sense that not all associate professors at my non-elite school had schedules like mine. My highly in-demand degree program was understaffed and overenrolled, and the administration liked it that way.
Professors did the academic advising for all majors and minors. But while other departments might assign 20 or 30 student advisees to each of their faculty members, we were often assigned more than 100. Other faculty held office hours. We held a nonstop processing center – in person, online, and by phone – during and beyond those hours.
Advising requirements had increased dramatically in a few years, in direct relation to the decision that students could no longer be responsible for figuring out their own schedules and degree requirements. We had to guess how to handle the unique situation of each first-year and transfer student. And lobby for each one. Individually. Then apologize routinely for the university’s lack of flexibility. We needed to audit, inspect, and sign off on everything. Increasingly, if something was wrong, it was our fault. Or it was my fault. Towards the end, I began emailing students after we’d met so I had a record of what I’d advised them.
On top of this, there were revisions to major curricula and to the general education requirements; upgrades of administrative software; and access to necessary ancillary services that changed with alarming rapidity. Workshops for every new thing were offered, of course, but after a while I began to wonder how long it would be until it all changed again, and even more hours would be peeled away from me.
And then came assessment. Much has already been written about assessment, but the key relevance here was the amount of time it took. And how fundamentally performative it all was. The answer was always some variation on: We taught a thing. Some percentage of students mastered the thing. Some percentage of students did not. Yes, we can try harder next time. No, we don’t control many of the variables.
Public universities have been in a state of panic about pleasing their administrative, legislative, and fiscal overlords. It’s understandable. But in response, institutions like mine, and it appears many others, seem to be able to think only one refrain over and over: the faculty should do more. My own feeling was that teaching itself – which was the core reason I was hired, after all – was actually the easiest part. But much like my peers at non-elite schools elsewhere, I was increasingly overworked.
Beyond advising and teaching, the amount of administrative work swelled across the board. This was true for all programs, but my department had only 4 people to handle the work, where other programs had 20 or 30 faculty. The administration eventually coughed up one new position to assist with the expanding workload, but they didn’t have a very good sense of the job market in my field. As a result, they made lousy offers and asked for too many credentials. Searches failed constantly.
I eventually realized that none of this was going to get resolved any time soon, and I found myself at a crossroads: Did I want to change my expectations or change my career? I was doing increasing amounts of advising and administration, and frankly, the latter was often just make-work that had no long-term impact on anything we did. In some cases, it literally disappeared after we completed it.
I continued to get good evaluations for my teaching, but I was so busy all the time I feared I was losing my edge. Every plan I made to spend time doing something that I was actually hired to do – improving and updating my courses, research and scholarship, cogently advising students, doing more than the minimum on service committees – would fall by the wayside any time I had any kind of sneaky scheme to put in a regular workweek.
In the end, it just amounted to: This place never misses an opportunity to kick me in the teeth. Yet, oddly, I didn’t think it was personal. It was more like: This is what a place like this does to someone like me. Which is not the same, but in terms of decision making, it may as well have been. The best analogy I can think of is Stephen King’s Misery: If you get stuck somewhere long enough, they will come for your ankles with a mallet – and then you really, really aren’t going anywhere.
So that slim letter sealed my fate. In August of 2013, I left. This was possible because my husband worked full time. But it worked because of decisions I made. I published my book, launched a new project, and developed a side hustle as a freelance editor. I continued to go to conferences in my field.
My daughter was 10 when I quit, and I missed no more of her games, recitals, or performances. I was able to bring her to lessons and auditions, to support her burgeoning interest and talent in the performing arts. I joined a local municipal committee as a volunteer. I go for a walk every day. I read fiction. I eat and sleep much better. And I no longer have an unending commitment to an institution that didn’t really care about my contributions one way or another. Or those of most of my peers, either.
Now that I’m post-academic, as they say, I’m still enraged on behalf of the people still there – incredibly hard working, devoted to their students, and willing to try new things until one demand for “innovation” too many sets them over edge into health crises or pharmaceuticals.
Another way of putting it is that I gave up on the illusion that the work-life balance thing was actually working. Yes, as exploitation, it’s fairly high end. But it is certainly bait-and-switch nonetheless, and it is in no way beneficial to higher education in the long run to draw so many monetary and faculty-labor resources away from their traditional core mandates: teaching and scholarship. These aren’t just what we should be doing. They’re what our larger societies think we are doing.
If you’ve been a college faculty member, you’ll know this isn’t just bitching about the ordinary and necessary strains of the profession. Those things, most people understand. Nor do I mean to suggest that all of the enforcers are hypocrites or work-shifting shirkers. No, I also saw many of them working 60-70 hour weeks. It’s not that kind of exploitation – one promulgated to enhance their own leisure time.
It’s just that they believe all of us should be working that much and constantly reporting, packaging, repackaging, and narrating our activities for a larger audience. That’s the real problem with too much oversight and managerialism: As those numbers expand, each office’s moderate demand for your time multiplies. And you begin to wonder how they ever thought you were qualified to do your job in the first place.
That’s the real problem with too much oversight and managerialism: As those numbers expand, each office’s moderate demand for your time multiplies. And you begin to wonder how they ever thought you were qualified to do your job in the first place.
After I left, I found out that I was part of an exodus of associate professors nationwide (this exodus, incidentally, was disproportionately women). I also learned that my grad school peers at other universities were reporting very similar objective conditions and some similar subjective ones too. Culture wide, the obsession with disruption and innovation hit the ultimate maintainer institution, the scholastic world, very weirdly.
Colleges and universities have a reputation these days as repositories of political correctness and radicalism. Taken as a whole, this is wildly exaggerated if you count every non-elite school, where most students have barely heard of the controversies that animate the elite institutions (Ivy League schools, private SLACs, and so-called “public ivies”) that elite media concerns itself with. But even if that weren’t so, it would obscure the fact that universities are one of the more conservative (that is conservative with a small c) institutions within their societies.
In reality, the university acts as a slow, contemplative processor of two streams of knowledge: the slow, and solid, inherited corpus of various disciplines and the dynamic changes of the surrounding world. Far from being a sector of instigation, in the long view, it is usually just the place where we spend a great deal of time interpreting and discussing (and sometimes yelling) about those things that simply have come to the surface in the surrounding world. Quite centrally, universities focus on those things that most people barely notice at first. That focus makes headlines. What does not make headlines as often is the extent to which the traditional role of the university is under assault from a completely different direction: from within. And this strikes me as the most severe failure of nerve.
Pamela Donovan, Ph.D. is a freelance editor and writer. Her research and writing focus on sociology, public health, and criminology, and she’s the author of Drink Spiking & Predatory Drugging: A Modern History (Palgrave 2016) and No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet (Routledge 2004). Want to read more? Find Pam on Twitter: @pamelaldonovan.