On Leaving Academe & “Dead Wood” vs. “Old Growth” (or farewell, W. Pannapacker)

I met William Pannapacker in 2014 at the HASTAC/digital humanities conference at Michigan State, at a reception if I remember right. We only talked for a few minutes, exchanging stories of blogging from the “old days” and some of his columns for The Chronicle of Higher Education when he wrote under the name Thomas H. Benton, which always struck me as sounding less like a pseudonym than his actual name of Pannapacker. So after a seven or so year break, I was happy to see what I assume will be his last column, “On Why I’m Leaving Academe.”

It’s surprising he’s opting out because Pannapacker has a sweet gig. Besides being a tenured full professor, he has been an administrator since 2020, the “Senior Director of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Programs and Initiatives” at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.  Pannapacker explanations for leaving academia are similar to those who have written similar columns in recent years. He writes about the demise of the humanities, the changing demographics that have contributed to falling enrollments everywhere (and that’s even more true at very small and private liberal arts colleges with a explicit religious mission, like Hope College), and the difficulties of being able to just “keep up” with the field. Etc.

As usual, I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with him throughout this essay, but I wanted to write a bit about his perceptions that he’s part of “the problem” as a senior and tenured professor. He writes:

At this point in my career, at age 53, the costs of employing me are becoming greater than what I am likely to contribute. I am an impediment to solvency, diversity, and innovation for my institution. Tenure could keep me in this position until my 80s, while most new doctoral graduates went jobless. Tenure should not have become a lifetime appointment for a shrinking percentage of the profession subsidized by everyone else.

It’s not fair. And it is rife with professional hazards for those who receive it. Administrators talk about “dead wood,” and professors talk about “golden handcuffs.” If you’re an aging professor, like me, why not choose to set yourself free to explore more-challenging possibilities?

As I wrote about last month regarding EMU’s faculty buyout offer, I can relate to the midlife crisis fantasy of leaving academia for a different career, though after I thought about it for fifteen minutes, I concluded that’d be a terrible idea. The only other “careers” I’m interested in at this point are lottery winner and/or retiree, and the last thing I want to do is “explore more-challenging possibilities.” Though I bet Pannapacker didn’t take this leap without having a new job already lined up. Perhaps he is going to end up in some sort of humanities/arts grant writing position in his newly adopted city of Chicago. Good for him if that’s the case.

He’s right about the “golden handcuffs” of tenure in the sense that it is almost impossible for senior tenured faculty like me and Pannapacker to move on to a different university even if we’re willing to give up tenure and take a big pay cut. There are just not a lot of senior level faculty positions offered in any given year, and I couldn’t get a job as an assistant professor in my field someplace else because the hiring committee would think “Why would this guy apply for this job? There must be something wrong with him.” I know this is the case because I’ve been on several hiring committees and that’s what has happened with candidates like that every single time.

But I also think a lot of what Pannapacker is saying here is wrong.

First off, saying he’s stepping out of academia and thus improving the lives of graduate students and supporting the good work of the institution is the kind of virtue-signaling few of us can afford. We all have bills to pay. Second, there’s a BIG difference between a professor in their 50s who is perhaps disengaging a bit and someone who is in their 70s or 80s who should have retired long ago. My students remind me every moment that being in my fifties means I’m old, but c’mon, not that old. Besides, the era of automatically replacing a retired/leaving tenured professor with a new tenure-seeking professor ended about 20 years ago. If Hope hires anyone to replace Pannapacker, it’s most likely going to be a non-tenure-track or part-time job– not exactly coveted positions.

Then there’s the “dead wood” thing. I like to describe myself as beginning the dead wood/no longer giving any fucks stage of my career, but I’m of course mostly kidding. As I mention in my previous post (and as I’ve “vague-booked” on Facebook and elsewhere), I’m making a point of opting out of situations and meetings to avoid the toxicity that flows freely amongst some of my colleagues. But all that really means is I’m skipping a lot of meetings and I’m not putting my name in to be on any sorts of committees. Since I spent years doing that work, I kind of feel like I’m getting out of the way to give some of my other colleagues a chance to do these service and quasi-administrative things. I’m still active as a scholar and still taking teaching seriously, so I guess I’m less dead wood than I am an “old growth” tree of some sort– nothing like a Sequoia, but like some kind of scraggly shrub that somehow is still there after decades of forest fires and floods. So sure, there’s a difference in the amount of work I’m willing and able to do now versus when I was in my 30s or 40s, but that doesn’t mean I should be put on an iceberg and shoved out to sea.

I think the real definition of a dead wood professor is someone who is so checked out they are a burden and they drag down everyone else around them. The example that immediately comes to mind for me is a guy here who was finally forced into retirement a couple years ago. I will skip the details, but trust me: anyone reading this who has been a professor in my department in the last 20 years knows exactly who I’m talking about.

Now that’s dead wood, and I’d argue that the correlation between age and being dead wood is fuzzy. People are more likely to become a detached burden on their colleagues and students after they’ve been on the job for 20+ years, but correlation is not causation. I’ve met and worked with people who are as active and involved well into their 70s, and I have met and worked with people who started “dying” in their thirties the moment after they got tenure.

Or maybe Pannapacker is taking this satirical advice from McSweeney’s too seriously:

Retirement is not about money or age but the annihilation of any sense of purpose and meaning in your professional life. Once you accept this, you will quickly see how retirement really is for you. And we have greatly streamlined the process. To retire, all you need to do is find a quiet corner of a building (but not mine!) and say, out loud, in a determined voice, “I retire and release the university from all current and future financial obligations!” Being already in your head, I will hear you very clearly. Then you can let out a small whimper and crumple to the ground in a heap of deflated good intentions.

In any event, good luck in Chicago and beyond, William! Back here in academe, I’ll keep the lights on for you– at least for another 10 years or so.

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