Thursday, April 30, 2009

Post Tenure Depression, or A Goal Once Attained Recedes Anew

by J J Cohen

Dr. Virago has an interesting post about post-tenure blues. As the comment thread reveals, she is not the only academic to be surprised by an enduring melancholy that can take hold after what is supposed to be the happiest news of a scholar's life.

There is, I admit, a certain let-down to tenure: you work your butt off in graduate school hoping to get a tenure track job. Should you be fortunate enough to secure one, you then labor even harder so that you can retain the position indefinitely. A judgment descends from the heavens, and if you are again fortunate (most people who make it this far are), then you learn that you are done, you got it, it all worked out. Suddenly the rest of your career stretches before you, this time without the compulsion to constant, frantic work and without the lingering anxiety that you will be shown to the door. Without your friend Mr. Fret as your constant companion -- you know, that buddy who sits next to you every time you attempt to relax, the one who keeps reminding you that you need to be in the archive with your codices rather than Twittering, Facebooking, eating peanuts, and doing laundry -- well, without Mr. Fret giving you your contant dose of agitation, life becomes quite lonely. In a way, there is nothing worse than achieving your goals, because then you have .... what?

Then you have the chance to figure out of what your future will actually consist. Life as a tenured professor has less anxiety built into the job than life as an assistant professor, but other than that it isn't all that different. The absence of a profound change can be disconcerting: is this it? Is this all I get? Do I really just keep teaching the same courses and cavorting with the same colleagues and publishing on my topics of expertise until I am swallowed by the awaiting grave, several decades hence?

Yes.

And no. A bout of post-tenure depression forced me to decide what work I was committed to doing, to explore what kind of colleague I could best be, to discover that many of the walls I though separated me from what I wanted to do were mostly of my own imagining. My son Alex came into the world at tenure time and changed everything (I admit that we waited to have a kid until everything I could do for tenure was in place: there was no parental leave at my institution in the 1990s). I threw myself into composing Medieval Identity Machines. I don't want to glorify the process because the funk I toppled into sucked. But good things came from that period, in the end. Which is a long way of saying to Dr. Virago, you will get through it, and see that life on the other side of tenure offers something most jobs do not: the freedom to wander an unpredetermined future. What could be better than that?

4 comments:

hd said...

As a graduate student, I vividly recall seeing two women in their mid-thirties dancing wildly (and braless-ly I might add) at the kalamazoo dance. I always assumed that was a tenure dance (sung, of course, to the tune of safety dance).

Congrats, Dr. Virago. Go dance! You, too, Cohen.

irina said...

Kind of how I felt after finishing the diss...

Anonymous said...

Post-tenure ennui can lead to many things: midlife crisis, depression, divorce. It's a testing time, and I'm sure some bright young psychologist has done a study of it, or if not, should.

Dr. Virago said...

Hey, thanks for linking to this and responding to it. I'm very much looking forward to Kzoo and to the summer to help rejuvenate me.