I also discuss logistical, financial, emotional, and relational matters because planning a career move involves considering nitty-gritty details in addition to the big questions of career discernment.
Though my story focuses on leaving higher ed, I hope the storytelling may be helpful to folks considering changes across many spheres of work and life. For, truly, where, when, how, why, and for whom we work are central to everyday living—and striving to live out a commitment to justice.
Election day morning: I join a line that snakes around my new polling place. Like others, I pull my raincoat tighter against the cold and damp morning air, as kids squirm, jump, and cry around us. After 40+ minutes and only few feet of movement, I step out of line, knowing that if I stay, I’ll miss a hard-to-reschedule doctor’s appointment. I feel frustrated, disappointed, and angry.
Election day evening: I re-join the line and, again, wait outdoors in the rain. This line is shorter, but, again, slow-moving. After 20 minutes or so, I make it indoors, where I face repeated requests to “squeeze tighter” and “get to know your neighbor.” Election workers explain that the lines have stretched outdoors all day, but only those people indoors by 8pm will be allowed to vote. The polling place is clearly beyond capacity. The conditions are clearly inhospitable. The workers are clearly doing their best, but the system isn’t designed to accommodate high turnouts, much less full voting of an engaged citizenry.
Throughout the day, I tune into my anger—an anger that simmers daily but burns brightly with each election experience. There’s long-rooted and widespread injustice written into U.S. governance, and election days highlight this unreconciled and ongoing wrongdoing.
To scratch the surface, here’s some of what’s wrong, wrong, wrong:
We witness year after year all sorts of voter suppression: from outright obstruction of voting to long lines and limited voting places and hours. People can be dropped from voting registration rosters and can be turned away from polling places. People previously incarcerated are blocked from voting. And voter suppression particularly targets communities of color.
We have active “taxation without representation” (the slogan on DC license plates) impacting many citizens—from those of us living in the District of Columbia to folks in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. DC, for example, has a population larger than several small states. Those states each have two senators, while we have none. Again, this disenfranchisement noticeably impacts folks of color.
Our vision of “democracy” is particularly limiting when framed through representation and voting rather than active participation and shared leadership. Too often discourses that focus on elections pull attention away from questioning how we might better relate, participate, and organize ourselves as collectives.
Systems like the electoral college, partisan gerrymandering, and “corporate personhood” show explicitly just how rigged and unfair U.S. elections are. Instead of designing systems to represent the people, power is concentrated in the hands of the already-powerful. And when systems concentrate power, they entrench the mechanisms that deny people personhood. More simply, elections illustrate how black, brown, and indigenous lives matter less under current governing structures.
The list goes on and on, reminding me that the system isn’t broken but functioning as it’s intended with white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and elitism at the core. The system is rooted in keeping power in power’s hands. It keeps us invested in where we are instead of envisioning where we could (should) be.
I so appreciate this work that adrienne maree brown, Autumn Brown, Jessica Byrd, Kayla Reed, and other black women and women of color are doing to hold visions and name what needs to break and be built. They remind me that voting is often, at best, harm reduction—about blocking as much as building. Both are needed.
As long as we in the United States are organized within this governing system, I’ll vote. And vote for and with black women, indigenous women, and women of color. And notice how and why my heart hurts on election day, so that I might witness and counter the many, many wrongs.
For election days to be days for truth-telling, I must start by feeling the HURT and speaking the wrongs aloud. With love. Toward justice. On election day and as everyday practice.
Through career discernment, I continue to learn the importance of slowing down, listening to embodied wisdom, and building emotional literacies. Decision-making involves more than well-reasoned answers, and it holds potential for healing when prioritizing commitments and alignment with our better/best selves.
I continue to wish for personal and collective healing and believe our working lives play a role in this process. How might our careers—and ongoing career discernment—contribute to grieving and growing? To greater acknowledgement of both/and? To the willingness to tread alternative paths?
During graduate school, there were many weeks of being so overloaded by assigned reading that I couldn’t do it all and felt constantly behind. I recognized that the goal was to learn to skim and to put my hands on more and more research, even if I couldn’t savor many pieces. The trouble was that the more I couldn’t savor what I was reading, the more I associated reading itself with feelings of being overwhelmed and behind.
When I shared with a mentor how stressful reading had become, she smiled knowingly and related her own experience of knowing that there will always be more to read than time to read it. More than her sympathy, though, I remember what she shared about choosing to read for inspiration:
“Yes, I read for my research (to answer burning questions), but I also read for inspiration (to keep the questions alive). Be sure that you’re reading what inspires you, what fires you up.”
