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Finding Abundance Beyond the Academy

Finding Abundance Beyond the Academy

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March 11, 2020
Finding Abundance Beyond Academia - Multicolored kite flies free across a blue sky with clouds

It’s a Friday during the spring semester, and I wake up at 6:30, get to my job by 8, quickly check my school email, and make sure that I’m ready to teach the three class sections that I have that day.

During my free period, I do some administrative work as interim department chair, including submitting reimbursement forms and finalizing my department’s teaching assignments for next year. I eat lunch in the English department office with the intent to prep next Monday’s classes but end up just laughing and commiserating with my departmentmates. It’s a heavier and busier day than usual, though not entirely atypical.

The day is done at 3:20 pm. I’m home by 4, and after decompressing on my couch for a bit, I figure out how I’ll kick off my weekend.

By the end of this academic year, I will have worked as a high school teacher in San Francisco for as long as I worked as an assistant professor at a university near Boston. When I compare the five years I spent on the tenure track with my life now, I realize they involve entirely different ways of being.

Arguably, I had much more “free” time as a professor: I had a coveted teaching load of two courses per semester, and I taught only two days a week. I had days to manage entirely on my own, which I mainly dedicated to reading and writing. And yet, as a professor I constantly felt anxious about not having enough time. I felt guilty about doing things just for fun. I always packed books and my laptop when I went on vacation with the intent to get some writing done. I gave up hobbies I once enjoyed to prioritize chasing tenure. More than once, I ended potential romantic relationships with the excuse “I really have to focus on my career right now.”

Despite having a work schedule that most working people would find laughably capacious, as a professor I was encouraged to operate with a feeling of incessant scarcity. And in spite of having far less autonomous time now outside academia, my life now is, somewhat magically, so much more abundant. It’s taken me a few years to figure out how that’s possible.

The feeling of scarcity that was my former “normal” wasn’t all in my head. Like any good tenure candidate, I was always, always working, and I have the CV filled with high-profile publications, conference presentations, and professional service to show for it. (I did not leave my professorial job because I thought I was going to be denied tenure.)

But what no CV shows is the time and energy spent dealing with the well-documented toxicity of academia, especially for faculty of color. I was constantly expected to prove my legitimacy to senior colleagues who had to do a fraction of what I had to for tenure, who had no problems with moving the target for me, and who didn’t understand my field of study. (I lost count of how many times I had to explain that Asian American studies was not the same thing as Asian studies.) I had to do the unpaid labor of “diversity” work for the university while serving the students of color who were being injured by the school’s culture. While doing this work, I was made to answer an “anonymous” complaint about my being “too liberal” in the classroom.

When a senior male colleague made a joke about me sitting on his lap at a department holiday party, the sexual harassment complaint I filed resulted in a year of exhaustion. Though my department chair supported me, not everyone did. As I told my story to different colleagues, it became clear who was going to be an ally and who was going to side with the perpetrator through their silence. When the university brought in external consultants to assess the department’s climate, I had to tell my story over and over again: to the consultants, to the human resources department, and to the university ombudsman. By the time the consultants delivered a toothless report that was entirely useless in spurring change, I had come to terms with having to live with these kinds of racist and sexist violences and microaggressions.

As much as I wanted to “win” and be a story of triumph for other female faculty of color, I was too exhausted to go on. So, right before going up for tenure and right after a devastating first runner-up finish for a tenure-track position at another university, I landed a job at a progressive private high school in San Francisco. Eager for a life change, I set my professorial career on fire and jumped ship.

I wish I could say that the transition from university professor to high school teacher was easy. It took a while for me to adjust to the new pace of having to be on campus all day five days a week, of losing non-teaching days, and of having my schedule more heavily structured. During my first year, I was still anxious about not having time to finish my book manuscript. I truly mourned the career I had left and still felt compelled to spend my after-school hours on work that would prove I was still a valuable academic. I was still attending the MLA conference three years into my new job.

At the same time, however, my new job proved to be vastly more enjoyable than professorial life. My high school students are much sweeter, more motivated, more socially conscious, and, honestly, are better writers than my college students were. My colleagues inspire me every day with their skill and commitment as teachers. I learned more about pedagogy in my first year at my new job than I did in the decade I spent as a graduate student instructor and assistant professor combined.

Most importantly, this high school had already been doing the hard and important work of creating an environment of equity and inclusion before I arrived. When I took the position, I was struck by the fact that the school had created a dean of adult equity and inclusion. At faculty meetings, we have discussions about white fragility and stereotype threat. My colleagues teach courses on the prison industrial complex and constructions of whiteness. Our students reflect what they learn in the vocabulary they throw around in the classroom. I knew I could work at this school when, during my teaching demonstration with a class of 9th graders, I saw them talk about power, privilege, colorism, and toxic masculinity in their discussions of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. When, earlier this year, I got a little bit of parental pushback for teaching about teaching the comic Palestine by Joe Sacco, the head of school assured me that I had the school’s full support and I should never worry about losing my job over teaching a book.

