by Shirley Drew
But it was only a couple of years ago when I questioned whether I should give up teaching and retire early. There were many things happening in higher education (and still are) that made me question how much longer I could stay. Then, I had a falling out with a co-worker that literally rocked me—a disagreement about a student’s final master’s project that put us in a gridlock. While that was eventually resolved, I found myself again questioning myself: What am I doing here? I had reached a sort of nexus, where all my doubts about my role in academic life came together. Over time, with a summer away and a lot of self-reflection, I recovered from my malaise, though not completely.
Then a couple of weeks ago I attended a conference in Chicago for my professional organization, the National Communication Association. One of the sessions I attended was a day-long workshop. We focused on how to make our academic writings more accessible to public audiences. Inevitably, the conversation turned to some of the challenges of academic life. Two of the presenters showed a short documentary depicting some of the more disheartening aspects of our profession and the feelings of alienation we all experience at times. After this session, the final speaker, Art Bochner, came forward. He is a well-known and highly respected scholar and teacher who has been doing what he does for more than four decades.
In his opening comments, he commended all the presenters who had spoken that day. Then he followed with this question: “Why are there are so many dead souls in the academy?” At that, you could’ve heard the proverbial pin drop.
“We need to be mindful,” he said, “about how we talk about our lives as professors. Embrace the life and the joy that we have in the work. Pay attention to the narratives that we are situated in and that we take for granted.” In reference to our feelings of alienation, he said, “The University is becoming a culture of fear. People who are afraid will not speak. But we can do something about these things.” He continued. “While we ask ourselves, 'are we reaching the public?' Hell—are we reaching ourselves?!” He pointed out that we are reaching the public, and asked us to think about how many students we have taught—and touched in some way—over our lives as professors. Finally, he said:
“Being a professor is not a job; it’s not even a career…it’s a way of life.”
As he sat down, I felt tears in my eyes. Because he is right. It is a privilege to do what I do. Because not only do I get to teach—I get to learn. I get to read. I get to write. And maybe because I am allowed to do these things now, when I am ready, I will be better prepared to be a full time writer.
So teach. Learn. Read. And most of all, write. It’s a privilege to do so.