Gone to fallow
the story of a predictable and avoidable resignation
At the start of every semester, before classes begin, all faculty and staff are called together. This is the literal meaning of “convocation,” and it’s for all manner of proclamations, announcements, and explanations of initiatives. New hires are introduced and paraded and photographed. Departures are listed in the program, each person receiving a brief paragraph, maybe some stats on how long they’d worked, a clear or cryptic note on why they’d gone—retirement, or to “seek other opportunities.”
I won’t be at my college’s convocation this spring. After seven years there, teaching biology and chemistry, I have resigned from my tenured, full professorship. I resigned from the job I’d believed I would stay in for decades. I resigned from a job I once loved fervently and with a wild optimism.
I do not want a short paragraph telling my colleagues I’ve gone off to seek other opportunities. I resigned without another job in place, and as of January 3rd, I no longer have any employment at all. I am not leaving for something else. I am simply leaving. The past few years in this place have so corroded my spirit and psyche, that I am better off with no job at all. When I wrote my two line resignation email, I hovered my cursor over the “send” button and wept for several minutes, until I could bring myself to press it.
I know I am like so many millions of other people who are quitting jobs these days. Many, like me, have no plan in place for what’s next. No one can seem to figure out why so many people are doing this. Even those of us doing it can’t always say. Teachers are doing it in droves, and the best sense I can make of it is that the pandemic taxed us, ground us down, but also made us see the need to radically reimagine our work with students—what they need, how we might meet those needs. When that radical reimagining runs aground on the rocks of immovable administration and inhuman rules and the status quo, something in the mind and heart of a teacher will break. This happened to me, amid everything else the pandemic did. I was ground down, tilled, harrowed. The summer months, when I usually lie fallow, were taken up by training, planning, the requirements to develop online versions of my teaching, checklists, inspections of my materials that I often failed. I felt myself wearing thin.
By February of 2021, I’d started asking for help. From colleagues, from supervisors, from the supervisors of supervisors. I clawed my way through the spring semester, first burning out, then growing demoralized. I’d volunteered to serve as department chair, and tried my best at it. I’m sure I made mistakes and missteps in my isolation and uncertainty about how the job is even supposed to be done normally, let alone how to take it on in a global pandemic. There was a complete vacuum of mentorship on the matter, so I flailed along, guessing. I found out in May, cc’d on a form letter between two of my superiors, that my colleagues had voted me out as chair. I resigned my other leadership position in the department too, since I no longer had any sense of who among my colleagues thought I was doing ok, and who thought I was so terrible at these things that I must be removed after less than a year. I felt myself sinking and the water closing over me, and that I was disappearing unnoticed. I dragged and teeth-gritted through the spring, tending as best I could to my students, who were beat down, exhausted, maimed by the depredations of the pandemic on top of the stresses and strains of ordinary life. As teaching always does for me, it gave me deep joy and meaning, and also drained me, utterly. I hoped the summer would replenish me, but the time couldn’t heal me on its own. I needed care. I bound up my own wounds as best I could, and hoped that, come September, I would feel up to it all again. I wanted to be able to offer my students what I craved for myself—radical care, radical grace. Radical in the literal sense of “down to the roots.” And roots in their real sense. When you follow plant roots into the soil, and try to tell where they end, you will find them tapering into ever smaller filaments, and then entering a reticulation of fungal threads beyond that, and that network linked into a larger one that binds one plant to another until you are gloriously entangled in something that defies classical definitions of just what an individual is, an organism, a species, a boundary. I wanted to be able to build classroom communities like that, and I felt a feeble glimmer of hope that I might be able to. But I had myself been uprooted, not allowed to lie fallow, to gather strength. I had not the capacity for it, and, being offered no other option, I went on leave for the fall semester, using up all my accrued sick time, and hoping things would change and allow me to come back for the spring.
Over the course of my leave, I had several meetings with representatives of human resources. My world narrowed. I no longer talked to any colleagues, crouched as I was, distrustful. I cried in these meetings about my fate at the college, and said, without bitterness, that I did not see any future for me here if I could not be better cared for. My requests for help, for accommodations, were evidently passed up the chain of command, and decisions made about them by people I’ve never met, and then passed back down the rungs of this immiserating hierarchy to be delivered from little Zoom boxes by people with no power to help me, who stared uncomfortably elsewhere while I cried.
I did not, and do not, want to leave my students, or the many fellow travelers among the staff and faculty who share my outlook and commitments. I made one last bid to try and stay, damaged and full of grief and dread though I was. I asked for an accommodation. I said I could meet all my advising requirements, and all my college service obligations. I said I would teach three of my four assigned classes. But I asked for a course release for the fourth. I offered to do any number of projects in lieu of the course; I always had a million things going, and potential collaborations across the college—I did not want for ideas. In my final meeting with HR, I was told that “there would not be any projects you could do that would be of interest to the college.” Discussions had been had. Decisions had been made. It was determined that if I could not come back and meet my contractual obligations to the letter, then I would need to go on partial unpaid leave for whatever part I could not do. I was told. My future was decreed, issued in the passive voice.
Going on leave is a hopeful act. Though the circumstances leading a person to need a leave can be awful, the leave itself stakes a claim on the future. A leave means you can still picture yourself there, once you’ve ridden out whatever you’re going through. By December, I no longer could picture myself at this place. The modest request for accommodation I’d made denied, I realized that the place, its culture, could not value my future and my service the way I needed it to. They did not believe that the contributions I could make over the course of another twenty or thirty years would outweigh my asking to do a project rather than teach one of my classes for this one semester. Seeing now that they’d rather discard and replace me than help repair me back to wholeness, I recognized it was over.
My husband cleared out my office for me because I could not bear to. He sent me a picture of it once it was done. Stripped down to cinderblock and curling tile and state government furniture, it was as it had been when I moved in seven years ago. My husband told me how it had felt to him, to gather and box up all the flotsam and jetsam of my teaching career, all the artifacts of all the wild, hopeful ideas I’d had, all the notes from students, the books, the boxes of tea, the life I’d tried to build there. It had been sad for him, but he’d also been impressed by it all, he said. I looked at the photo he’d texted me, and sat on the floor and cried and cried.
Convocation is not for another few weeks yet, but I won’t be there. If there is a little paragraph beside my name under “Departures,” I wish it would read like this:
Sarah Courchesne never could quite believe her good fortune. This was not just any old academic job to her. A local kid, born in Haverhill, raised in Amesbury, she’d gone into public service, and become a professor at the very same college that had awarded her mother two degrees. For decades, on her great-grandmother’s side table, there was a framed photo of Governor Dukakis bestowing one of those diplomas upon her mother and shaking her hand. Sarah thought teaching here would be her life’s work. She is bewildered that the college’s power structure saw fit to let her go, and believed until the end that someone would intervene. She leaves with no sense that “other opportunities” await, no new job in place, and with her pension unvested. She is no longer qualified for the eventual forgiveness of her staggering amounts of student loans. She is no longer providing her family’s health insurance. By most lights, this looks like a terrible decision, and in fact, her grief over it is deep and wide. But she was offered only “self-care” when she asked for help. So, she is gone to seek it.