Retrospective

With the exception of one semester in 2013, I’ve taught every academic term since the fall of 2008.  Taken together that’s nine years in the classroom.  So the ebb and flow of the semester has now defined my working life for the better part of a decade, and I’ve grown accustomed to how the excitement of August and January gives way to a slump after the first month is done, and how the mood on campus ratchets up again as you approach the end of term.  And Late April is always a time of special excitement as you look forward to the summer–a quieter period when you can do in six hours what takes ten or twelve while school’s in session.  But things are different for me this time.  I’m currently in the middle of the spring semester’s last full week, and I’m keenly aware that it’s not just the academic year that’s coming to an end, but my contract as a professor.

This realization has caused a feeling of melancholy to tinge the excitement I’m otherwise feeling, and has prodded me to think again about why I entered Classics and why I’ve made the decision to leave.  I don’t have any doubts, mind you, but I know that whatever lies ahead is going to be considerably different from what I’m doing now.

I started Latin and Greek in high school.  I enjoyed learning both languages, and thought that declaring a Classics major as a college applicant would be a good way to stand out in a competitive field.  After I began studying at Georgetown, however, I was completely swept away by the material.  I began massaging my schedule to maximize the number of Classics courses I took in any given term, and often did so to the exclusion of everything else.  My excitement for the work I was doing convinced me that I wanted to pursue a career in the academy, helping other people enjoy the same experiences that had meant so much to me.  The most likely place to start was getting a doctorate so I could become a professor myself; in truth, though, my real goal was to become a leader within higher education, ideally working my way up to the level of dean, provost–even president if things went well.  In short, I wanted to be somebody who could take a school’s mission and shape it to the needs and demands of the modern world.

So during my senior year I doubled down on the intellectual commitment I’d already made and applied to graduate school, hoping it would be the first step in a long academic career.  Now before you laugh at my optimism, I want to make clear that this didn’t seem like such a bad idea at the time!  Enrollments in Latin and Greek had been rising since the late 1990s and the economy was booming.  College tuition was fast quickly at that stage, but had only topped $50,000 per year at a handful of schools.  Most thought we were approaching equilibrium.  So when I was admitted to a solid graduate program in the spring of my senior year, I was happy to accept and set out for Charlottesville that August.  As I mapped out the path ahead, the timing couldn’t look better: I would finish my degree in 2013 or 2014, as a wave of retirements was (finally) supposed to crest.  The odds looked good that somebody like me could land a solid position at a good school–if not at right away, then at least after just a couple of years.

Again, none of this seemed crazy or far-fetched at the time.  But then 2008 happened, and then everything changed.  Hiring and wage freezes were implemented across academia as the financial crisis raged, and the faculty who were supposed to retire saw their savings wiped out (the push from traditional pensions to 401(k) plans seemed smart when things were good, but proved a liability after the market crashed).  A mix of need and necessity thus kept tenured professors in their jobs longer than they had planned: not only did they have to work longer to save up, again, for retirement, but they feared a departure would–in the midst of a freeze–lead their college to eliminate their lines.  So everybody sat tight, hoping business would return to normal soon.

In truth, a graduate program was about the safest place you could be at that time: there weren’t any jobs, especially for people with a humanities degree, and being locked into my course of study insulated me from the chaos through at least 2012.  Plenty of time for things to turn around, I thought, and no reason to worry.

During that period I also found I had a real knack for teaching, and that I enjoyed the thrill of being at the front of a classroom.  Doing it well requires a mix of established knowledge, preparation, and improvisation–together with the ability to read a room quickly and to pivot if your audience doesn’t respond in the way you’d expected.  It’s exhilarating when you have a good rapport with your students, when you hit a flow in explaining complex material in a way that’s clear but not dumbed down. That was one side of the job, and the one I enjoyed most, but I also dedicated a great deal of effort to my research.  I hadn’t been the best writer when I entered grad school, and knew my ability to earn the job I wanted would mean correcting that deficiency.  So I pushed hard to become as clear as I could in my thinking and as disciplined as possible in explaining my logic.  I admittedly succumbed to an over-reliance on connecting words  like “thus,” “thereby,” and “consequently,” but that’s a common academic failing, and in any case something you can learn to manage.  More importantly, my efforts paid off.  Over the course of a few years my writing improved so much that I received public recognition for a paper I gave at a large conference and was invited to submit a written version for publication at a prestigious journal (this would, eventually, become my first academic article).

