Breaking up is hard to do

For those of us olds, the title of this blog post will likely harken back to a title of an old song%. I landed on this title because it seems apt, and if the handful of people I’ve talked with the last couple of weeks alongside my own thinking is any indication, the time seems right to directly address letting go and changing directions in your (academic) career.

Since the middle of the pandemic, popular press stories have been everywhere about people re-evaluating their lives. Often framed as the big quit or the great resignation, stories abound of people prioritizing their lives over their jobs and finding jobs that have better working conditions and more fulfillment. Academia is not immune to these movements of people leaving  even tenured positions . And the state of support positions in higher ed is even more dire.

Even for those of us in higher education that haven’t specifically thought about leaving, there seems to have been a reckoning of sorts where people are considering their work and their lives in ways that they haven’t before. A consistent theme in many blog posts I wrote for #womeninTC had to do with finding a balance in our lives, not falling into the over production trap, and considering ways to make our work align with what we value. These issues are even more important now as we transition * into a different normal still dealing with all the “regular” parts of the job, a remaining pandemic, and the exhaustion and stress of the last two years.

It’s hard being truly reflective and reflexive in regard to our work lives. That’s always been one of the great benefits of being in higher education. We can choose much of what we want to do with our work lives. From research schools to teaching schools and from tenure track to full time non tenure track positions, there is space to determine where you want to focus your time and energy. For example, when I agreed to step into the role of interim chair, I made that decision simultaneously with stepping down and stepping back from every other service obligation (except one). I had to. Being interim chair meant that  I would not have time to devote to other things. I needed to find ways to maintain a balance in my life while taking on a different work role. That decision was not easy on any level. There were many things that I found great joy and value in that I simply no longer had the time to do.

I’m in a similar situation now as I start to reconsider what academic work life will look like when I am no longer chair#. This reflective work of my own has been mirrored in a host of conversations I have had recently–with early career scholars, grad students (at my own institution and other locations), those just a year or so post tenure, and a couple of folks in the same space as me (some 15 years into the career). There is a common thread in all of these conversations that deal with where to focus your time and where to put your energy. Of course, those threads directly intersect with how we see ourselves as teachers and scholars, which of course intersects with the scholarship we keep up with and the conferences we want to attend.

A common interview question (at the stages beyond the first interview) is to ask someone what do they see as their home conference? The point of this question is to get the candidate to reflect and describe why that particular conference feels like home cause it sheds important insights into how the candidate may see themselves as a teacher and a scholar.

But I think we often forget that we can try on conferences (in the early stages of our career) until we find one that feels more like “home” and we can most definitely change our homes as we progress through a career. That progression and change can be hard. It can feel like a breakup where your emotional and mental investment causes deep questions and deep doubt—about everything.

Just like a breakup with an intimate partner or friend, “breaking up” with or moving on from part of your research or your teaching focus or with other versions of yourself as a teacher/scholar causes all the same sorts of emotions. We need to be generous to ourselves as we consider questions of focus and next steps because the reflective work and ultimate decision making is not at all easy. But sometimes a breakup is the exact thing we need to refind our own joy and recenter parts of ourselves that have been set aside.

So if you’re thinking about breaking up with part of your work self, I offer four things for your consideration.

Start with you

Go back to some central questions: What is it about this job that drew you in the first place? What were you working on or doing in your role as faculty when you last felt satisfied? Are you doing things that you thought you needed to do rather than wanted to (even if they don’t align with your own goals and your institution’s criteria for tenure, promotion, and annual evaluation)? Are there current commitments that you can let go of? How do you envision life as faculty if you had complete control over it?; then work backward to see how you can potentially make parts (or all) of that happen? What type of support do you need from those in your work and personal life to make change happen?

Make a plan

As many of you know, I make all sorts of plans. So make a plan that has reasonable milestones and parts that you can implement incrementally. By hitting milestones, you can see the pay off of the hard work of making a change. Realistic plans are essential. It’s great to have the lofty end goal, but you need concrete, actionable, realistic steps in between to be able to ever get to where you want to be.

Accept setbacks

Changing directions or focus is never easy. And human nature means that self doubt will likely creep in. Not to mention, making a change means that there will be moments where you may get push back (from yourself, others, and when you may not be successful in finding initial support). But if you go into the plan knowing there may be difficulties, then these setbacks will be easier to move beyond, especially if you maintain a strong support system.

Embrace the experience

There aren’t many jobs that allow someone to completely reinvent themselves while still staying in the same job. Embracing the entire experience—the lows and highs and everything in between hopefully will show that the decision is a good one. In one of the conversations I’ve had, the person has made it through all the stages of the breakup and is wholly to the point of embracing the experience of change in both teaching and research. I have been encouraged and emboldened by her experience.

The work I will be doing when I return to faculty will look different than the work I have done up to this point. Will it be related? Yes. But there is a fundamental shift taking place in my thinking.  As I plan forward, what that will look like in the scholarship I produce, the journals I publish in, and the conferences I attend will be different. I still enjoy, and am grateful for, this job. I still see myself as both a practicing technical communicator (in the world and in higher ed) and health communication specialist. I still enjoy teaching and watching when that aha moment lights up the student and the classroom. I’m still working through these steps myself, and I am anticipating the setbacks and doubt. I am also embracing the change and the excitement that it will bring with it. I am looking forward to meeting new people and creating new ideas and doing different things.

But, it’s also gonna be another transition that brings with it difficult decisions and hard days of emotional and mental stress. Breaking up is hard, but sometimes it’s the exact thing we need to find where we truly need to go.

What’s that song song say, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”? &

Wishing you health, peace, and joy.


% Written by Howard Greenfield / Neil Sedaka

*Not enough space or time or inclination to really write about the pandemic and higher education. And I live and work in FL, which is its own thing. Just openly acknowledging the complexity of the situation and the fact that we’re still in, yet not, a pandemic.

# August 4, 2023, which is 327 days from now…no I’m not really counting. The Internet calculated that for me, though I had jokes to someone a few days ago that likely come the start of 2023 I would start counting down. For those who have not sat in a chair seat—particularly one in a big, messy English department—there is no adequate way of explaining it. I took on the role with an insistence I would do the best job I could, but also a reluctance. I knew it would be hard. It has been. I knew it would take a ton of time. It has done that as well. But it also been rewarding and enjoyable in ways I couldn’t have anticipated and ways that I never would have. I’ll definitely write more about it at another time, but it’s important to note that while jokes abound about being chair—and I have made them myself—it’s not a terrible job, particularly when you know what to expect about it and have the training and support to do the things you’re asked to do. It’s important to acknowledge the good parts.

& Closing Time (writing by Dan Wilson, made famous by Semisonic)