For too long (in my faculty position), I read primarily for work: for courses I was teaching, for articles I was submitting, and for committees I was serving. I could feel the excitement when reading an article or book that really spoke to me, and increasingly, I read blog posts and sought out podcasts as sources of inspiration. Still, I wanted to prioritize “reading for fun,” especially books that could light my imagination and help me imagine more just worlds, more equitable relations.
Now that I’m creating new habits and work priorities, I’m reading again. I’m reading for research, for fun, and especially for inspiration. I’m reading books and audiobooks as well as continuing to learn from blogs, podcasts, essays, and articles. Now, instead of stress, I’m experiencing joy that there will always be more to read.
I’m certainly not the quickest reader, nor is that my goal.
I’m certainly not the most focused or studious or careful reader, nor are those my goals.
Instead, I’m reading to learn and love and light up with inspiration.
I’m choosing to read—a little each week—and it’s adding up to reading new books.
In what’s been some tough days—from feeling beyond messy and upside down to grieving and raging at outright injustice—these books are helping me see beyond this moment and into movement space. They’re keeping me inspired for the long haul, toward building and sustaining momentum. They’re helping me tap into my embodied self and the histories, emotions, and trauma it carries, while imagining ways forward—pathways to healing.
I plan to keep reading, not because I have to but because I want to. I choose reading, and I choose it for the future.
Still, if I’m being honest with myself, the past few weeks have felt messier than I’d like to admit. I’ve had a piece of a broken ceramic bowl in my foot, a mostly mild but sometimes excruciatingly painful attention-getter. My podiatrist tells me to be patient and let my body release the piece naturally. Yet, I’m impatient and complaining about this regular reminder that I’ve got broken pieces within myself to heal and release before moving forward.
What I’m realizing, as I work the healing process that requires patience with pain, is that I’m in the midst of chrysalis, or the gruesome transformation caterpillars undergo to become butterflies.
In the past year, as I’ve announced career changes, moved cross-country, and continue to reflect on and refashion my identity, I’ve been seeing many caterpillars and butterflies and excited to think of myself as “in transformation.” Now that I’m fully in it—in the midst of big changes—I’m remembering that caterpillars essentially digest themselves, dissolving their past bodies while creating new ones. They transform into another being that moves so differently, eats so differently, and experiences life so differently that they aren’t recognized as the same being. How much disintegration, discomfort, and dis-ease must be involved in that transformation?
So, what does chrysalis (this time of mess, mess, and more mess) look like for me?
More days that I’d like to admit …
I’m spending many hours in one place, curled on the couch.
I’m eating irregularly.
I’m waking from vivid and sometimes-scary dreams.
I’m crying often and at unexpected times.
I’m all over the place, teeter-tottering as I walk, carefully balancing on my injured foot, and yet feeling completely off balance.
I’m creating art and climbing and falling and calling friends and seeing a counselor and writing, writing, writing—all toward processing big changes and even bigger legacies of personal, family, and social trauma and wrongdoing and lingering hurts.
I don’t know yet who I’ll be when I emerge from the messy and often-painful chrysalis, but here are two embodied experiences from inside it:
Experience #1: On a day of bingeing sugar and TV, I find myself pulled into a documentary on hooking up via dating apps, which highlights rape culture, sexual violence, and the ways in which systemic racism and intersectional oppression manifest in technological innovation and intimate relations alike. It’s not until a headache gets me to turn off the TV that I recognize that my body is incredibly tense. I’m physically holding onto, remembering, and witnessing anew this violence. I need to hold myself, quiet my mind, and notice my body’s wisdom before I can process my own experiences and reactions to what’s surely shared (collective) tension.
Because I can’t look at another screen when my head is pounding, I walk around the block and meet a postal worker who acts with such gentle kindness that I find myself crying. In the exchange of mailing a package, I feel energetically how the person before me holds hope and good will in the words, “Have a bless day.” I’m lifted by human connection, and I’m blabbering about the beauty of this brief loving interaction, as I’m still releasing through tears the heartache of how much we, as humans, hurt one another.
Experience #2: I find myself fidgeting and biting my cuticles as I struggle to find words to write about complicity within systemic violence. I’m remembering several recently painful interactions in which I see myself contributing to harm (scenes for another blog post), and I’m turning that harm inward while writing. It’s not until I draw blood that I realize that I’m literally making myself bleed from my fingers—the instruments of writing expression.
Again, my body offers such a clear message about the relationship between personal (internal, self) and collective (systemic, shared) harm. My counselor uses language that’s familiar to me after years of writing about the relationship between the micro and macro. She tells me that processing my own lived experiences involves looking at broader family and community dynamics as well as social-cultural-historical conditioning.
