In October, I went to see the Pearl Cleage play, What Happened in Paris. During one scene, Evie, the glamorous globetrotter asks Lena, the savvy political consultant if she had ever been to Paris. When Lena said that she had, Evie asked, “Looking for answers?” Lena, responded, “I don’t know about answers, but I sure was ready for a new set of questions.”
At that moment, I felt a chill across my body. Those were the words I needed to hear, the words that explained how I felt about my life post-third year review and post-tenure packet submission.
I am ready for a new set of questions.
What Should I Do With My Life?
I did it the Friday before Labor Day: I turned in my tenure packet–two thick binders of paper and specially numbered dividers–to my department chair. I left the office, giddy. And then reality slapped me in the face. After seven years of scrambling to capture the brass ring, switching jobs and states, and building an impressive (according to others) track record, what was next?
I accomplished and was close to accomplishing what I always said I would do: become a professor and get tenured. I worked hard, so hard up to this point. And now what? And for what?
The quest for tenure sucked the marrow out of my bones. My academic friends called tenure “an emotional vampire”; others had some other choice names that I am too polite to mention. For a long time, I felt cloistered in the cell of my own making. Constrained by the tiny basement apartment that was dark and damp most days of the week. Condensed by my drab office space and my colleague’s expectations. Limited by the research that I believed my mentors, my professors, and my colleagues expected me to do. Cramped into corners that didn’t allow me to embrace some identities that may be seen as contradictory to being a professor. Restricted by the walls I built around myself so that no one was allowed in but my emotions were protected from harm, hurt, danger, and strife. Curbed by the limits I placed on my life of what I could and could not do. Reined in by all the things that other ascribed to my life and who I am.
I was burnt out by my job. I was taxed by the amounts of work I gobbled up for the sake of appearances and the lines they added on my vitae, an increasingly long resume that has charted the progress I made in my research, service, and scholastic endeavors. I was overwhelmed by the heavy investments I made into my career and underwhelmed by my lack of a personal life. As someone told me once at a dark period, you were given 1,000 dollars, and you invested 995 of that in your career.
In other words, I poured myself into my career to the detriment of a lot of other things that make life have meaning. After hearing that, something had to change. I tried shifting the external options in my life before to no avail. I fled from what I believed were toxic work environments, but the toxicity and bitterness remained in my life. I withdrew from the soul-sucking committees and positions that occupied my time and psychic energy, but I kept falling into the same ruts. My personal relationships, built on sand, sank and crumbled consistently. And that something was a person: me.
My academic research on black women and work-life conflict issues made me start thinking about the new questions. I was pulled into this project because the call for papers for a book project intrigued me. I never realized how much this research would alter the way that I think about my career and my life.
The term agency popped up multiple times from the respondents and within the literature. Tindall and McWilliams (2011) defined agency as the
self-created, self-orchestrated, and intentional method of garnering the “power, will, and desire to create work contexts conducive to the development of their thought over time” (Neumann, Terosky, & Schell, 2006, p. 92-93).
Academics exist at the intersection of privileged existence and forced impositions. We have the privilege and ability to shape our lives and choices, yet we often fall into the expectations of what and who an academic should be, get trapped into believing that the guidelines of the tenure and promotion document define us. The life of a professor can become a “second skin” (p. 70), and the identity of being a professor can become the singular role we play and have in our lives. As a participant in my study said, “here we are in the academy because of the flexibility of time, and yet we so discipline ourselves that we blow it” (p. 70).
In hoity-toity academic terms, agency is ” the capacity of an agent (a person or other entity) to act in a world.” In the plain-speak terminology that is required outside the ivory tower, agency is your efficacy to do you. Put even more simply, I had to ask the question: what the hell is stopping me from doing what I want, going after what I want, and getting what I need?
Those are all valid questions that never entered my conscious, waking life until I turned in the packet. Now, I have the task of figuring out the answers. Agency is all about choices, and I needed to re-evaluate my choices within the parameters of my work and my life. Luckily, I have some time to figure that out.
The Start of the Journey
This day is moving day. My life is condensed to a 10X10 storage facility. Everything I have accumulated between my lives in Florida, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Georgia is there. My academic books are in the discarded boxes from a local liquor store. My clothes are in haphazard piles stuffed into gray and purple storage bins. I’ve given away a lot in preparation for this day.
I have packed my life into little and big boxes (symbolically, literally, figuratively and realistically) for most of my life, so cramming my crap into actual boxes wasn’t a big deal.
I am taking off for the winter holidays. I have a few weeks where I am free to do some soul searching and engage in reflexive thought. This is not a taxpayer-funded Eat Pray Love expedition. But I need some time and shape to reconfigure my career and my life. Find something like balance. Figure out my research trajectory that is geared to my interests as opposed to the popular research trends, the research that is expedient and easy to place in journals, the needs of a tenure committee or my department’s expectations. Figure out how to adjust my emotional and physical investment in my institution to match its investment in me.
This research leave is the start of something. It’s fitting that it starts today–the day with a new full moon and an eclipse. The full moon, according to several life coaches and new age thinkers, is the appropriate time to reset, cast new goals and start new projects. This day, I am starting on a new and very large project that I have forgotten in pursuit of my degree, tenure, and titles: me.
Natalie T. J. Tindall is an assistant professor at Georgia State University, where she teaches courses in strategic communication and public relations. She is a fiction writer, knitter, community volunteer, and occasional half-marathoner between her academic writing, teaching, and service. She can be contacted via Twitter (@dr_tindall) and e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed