Thursday, September 20, 2012

The day I decided to leave academia

It was April 2009. Below is a re-draft of what I wrote. Has anything changed in terms of support of faculty with families in the intervening three years? Our lives have settled considerably, and I'd love to go back, but for a different reason and with a different purpose.

I've officially decided to leave academia. It's not because of autism or anything like that, although there are factors of autism involved. At the university where I currently teach, I've requested schedules that fit into the needs of our family life. As I've blogged here, TH cannot--or at least, we will not let him--ride the bus. It's too much unstructured time. To hear other children tell it, he's a giant in a fairy tale, bent on malevolence, blackening and bruising. The reality is, of course, different.

As it happens, I'm available to teach between a specific set of hours spanning six hours of each day. Otherwise, I work at home, planning and grading and writing class notes, reviews, and tests, corresponding with my students until midnight each night. I can't get to campus earlier because I take my three young children to school. I can't leave later because that would mean doing again what we did this semester: having my near-octogenarian father-in-law pick up our two older sons two days each week and drive them home. That's a semester-long commitment and a major imposition, among other things. We will not put them in after-school care because it's an unstructured free-for-all in the charge of young people who don't look old enough to drive. It's like the bus except bigger and less protected.

This semester, I was as clear as I could be about those six daily hours that would be best. And once again, I received a class that ran beyond the school pickup time. I can't ask my in-laws to once again commit to an entire semester of after-school pickups, and not just because I'm reluctant to ask people for that kind of commitment. There are other, very good reasons. And my husband's job does not allow the necessary flexibility, and it would be a 15-mile round trip for him as it is.

The frustrating thing for me is seeing that other people--adjuncts, older faculty with either no children at all or grown children--get time slots, sometimes just an hour earlier, that would make this all fit. There is, of course, a sense of place about these things. When you're long-time tenured faculty, you get the class times you want. I can't fight that tide. I've done what I could as courteously and straightforwardly as I could, and it just hasn't worked.

I'm a great teacher. That's immodest, I know, but it's simply one of the things I do best. It's not just that my students and faculty reviewers consistently give me extremely high rankings. It's what they say, both in the Likert scale responses and in their own comments. Students say, "Makes me think." "Opens my mind to new ideas." "Difficult, but worth it." "Tough, but fair." In other words, they don't like my class because it's a cakewalk. They like it because it's interesting to them, and they learn. Both students and faculty reviewers say quite often--to the point that I'm afraid someone's going to think I'm suggesting it--"Give Dr. Willingham a raise!" And much of this from students who come into the physics/chemistry/biology course I teach as nonmajors who think they loathe science and can't "do it." They find that they can.
So, I say goodbye to teaching and to academia. I don't see an avenue to returning. Luckily, I'm a woman of many pursuits, among them long-time work telecommuting as a scientific editor and writer. I'll continue that. I have a book contract for a biology book I'm writing. I'm working on other book contracts. My goal is to work from home in a way that I can fold my work hours around my parenting hours, spend my time with my children as they and I please and as we need. In a way, I'm looking forward to finally not having to worry with each semester whether or not I'll have a schedule that fits our family's needs. On the other hand, two nights ago, I had a dream that I was forced by fiscal exigencies to take a job at Stein Mart.

And I truly also see it this way. Yes, I'm walking away from a 4/4 load teaching the same class again and again, teaching 100 students or so a semester, changing the world one neuron at a time. But I'm turning more fully to teaching my 24-7 load, teaching many different things in many different ways to three students who live with me, changing or reinforcing or promoting their growth one neuron at a time, many many nuerons at a time.

I can think of no better teaching challenge than that.

1 comment:

  1. I am so mad at your department for not getting it and wasting their opportunity to have a fantastic instructor. I hope you can make your self-employment work; it looks promising, based on the amount of non-academic projects you already have. Your kids will be lucky to have you around more, too.

    Your story reminded me of your counterpart at my last uni. (I hope she's still there, two years after I left.) The department kept laying her off to make a political point about the budget, then hiring her back after the administration found some more funds under the couch cushions. One of these years, she'll find a position elsewhere before they magically find the money to hire her back.