Academic Endings

#itchytweed #quitlit #academia

I haven't always appreciated the importance of endings. As I wind down my academic career I have been thinking a lot recently about endings. The venerable 1980s self-help volume Transitions makes a big deal of endings. They're the part we're liable to overlook and not give their due. They feel unpleasant, or at least less pleasant than the excitement of thinking about what comes next. I am particularly prone to revel in the planning and, conversely, susceptible to avoiding endings, never really ending things, and letting things linger.

This goes along with the common academic problem of not knowing how to say “no,” particularly early in a career.

How do I end things? A friend relies on documentation. Write up and put a narrative to it. That makes a sort of ending. Another strategy is to shut things down methodically. I have been somewhat better about actively cutting all the threads of obligation that define my ongoing academic work. I've been telling people that there are things that I'm just not going to get to, long term projects that are not going to be completed, and academic obligations that have hung over my head which are simply not going to get done before I leave. It feels a bit like declaring academic bankruptcy.

So much of academic life is borne of a false narrative of endless continuity. This is something that feels like it is different from other fields. My wife, when she left her job, was given a few months of off-ramp to shut things down. It was a normal thing to do. People move to different companies all the time. No one stays in the same place for their whole career. A decade is a lifetime in that industry. I would like to give “two weeks notice” and, technically, legally, I can do that. But that leaves classes in the lurch, graduate students without advising and mentoring to finish their degree. I don't think I'm indispensable. Quite the opposite— the more time one spends in higher education the more one realizes how completely dispensable everyone is to the business of the university. They would gladly replace me with someone who teaches more classes for less money, regardless of intellectual mission or training. It is all about the money in the end. But in the short term it would be disruption. And as a lifelong introvert and peacemaker, disruption is the last thing I want to do.

Every ending feels like an aggressive act of disruption and violence. It makes me feel like the asshole I always tried to avoid becoming as a professor.

The problem is that the alternative is to continue to be an asshole to myself, to ignore the fact that it's ok to want to do something different. It's ok to call out higher education in general (and my specific institution) for its failure. It's ok to see the higher ed bubble and the imminent wreckage on the horizon.

It's ok to find the ends of things.