Paul L. Caron

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Tenured, Trapped, And Miserable

Following up on my previous post, Why I Am Leaving My Tenured Faculty Position At Age 53:  Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed:  Tenured, Trapped, and Miserable in the Humanities, by William Pannapacker (Hope College):

Why are so many tenured professors unhappy with their jobs yet unable to change careers?

Is the chronic morale problem in the humanities — and many allied fields — attributable to tenured professors feeling trapped in positions they no longer want?

Earlier this fall, I wrote about my decision to go on leave (from my tenured post at a midwestern liberal-arts college where I’ve worked for 21 years) in order to write, retrain, and look for new career opportunities in Chicago. The many responses that column received emphasized two themes: how unhappy many professors are (even the lucky ones with tenure), and how those professors feel unable to change their circumstances.

I raised this issue in a recent survey on Twitter: “What makes it so hard to leave academe?” Nearly 200 responses from a self-selected group are not solid data, of course, but they are suggestive and worth reflecting upon:

  • More than 20 percent chose the sunk-cost problem: “I’ve invested so much.” You spend perhaps a decade in graduate school, probably accumulate substantial debt, and lose all those years that could have been spent gaining more transferable job-related skills and experience.
  • Almost 25 percent chose the “It’s my identity” option. In many ways higher education is a total culture — some would say it’s a cult — and leaving it, especially after the many years and personal sacrifices it takes to earn a doctorate, can involve a substantial reframing of your sense of self. “Who am I, if I am not an academic?”
  • The largest number of responses, nearly 45 percent, selected “What else can I do?” In other words, the process of becoming an academic typically involves narrowing one’s options rather than broadening them. I do not mean that the work itself must be limiting. In my case, I grew from being a specialist into a generalist and have held a series of leadership roles that could rival any of my generational peers who went into the corporate world. The challenge, for me, among others in my profession, was imagining that we could be valued outside of the academy.
  • Perhaps the most-telling response: Not even 10 percent said they stay in academe because “My work matters.” What does it mean that such a small percentage of its practitioners feel that way about their work — especially in the humanities, where passionate engagement, not to say love, are exalted as the sine qua non of the profession? ...

In a time of financial exigency and eroded faculty governance, the elusive “brass ring” of tenure offers less protection from arbitrary dismissal than most civil-service jobs, but it also locks professors into positions that many no longer want and some do little to deserve. One consequence is that personal misery is structural in the humanistic disciplines: feeling both entitled and powerless is one of the foundations of its culture of grievance, outrage, and despair.

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