As things turned out, though, the economic crisis changed academia more than anybody expected.  Hiring freezes turned into budget cuts, furloughs, voluntary severance.  The new names of the game became efficiency and job outcomes–metrics that favored STEM subjects and professional schools where results are seen more immediately.  And the people who were trusted to deliver on those fronts were no longer members of the profession who knew the academy inside and out.  Instead, “outsiders” became a hot commodity as the boards overseeing colleges and universities–filled as they were with political appointees and wealthy donors recently schooled in the hard lessons of the recession–sought a new set of traits that they deemed more suitable to the era.  This was the time when Virginia real estate mogul Helen Dragas forced Terry Sullivan out of her position as UVA President, only to welcome her back after widespread protests.  The message in Charlottesville and across the US couldn’t be more clear: the people in charge viewed pragmatism as the only thing that could overcome the perceived deficiencies of a (supposedly) outdated educational model, as the only thing that could save institutions of higher learning from themselves.

So over the course of a few short years, the career path I’d planned to follow disappeared before me.  Professors from small humanities departments weren’t being hired into upper administrative positions; instead, those jobs were going to industry magnates and the deans of large professional schools.  A pendulum had swung, and I was on the wrong side of its arc.

The risk to my more immediate prospects, however, was exacerbated by an increased reliance on contingent faculty.  That trend had started long before 2008, but the need for a flexible labor force and the ability to cut salaries and programs on shorter notice during the recession accelerated the process.  As a result, the number of tenure-line jobs never recovered when the economy began to boom in 2012.  This meant fewer positions that could result in a sustainable, long-term career.  In business terms, we got higher risk with less reward.  Also playing a part are population trends–something no doubt on the radar of presidents but rarely discussed by faculty.  The US hit a demographic peak of 18-year-olds in 2009, which means college rosters are going to be on a downward swing for the next twenty or so years–maybe longer since people are having kids later these days (international applications might make up for it, but that seems less likely in light of recent political developments).  On its own that isn’t necessarily devastating, but taken with everything else it spelled trouble for somebody starting a career around the time I earned my degree.

Which brings us back to me and where I am today.  The path I thought I was setting out on in 2007 changed under my feet, and I never had a chance to reassess it until I was working full time.  Ironically, my terminal position at Tulane is actually what gave me the freedom to see things with greater clarity.  Had I managed to get a tenure-track job straight out of grad school, I’d now be coming up on a third-year review and a sabbatical that would be spent working up a book for publication.  Maybe I’d be happy with that, but my prospects would still be more limited than I’d expected, and my only chance for advancement would rest in my ability to conduct research that enjoys a global audience of about fifty.  More likely than not I would have convinced myself to forge ahead in the hope that things would get better–all while doubting they really would.  As a number of friends have recently told me, the tenure-track these days feels more like a tenure-trap.

And the process of looking beyond academia has undoubtedly had its upsides.  It’s forced me to learn new tricks, to become more resourceful, to develop a greater comfort with the unknown.  I’m a more flexible person than I was two years ago, and that’s something that couldn’t have happened if I’d kept my eyes fixed on the professoriate.  And let’s be honest: nobody really knows what the future holds.  A friend who’s spent the last decade in consulting just landed a position at a university–and here I am trying to move in the opposite direction.  For all we know we might switch places again.

So May 2nd–the last day of classes–might be goodbye.  But it also might not.  There are now countless paths to the career I originally envisioned, and the majority involve a stint outside the Ivory Tower.  Who knows?  By stepping away at this juncture I might actually increase the odds of that I end up in university administration–or I might find something even more attractive and decide to never look back.  Only time will tell.

But nostalgia is only healthy in small doses.  At some point you have to turn and focus on the challenges that lie ahead, and seize on whatever opportunities present themselves.  Ready or not, that hour is fast approaching.  It’s time to get to work.

 

 

 

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