What this means is that binge-eating sugar and binge-watching TV, as two examples, aren’t only about my actions. These “bingeing” experiences are also about cultural scripts that make “sweets” and “favorite TV shows” soothing salves for a harsh world. Sweets and shows stand in for or serve as reminders of good memories, loving relationships, special occasions, self-care, and much more. Streaming services like Amazon and Netflix start next episodes before previous ones have finished. The examples go on and on, pointing to the need for personal healing in the context of larger collective healing. For changing personal habits in the context of changing current conditions and cultural scripts.
Within the chrysalis—when experiencing headaches and bleeding fingers—I am lifted by human connection and the possibilities for personal, ancestral, and collective healing. And being lifted, inspired, and guided matters.
Grounding matters, too, which is why I suspect my foot has manifested the consistent, not-easily-forgotten reminder to keep releasing broken pieces. Pieces internalized and unseen. Pieces under the surface and buried deep. Pieces asking to be released if I’m to be transformed.
As a series of articles, “Outside Higher Ed” seeks to identify processes that can be used by academics questioning whether and/or when to leave academia. Over the next four months, I hope to share my chronological process of leaving a tenure-track position, walking through four stages:
(1) origin—recognizing the seed or origin of the idea to leave,
(2) discernment—engaging in careful consideration and career discernment,
(3) planning—preparing when and how to leave, and
(4) announcement—experiencing the exit and others’ reactions to it.
This series has come about, in part, as a way for me to process my experience of changing careers. It has come about, too, as I’ve received requests to share more of my experience, decision-making process, and career advice. Additionally, it’s come about as a response to academic “quit lit,” which I read when making my decision and found both helpful and incomplete.
Typically, stories about leaving higher education share insights into the conditions that push people away from this work, but rarely do they share the pulls or “strong YES” leading to something else. Rarely do they share the processes or practices used to make big career changes or pull back the curtain into the nuts-and-bolts of planning how to leave.
This first piece in “Outside Higher Ed” is the most like the “quit lit” I’ve read, as I share the origins of my story, or seeds underlying my career move. These seeds speak to privileges (race, class, and other positionalities) that make available for me a range of career possibilities. They also speak to my conditioning as a young girl to pursue teaching instead of writing—conditioning that I continue to reckon with and push back on, inspiring new versions of myself called to speak-write-act in this time of urgency.
I invite you to join me in following this series if you’re considering career moves or responsible for mentoring others; if you’re situated in higher education or processing past educational experiences; if you’re undergoing identity shifts or aspiring to a new self; if you’re interested in making change or considering how others do so.
And I welcome feedback and shared storytelling, as I continue to make sense of my own experience and chart new directions from here.
I hold this advice close because I’m so often scared, and recently I’ve been looking deeper into fears and noticing how much they influence (and limit) my life.
One example involves a recent hike in which I had an amazing experience walking on my own through twilight into dark. I strolled more than hiked, paying attention to my breath, senses, and the scenes around me.
I noticed, for example, how sound changes along the trail, especially when walking next to bushes alive with insects and crossing from one side of the mountain to the other. I could feel the ground—packed dirt, flat stones, and jagged rocks—and how each traveled up my body: from feet to ankles to knees to hips to my back. I experienced day turn to night—witnessing not only the sunset but also the twilight and darkening of night. My eyes adjusted, my perceptions changed, and the moon became more and more pronounced.
Truly, I love being outdoors at night and in the wilderness on my own, but I so rarely allow myself either experience because fears are driving more than back-seat riding. For a number of reasons, this evening was different.
To begin, I’d already thrown caution to the wind: riding across Phoenix to get to the trailhead during rush hour traffic. On a typical day, I’d give up hiking to avoid a car ride. Perhaps being out of my routine helped me open to what I too-often restrict.
The conditions also helped me feel secure. Though hiking in 105-degree heat, the trail was crowded with hikers every few feet, so I felt sure that rattlesnakes would stay far away. I had companions on the trail—people I knew were walking slower and faster than me, making me feel that I wasn’t out “on my own.” I had water and a cell phone, too. Sturdy boots and a hat helped me feel prepared.
As I strolled, I witnessed the beauty of the moment, wanting to soak it all in and linger in the possibilities. I found myself thinking about fear and its partner, trust. What if I trust not only snakes but also myself? What if I trust my feet to be sure-footed? What if I trust that I’m prepared to speak, write, and stand UP when action is needed? What if I trust that I’ll learn and recover from the riskiness, hurts, and whatever else fear is warning me about?
To open my heart and trust more boldly and bravely, I’ll need to do it scared. In this time of vast injustice and needed resistance, Docta E’s advice is what I need to hear and to say to myself time and time again.