A Rebuttal: The Case against Retirement
My good friend and erstwhile mentor Tom McDaniel exhibited his usual artful style and keen wit in his essay “Checking Out? You Need an Exit Strategy” (Academic Leader, May 2013).When he emailed the piece to a few other senior faculty members at our institution, I responded instantly, “Excuses and justifications that will not stand up to the intensity of true scholarly inquiry. Every morsel that one allows to fall at the feet of the wavering and weak encourages or supports them in their misguided proclivities.” Had I known that I would be reiterating my off-the-cuff remarks to a national audience, I would have spent more time on the prose and metaphors. I would rephrase now, but Tom would call me on it. We exchanged one-liners back and forth for a few minutes, one-upmanship by two individuals who love the interplay of words. Later I saw him in person and chastised him that to speak about such matters was to give them validity.
On “gracious retirement”
Needless to say, I don’t buy into the concept of gracious retirement. Although past normative retirement age myself, when someone dares to inquire when I plan to retire, I retort, “I prefer that you not use such vulgar profanities in my presence.” Asked if I plan to die in the classroom, I rejoin, “That sounds about right to me, but I don’t want to anger my students too much because they might wish to hasten the day prior to my timetable.” So I counter with my own reasons on why not to consider retirement.
First, to admit the obvious, health or certain other circumstances may dictate one’s fate. Good genes and assiduous commitment to physical fitness support my ability to maintain my personal perspective on the matter. One of my heroes was the remarkable doyen of diplomatic historians Ernest R. May at Harvard. I read his books when I was a freshman in college and 42 years later participated in a summer seminar with him at Harvard, where at nearly age 90 he was still an active, brilliant, and inspiring professor. He drove a convertible sports car and played tennis in the afternoons. He finally did retire not long before he died, a danger that I address below.
Also to set the context, Tom and I have shared what many would consider a most favorable academic environment. He has put in more than 40 years at our institution, and I’m not that far behind. Our small women’s liberal arts college has its stresses and faults, but for the most part the faculty (and the administration) get along well, students and faculty care deeply about each other, and the commitment to the institution by most of its participants is off the charts. It has been a pleasant place to commit our lives, and we have both prospered.
Tom has spent his career in the multifarious roles that he notes. I have been a full-time faculty member with a modestly significant list of administrative functions, including 25 years as department chair and 32 years as director of summer programs, as well as division coordinator, president of the faculty senate, and other duties of shorter duration. Nearly seduced by the sirens of administration early in my career, I came to a realization that my calling and passion were in the classroom and at a specific place. Hence, I never succumbed when flirtations as dean and even a president offer came my way. Teaching is what I do, soon in my 44th year, and I am far from ready to forgo its pleasures. Professor May continues to inspire.
My Letterman-style list on why not to retire
10. You might die. Too many individuals that I have known expired soon after retirement. Others, deceased intellectually. It is no cliché that being around young people, relating to them, and constantly trying to discern how they think and react keeps one young.
9. With our seniority, we tend to get paid more money than most, and at age 70 we can double dip by drawing full salary and Social Security.
8. The sources of academic gossip, at the core of our enterprise, fade away.
7. Where else can an old gray-haired man get a room of pretty young women to pay attention to him and indeed hang on his every word?
6. What does one do with more than 2,000 books and the artifacts, pictures, awards, etc., in an office that is a museum of a life? No room for all this stuff at home.
5. Who would listen to my compendium of stories collected over the years, all with didactic purposes, other than a fresh supply of novices each term who have not yet benefited from this reservoir of wisdom? Try doing this at cocktail or dinner parties and your invitations will dry up quickly.
4. Why strive to be familiar with every new book in one’s teaching fields, and with whom does one debate the ideas encountered? Add new movies, news programs, and even television shows to that list.
3. Does anyone beyond your department peers and a few others really care about your latest research or publication? If Tom departs, who is going to read and critique my articles?
2. Admittedly, retirement would mean more time to read the New York Times and Washington Post online daily but with limited utility if one can’t discuss an article in the paper that day that strikes to the heart of our immediate academic pursuit.
1. Is there anything that can replicate the opportunity to shape a life, to see a freshman grow through her senior year, and know that you contributed to her becoming? And every fall spawns a new batch of fresh minds and personalities.
Bottom line: Every morning you can’t wait to see what transpires on campus that day, and the day passes so quickly that the time between breakfast and bedtime seems to be measured in seconds. I would even miss committees and faculty meetings. Grading, not so much, but I must admit that I still feel a bit of anticipation in contemplating how students might handle a creative essay question, and some research papers catch my fancy.
Admittedly, for many the thrill is long gone, mind and body tired. In truth, some went into phased retirement at tenure. For those for whom what we do is less than satisfying, retirement is the best option. I acknowledged above that physical limitations can provide a legitimate excuse. I contemplate the impact of declining hearing on my ability to perform. For now I attempt to turn a liability into an asset by joking about being old and increasingly senile before exhibiting more energy than a teenager. One of my proudest accolades came only a few years ago when I was a visiting professor at a very staid European university. A student remarked that I had more enthusiasm than the entire university faculty combined.
My major concern is that I am too vain not to be what I was at the top of my game, and the many award citations testify that the game was sound. I believe that I can maintain it for the foreseeable future, but I worry that others will recognize slippage before I do. That risk I am willing to take. As a former baseball player, I know that I can’t chase down a fly ball to deep center field like I could in my prime, but the rhythm, mechanics, and joy are much alive within me.
The will to stay
When the will to stay is weaker than the urge to depart, then okay, do so. But don’t act precipitously or from some false premise. I don’t buy the bromide that “you will know when the time comes.” Don’t give in to such pretenses as opening up slots for new faculty/administrators, that you can no longer cut the mustard, that technology or the millennial generation is more than you can handle, or lots of other sops. Come on, Tom, you know better than this drivel. You don’t even play golf, email is an age-unrelated bane of all our existences, it isn’t about the largess in TIAA-CREF for you or me, and I have been grabbing power catnaps in my office for years. Your reasons don’t fly for those, as I know you to be, who are addicted to this coy mistress of the academy. Okay, if need be, you or others disengage the administrative roles. That path you got sucked into may not have been the best choice for committed teachers anyway. Tom, you are a tenured professor and still a damned fine one.
The immortal bard George Jones had it right: “He stopped loving her today, they placed a wreath upon his door, and soon they’ll carry him away, he stopped loving her today.” If you still find the love affair as obsessive as George, continue to treat that word retirement as an obscenity. The institution will be better for it.
Joe P. Dunn is the Charles A. Dana Professor and chair of the history and politics department at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. Contact him at email@example.com.