The Season of Our Professorial Discontent

Exams, ceremonies, and move-out traffic jams — the last few weeks of the academic spring semester usually pass like a blur. This year, they passed like a kidney stone.

I’m no stranger to feeling exhausted by the time students cross the stage, but usually my tiredness is leavened with the sense of a job well done. Feeling vocationally at sea instead is new to me.

This spring was my first semester back in person in three years, following a fellowship leave, parental leave, and pandemic-induced fully online teaching. I was looking forward to a normal semester.

It’s not that teaching online was all bad. There was something exhilarating about the adrenaline-fueled race to convert my courses to online for the fall of 2020. Since I had to redo everything anyway, I took the opportunity to update my lectures. Goodbye, old readings; hello, new, urgent topics like the politics of supply chains. It was even exciting to learn how to edit videos, at least the first few-dozen times.

It turns out that my surge of adrenaline to tackle those jobs was probably part of a broader process of coping with disaster. As a team of researchers argue in the journal Psychological Reports, such feelings reflected the “honeymoon phase” of responding to a disaster, during which shared trauma promotes bonding and even optimism. The next phase, unfortunately, is disillusionment: anger, resentment, exhaustion from stress, and the recognition of insufficient support.

Faculty autonomy and faculty satisfaction are being whittled away.

Psychologically, that seems spot on as a diagnosis of where we are now. This spring, my classroom attendance reached new lows, while complaints reached new highs. For the first time, I had to deal with moments of true rudeness from students — hostility bordering on aggression over issues that seemed relatively trivial to me, like swapping the order of textbook chapters to create a better flow with lectures.

From talking to colleagues, I know I’m not alone in having found the past year draining. News reports, social media, and posts on academic online forums all also reinforce that the past few years have left many faculty members updating their LinkedIn pages. A lot of professors are looking for the exit, and some of us are walking through.

As pandemic slides into endemic, it’s worth asking: Did the pandemic break something fundamental about academe? Was the spring of 2022 the end of pandemic disruptions, or the start of a new normal?

Over the past few years, the turmoil of the pandemic era has prompted a “great resignation.” For friends of mine in other industries, pandemic-era job-hopping has been enjoyable and lucrative. Before the pandemic, the frequency with which people in other professions changed jobs seemed somewhat mystifying to me and perhaps to other academics. Pre-pandemic, the structure of tenure-stream academic careers typically meant that only stars moved institutions voluntarily, and only superstars could do so repeatedly. Finding a job was as structured as contracting marriages in a Jane Austen plot — and shared the expectation that a successful match might endure for decades.

Now, job searching seems more enticing. One reason for the sudden interest in changing jobs is that academe is going through a wave of discontent. A 2021 survey by Fidelity Investments and The Chronicle reported that more than half of U.S. college and university faculty surveyed have considered changing careers or retiring early. Nature suggests that this burnout and discontent have struck higher ed not just in the United States but globally.

To put it another way: Career-advice columns in publications like The Chronicle often explain how to climb the next rung: how to help the untenured become tenured, for instance, or how to help associate professors reach full professor. Now, with even tenured professors joining “the Big Quit,” the pressing question for many is not how to climb the ladder but whether to bother with it at all.

Professorial discontent stems from factors beyond Covid. For faculty at public universities in states like Florida and Georgia, the sources of strain may be politically inspired attacks on tenure. For those who work at smaller, financially vulnerable institutions, economic factors are pushing — even shoving — the faculty to the exits. Instructors who belong to marginalized groups, or have family or loved ones who do, may no longer feel safe as the blue islands of college towns sink beneath the red seas of the surrounding states.

Nevertheless, there’s a strain of pandemic-induced discontent that stands out. Pretty much all faculty members occasionally complain about bad semesters, but the refrains regarding their experiences during the past year are unusually unified. Students are disengaged. Faculty feel unappreciated. A loud contingent publicly argues for continued leniency on deadlines; a vocal faction snaps back that it’s time to bring structure to courses after two years of forgiveness.

