14 Things to Do Before You Retire

November 06, 2006

The path of most faculty careers is reasonably clear: from graduate student to assistant professor to associate to full professor to endowed chair to emeritus professor, if you happen to be talented, productive, and lucky.

Nevertheless, there are many things you should but may never do as a professor unless you make a conscious effort to step out of the usual groove of your career. Of course, you are not required to do any of these things before you retire, but, I would argue, some of them are what make academic life worth living.

1. Get Tenure. Without tenure, you are more or less condemned to a string of part-time, low-wage, no-benefit positions at many different institutions with little or no control over what you do from year to year. Depending on your field and your institution, obtaining tenure can be something that ranges from a challenge to a near impossibility. But, once obtained, tenure gives you the chance to do everything else on this list, possibly after 20 or more years of deferred gratification.

2. Learn From an Emeritus Professor. Sometimes retirement means invisibility because people think you do not have any authority and your scholarly views are probably dated. But the retired faculty members know the history of your institution and the profession as a whole, and they have a major role to play in the transmission of that memory, if anyone will listen.

3. Perfect an Introductory Course. Many tenured faculty members avoid teaching introductory courses, surveys, and composition classes, even though those courses are the most important ones in the curriculum. They are the gateways into any major, and they are the public face of your discipline for students who will major in something else. Make your intro course legendary for being difficult and worth taking in spite of it -- even for nonmajors. Support the dignity and importance of the core curriculum, and, in the process, college education as a whole.

4. Be a Mentor for Students. Professors are often trained to regard students as impediments to research. Why not, instead, have a personal policy of selecting every semester at least one student -- and not necessarily the brightest -- to be the focus of your special concern. I have a colleague who recently guided a foreign student through the entire grad-school application process and even helped her settle into a new city after she was admitted with a fellowship. Such behavior would raise eyebrows in some research universities, but I have seen my colleague engage in that kind of extraordinary care for students year after year. Professors can change the lives of their students in all sorts of ways outside the classroom.

5. Teach in a Foreign Country. Break out of the pedagogical ruts imposed on you by long experience in the same setting. Participate in an exchange program or apply for a Fulbright. If you cannot go abroad, try being a visiting faculty member somewhere else in your own country, or maybe try teaching a class at another local college. Find out what students and faculty members at other places are thinking, and you can return with new ideas for your home institution and, perhaps, a greater appreciation for it.

6. Write About Something That Matters to You. If you have tenure, you probably have conducted research and published at least one book on a topic that would ensure your employability and promotion. Inevitably, such undertakings have a way of drifting toward opportunity and away from inclination. Now that you have a modicum of security, you finally can rediscover the passions that led you into your discipline in the first place and, perhaps, ignite those passions in others.

7. Become a Public Intellectual. Write a column for The Chronicle or an opinion essay for a major paper saying what you really think about something controversial, even if you have to risk burning some bridges in the process. One well-read column can have more impact than years of obscure scholarship. Or work in some new publication venue, like a blog, that has little professional respectability and the potential to revolutionize academic discourse. Support the colleagues who are taking those risks to reach a wider audience.

8. Build a Library. Assemble a comprehensive collection of the books in your field. Academic book publishing is suffering for many reasons, but one of them is the failure of faculty members to support their own profession by buying hardcover books. You may not read all of the books you buy, but you will help keep your scholarly interests alive in the marketplace. Arrange to donate your lifetime accumulation to a small college library or an esteemed junior colleague.

9. Be a Mentor to a Junior Colleague. Remember what it was like to be completely new in a strange city and in an alien department, full of feuds going back decades -- all while you are being judged for your poise on a six-year treadmill? Stop by the offices of new hires now and then. Take them to lunch. Give them the straight story on the power blocs in your department without trying to recruit them to your faction. Support them when they make mistakes, and build the web of intergenerational trust.

10. Finance a Prize or a Scholarship. By and large, colleges get what they are willing to reward, and if your department no longer recognizes certain kinds of achievement that you value, put your money where you mouth is. A few thousand dollars a year for a prize can go a long way toward motivating students to conduct research and sustain courses in areas that matter to you. If people from your background are not well represented in your institution, then support scholarships that will help to attract and sustain them. Arrange to leave a portion of your estate to endow the fund.

11. Reinvent Yourself. Learn a completely new -- but complementary -- field of scholarship. Cross-train in another discipline and, in the process, remember what it means to be a student. Reach out to new colleagues to help you learn. Read new journals and attend new conferences. Eventually, teach courses outside your original field, maybe even in other departments, and help to build new, integrative majors.

12. Serve as an Administrator. Professors often bellyache about administrators as if they are not typically doing the best they can under difficult and contentious circumstances. See how your perspective changes after a couple of years as a department head. Serve on a variety of committees and posts that give you insight into admissions, development, public relations, residential life, and other categories of administrative work. That kind of inside knowledge will enable you to work on the next item with some possibility of success.

13. Lead a Major Campus Initiative. The best advice for an untenured faculty member, unfortunately, is to keep your head down and not make any enemies. After tenure, it is time to cultivate that gentle art for the sake of things you care about more than interpersonal relations. Become a leader on committees, and sponsor risky proposals that have the potential to change your campus for the better. What is tenure for, anyway, if not for playing a role in the governance of your institution? And perhaps the most important risk you can take is to prevent the erosion of tenure itself.

14. Preserve Tenure for Someone Else. Do everything you can to make sure you are not replaced by underpaid adjuncts after you retire. If your institution will not guarantee your faculty line, refuse to retire, if possible. Guard your health, remain productive, and stay a tenured professor -- at your peak salary -- until they carry you away on a stretcher. If they preserve your line and replace you with a tenure-track professor, take an interest in that person and hope he or she reciprocates (see No. 2).

This list certainly does not exhaust the important things we should do as professors, but I think it is a good -- if slightly idiosyncratic -- start. And, now that I have tenure, I am working hard at checking off as many of these tasks as possible.

I do not mean to suggest that you should limit yourself to doing any of these things only once. But we often become specialists in one or more of these activities, and it might be a good idea to try to undertake new things from time to time. I suspect that once you break out of a pattern of neglecting one or more of the items on this list, new habits will emerge, and your career and life will develop in productive directions.

There is an elegiac note in the final point of my list. An increasing amount of college teaching -- probably more than two-thirds -- is now conducted by part-timers and graduate students who are so overburdened, unprotected, and transient that it is terribly hard for them to accomplish many of these ideals (though many make heroic efforts). And so the responsibility for maintaining the continuity, collegiality, and quality of higher education rests on fewer and fewer shoulders every year. And the social fabric of higher education -- the central theme of my list -- is ripped to shreds for the temporary illusion of flexibility and efficiency.

In academe, everything important begins and ends with tenure.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at