I will be 67 in July. Most college professors (at least on my campus and among the ones I know elsewhere) do not retire that young. Seriously thinking about retirement at 70—and often taking a year or two past that to pull the trigger—seems the norm.
I make a very good salary and have a research fund that pays for books and travel to conferences. My students—god bless their cheerful hearts and inquiring minds—still seem to buy what I have to offer, even though I feel embarrassingly ancient as I stand before them. I can avoid almost all the tedious committee work in my department and around the university because I am not a “player” anymore. I cannot avoid the increasingly onerous paperwork, the endless forms and surveys required of us.
So why retire? My job is not terribly difficult, and often very rewarding. I still love the students (without reservation)—and my colleagues (in suitable doses).
For starters, I am tired. I don’t work anywhere near as hard as I did fifteen, even ten, years ago. I feel like I was a .290 lifetime hitter, with a few peak years at .310, and now I am batting .230. It’s time to hang up my spikes, even though the club would keep me on indefinitely as a veteran presence. He used to be something, so we tolerate him hanging around. Giving less than my best feels cheapening, even fraudulent. Better to walk away.
The tiredness manifests itself in various ways. In the past, I was constantly changing the courses I taught, the books I had students read. In the past five years, I have found myself stumped as to what to teach—and have resorted to recycling old standards.
When I had a year at the National Humanities Center two years back, I discovered that I didn’t want to write scholarly prose anymore. I simply wasn’t going to do the homework necessary. As any reader of this blog knows, it is hardly that I lack a continuing interest in intellectual questions. But I am no longer willing to make myself acquainted with the vast literature—some of it awfully good—out there on any given topic. I want to pursue my own lines of thought through writing, but I don’t want to bother to engage with the ongoing scholarly dialogue on my chosen interests. In short, my scholarly career was obviously at an end—and it felt fraudulent to continue to draw a salary while not doing that part of my job.
So much for all the negative reasons. Luckily, there are also positive ones. The Covid-19 shutdown has made those all the more obvious. Time is not hanging heavy on my hands—or on Jane’s. Even isolated from all our friends, the days aren’t long enough to do every thing we want to do. I am reading, writing, exercising, listening to music, tending to the daily chores of life; the need to finish out the semester on Zoom only distracts from all the things I want to be doing.
When I look back at my career as a professor, and at the life that Jane and I lived/created over the past thirty-plus years, I am astounded at how much we did. I can’t imagine how we did it. I want to say that the books wrote themselves; I certainly don’t see how it was possible, amidst everything else, to have put in the time and effort necessary to write them. It’s as if someone else did it—or as if I wasn’t present to my own life.
That’s the overwhelming feeling—no regrets at all, but a sense of having missed my own life. Was I even there? Getting through each day, with its piled up responsibilities and commitments, was the priority. There was no larger plan, no overall strategy. Just survival, putting one foot in front of the other, dealing with each day and its demands.
I loved every minute of being a parent—and am blessed with an ongoing good relationship to Kiernan and Siobhan (in such sharp contrast to my relationship to my parents). But it went by too fast—and they (I know) felt slighted at times in favor of all the other things I was also doing during those years.
That’s no way to live (really!). The virus shutdown has slowed Jane and me down—and it’s wonderful. We still have plenty to do, still have eyes too big for our stomachs. But all the sense of urgency is gone. We do the things we do out of pleasure, with all the pressure taken off. If something does not get done, so be it. It’s glorious. We should have retired years ago. The work world is crazy and crazy-making, with its absurd norms of productivity and ritualized scenes of public humiliation called “evaluation” (annual reports, promotion and tenure, and all the rest).
I will admit to a fundamental selfishness as well. A sense that it’s not my responsibility any more. I fought the good fight while employed—and lost most of my fights (for interdisciplinary curricula, for support of collaborative work, for expanded notions of what should “count” for promotion, for UNC to face up to its racist past and to the unspeakable Republicans who are ruining our state). Now I feel OK just washing my hands of it all.
I am going to spend my time in the ways I wish. Others will have to carry on the fight. I am tired of it in every possible way one can be tired. Enough. I have other—and I hope better—things to do. Certainly more sane things, ones that don’t pull me into the orbit of the crazies. (It is the relentless energy of those right-wing thugs, the way they work every angle and never let an opportunity to do harm pass them by, that amazes, frightens, and exhausts me. Yes, I hate to let them win, but nothing I have done to date has kept them from winning and now, like Thoreau, I feel—at least at times—that I have other matters to attend to.)
