Image: Say Anything (1989)
I took my young daughter to an acapella concert on campus a few weeks ago. It was a gray Saturday afternoon and I carried her piggyback into the chapel, then down the stairs into the concert area. My daughter and I were greeted with smiles -- a spunky 3-year-old draws plenty of attention on a college campus. But a former student of mine also took the opportunity to chat: “I heard you were leaving?”
I’ve been hearing that sort of comment several times a day this semester. Students ask what I’ll be teaching in the fall. Colleagues ask about my plans for next year and “if I’m staying.” Each time, faced with the prospect of describing the future, I am perplexed about how to respond.
This semester is my last at this college. I have already found a new, nonacademic job and have started working there part time while I finish out my teaching contract.
When I was originally hired as a visiting professor of educational studies (my Ph.D. is in sociology), I knew the arrangement had a start date and an end date. On the day of my interview three years ago, I asked about the possibility of a tenure-track job materializing, and was told it was unlikely. I teach in a small program and even though my colleagues at the college agree that my expertise meshes well with faculty from other departments (sociology, public policy, and educational studies), the end of the spring semester is the end of the line for me.
While I knew about the end date of my employment, I was reluctant to share it with students because it is an awkward conversation. As I tell my students, I’m not really “leaving,” since that implies I wanted to go. In my mind, if I was moving on to another college or university, then I would be “leaving.”
I want to be clear that this awkward breakup was planned. We are both going our separate ways. I did not intend to stay long. But my convoluted and veiled explanations make little sense to them because my students are sojourners in this place. They seem to see faculty members as fixtures, not much different from the buildings and the traditions on the campus.
I am tempted to tell students that I am not leaving but being left by the institution. But that response would make me sound sour and would inaccurately characterize my experiences over the last three years. I never treated my time here like it was a finite arrangement, and in return this place has treated me well for a visitor. I made the most of professional-development and networking opportunities, and I received financial support on more than one occasion for conference travel or to explore new pedagogical approaches. And I got to know so many students -- ones who have inspired and challenged me in the classroom and taught me many things.
I do feel like a part of the place. But I have always known that I really wasn’t -- that, eventually, the gig would be over. And unlike the graduating seniors who will be tethered to the college because it is where they spent their formative late adolescence and early adulthood years, as I depart, I don’t just feel nostalgic. I feel conflicted.
I don’t just think about what to tell my students about all of this; I wonder sometimes what I should be telling myself, too. If I stop teaching now, does that mean my academic career is over? All that I trained for, was it for naught?
My transition to a nonacademic job means giving up on academia for now. Many readers no doubt think that, in making this move, I am closing the door on the academy. I reject the notion that the terms of my nonacademic employment are so rigid that I will never be back in a classroom. In my new position, I’ll be using many of the skills I would in my academic research but now as a policy analyst. And I’ll be teaching, too -- just not in front of a classroom of traditional students.
For at least a few more weeks, though, I continue to face those students. And I am glad to have been their professor. I will be forever grateful to the scholars and teachers who welcomed me and treated me like a permanent member of this community. I am a better teacher, writer, adviser, colleague, researcher, and scholar because of my colleagues and my students.
So when they ask me why I’m leaving, I try to be honest: Graduate training has prepared me for a very specific job, and sometimes that job does not fit or reveal itself. I have known for a long time that there are many different ways to be a sociologist within and outside of the academy. And for now, at least, I choose to work outside.