This I Believe

Jack - Washington D C, District of Columbia
Entered on February 18, 2007
Age Group: 65+

This I believe: that in my seventieth year I can still make a meaningful contribution in my job as professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies. Up until a few years ago university faculty were forced to retire at 70. That requirement has now been lifted, and tenured faculty in effect have a lifetime job, continuing to teach as long they like. But most faculty do retire somewhere between 65 and 70, partly because they want to do something else in their later years, and partly because many universities provide financial incentives to retire. A recent survey tells us that full-time faculty 71 and over represent only about one percent of the total; the rest have moved on.

But I don’t want to retire. This is my second career after 20 years of Army active duty, and I have not had my fill of the classroom. I still get that butterflies in the stomach feeling, a mix of excitement and fear, when I meet a class for the first time. I still enjoy that moment a couple of weeks into the semester when I get to know all their names (with a little help from a seating chart and a photograph), and they begin to know my idiosyncrasies.

I realize that I don’t have the energy or creativity I once did. That I sleep less, and less well. That I need a short nap in the afternoon if there is an evening class. That tinnitus makes a large classroom hard to manage. That last year a student wrote in the anonymous “Ratemyprof” web site that I was a “cute old man” (but the evaluation numbers were good).

I believe that I am still worth what they pay me, even though it is a lot because of my seniority a nd experience, and that the university can hire two bright and energetic new Ph D’s for what I earn. I believe that there is a tradeoff between what the young junior faculty can offer, and the experience and institutional memory that I can provide. In the meantime I try to give something back to the institution that has given me so much. I believe that competence in academia is not age-specific. I know younger colleagues who should have found other work many years ago. And even though there are now few faculty older than I am on campus, many of them continue to shine in the classroom and in the journals. I hope I can be one of them.

Sure, there is emeritus status and phased retirement. But those are really polite ways of encouraging you to move on. The geopolitics of limited office space means that the luxury of an office on campus will disappear. And the younger ones don’t call you for advice very often once you are out of the picture.

And so I believe I will keep on teaching until health or my colleagues tell me what I don’t want to hear: that I will have to stop doing what I most enjoy doing. I hope it wont be for a while.