The fact that I am deeply ashamed of UNC plays a role in my decision to retire. I have given over 25 years of my life to this institution—and for most of those years, even as I fought those losing battles, I felt UNC had a fundamentally good heart, that it usually did the right thing when it came to the big issues. I may have been very naïve about that—but our wonderful students, my conscientious colleagues, and an approachable administration that listened to (even when it ignored) advice made me love this place. I was given the freedom to do what I believed in during the time I directed the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. More generally, UNC was good to me and Jane, giving us scope to pursue out interests, and paying us generously. We met (this is no exaggeration) hundreds of people—students, colleagues, alumni—during our years at UNC who inspired us in one way or another.
My work with interesting and committed donors contributed to my general sense of well-being. But then the university’s response to the athletic scandal of fake classes, its failure to address forthrightly the racial legacy represented by Silent Sam, and its supine self-prostration before a Board of Governors determined to destroy public higher education made me want to walk away. I made my public howls of protest, for which my fellow faculty thanked me and to which the administration turned a cold shoulder. I had had enough.
I hope that UNC is on a better path now. The current chancellor does understand how damaged the Carolina community has been by the events of the past eight years—and is trying to fix that damage. I wish him luck. But I am relieved to be walking away. I don’t want to be part of that effort. It’s been too discouraging to watch the lack of courage and honesty that got us to our current state.
So I retreat into a more private space. Writing my blog, riding my bike, seeing friends and traveling. Jane and I will become grandparents in the next few weeks, with our granddaughter in DC with her parents. I am committed to helping my daughter-in-law keep her theater company, We Happy Few, afloat—and thriving. We will also help with child care. Return trips to Italy, Cornwall, and New Zealand are highest on the travel list.
Inevitably, I will become involved in some kind of political work. I refuse (mostly) to give money to campaigns any more. (I end up donating to down-ballot races when I get a direct appeal from a friend involved in that campaign.) Contributions to the national races just seems like abetting a corrupt system. And I hate the way I get blackmailed into giving because the other side is spending so much. Instead, I give the money I used to throw at Democratic presidential and Senate candidates to local charities that I know are doing good work. Maybe I will also work for that kind of charity instead of for a more directly political cause. I would like to find something I believe in and that seems effective to throw myself into. The theater company has that appeal.
And this blog. It is strangely comforting to write posts that feel addressed to an audience out there, even if I know only a tiny few (ten or twelve maybe) are on the receiving end. The pressure of an imagined audience puts a little spine into the writing. But the knowledge that there isn’t really an audience (or certainly not a judging one) gives me the sense that I can write whatever I like, ramble, digress, indulge myself. It’s the perfect form for me, not utterly solipsistic, but relieved of any need to please an audience. I can just write to please myself—and let anyone who wishes listen in.
That’s the thing about writers. They always write far more than any reader could ever possibly read. Writing, a matter of so much pain and angst for many academics, is an addiction like any other for those of us who can’t stop pouring the words out. The blog will abide. It is pure pleasure, completely divorced from any sense of obligation or responsibility, just another indulgence in what I intend to be a blissful retirement in which I do the things I want to do. No more, no less.
2 thoughts on “Retirement”
John, Congratulations on making a life-changing step by deciding to retire. I am sure the life-change will be positive. Wishing you many years of travel, reading, biking, and–yes–writing! (Plus more!)
To rework Jack Gilbert, you’re not tired, just greedy.
The fish are dreadful. They are brought up
the mountain in the dawn most days, beautiful
and alien and cold from night under the sea,
the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes.
Soft machinery of the dark, the man thinks,
washing them. “What can you know of my machinery!”
demands the Lord. Sure, the man says quietly
and cuts into them, laying back the dozen struts,
getting to the muck of something terrible.
The Lord insists: “You are the one who chooses
to live this way. I build cities where things
are human. I make Tuscany and you go to live
with rock and silence.” The man washes away
the blood and arranges the fish on a big plate.
Starts the onions in the hot olive oil and puts
in peppers. “You have lived all year without women.”
He takes out everything and puts in the fish.
“No one knows where you are. People forget you.
You are vain and stubborn.” The man slices
tomatoes and lemons. Takes out the fish
and scrambles eggs. I am not stubborn, he thinks,
laying all of it on the table in the courtyard
full of early sun, shadows of swallows
flying on the food. Not stubborn, just greedy.