The proverbial “they” like to tell us that “the grass is always greener on the other side,” and this warning often amounts to a subtle exhortation to find contentment in your current circumstances. But sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side. This post is the first in a series about my experience teaching in various outposts and my view from both sides.
I have been teaching in higher education for the past twelve years. Like many young professors, I logged significant time “paying my dues” before landing my first full-time gig in academia. Between 2005 and 2010 I served as an adjunct at two different institutions, teaching an array of introductory courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. It was surprisingly rewarding, and truth be told, I really learned how to teach during those first five years. But, as many of my presently underemployed colleagues know all-too-well, there is no security in life as a contingent faculty member, especially when you have a family.
So I was elated when, back in 2010, I landed a full-time gig at a small college in eastern North Carolina. In August of that year, I arrived on a small bucolic campus hedged on all sides by cornfields, tobacco farms, and the distinct ethos of aggressive agribusiness. I thought it was charming. Little did I know that I was entering the sometimes intoxicating but nearly-always dysfunctional world of the small, struggling liberal arts college. My college was the only institution of higher education associated with a declining parochial denomination known as the Original Free Will Baptist Church, an amalgam of several hundred tiny congregations strewn mostly throughout North Carolina. The college boasted an enrollment of approximately 1000 traditional students and a non-traditional enrollment of nearly 4000 students in our evening and online programs. Students often came to our campus for one of three reasons.
- First, the largest percentage of our students came from the public schools in the counties surrounding the college. Many were first generation college students who did not want (or were not allowed) to wander too far from their homes. Some of these also had an affiliation with the school’s founding denomination, though that number was always significantly lower than what the administration imagined.
- Second, others came to continue their athletic careers. Tiny as we were, we boasted a full slate of Division II athletic options and several sports had achieved impressive accomplishments, including the men’s baseball team, which had won the national championship in 2008. At least a third of our traditional student body consisted of athletes, and it was not uncommon for me to teach an introductory-level course of 40 students in which at least half were scholarship athletes.
- Third, because we had such a robust offering of non-traditional options, the college had also gained a reputation in the region for being a premier option for finishing a degree “on your own time.” Our marketing department had placed billboard signs throughout the region which boasted, “One Night a Week = Your Degree!”
We also had what amounted to an open enrollment, though our president would become apoplectic if anyone used that terminology in his presence. (I’m serious. He would turn multiple shades of red.) We had to maintain some semblance of academic respectability even though we all knew it was a façade rooted in the need to pay the bills. To put it bluntly: our non-traditional programs were a cash cow. They effectively kept the lights on at the college. These factors often meant that a large percentage of our students were either not prepared academically to embark on a college education, not interested in receiving an education, too exhausted from the workday to engage in the educational process, or some combination thereof. But we continued to take their money. Our programs were expensive and the overall educational product our non-traditional students were receiving was, in my opinion, rarely worth the expense. But everything is tuition-driven in today’s world of the small liberal arts college, and without a hefty endowment we had to do what was necessary to keep afloat. (As an aside, I will say that I am exceptionally proud of the work we did in our own department with students in all three modalities. We created a program that was academically rigorous in an environment that allowed our students to find us approachable but demanding. We also sent dozens of students to some of the best graduate schools in the country, including Duke, Emory, and Claremont.)
During my six years in North Carolina, I taught somewhere between 14 and 16 classes each year while continually struggling to pay my own bills. The salaries of all the faculty members in the humanities division were significantly lower than our colleagues in the college’s business school. (I’m not kidding when I say that a professor of finance with a terminal degree and my identical rank and years of experience would literally make the equivalent of double my salary.) Practically, this meant that most of us in the humanities had to have a second job or teach as many overloads as humanly possible, just to make ends meet. My division chair used to quip, “By the overloads we survive.” Ironically, the religious studies department in which I taught boasted the lowest salaries on the entire campus. We were told by administration that this was a conscious decision based upon what “the market” estimated each academic discipline was worth. Collectively, we always thought such parsimony seemed odd for a denominational school that continually encouraged generosity from others, especially in the context of lip service to its Christian heritage. In any case, the low salaries in our department meant that most semesters I taught either five or six courses and every summer, when I was supposed to be working on my scholarship, I ended up teaching four online courses—again, just to make ends meet.