One major lesson I’ve learned from my career shift is this: magic happens when institutions free their faculty and staff of the burden of having to battle for their own self-worth. When mental, emotional, and spiritual energy can be devoted to projects that actually feel good, that actually make learning meaningful for young people, that are actually true to a mission that community members believe in, capacity also increases. When I no longer have to toe the line for a system or structure that’s not actually serving me, I can just focus on doing good work.

I used to dread attending university department meetings because they were spaces of microaggressions, petty turf wars, and unproductive ranting. At my current job, my department this year has been devoting our meetings to talking about what we are calling “heart work” or “affective learning.” We’ve been examining how we are structuring our classrooms and assessments for our students’ personal development and for genuine communal connection. Never did I think that a job could be a place of cultivating love for the work we do and for each other, and there was a time that I would have dismissed this fuzzy-wuzzy feelings talk as a waste of time. I have learned, though, that something as simple as opening each class with a breathing exercise and a communal check-in actually makes the students do a better job of working with the course content. When I skip that step in the service of “getting to business,” the quality of their discussion and the length of their attention actually suffers.

Similarly in my own life, I see more abundance in my personal time, in part because I’m actually finding joy in my work day and in part because my job is now structured around work-life balance. High school teachers do have service work like hosting open houses and participating in the admissions process. But unlike university faculty (especially those who are contingent), we really aren’t obligated or expected to do service work outside of what is indicated in our contract. When we do volunteer, it sometimes comes with a small stipend. As a result, I feel okay about selecting service work that means the most to me and saying no to other requests. I can trust that my colleagues are able to pick up the slack, even when it comes to equity and inclusion work. In my current job, never have I felt pressured to take on service work because no one else would if I didn’t (unlike in my professorial role). Faculty are encouraged to do professional development (and receive monetary support for doing so—my conference travel budget is actually bigger than it was when I was a professor), but we have the liberty of choosing what kinds of opportunities make sense for us as opposed to what opportunities carry the most prestige.

So, because of this liberating ability to set boundaries and say no, if I feel like taking a Lindy Hop class on a Tuesday night, I will. I have more capacity to make friends, date, and build community. Without an ounce of guilt, I chose to take vacation in Italy during my spring break instead of attend an academic conference. I actually take my summers off! I spend that time writing for pleasure and enjoying hobbies like historical costuming.

While it’s true that I no longer have the sustained time or incentive to do the in-depth research required for academic journals, I now choose different forms of publication (that people will actually read!). Without the ubiquitous pressure of having to publish for professional advancement, I can now write things relevant to my field of study but from a place of fun, or even write about things I would have been embarrassed to as a professor. As for my book manuscript, I still intend to finish it, but it will now serve an entirely different purpose so I am okay with releasing it whenever it’s ready, in whatever shape it will take.

Surprisingly, too, other professional opportunities have popped up for me, all relevant to my current and past work. I am a consultant for a local nonprofit that serves refugee communities, which I’m able to do because of my scholarly background and because I continue to teach about refugee histories and narratives at my current job. I have also developed a side business as a writing coach and editor; my clients have mostly been assistant professors trying to get their publications out before their tenure review. Funny how I find joy (and income!) in helping people do the very thing that gave me anxiety.

I recognize that I may just be extraordinarily lucky to have shifted my career via a job that turned out to be a really great fit for me. I would also be remiss in painting too rosy of a picture of that job. Certainly, very serious problems of equity still exist in the school, and as a private school, it is always going to be an institution that upholds economic disparity and white supremacy rather than dismantle it (just like private universities).

Finding the abundance in my life took a lot of soul searching and therapy, and there are still moments when I look at my friends in their tenured positions with envy. After all, so much of my identity was wrapped up in being a college professor. But I knew that I turned a corner when, last year, I got offered a tenure-track position at a local university, one that would have been my dream job five years ago. I turned it down in part because it would have resulted in a 20 percent pay cut for me from my current job but also because I just didn’t feel that that was where my life was anymore. I can’t say that my journey is typical or that it can serve as a model for anyone else, but I can say that sometimes it takes saying a big no to find something that offers a big, full-bodied yes. Scarcity and precarity no longer scare me because I know that it is possible to build something beautiful from the ashes of what I set on fire.

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Catherine Fung wearing a pink sweater

About the author

Catherine Fung is a former professor-turned-high school teacher living in Oakland, CA. When she’s not teaching, she likes to write and do activism with Asians4BlackLives. For fun, she does arts and crafts and acrobatics. She also works as an academic consultant, editor, and writing coach, and can be reached at dr.fung.writingcoach@gmail.com

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