Out of the Wreckage, A New Narrative

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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.

About pastprof

Recovering academic. Starting a new adventure as a college instructional technologist. Ph.D. in Communication & Information. Reside in the lovely Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
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6 Responses to Out of the Wreckage, A New Narrative

  1. Chris Humphrey says:

    Reblogged this on Jobs on Toast and commented:
    This great post from Past Prof is a very personal reflection on employment, storytelling and the transition out of academia. This is the first in a series of reblogs, where I’ll share outstanding posts from other bloggers on my blog Jobs on Toast.

  2. jdjplocher says:

    I’m still wrestling with many of the same issues a year after my decision to “get out.” In some ways, my decision was easier–I hadn’t been adjuncting long and only recently replaced ABD with PhD. On the other hand, I’d slogged my way through my program while raising two kids and thus completed it as my peers from undergrad were moving into management positions.

    When I started my own blog six months ago, I thought I was “over” leaving academia. As I’ve struggled with relocation and the (nonacademic) job market, I’ve realized just how persistent the problem of rebuilding an identity can be. I still haven’t come up with my next story, but I’m working on it.

    • pastprof says:

      Thanks so much for visiting my blog and sharing a bit of your story with me. This is a new venture so I appreciate you taking the time to contribute. You note that you still struggle with your decision to leave academia, and I wonder if we’ll ever be completely “over it.” For many PhD’s (especially those who sought the degree to become a professor), our sense of self is so tied to being a professor and securing that tenure-track job. We’re socialized as grad students to set our sights on that goal and nothing else. I also was mentored by three amazing professors when I was an undergraduate student and they almost groomed me to join the professoriate. So this has been my goal since I was 20. To give it up is just gut-wrenching. Thus, I’m not sure if there will ever be a day I can say, “that’s not me anymore” or “that’s not part of how I see myself.” I am very excited to start this new adventure, but also terrified I’ve made a VERY big mistake. We shall see!

      Since writing this post, I’ve been struggling to compose a new narrative and I haven’t had much success. But as difficult as it has been, I do find it exciting to re-imagine my future and my identity, like a phoenix rising from the ash of academia! Ha!

      Best wishes on your journey. I intend to continue writing about my own, so please visit again. I look forward to perusing your blog!

      Take care, Jessica

  3. Pingback: Reconstructing Narrative | Walking Ledges

  4. This really hit home for me, and you make a great point: redefining your narrative is key. One thing I did was tell my story as a problem with higher ed rather than a problem with me. “I left academe because universities have made a mess of higher ed. They’ve lost sight of their real purpose (education) and engage in exploitative labor practices. I didn’t want to be part of it.” When I initially quit, I also used to joke that I’d “retired.” 🙂

    • pastprof says:

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting on my post!

      That’s a really great way to frame a post-academic narrative. I agree with you wholeheartedly–academia has changed so much just in the past ten years and each semester I think “wow, it’s getting worse. This is not what I anticipated.” What has been most discouraging is how much tenured and tenure-track profs are benefitting from the labor of contingent faculty. They claim to be supportive and concerned about our treatment, but most don’t actually advocate for improving the working conditions of adjuncts.

      More and more, I’m altering my narrative to take the blame off myself and instead move responsibility to the larger institution of academia. It’s been hard; I still sometimes have “woulda coulda” thoughts. But, really, there’s nothing I could have done given my circumstances.

      I’m still trying to figure out my new narrative. It’s been a struggle to separate my identity from academia. But each day, it gets easier.

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