How do you say goodbye to something that you have worked most of your adult life for?
A few days ago, I quit. I walked away from my coveted tenure track position at a majour university, away from a prestigious humanities center fellowship, and away from the academy in its entirety. After one year of being an Assistant Professor, I decided I couldn't do it anymore and left.
I know how flippant that sounds, but leaving was by no means an easy decision. There was a lot about the academy that I used to love. I had some amazing students, and worked on some really great projects. But the love I had for it always felt one sided. And staying in a system that was designed from day one to exclude me, at best, was something I could only sustain for so long.
Before I keep typing, let me make it plain that my leaving the academy, nor this blog post is meant to be a sweeping condemnation of the program I worked in. I worked with some of the most passionate, smartest, and interesting people, both in terms of other faculty and students. My year on the tenure track was no harder, or no more isolating than that of many Black women in the academy. Some of the problems I had during my first year are problems I would have had, regardless of the program I was in, because it is what it is. It's the academy.
But I couldn't stay.
I left in part because honestly, it's not the life for me. Simply, the tenure track life is not a life that I want for myself, and I did not like what my year did to me. I felt diminished and isolated physically, emotionally, and in countless other ways. I did not have the energy to do the emotional labour that being a Black professor requires, especially at a PWI. The toll that this year took on me damaged my family, health, and perception of myself.
I spent a lot of time during my year telling my students to imagine themselves in places that fulfilled them and made them happy. I told them that the fundamental beginning of being the change they wanted to see was imagining it and then taking tangible steps towards their own happiness and empowerment. During those talks, I thought about myself, and although I had achieved a goal that I had worked for during the four years of my doctorate, I was not happy, nor being fulfilled by the work that I was doing. But I refused to imagine myself in something else. It could have been in part that nobody ever leaves the academy, ever. There are no models on how to get out, how to translate your skills and experiences, or how to practically enter that process. There are too many narratives that your identity is tied into what you are researching, writing, and where you are teaching. I've been bound to the academy for too long to see myself out. So I didn't imagine.
Over this summer, several things happened that shifted my view of myself. I honestly owe a great deal to the late Brook Stevenson, who not only saw so much in me, but inspired me to be my happiest self. He made me promise to seek things that made me happy, and reminded me that I deserved them. I owe an infinite amount to my partner, who supported me through the year, worried about me, and encouraged me to be honest with myself. I owe a lot to my former students, from several institutions, who checked on me and held me accountable for the lessons I taught them.
I've said in a few spaces, that while my year on the tenure track was not as damaging as the years that other Black women have experienced (my story did not make national news), it was enough to encourage me to look outside the academy for my happiness. My exodus was not wholly because of this year. This leaving has been years in the making; the "breaking straw" events just happened to happen this year. Some inside of the academy, some outside of it.
This blog is meant to be a model to give people options. I learned about my options in the Rhode Island Writer's Colony, from my friends, from my former students, from my partner. I want to be a model to help grad students turn CVs into Out-Ac jobs, and give adjuncts, lecturers, and professors options on other things they can do. I want to be honest with myself as I was with my students when I told them to imagine the things that made them happy and to actively seek after them.
I'm really serious about the imagination thing. Seriously. Imagine your perfect day. Imagine a career that would be fulfilling. Imagine not feeling degraded and dehumanized by an institution. I'm not saying that the Out-Ac life will be unicions and high fives. It will have its problems and downfalls, and issues. But it's something I'm willing to explore, and will of course, keep tabs on here. I'm out here imagining for myself and blogging it here for you. The imagining is powerful. I had several former students tell me how much that imagining changed them, saved them. Right now, in my imagining, the life I save needs to be my own.
For those interested, Professor Dresser is still going to go on. It's renamed to: Professor Dresser in Exile, and it will be my Out-Ac outfits. The website remains: professordresser.com.