Over the past eight years of teaching, I’ve spent more than a handful of afternoons sitting in my car, weeping tears of anger, frustration, fatigue, stress, disappointment, fear, insecurity. . .
This week, I almost cried in front of my students.
“Dr. Smith, can I ask you a personal question?”
“I reserve the right not to answer, but yes, you may.”
“Did you get that teaching job” [referring to a tenure-track job I had recently interviewed for]
“No, I did not. They offered the position to someone else.”
Half the class exclaims, “Why??”
“Oh lots of reasons, I’m sure.”
One student replies, “I just don’t get that.”
Another student asks, “So you won’t be around to teach in the fall?”
I quickly asked to change the subject and was relieved when another student inquired whether or not I thought classes would be canceled the following day due to ice. Later that afternoon, sitting in my office, I sobbed not out of anger or frustration or stress. Instead, I cried tears of grief–grief over the loss of my identity.
I realize that sounds dramatic, perhaps melodramatic, but it’s quite accurate.
As I’ve written previously, I’ve wanted to be a professor since I was a sophomore in college. I was mentored by four amazing professors who profoundly impacted my worldview and are directly responsible for my decision to pursue graduate education. Sure, it may sound hokey, but I wanted to inspire and motivate students the way these four professors inspired and motivated me. And so my narrative began. I would earn my Ph.D., obtain employment at a small, teaching-focused, liberal arts institution, earn tenure, and spend my days reading, lecturing, discussing, engaging, leading, and inspiring.
Eight years later, I’m facing what storyteller Geoff Mead calls narrative wreckage: “a point in our lives when we realize that the familiar stories we tell about ourselves don’t make sense anymore.” That sentence leapt off the page as I read Chris Humphrey’s blog post about constructing a new narrative to tell the story of transitioning out of academia [It’s a fantastic post. Read it.].
The narrative that had been guiding my life for over a decade no longer made sense. It no longer had a happy ending. Now I must turn the page and begin anew.
Part of transitioning out of academia requires informing one’s social network. My family may not understand the idiosyncrasies of academia, but they know what tenure is and they know it’s supposed to be my reward after years of intellectual labor. My mentors are keenly aware of my status, having written countless letters of recommendation. My friends who work 8–5 desk jobs all know I have “a cushy gig” as a professor. My Facebook page says I’m a professor. I contribute to #profchat on Twitter. My hairdresser and the barista at Starbucks know I’m a professor, for goodness sakes. I’M A PROFESSOR! It’s the only job I’ve had. It’s who I am. So how exactly do I tell people I’m no longer who I am?
I could try an allegory, such as comparing my experience to a Hunger Games fight-to-the-death, as in this tongue-in-cheek (yet depressingly accurate) Chronicle of Higher Education column. Or, I can take Chris Humphrey’s advice and create a new narrative for myself:
Once you find the right story to frame your future, you’ll delight in finding yourself catching fire, and coming alive again, as you start to unlock the opportunities of a lifetime.
Now I just have to figure out what that story is.