Crossroads: When Old Roles Pinch and Bind

The other day at the grocery store, I ran into a former student.  She greeted me with a smile and told me how much my history course had meant to her. “Your class opened my eyes to so many things,” she said. “I’ve been studying history ever since.” At least once a week, I see a former student in town or receive an email or a Facebook message from one of them, and they tell me what a difference I have made in their lives. “You helped me understand why so many things in our world today are the way they are,” they say. “You revealed how my ancestors struggled for justice.” “You showed me the obstacles that generations of women overcame so that I can have the opportunities I have.” “You sparked my interest in what’s going on in the political realm.” “You made me see that what happens in Washington shapes my daily life and that I had better pay attention.” “Thanks to your class, I know that history is made by everyone, even people like me.”

I treasure every one of these conversations. This is precisely the kind of impact I had hoped to make when I entered college teaching twenty years ago. Recently I unearthed a file containing notes for a personal mission statement that I composed the summer before I began teaching. My mission, I had written, was:

·         To help a new generation come to terms with the ambiguities of modern life through a better understanding of the past.

·         To help people connect with our shared past.

·         To work for social justice not only through my own volunteerism but by making my students aware of injustices.

·         To illuminate connections between the past and the present for students and for people outside of academia.

Through my teaching, my speaking to community groups, and my research and writing, I have been able to reach all these goals. But now I have decided to leave my work as a college professor behind. 

I’m not alone.  A lot of people are leaving academia these days, and they are writing about their reasons. In fact, a whole genre in the higher education press has come to be called “quit lit” (click here for a link to a list of some recent examples.) People cite a lot of reasons for leaving academia. Many are stuck on the adjunct track and despair of ever gaining a tenure track job that pays a living wage, but others are like me—ensconced in prized tenured or tenure-track positions that offer long-term job security and a fair bit of autonomy.

One quit lit piece from someone in my own field of history was from Oliver Lee Bateman, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington. Bateman decided to leave to leave his tenure-track job behind for several reasons.  He had grown weary of peers who sniped at each other relentlessly. He was disillusioned with the cut-throat nature of institutional politics. He found that many in the academy did not value his efforts to make the results of his scholarship accessible to a broader public. He believed that most of his students were unprepared and unmotivated—indeed that many of them had no business attending college in the first place. Finally, because of mandates that non-educators increasingly impose on the college classroom, Bateman concluded that the much vaunted autonomy of college professors was illusory at best.

Bateman reveals a few of academia’s dirty secrets, particularly the pettiness of peer relationships in some institutions and the way that mandates from administrators, accreditors, and even politicians undermine the autonomy of college professors. Another dirty little secret is that institutions relentlessly exploit adjunct faculty members, eliminating tenure track positions so that they can pay adjuncts as little as $2,000 a course, a practice that hurts students and faculty alike.

While I share some of Bateman’s concerns about the direction of higher education these days, for the most part, I have loved my career. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve also been extremely fortunate.  I landed at exactly the type of institution I aimed for when I went to graduate school—a small college with a deep commitment to the transformative power of the liberal arts—an institution like the one I attended as an undergraduate. I advanced to a full professorship with a named chair.  I’ve been an active scholar with many books and articles to my credit. I enjoy a high level of independence in ordering my work day, setting my teaching schedule, and designing my curriculum. Some of my students are, like Bateman’s, unmotivated and poorly prepared, but most are hard workers who experience profound growth through their encounter with the liberal arts, and they are a pleasure to teach. I develop ongoing relationships with students; I count many of them as my friends today. I love my teaching; I’m good at it, and my institution has recognized that with teaching awards. I genuinely like most of my colleagues and my administrative bosses, and I have found them mostly supportive of both my scholarly and public history efforts.

So why am I leaving? One reason is burn-out. I’ve written elsewhere about how academia, with its focus on enrollment numbers and a steady record of scholarly productivity, can turn one into a compulsive workaholic, piling up accomplishments to add to the c.v.(resume) as quickly as humanly possible.  I’ve also written about the way a small college, chronically short of human and financial resources, can make relentless demands on committed faculty members.  It can be hard to draw boundaries and make them stick. Or at least it was hard for me, a person who located so much of my identity in my work. 

But burnout is only part of the story. The biggest reason I’m leaving my job as a faculty member is because it’s not the best fit any more. In his book, Transitions:  Making Sense of Life’s Changes, English professor turned transition coach William Bridges says that life transitions often begin with “the discovery that roles and relationships [are] starting to pinch and bind.” (36) That statement resonated with me.

For the last few years, many aspects of my life as a college professor were starting to pinch and bind. I no longer felt engaged with my academic research. Teaching was still fun because it brought me into contact with my students, but I was less engaged with my subject matter than before. In fact, the content of my courses often felt like an endless recitation of examples of man’s inhumanity to man, and teaching history began to challenge my faith in the future. My work no longer centered me.


This is not the first time I have felt this way about a career. My first career after college was in  institutional advancement:  alumni relations, communications, and fund-raising. I had worked in the development office as a work-study student, and upon graduation, unable to find a secondary history teaching job, I fell into a position in communications at my alma mater. One job led to another as I gained skills and experience in the field. Initially I enjoyed this work, but over the years, I found my interests moving in different directions.

In my late twenties, I floundered as I searched for a new direction. I started an MBA, but I discovered that I viewed the world in ways that were profoundly different than those of my fellow students. The content of business courses felt alien to me; the questions the courses engaged were not questions that interested me.

I switched to a master’s program in training and development. In my alumni relations role, I had organized several professional development programs for alumni, so I thought perhaps I could channel my interest in teaching into designing professional development programs. I was about halfway through that program when I had a sudden epiphany.  Driving home in a blinding rain on a cold December evening after hours spent working with my classmates on a group project, I suddenly thought, “What the hell am I doing this for? I know what I really want to do. I want to teach history at the college level.” Finally sure of my direction, I quit my job and pursued a Ph.D. in American and women’s history.


Now, more than twenty years later, I found myself feeling the same vague feelings of discontent. Efforts to revitalize my interest by teaching new courses and taking on new quasi-administrative roles did not restore my spark for the work. I floundered for a couple of years.

I plunged into soul-searching. I read books about finding life’s purpose. I read books about middle age. I talked to people about their work and their own life paths. I saw a therapist. I worked with a life coach. Mostly I remained curious. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert has said that “Curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it’s a very gentle friend, and a veryforgiving friend, and a very constant one.” I stopped beating myself up for my flagging interest in the historical profession and tuned into my curiousity. I gave myself permission to pursue other things that interest me. I read more novels. I listened to podcasts about everything from the creative process to the causes of poverty to meditation.

As I explored my feelings about my work and other avenues I might pursue, I kept returning to one fact: my most meaningful work has become my one-on-one work with students and colleagues. Whether it was helping a student learn to become a better researcher or writer, coaching her on finding her own career path, helping her grapple with the complex ways that the things she was learning in college were changing her worldview, or guiding a colleague struggling to navigate institutional politics, I loved the time I spent helping people find their way in the world.  

And so I have taken a leap again. I enrolled in a coaching training program, one rooted in the values and principles of positive psychology. I began developing a personal and career coaching practice. And this year will be my last year as a college professor.

A couple of people have asked me if this is a scary move. You bet it is. But it also feels right. 

What about you? At some point, have you reached similar crossroads in your own life where the old roles began to “pinch and bind”? Did you make a change? What did your altered path look like?

Photo ©Chuck Reback 2014, all rights reserved