Nurture that Spark: Advice for Career Longevity

It’s April. It’s possible that you’re excited about your teaching or scholarship, but probably, you’re tired. If you’re like me, you’re a bit cranky.  And what if this is the “April” of your academic career? There’s some decent time left before retirement—5 or even 10 years remaining—but there’s also potential for ennui or a sense of the humdrum, the 10th time you’re teaching that course, serving on that committee, or trying to revise and resubmit that article. Hopefully exciting projects and engaged students are keeping you energized.  But even if those things are true, you may also be feeling some burnout creeping in.  April does that.

Burnout: A Direct Consequence of Doing Too Much for Too Long

That heading is a quote from Bob Mayberry—soon to be emeritus faculty in English—who once gave me a list of his top 10 ways to stay in the game. FYI, #9 is “Eat chocolate.” I invoke that one regularly. #8 is “Plan for the long term. Expect a long and modest career.” In other words, pace thyself. Now that I’m a little farther down the road, I found myself seeking out more advice. I wrote to some CI colleagues who are now FERPing or retired, and asked them, “How can we stay engaged in our careers over the long haul? What did you do? What worked?”

Joan Karp: Keep Your Spark Alive

Joan Karp, professor and former director of our School of Education, joined me on a Zoom call from Rome, where her husband, Charlie, has recently been appointed a Visiting Artist at the American Academy. (Retired people get to do cool stuff.). Joan sympathized with the problem of burnout, observing that, “When you’re in the same routine over and over, it can get boring. And when you lose your spark with your students, they feel it.”

Joan used the term “renewing activities” to talk about ways to stimulate that good kind of energy.  I found myself taking notes on her advice:

  • Seek out people who might be doing interesting teaching, or research, or service learning. Have coffee, and see if there’s any possibilities for any kind of a joint project.

Seeking innovative ways to enhance your instruction is always a good place to start with people.

  • Find ways to involve your students. For example, when Joan was in Minnesota, she and Betsy Quintero (now a CI professor of Early Childhood Education) received a very small grant of around $500 to pay two students to videotape preschool classrooms. Joan found that when the students analyzed the videos they had made, they failed to observe anything of interest for teachers. Joan reflected with a laugh, “Well, Betsy and I were very surprised. We sat down and watched it together. Immediately, Betsy and I saw this one little boy who did not sit still. He wandered all around the room, and nobody said anything to him. Then they moved to centers, where he went around and destroyed what people were doing.” This little boy’s situation presented a perfect opportunity for the students to reflect and learn, while the small grant enabled the faculty to rethink how students perceived classrooms.
  • Seek out something that you really enjoy, and do it with or without students. For example: travel to conferences, bring students to conferences, study abroad. Look for those opportunities and try them. Think of it as a renewal opportunity.
  • Learn a new, non-University related activity or skill. Joan recalled that, “At age 45, I took up modern dance.” She notes that just one hour of practice/performance twice a week really changed her outlook: “I had the most productive years of my academic career when I took the time for myself to do something that was mentally and physically challenging, and not university work.”

Beth Hartung: Walk Toward Something

Beth Hartung, our former assistant provost and Sociology professor, wrote to me from Spain, where she says life is good. Beth notes that she came to CI “just after I turned 50 because I needed a new challenge, the spark of new colleagues, and because I knew what staying in place would look like.” Although we do not all have complete control over our careers, Beth encourages us to feel “as much as possible that you’re walking towards something rather than away from something else.” It’s a subtle distinction, but as I reflect on some of the most important decisions I’ve made, the good ones were always walking toward an engaging or exciting prospect rather than walking away from whatever I was doing at the time.

Joan Peters & Don Rodriguez: Staying Connected

While Joan Peters, an English professor, and Donald Rodriguez, professor in ESRM, are now FERPing, they are both role models for how to stay active and committed to your discipline.  Joan says, “I’ve found that presenting/reading at conferences, libraries, and gatherings of any kind has always inspired me but also reminded me that my field is alive and I’m a part of it.” She finds it valuable to find ways to “stay connected to the great out there.”

Don shared a recommendation to plan ahead for what might engage you in retirement. And he isn’t talking here about CalPERS. Don suggests that you “deliberately cultivate your post academic life while you are an active member of the community.” Who knew that five years ago, Don was setting up future travel opportunities? He recalls, “I remembered that my father had become very involved in an international association that he continued to contribute to after retirement, and so I chose to do that. I’m a member of an international scientific organization that I work through that gives me an opportunity to travel and be engaged with the conservation community worldwide. While my travel isn’t paid for, I’m still able to work in international settings as part of my responsibilities to the World Commission on Parks and Protected Areas.”  Don reflects on “the beauty of our profession” as compared to many others: “Your contributions continue to be valued as you age.”

Bob Mayberry: Stay Curious

I’ll close with Bob’s response to my question. “Staying engaged? The only way I know to do that is to stay curious,” he says.  “Keep questioning everything and wondering, “What else?”

Wondering is what drew me to academia in the first place, so that resonates. It pulls me a step forward in a good direction.

As our colleagues have shared here and elsewhere, there are many paths to engagement, even while individual circumstances and contexts vary. The trick is to be deliberate about finding a path before you get too deeply into burnout territory. Cultivate curiosity, seek out collaboration, find ways to make connections, pursue challenges. When the time is right, create an opportunity for meaningful change and renewal—and walk toward it.

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