Post-Ac Triggers

graphics-warning-sign-954409WARNING!  This post may trigger doubt, guilt, anxiety, and sadness.

Recently, there have been lively discussions amongst those in higher education about professors including “trigger warnings” in their syllabi and lectures to forewarn students when “sensitive” topics may be addressed.  Quite interesting, but that’s a debate for another time.  Today, I want to discuss a different type of trigger–the “post-ac trigger.”

The post-ac trigger refers to something that sets off an emotional reaction related to leaving academia.  Triggers are unique to the person and could be anything (such as seeing a particular person or hearing a certain sound).  These stimuli can inspire a cascade of complex emotions ranging from excitement and relief to anger and regret.  This is my reflection on triggers.


This morning I submitted final grades for possibly the last time.  Usually, hitting that “submit” button inspires an impromptu dance party in my living room.  This time, however, was different.  I sat solemnly, cursor hovering over the button, as I thought about what hitting “submit” means.

“Submit” means reaching the dead-end of my journey and facing immense amounts of uncertainty.

“Submit” means letting go of an identity I’ve spent nearly ten years crafting.

“Submit” means suffering an academic death.  After all, post-ac = failed academic, right?

But even more importantly, clicking “submit” means I lose contact with students.  Mentoring students was my entire motivation for pursuing a Ph.D. and now I face a future without them.

Once completed in a frenzy, I now lingered over assigning those grades, finding myself triple-checking percentages and reminiscing about the semester.  I must admit, pushing “submit” ached a little.

The past few weeks have been chock-full of triggers:

  • The invitation to the department’s “Welcome Back!” potluck in August.  My former chair must have forgotten to remove me from the department listserve.
  • The e-mail from the Associate Provost asking if I’d like to participate in freshmen convocation again this year.  Mental note: don’t forget to send my regrets.
  • The stream of calendar alerts for the fall semester faculty meetings.  I really need to ask someone to remove me from the faculty listserve…
  • Students asking to “friend” me on Facebook.  One student said, “since you won’t be teaching anymore, I want to be able to stay in touch in case I need you.”  A little intense, but it’s still nice to be needed.
  • Registration reminders for the conference I’ve attended annually for the past 8 years.  This has been the only opportunity for me to reunite with old friends who are scattered across the country.  Now I guess we’ll have to be satisfied with e-mails and Facebook posts.
  • A colleague asking for the syllabus and reading list of a class I designed from scratch.  No!  You can’t have it!  That class is a prized possession.  Now someone else will be teaching it.
  • Facebook posts about friends and colleagues having successful third year reviews, being granted tenure, or moving to more prestigious institutions.  I’ll admit, I’m wicked envious.
  • Student emails and tweets thanking me for the semester.  One student wrote, “I think you’re the best kind of teacher.  You really, really taught us–in ways that the knowledge will stick. There’s something rare about you.”  I wept for 10 minutes after reading this.

If I wasn’t leaving academia, these events would make me feel good, or not even elicit an emotional response.

“Ugh, more meetings.”
“Sure, I’ll participate in convocation.”
“What will I take to the potluck this year?”
“Aww, that student email was super sweet.”

But knowing that my days as a professor are numbered adds a different layer of meaning, inspiring doleful rumination and grumpiness.

This week I must write my official resignation letter and graduation is on Saturday, so I may have to revisit this theme again.

What are your triggers?

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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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4 Responses to Post-Ac Triggers

  1. The issue of identity seems to be a powerful hinder to development. Developing a narrative for replacing “I am a X.ist” for “I am a competent problem solver with experience in X, Y and Z” takes time, effort, wisdom and a lot of tears. Good luck!

    • pastprof says:

      Thank you for reading my post and for your supportive comment. I agree that such an identity “crisis” really does hinder self-development and moving forward. I like your recommendation to shift one’s thinking from seeing oneself as a role to a person with a set of valuable skills and experience. Thanks again!

  2. jarretr says:

    Just found your blog via #Altac on Twitter. This is a wonderful post that hit home. I jumped ship this year after getting a history PhD in 2012, and I’ve just started working as a contract consultant. I still get to talk about history by blogging (http://thatdevilhistory.wordpress.com/), but the triggers hit me this week in the form of endless Facebook posts in which my former history acquaintances yucked it up at conferences.

    These triggers remind me that if I’m not a full-time prof who writes articles that only those in-crowd people at conference will read, I’m not really still a historian (at least in terms of how academic culture defines the term). That said, making actual money is a powerful way to lessoning the impact of those triggers and, besides, I never liked teaching all that much anyway 😉 Love your blog. Best of luck to you in your transition!

    • pastprof says:

      Thank you so much for your kind feedback! There’s definitely a perception that if you have a PhD but leave academia, you’re a failed scholar. It’s like being stripped of your club membership. I’ve had academics tell me what a shame it is that I “won’t be a scholar anymore” as if the only way I can do research & contribute to the academy is from within.

      It sounds like you’re enjoying your “new life,” as am I, so to heck with ’em! 😉 In my mind, we may be able to contribute in more meaningful ways from the outside. I had a hell of a time publishing in traditional journals, but now I’m looking at blogging, mainstream press, and open access journals. I feel we can reach more people that way, as opposed to the ten academics who read a journal article.

      Very best wishes to you and I look forward to reading your blog!

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