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Moving On

I somewhat inadvertently made a big announcement via Twitter last night, and in so doing, as my friend Julie pointed out, sorta buried the lede. So here’s the story, a bit better presented:

Effective the end of this academic year, I’ve resigned my professorship at Pomona College.

This came out last night when @atrubek tweeted a query, seeking professors who’ve given up tenure. My friend @wynkenhimself mentioned me in response, but noted that she wasn’t sure if I was on leave or not. So I clarified.

In fact, I resigned a couple of weeks ago (the day Sandy hit, to be precise, but that’s another story), though I’d made the decision a while before. It wasn’t an easy choice to make — and it was even harder to communicate — but I’m convinced that it was the right one.

I was promoted to full professor at Pomona in Spring 2010, and so was pretty much set. I had amazing students, fabulous colleagues, a fantastic environment, and all the support I needed. I had a low teaching load in a dynamic, exciting department, and I was able to do roughly what I wanted within it. I could very easily have retired from Pomona, some years hence, and have been more or less perfectly happy.

But then this opportunity came along, to take the things I’d been imagining and help make them happen, to take the things I’d been trying on a small scale and test them out on a much, much larger one. That opportunity, however, required a bit of risk; risk somewhat carefully managed, to be sure — Pomona generously offered me a two-year leave of absence in order to test the waters — but risk nonetheless. I knew that at some moment, if I took this path, I was likely to have to consider what it would mean to give up tenure.

When the opportunity first floated my way about a year and a half ago, I found myself a bit overwhelmed by the implications of the choice. Tenure is, after all, the brass ring of academia, the thing so many of us put so much energy into getting — and I had it, right in my hand. Not just tenure, but a reasonably cushy, reasonably compensated full professorship at a top institution. And what I was being offered was extremely compelling, but it bore some significant risks. How do you even begin to ponder the pros-and-cons list that helps you make a decision like this?

I called a friend, who sat down with me and listened to my story. This was a friend who’d recently left the tenure track, for a very different set of reasons, but who nonetheless knew what it all meant. And I sketched out the possibilities for her, and asked where to start. What things should I be thinking about?

And she looked at me and said, “I don’t know. Do you want to change the world?”

And I think the choice was sealed, right there.

This is of course not to say that one can’t change the world from inside the protections of tenure. But I do think that those protections often encourage a certain kind of caution — certainly in the process of obtaining them, and frequently continuing long after — that works against the kinds of calculated risk that a chance like this requires.

So I’ve done the calculation, and I’ve taken the leap. And so far, it’s been absolutely exhilarating. Working with my wonderful colleagues at the MLA has been an important growth experience, and it continues to teach me new things. And it’s allowed me to focus on the aspects of my work that have always been about outreach. We’ve accomplished a lot here in the last year-plus, but there’s so much more left to be done; I’m thrilled to have the chance — and to be able to take the chance — to do it.

My somewhat subterranean announcement last night — or at least so I thought it — produced a pretty astonishing response, an overflow of cheers and congratulations rippling out from the friends who follow both me and @atrubek to others who saw those tweets and offered their good wishes, too. It was a lovely moment of confirmation that I’ve done the right thing, and a vote of confidence in a future filled with productive risk.

I will miss Pomona tremendously, and my many wonderful colleagues there. But I look forward to seeing what comes next — and honestly, not knowing may well be the best part.


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