Monday, November 25, 2013

On Leaving Academia (Twice)

Moments of decision draw our attention because of the way they lead us into realms of psychological experience. A reporter asked me recently at what point I realized I was going to leave academia to pursue work in education policy. Hers was a novelist’s question, and it has prompted this rather novelistic answer.

As in novels, I begin with a preface. Regular readers of this blog will have realized that the recent years have been marked, to a degree greater than in my previous life, by sleeplessness and overwork. (See herehere, and the comments section here.) I would date this period to the moment when I became a parent: young children and theoretical physicists turn out to have very different opinions about what counts as “early morning,” while somehow managing to agree on what counts as a late night. And then there were the labors of delivering the math standards, a large process that I’ve spoken about often (including here and here).

My work on the standards was reaching high intensity during a period that also saw the birth of my second child and the death of my mother in 2009. Indeed, until the death of my father in 2011, I was in charge of my parents’ long-term care, having moved them from the Detroit area to a nursing home in North Bennington in 2007.

Inevitably perhaps, given all this, my memories seem least relative to such things as the ability to quote standards passages verbatim. But then by nature I am not a person who looks backwards very much.


As challenging as the years prior to my departure from Bennington College were, they were also an exciting period of rapid intellectual growth—growth that I attribute in large part to my membership in Bennington’s unusually vital intellectual community. My academic output during this time was varied, and my course designs were novel. I participated in the founding conversations that ultimately led to the College’s new Center for the Advancement of Public Action. But teaching is a job that requires total presence, and at a residential liberal arts college, this total presence must be sustained for fourteen weeks at a time. My life had become logistically and spiritually incompatible with that. My students weren't getting my best anymore. Neither, for that matter, was my own family; as heroic as I can make my own efforts sound, it was my wife's strength and not mine that carried us through those years.  


Fall 2010 wasn’t the first time I left academia. As a doctoral student at Berkeley in 1999, I came to the conclusion that I needed to abandon physics in order to support my family. My father was 72 years old at the time, working 60 to 70 hours per week in a factory. And if he never complained about it, I could stand it no longer. I looked at hedge funds and other things that quantitatively skilled people do to earn money, but I chose a riskier path instead by moving to the East Coast and starting a company. Soon after moving to New York City, I arranged a better job for my father with his plant supervisor. My father would transition from the floor to the tool crib, a job where he could sit during his shift in an air conditioned environment. This was a major improvement, especially as my father’s Parkinsons symptoms had become pronounced by this time. Those symptoms progressed quickly, and it wasn’t long before he was confined to a bed in his home.


How does one 'come to a conclusion' like the one I drew in 1999? Mysteriously, I think. At first, there is no locus of decision—it’s as if the teeming cells of the body are jostling with one another to cast their votes. Eventually the hindbrain is informed. Later, the frontal cortex is brought in to make a formal announcement. Until that moment, you suffer existential agitation.

Leaving academia the second time was much the same. I was on a leave of absence from the College, but the schedules for classes and committees were taking shape for the coming term, making a decision necessary. The deciding “cellular votes” in this case probably came from my skeleton; I knew especially in my bones that I was too tired to return to the intensity of a Bennington semester, on top of all the standards-related work that remained to be done.


I don’t remember now why I phoned the President of the College, rather than meeting with her face to face. Liz might have been travelling. Or I might have been acting on a sudden burst of courage, one that might fade if subjected to the delay of getting on her official calendar. In any case, I remember that I called from my kitchen in Pownal. Liz probably knew what I was going to say as soon as she saw my number on her phone. After I got to my point, it was clear that she was relieved by my decision.

Liz and I have been friends for a long time. She was my President as a faculty member, and for me she probably played an even greater role during those years—years when my own mother, a similarly strong and intelligent woman, was slowly dying. Liz was relieved because she could see that I had pulled myself to the breaking point, and she knew I wasn’t bodily and spiritually safe as long as it continued. I expressed my most important concern, that I wasn't capable of doing a good enough job in the coming semester. This also was clear to her.


In some ways, leaving academia (again) has been a shift (again). But as I view my life in perspective, I also see a continuity: I’ve been an educator for my entire working life. But why did I take up K-12 education again, after so many years in higher education? One straightforward reason: I saw a problem, and I wanted to solve it. Physicists are problem solvers above all, as I noted in a faculty lecture I gave in 2007; that is one reason why you find physicists in all kinds of fields.

It is true that in many ways, I was flourishing at Bennington College. I was widening my intellectual horizons and deepening my understanding of what it means to teach. I worked on varied problems that interested me. I published the textbook I’d long envisioned writing.

But even with all that, I felt restless. A clue as to why might be found in an experience that I had in 2008.

Pownal is a small town in southern Vermont. A brief term as Chair of the town’s planning commission in 2008 reawakened me to public service. For several years, Pownal had been having a difficult time passing new zoning regulations. Leading the process to a successful conclusion that year was something I was proud of, because it made my town a better place to live for thousands of people. This episode—as minor as minor could be on the scale of national events—has nevertheless grown in personal significance as I’ve reflected on it these past few years.

I left academia twice, because twice in my life I came to realize that there was a specific, important thing that I was capable of doing and that I ought to be doing. I left once to serve my parents. I left a second time to serve my country, agreeing with others that mathematics is important to the prosperity of a nation and to the soul of an educated person.


People often ask me if I miss academia. Actually, I had a sharp reminder of my earlier life only a few days ago. It was after dinner, and my daughters were sitting at their desks doing extra math problems in the workbooks they use at home. As they filled up their pages, I drifted quietly from one desk to the other, getting one or the other of them unstuck at times and checking over the answers on each page. I fell so naturally into my old professorial rhythms that the experience would have been poignant, if not for the sense of privilege I felt to be participating so deeply in my children's learning. It may have been as brief as ten minutes. But for those ten minutes, there was only the hum of quiet concentration in concert, set to the ticking of the living room clock. I felt the opposite of restless.