Engaging the mid-career mystery: Our Faculty Learning Community experience
By: Drs. Marty Warren (English), Lisa Lamb (Geology), Monica Hartmann (Economics), Lisa Waldner (Sociology), Amy Muse (English)
Last year the five of us, with Marty’s leadership, took on an exploration of mid-career issues, using a workshop curriculum designed by Parker Palmer and photographer Jim Brandenberg called “Courage and Light.” Ann Johnson suggested the group as part of the Faculty Development effort to organize faculty-led Faculty Learning Communities. Some of us were motivated by reading the Chroniclearticle mentioned in Ann’s column, “Why are Associate Professors so Unhappy?” Its tales of finding oneself adrift and searching for something more post-tenure resonated with some of us far more deeply than we cared to admit. Some of us are already full professors, but could easily relate to the description of mid-career malaise in that article.
That first meeting was a bit cautious, each of us wondering why the others were there--who would show up for such a FLC, would dare show their faces and confess to any serious soul-searching beyond our acceptable daily gripes?--and wondering how safe this space was for honest revelation and dialogue. It soon seemed that we were all facing another “problem that has no name,” as Betty Friedan put it in The Feminine Mystique.
As we began to talk, we realized we all had similar motivations: as academics who are smart and curious and love to learn, we had already grabbed onto the traditional “brass rings” of academic life: the achievement of a Ph.D., then the tenure track job, followed by tenure and promotion to associate professor, and for some of us, the final step of promotion to full professor.
Then you find that you’re in your forties and still have two more decades of your career. But there are no more well-recognized brass rings to go after. You made it!! Sit back and enjoy your achievement! But at the same time, keep teaching, doing research, advising students and, oh, can you please take on more service now? Keep being good parents if you have kids in K-12, and don’t forget your aging parents.
Another issue is the relative lack of a clear pathway during the post-tenure years. The path to tenure is well-marked and clear. But afterwards, there is little guidance and you have to define your goals for yourself. It can feel daunting.
Research on professors at this stage shows that we are all dealing with a heavy workload, family juggling and the loss of structured, exciting goals. It turns out that contradictory feelings of appreciation and love for one’s work while also feeling somewhat dissatisfied are common, normal, and fully documented.
Our Faculty Learning Community (FLC) gave us a kind of road map to help us create solutions. Having the structure of regular meetings and an outside curriculum was great. It forced us to work on goals that were important but not pressing. The FLC seemed to be well-timed for several of us. Marty had just discovered Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Working from Carl Jung’s idea that there are two halves to life, Rohr suggests that the first half of life is when we find our identity, our significance; when we are concerned with forging our career, building family and so on. In the second half of our life, when we have achieved what we were looking for when we set out on our tenure-track, the time comes to ask: What is this all for? What am I supposed to do with this?
The Palmer and Brandenburg curriculum, Courage and Light, engaged those ideas and our discussions took up those second half of life questions which help take us more deeply into the elements of our profession. It gave us a structure for exploring our individual questions, but we also discovered commonalities.
In spite of the fact that we are all from different disciplines, we had some common goals. We knew we needed to take action to keep ourselves loving our jobs but we were reluctant to simply take on more tasks. How do we find the right balance? We discussed sabbaticals: yes, they are meant to create that renewal but they don’t always come at the right moment. We needed to take more immediate, less daunting steps. We needed to be creative now. Each of us had the intention to stay at UST and work within the framework of the job we love but we also felt strongly that if someone decided they needed to move on, that was a fine option too and we would support that person.
The FLC structure allowed a sense of community and shared purpose. We supported each others’ projects and goals as they emerged over the course of the academic year. For one of us the identification of a new research project and cross-institutional collaboration provided a sense of excitement and direction. For another, pursuing a writing project that had been on hold helped address her sense of unfulfilled creativity.
While we initially joked that we were the “midlife crisis” FLC, by the end of the term we had become the “midlife rejuvenation” FLC.