Robert Zaretsky

Professor at University of Houston

Leaving the Academic Stage

Full full epicfinale   stage curtain

Image: Highland Theatre, by Flickr user missmass

Traditionally, the New Year marks the moment for resolutions. We tell ourselves: Now is the time to undertake a review of our lives. Now is the time to break with habits that have outworn their stay. Now is the time to decide if we need to move on.

In academe, more precisely, we wonder about moving on from our current profession — that is, being a professor.

Another year also brings another birthday, adding urgency to the internal call for resolution. I turn 62 this year — an age heavy with existential weight for baby-boomer academics. In a controversial essay published in The Chronicle 17 years ago, James Shapiro, the widely respected Shakespeare scholar, vowed he would retire at the age I am now turning. He based his decision on the stark realization that the preceding generation of scholars, some already in their 70s, had no intention to make way for the coming generation of Ph.D.s. That refusal to retire, Shapiro believed, was bad for the institution and bad for the soul: Both would become wizened.

With Shapiro’s essay, a wildfire swept the groves of academe, with the paradoxical nature of tenure providing most of the tinder. A professional status that guaranteed our right to research, write, and speak freely had become a sinecure that guaranteed younger scholars would rarely if ever enjoy those same rights. Shielded from potential political pressures, tenured professors found themselves also shielded from potential ethical pressures — the sort of pressure that a candid look in the mirror, or one’s curriculum vitae, might spur.

The hiring trends that worried Shapiro in 2000 have, if anything, grown even grimmer. According to a 2014 report and survey from TIAA-CREF, scarcely a fifth of workers in most professions are 55 or older. The one exception is higher education, where a full third of faculty members fall into that age cohort. That disparity, warns another study, will deepen with time: 60 percent of my colleagues intend to remain in the classroom when they pass 70, and 15 percent say they will hang on until they are 80.

What’s to be done? That question slipped into my thoughts as, along with millions of others, I watched Mariah Carey’sNew Year’s Eve deconstruction at Times Square. Was that snafu the result, as she claimed, of misfiring technical equipment? Was it because she had to lip-sync to notes no longer within the reach of her 46-year-old vocal cords? That night, reaching for another beer, I asked myself: Am I lip-syncing to lectures I wrote 25 years ago? If Carey should make room for a younger generation of performers, does that not also apply to me?

In short, now that I am turning 62, should I resolve to leave the stage?

The question of retirement, it so happens, figures prominently in books I am teaching this year: King Lear, for instance. While Shakespeare apparently enjoyed his "retirement" years in Stratford-on-Avon, the same could hardly be said for Lear on his blasted heath.

One of Shapiro’s provisos for retiring was that his administration would commit to filling his position with a tenure-track hire. But doesn’t Lear, who is fourscore years old, more or less do the same by leaving his position to not one, but two tenure-track rulers — namely, his daughters Goneril and Regan? No one bothered to ask Lear how retirement was working out for him, of course. And what about the now-retired professor? Forgotten by those to whom he surrendered his position, all he (or she) has left to do is either howl, lead the local book club, or both.

Michel de Montaigne’s Essays is a second work my students will read this spring. Slightly less than half a millennium ago, Montaigne reached the ripe age of 38 — which probably is 62 in today’s market — and quit his prestigious job as magistrate in the Bordeaux parliament. To mark the occasion, he inscribed his decision on the wall of his library: "Long weary of the servitude of the court and public employments, I retired to the bosom of the learned Virgins [the Muses]."

During the next 20 years, Montaigne invented the genre of the essay — and thus reinvented himself. Not a bad retirement, especially given the dividend of immortality conferred by the Essays. The catch, however, is that few of us professors mulling retirement can match his wealth. Every study on the subject cites financial concerns as the principal reason why academics resign themselves to spending years after age 62 seeking traces of the Muses in undergraduate papers.

Rather than helping me make a resolution, the classics leave me irresolute. What to do? Perhaps write on my palm the Greek epigram that Montaigne had carved in his roof beam: "Only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain."

But while I struggle with my irresolution, there are some matters I am less uncertain about than others:

There is the need to act our age. Sixty is not the new 50, much less the new 40. It is the same old 60. We should profess what we have learned by that age. Here’s a riddle worthy of Poor Tom: Is a 60-ish professor who thinks he has nothing to learn from students any wiser than a 60-ish professor who thinks students have nothing to learn from him?

Teach as many new courses as possible. Over the last half-dozen years, I have lurched from one new offering to the next: a history of globalization to a history of World War I; a history of terrorism to a history of nihilism. Not only do I do that because those subjects interest me, but also because the scramble to prepare for them stretches my calcifying cognitive faculties.

There is a downside, of course, to surfing on the little I have learned instead of pulling up treasures from years of research. The upside, though, is that undergrads do not need someone who will suffer from the bends upon surfacing from hours of research. What they really need is someone as excited as they are about discovering new (to them) information. Will my research and publishing agenda suffer? If, like Edgar, we speak what we feel, not what we ought to say, all I can say is "Who cares?"

Never confuse technology with texts. What I have found — not consistently, but often enough to encourage me to continue — is that, if encouraged and accompanied, students gladly spend time with the texts themselves. By reading passages together in class, by spending more time on fewer works, by conversing rather than lecturing, professors can create one of the few "safe spaces" worthy of the name — namely, a place safe from the static and distraction of postmodern life. Not only is this good for the students, but it is good for the aging professor, forcing him or her to surrender the embalming fluid of prepared lectures or technological crutches offered by smart classrooms.

My irresolution is, I know, cold comfort to young Ph.D.s. It hardly helps to remind both them and myself that I had no guarantees, when I entered the job market, of finding a tenured position. Gloucester declares, admirably, "distribution should undo excess/And each man have enough." Until that day arrives, perhaps we can all find resolution in Lear’s truth that "the worst is not/So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’"

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