Falling From the Ivory Tower


Hindsight is 20/20 and, in hindsight, 2020 is the year I made a decision that wouldn’t work out. It was early March, and the semester hadn’t yet moved online due to Covid-19. I had the intense realization that I would be graduating in two months, and I had no idea what I was going to do. For the last three years, I’d been regularly scheduled as a graduate teaching assistant with steady pay and a university health center to take advantage of. It was a relative luxury. So, anxious about unknowns, I stuck with what I did know and signed on to adjunct in the fall.

            I was part of the adjunct faculty for two years, which isn’t that impressive a number when you consider some people are in it for decades. I taught online for an entire year and transitioned to an in-person format where it was clear the students and faculty were all adjusting to a “new normal.” For the most part, I tried. I tried to be a good teacher, understanding of life’s circumstances but demanding enough that they’d want to get better. I tried to make a mandatory English class as fun as I could. I tried to stay in touch with other faculty and the department.

            I made the decision to leave in early 2022, but hoped something could change my mind. I had joined a faculty committee even though my contract didn’t require hours. I had asked for the opportunity to teach different classes to gain experience. During this, my physical and emotional health declined—not entirely due to work—and, more often than not, I was disappointed, miserable, and lonely.

            None of this is really a reflection on the department I worked for, because a lot of it is due to my unique circumstances and a system that demands a certain level of foreknowledge. I can play the blame game as long as I want, but the answer will never be definite. At some point it’s not worth trying to figure out how I could have done better, because the past is the past. I was the first person in my family to attend graduate school, which meant I didn’t have someone’s previous experiences or advice to help me understand the ins and outs of academia. I didn’t understand what a relationship with my advisor could look like and was often confused by how mine differed from other students. In the first year and a half of my MFA, I was trying to save and appease an unhealthy relationship instead of building new ones with my cohort. When that was over, I had less time to salvage my friendships, reprioritize my life, and then have it all upended by a pandemic.

            So, then, continuing teaching made sense. I didn’t realize the pitfalls, though, and every semester I would say “It’ll get better” or “I’ll fix that issue next semester.” There were always new issues, and it didn’t get better. Being an adjunct didn’t have the security or stability I’d hoped for. One semester I would have a full course load, a decent paycheck, and benefits. The next, I’d have less classes, barely make my bills, and only be able to pay for my medication because someone at the pharmacy had pity. The inability to predict how secure I’d be each semester was a rollercoaster of anxiety.

            Again, I had options I didn’t take. I could have taken up a second job—as many teachers do—to help boost my paycheck. I could’ve changed my living situation to ease some of those bills. Unlike others in my shoes, I had my parents’ help when I needed it: for grocery gift cards, shopping trips, or eating at their house.

            That anxiety, though, didn’t go away. I felt like a failure for constantly being behind on grading, even though I tried to do better in how I went about it. I felt like a failure when students stopped showing up to class. I felt invisible when professors and staff who I had seen around or known for almost a decade couldn’t remember who I was. I took some of the criticisms of my student evaluations harder than others. The last semester, wrapped in depression and a slow spiral, was the worst. Knowing I would lose my health insurance by leaving, I started titrating my migraine medication. The side effects were worsened by the stress, and I spent more than a few office hours laying on the floor with the lights off, attempting to recover before my next class.

            As I said, every adjunct and academic journey is different. I was never sure I wanted to teach, but I still tried my best to love it. Others I worked with found greater success through their own methods; they earned what they worked for. I try not to be jealous, because I’m happy for their success but I sometimes wonder how life could’ve been different if I had known more about climbing that academic ladder, devoted myself earlier to it, and ignored the hardships.

Maybe what hurts most is how few people noticed or cared I left.

            In the year since leaving teaching, I had many moments where I regretted the decision. Why hadn’t I toughed it out? Who did I need to speak with or what questions did I need to ask to learn the key to Making It? Like any unhealthy relationship, though, I realized I missed the comfort of what I already knew instead of facing something New. I may have failed as a teacher, but it gave me the opportunity to grow in ways that surprised me.

            I hadn’t had much time to write as an adjunct, but I dove back into it and drafted a novella in the month after. I wrote more short stories, started and abandoned a novel, and started another (which I will finish). I blogged more and put some publications under my belt. I went on a Getaway and traveled to three countries, something I wouldn’t have been able to do because adjuncts don’t get that time off. I spent more time with my family and friends. I went to a stadium concert. I earned my happiness outside of work.

            The hard part, of course, was stepping out of my comfort zone and finding a new job. Starting in June 2022, I applied to 74 jobs. I’d heard it was an “employee’s market” but that wasn’t my experience. The jobs I applied to were often administrative, marketing, or teaching adjacent. Out of 74 applications, I only had seventeen interview offers, and only three of those turned into job offers. At most of my interviews, they wanted to know why I was leaving teaching. Instead of going into paragraphs-worth of description, I told them I wanted security and stability. I started applying to a wider swath of jobs by December, ones that I wasn’t considering in June. This included retail.

            My retail experience was almost a decade old at this point, but I knew it was doable. And so, in early January, I was hired as a sales associate at a mall. Not long after, I was named Employee of the Month, earning recognition I wouldn’t have counted on. I got along with my co-workers, liked helping the customers, and (the best part) left the work behind when I went home. I was making minimum wage with no benefits, but I was happy.

            One year after leaving teaching and almost four months at the retail job, I was promoted to an assistant store manager. My hard work was recognized, and, after a little thought, I accepted the position. The funny thing is the pay is now roughly equivalent (or more, depending on hours) than I was making as an adjunct, and it comes with benefits. I still have the time and energy to write, maybe not daily, but often enough to make progress on my novel. I’ve achieved somewhat of a balance between work, writing, and life. I am happy.

            Is there a moral to this tale of academic woe and retail success? Maybe, for someone like me who feels like they’re drowning and can’t reach for help, this will be the inspiration to risk it all on something different. And maybe that’s the biggest difference between where I was and where I am; I’m comfortable asking for help, making comments, and questioning in retail whereas I felt silent in academia. I’ve found a voice I can work with, even if it’s pitching merchandise and making sales.

            Oh, and my migraines went away a few months post-teaching. Turns out the main trigger was definitely stress. That is in relatively short supply nowadays.

            Some might see this as a fall from the ivory tower, but I’d like to imagine I grew wings and flew off into a new adventure.