You’re Not Just Leaving Academe, You’re Leaving Your Students

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By Erin Bartram

Ending an academic career — especially when you didn’t particularly want to — is like solving a really complicated puzzle made up of intertwined intellectual, emotional, and practical pieces. The pieces that often get the least attention: how to leave your students and your teaching behind.

Some of the dynamics involved here are similar to those faced by anyone ­— graduate student, contingent instructor, tenure-track professor — who leaves one institution to teach at another. But leaving academe permanently means something different, and the fallout is worth considering. What is the impact of your permanent departure on undergraduates? And whose responsibility it is to acknowledge and manage that impact? Too often the responsibility seems to fall solely on the person leaving.

Ever since I made the decision to end my search for a tenure-track job and transition into a nonacademic career, I’ve been tackling these issues. I’ve been in my present non-tenure-track position for three years — teaching a load comparable to, or greater than, that of a tenure-track assistant professor. To my students, that means I’m the same as a tenure-track faculty member, as least as far as they’re concerned.

Like many departments in this age of labor casualization, mine has gone out of its way to emphasize that I and my fellow non-tenure-trackers are just as much members of "the faculty" as the tenured folks. And that can be a good thing.

However, in some pretty significant ways, we are not actually part of the faculty. So when it comes time for us to leave, there’s no way for departing scholars or our students to ignore that fact, even if our tenure-track colleagues and our institution as a whole choose to. Both administrators and permanent professors should consider the ways that ignoring the problem makes things worse for students after their favorite (contingent) faculty member is gone.

I have often heard it asserted that undergraduates don’t understand the difference between an adjunct and an associate professor. Usually that assertion is part of a larger argument against even acknowledging the many differences in faculty rank and status to students.

The truth is that many students already understand. They understand that:

  • All of their professors might have Ph.D.s, but some of them don’t have offices.
  • All of their professors do research, but some of them can’t supervise a graduate thesis.
  • Some of their professors will always be there on the campus, and some will disappear forever. And who stays and who goes has little connection to how good those professors are at the one aspect of faculty work that students actually care about: teaching.

Those things matter because — however much academe treats non-tenure-track faculty members as interchangeable — students simply don’t experience us that way. Even at large universities, or when trying to "get through" general-education requirements, they don’t just pick courses, they pick (or avoid) specific faculty members. Students make those decisions based on online reviews and recommendations from friends, or choose to take further classes with an instructor whose teaching methods they liked.

Moreover, connections between students and teachers stretch beyond the classroom in ways that profoundly shape student success.

So the permanent departure of a non-tenure-track instructor means there are practical things to think about in the short term that have real implications for our students: When does our contract with the university officially end? When will our access to university email be cut off? What about access to the course-management system? To the library? To the grading system? To our office, if we have one? When those dates aren’t in sync, don’t proceed in a logical manner, or come much earlier than expected, we may not be able to complete our teaching duties.

We can do everything in our power to get things squared away before our contract ends, but students have emergencies. They miss final exams, take incompletes, and may not be in a place to finish the course while their professor is still working as a faculty member. It’s important for department chairs and permanent professors to know the details of a faculty member’s departure so that they can respond appropriately to panicked students whose emails to the ex-professor keep getting bounced back. But it’s also important because sorting these things out might eventually become the department’s problem.

As contingent academics, we already do a lot of unpaid labor — for example, the hours and hours spent preparing courses before the semester even begins. For the institution, it’s worth considering how much work is appropriate to ask us to do after the end of our contract, and for how long. If campus policies are effectively shoving non-tenure-track faculty members out the door and cutting off our access before we’ve even finished grading, the tenured professors can lobby for changes, but only if they’re aware of the need.

Beyond the logistics, the other complicated aspects of quitting the college classroom verge on the personal.

Many of us feel that we should share our personal contact information with our students, especially if we know that our campus email privileges will be swiftly revoked, and we aren’t moving to another institution. Obviously no departing faculty member should feel obliged to do that, but if you do, it’s important to think about why students want that information.

One reason: So you can serve as an academic reference for them in the future. It’s important to talk with your former students about what you can realistically provide for them going forward. Graduate students and non-tenure-track instructors already explain that our recommendation letter carries less weight than one from a tenure-track professor if ours is accepted at all. Once we’ve left academe for good, our word is worth even less — on, say, a student’s application to grad school — no matter how well we knew the student. It’s important to be upfront with students about that.

Such conversations can be baffling to students and painful to the departing faculty member.

If you decide to tell students that you’re leaving academe, you will face the inevitable questions about why, and what you plan to do next. You may have made your decision to leave months earlier, but explaining it now — even if you think you have come to terms with it — can be stressful. Your students’ reactions may well bring up emotions you thought you’d dealt with.

This is also a situation where bureaucratic slip-ups — endemic in large institutions especially — can make things worse. Say, for example, that the registrar or the bookstore uses software that automatically populates the next semester’s courses with the names of the faculty members who most recently taught them. A departing scholar can find herself forced to explain to eager students that no, she won’t be teaching here next semester, and no, she isn’t going to be a professor anymore, and yes, she wishes things were different.

When you tell them you’re leaving, students may tell you how they’d hoped to take such-and-such course with you next year, or how they always thought you’d advise their honors thesis when they were seniors. They may cry and get upset and ask you to stay or at least not give up on the career itself.

And when any of these students persist in asking why you can’t just keep trying, it’s OK to be blunt and tell them exactly why. You don’t need to give a multipoint analysis of the dismal faculty-job market, but you shouldn’t feel that you have to downplay what has happened to you.

It can be hard to bear the emotional weight of their reactions along with your own. Think about that as you approach how and when to tell your students about your departure.

At the same time, it can also be remarkably liberating to have someone hear what has happened and respond with an honest "That really sucks!"

Erin Bartram is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Hartford. She is writing about her career transition out of academe. Her website is Erinbartram.com and you can find her on Twitter @erin_bartram .

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