Every student in all three of our modalities—traditional seated, non-traditional seated, and online—had to have at least one course in religious studies. This meant that we had to staff a lot of courses. As a member of a small department with only four full-timers, all with different areas of expertise, I was consistently expected to teach both within and outside my sub-discipline, which meant that, while there were lots of opportunities to grow and develop in my teaching—and I’m very thankful to have been stretched as I was—there was nearly always at least one new prep. We were also encouraged by administration to engage in interdisciplinary teaching (with the implied promise that future merit raises could be contingent upon such activity; they never were). So, along with teaching in my department, I also developed and taught four different interdisciplinary courses with colleagues from other areas, including biology, psychology, and philosophy. In addition to my full teaching load, I mentored incoming freshmen, advised our majors, and served on numerous faculty committees, including two years on the faculty senate, two years on the faculty executive committee, and three years on the faculty development committee, over which I served as chair while the committee oversaw the complete overhaul of our faculty peer review procedures. During my last year at the school, I even directed the college’s honors program—a post that had a meager additional stipend, but one I nevertheless needed. (I want to be clear that I had a tremendous time working with the honors students but I likely would not have agreed to run the program apart from the promise of additional money.) Do you see a pattern here? I didn’t get into teaching for the money, but I also never expected to be thrust into an indentured servitude where I was scraping for every single dollar.
I have yet to mention that during this same period, I published two authored books, four edited books, and more than a dozen articles or chapters in various books and journals. Few of my colleagues were publishing. Some had no interest in publishing though many others found it difficult to generate original scholarship under the circumstances I have been describing. There was also an odd ethos on our campus; “expertise” did not appear to be valued. The only faculty accomplishments that were ever celebrated were those tied, in some way, to a financial boon for the college. Faculty publications and the concomitant expertise it took to produce them were relegated to the realm of ho-hum workaday world. However, largely on the basis of my research output, I was promoted to associate professor after only three years—an accomplishment which brought with it no tenure opportunities and a raise of a whopping $1000. At the end of the 2013-2014 academic year, I was voted Professor of the Year by the student body, which was perhaps the most validating moment of my six years at the school.
I was able to do all of this while struggling to maintain some version of the oft-discussed “work-life balance” that insured my wife and kids would still find me tolerable at the end of each week. I was grinding in nearly every area of my life and nearly every waking minute. But I was passionate about my subject matter and energized by the prospect of helping students learn to interact meaningfully with the world around them. By all accounts, I was one of the most popular, sought after, and “successful” professors on campus. So, it was surprising both to my wife and to colleagues in whom I confided, when, in December of 2015, I began seriously considering leaving academia altogether.
Teaching in higher education was the only career I had envisioned for myself since beginning graduate school nearly two decades earlier. Not only had I proven to be successful in measurable ways, but amidst all the turmoil, I had experienced moments of incredible satisfaction, both within and outside the classroom. But I was so burned out from the grind of doing all the “necessary things” to get by at my institution that I now found myself mired in a funk, during which the persistent and nagging question emerged: “What else can I do with my life?” I spent nearly a month earnestly contemplating a different future. I solicited colleagues at other institutions for their perspectives and wasted considerable energy trying to discover what it might take to get my real estate license. One day I had a two-hour conversation with my aunt who had, herself, happily departed academia nearly 30 years prior for her own “greener pastures.” After that conversation I was sullen, but resolved that something had to change. I would find a better job either in the academy or I would at least find a career where I wasn’t constantly struggling to make ends meet and where my personal values were shared by my institution.
Fortunately for me, in early February, I learned that I was going to have an on-campus interview at Loyola University Chicago. I tried to temper my expectations. Over the years I had been a finalist as several higher profile institutions, but nothing ever seemed to materialize. Our field is saturated with many many gifted and accomplished people. To shorten the story, I had a solid interview and Loyola eventually extended an offer. At the time I was 42, with two kids in high school and a third entering middle school. Taking the offer seemed like a no-brainer but there was angst about selling a house and making such a huge move at this stage in our family’s life. Nevertheless, we made the move and have been happily tucked away in small outpost just outside of Chicago for the past 10 months. I am not exaggerating when I say that nearly every area of my life and vocation have improved as a result of the move. In the next post I will examine why this is the case.
Postscript: I suspect that the story I have told above is shared by many in the field. I would love to hear your comments either here or on social media.