When are you going to retire? Have you thought about it yet? And what will you miss the most?
First, the ‘when’. If I didn’t go now, when would I go? 65, on a full pension? Or even later? At the moment, I find it hard to imagine why anyone would want to go on with this job into their 70s or 80s. An article on aging professors in the USA, published in 2013, quoted 71-year-old writing professor Donald Gallehr as saying ‘If I go several days without teaching, I long for it. I miss my students. I wish I was in the classroom.’
Really? Is teaching your personal ‘what I’d miss’? I don’t think it’s mine, much as I’ve enjoyed it over the years.
Living with students
When I moved to The Open University from the ‘brick sector’, many of my colleagues around the country assumed I’d miss teaching face-to-face. Yes, the classroom can give you a buzz (unless you’re trying to do it on very little sleep or in severe pain – and, indeed, depending on whether it’s a class which gives the impression that nobody wants to take it, as was the case with a particularly memorable Beginners’ Latin group I taught). Yes, students ask interesting questions and help you to rethink what you had thought you knew. And they’re often lovely, and always interesting.
Jobs in which you live alongside students (as well as being a lecturer, I was a resident tutor in a hall of residence for several years) give you even more sense of the privilege of watching people discover their potential. Sometimes I found that hard to keep in mind; for example, on one memorable Halloween in which a student dressed only in a black bin-liner and a lot of green paint tried to kill herself with a rusty blade. On that night, I found out that a male student (‘Big Jock’) whose performance in my Roman Britain class was never better than ‘solid’ was absolutely the best person to have alongside you in a crisis.
Living without students
So, students, yes, mostly. However, it’s possible to live without them. And indeed it’s possible to live without the face-to-face teaching which Professor Gallehr found such a potent drug. I did a lot of it (in one job, over 12 hours of face-to-face every week) yet I’ve done pretty well without a serious fix for five years. Teaching at The Open University, which means writing teaching materials and never seeing the students who are engaging with them (we have ‘associate lecturers’ who do the engaging bit), has its own challenges, and I’ve found these challenges far more stimulating than presenting yet another 10-week, 2 hours a week, face-to-face experience.
I suppose I’ve not lived entirely without face-to-face contact. I’ve taught sessions in a few day schools for the interdisciplinary level 1 module and for the level 3 module on myth, and they’ve been fun precisely because the students don’t get to hear lectures very often and so they approach them without any preconceptions. The idea of saving questions to the end is alien to them so a day school lecture can become a huge discussion and go off on all sorts of unexpected tangents. It’s much more fun, precisely because of the unpredictability.
When I took the OU job, I commented that it was as far as you could move in UK higher education without falling off the edge, and it has been a most enjoyable experience balancing on that edge. But that doesn’t mean I want to do it for another 10 years or more!
But back to the ‘when’. In the UK we’re currently working through a change in academic employment which our colleagues in the US have already had to manage. In the US, a mandatory retirement age for tenured faculty members was abolished in 1993, and Caroline Walker Bynum noted in her 2012 piece ‘Time to retire?‘ that the assumption made then, that most would choose to go at around 70, seems to have been correct. The economic downturn from 2008 onwards hasn’t helped move senior people out of the profession.A study of one private US university showed 60% of academic staff working after the age of 70, and 15% retiring at 80 or beyond, while a wider survey showed that 75% of academic staff were intending to retire after 65. All this, of course, has implications for the job market; if people stay longer, it’s likely there will be fewer job opportunities for young academics.
In the UK, we’re playing catch-up. It wasn’t until 2011 that the UK abandoned the ‘default retirement age’ of 65, except for for a small group of professions. State pension age has kept on creeping upwards and you can check yours here. In UK academia, often thought of as a fairly cushy little number with endless holidays, there was initially real fear that nobody would ever leave. I remember a meeting of academics in senior management roles at which the university seemed concerned that older staff would just hang on forever, doing less and less.
Of course, the endless holidays don’t exist now. The summer is no longer a productive time for the research which is part of most permanent contracts, as it is squeezed out by admissions work, resit marking, syllabus revision and so on. Did those empty summers ever exist? I don’t remember them, although I do recall in the early 1990s a chief executive addressing the entire staff at the beginning of the autumn term and welcoming us back from ‘our holidays’. The use of the h-word led to audible bristling around the room. Studies exist showing that the number of hours worked per week by UK academics is actually higher outside term time.
What I’ll miss
So I won’t miss the pressure, pressure which may change in focus between term time and ‘vacation’ but which never goes away. I won’t miss students and I won’t miss standing up in front of a class. There’s no single, clear, good time to retire; your own ideal time won’t be that of your colleagues. I found I could recover my enthusiasm for a while by moving to a university where everything, from the mode of working to the daily acronyms, was as different from the other places I’ve worked as was possible to find, and where I was back working with the (mostly) mature students whose enthusiasms I’d so much enjoyed in earlier parts of my career. But for me there’s nowhere left to run!
I’m not going to stop teaching, however. I think it’s unlikely I’d want to take on a module on one of my specialist subjects anywhere – lots of travelling just to do the same old thing. But I consider that the sorts of online writing I do, in particular for The Conversation, are ‘teaching’, as is the MOOC I am putting together in my last months of employment. There’s more than one way to teach!
Following on from this, what I think I would really miss is writing. I know what Professor Gallehr means, because if I go three days without writing, I get sort of odd. That’s why I enjoy writing for various blogs – the perfect writing opportunity when admin is taking up one’s life! – and I’ll always be grateful to Wonders and Marvels for giving me my first chance to explore this medium as a regular contributor. I intend to go on writing and the next book contract exists and calls to me across the next months of working!