Some concerns are whispered more than shouted. Listen closely enough, and you’ll hear rumblings that cheating is worse than it’s ever been. As college enrollment dips, some institutions may believe they have to do anything to keep students happy, pressuring instructors to back away from the standards they believe are necessary for learning.

These are the effects of Eternal Covid: loss, illness, worry, and disruption — and an inconsistent, confusing, and sometimes jarring set of institutional responses. All that has combined to remake the relationship between students, faculty, and their institutions in ways that make a faculty career far less appealing. In obvious and subtle ways, both faculty autonomy and faculty satisfaction are being whittled away.

My campus’s putting an end to mask mandates this spring is instructive. My institution mostly handled Covid well, with careful testing, vaccine mandates, and masking. Yet our mask mandate ended practically overnight and with little faculty input. Signs that had urged mask-wearing vanished only a little faster than students’ masks themselves. Faculty were even barred from creating their own signs to encourage voluntary mask wearing.

Masking transformed from solidarity to individual resistance. I kept my N95s on, at least in larger courses. The subtext: I was now protecting myself from my students. This was the mildest form of the protest over how to respond to the virus. A 2020 Chronicle opinion headline expressed how professors elsewhere felt: “Faculty Are Not Cannon Fodder.”

Masks weren’t the only protection I felt I needed. In the fall of 2020, I learned that flexibility on deadlines and course policies made administering big courses much harder and more time-consuming. To make the load for my TAs and myself more normal, I locked down course policies and deadlines as much as I could. This generated conflict with a few students accustomed to Covid-era laxity. Some, like the student who wrote to express their “adamant” position that I raise their grade, challenged everything in newly aggressive ways.

Yet I didn’t want to ignore the fact that many students faced enormous challenges, from their own Covid diagnoses to the deaths of loved ones. My TAs and I grew practiced at using Moodle to grant extensions, but the constant parsing of what was the right level of relief for students going through crises drained me — and I also increasingly worried about the unknown students who weren’t asking for the help they also needed.

It all felt grim. On reflection, there were high points. I saw some of the best student presentations I’ve ever graded. Student-led discussions about the Ukraine crisis in my Russian foreign-policy course were better than those on CNN. And maybe some of my feelings were defensive: Perhaps my students were right to criticize some of my policies.

Still, by the end of the semester, the withdrawals were exceeding deposits so fast that it felt like a run on my emotional bank.

The satisfactions of an academic career are supposed to include autonomy and teaching and mentoring. Those factors form part of our fundamental career calculus, why we chose this path over other paths. As I’ve spent the past month preparing my tenure file, I’ve been thinking hard about the future, because those types of satisfaction have been the ones most affected.

As a professor at a research institution, teaching isn’t the entirety of my job, but it is the most emotionally and personally vulnerable part.

It’s possible that this is all transitory, and next year we can recover something like the pre-Covid classroom vibe. It’s also possible we won’t. One scenario I fear is that I spend decades delivering indifferent lectures to indifferent classes as the price of submitting little-read articles to niche journals. As a professor at a research institution, teaching isn’t the entirety of my job, but it is the most emotionally and personally vulnerable part. When I’m presenting the logic of the prisoner’s dilemma or explaining the interagency process in the National Security Council, I’m not just conveying facts and theories: I’m presenting my own investment in the material in the hopes that students will get why it matters. If there’s no possibility of sparking that interest, then I’m just a dispenser of grades.

Yet leaving is literally hard to imagine. After almost 15 years of apprenticing and then working as an academic, it’s a little hard to envision myself in industry. What would I do: Clean data? Revise slide decks? Worry about stock options? Friends and colleagues who have made the leap say it’s better for them: More money! Shorter hours! Satisfying work! All of that may be true. But would it be better for me? Some questions are hard to answer. Like a lot of us, I’m not making any big decisions now — but I think even asking these questions shows how much the pandemic has clarified what we value professionally even as it’s changed the circumstances under which we work.

Each semester, I end my classes with an exhortation to students to take what they learned in the course and use it to be more active, creative, and engaged in their lives. This time, as I delivered the lines to an audience of 30 in a course with 200 students enrolled, I was wondering whether I wanted to give a lecture ever again.