Are You the Retiring Sort?

March 08, 2004

Question: When I began in this profession, during the Vietnam War, I was young and brash and knew you couldn't trust anyone over 30. The same age as Janis Joplin, I somehow thought I'd die before I grew old. Instead I've turned 60 (as has Mick Jagger). My contemporaries are retiring, and I'm wondering if I should also be heading toward the glue factory. How do I know when it's time?

Answer: Ms. Mentor's readers may think she gets many letters like this from mature academics wanting to know when to hold and when to fold. But Ms. Mentor confesses that she created this month's letter herself, so that she could pontificate about retirement -- because not one of her sage correspondents has ever broached that delicate subject.

Yet it crouches like an elephant in the middle of the floor at countless faculty meetings about five-year plans and "the future of the department." Thanks to buyouts, phased retirements, and other ingenious fiduciary maneuvers, many departments are now heavy with those who are half-in, half-out -- still teaching, still holding tenured slots, but not committed to the future. Some are dedicated; some are grumblers ("Didn't we do all that in 1972?"); many are invisible.

But those curmudgeons are not Ms. Mentor's subjects. Nor are those who retire for health reasons, or because their bank accounts are exceptionally healthy. The Caesars (the precise planners) are far less interesting to Ms. Mentor than the Cleopatras (queens of denial) -- one of whom is, of course, this month's fictitious correspondent.

Ms. Mentor believes that her correspondent should retire right now if she has a passionate pursuit. Many retirees want to travel, or grow their own herbs, or find 85 ways to cook eggplant, or spoil their grandchildren. Some who were nerdy stay-at-homes in high school become full-time rock''n' roll fans at last, finger popping at concerts by the Rolling Stones. Many make mischief on the Net, luring romantic partners with their literate wit and provocative screen names ("Hot Babe Dulcinea" and "Great Expectations").

There are also academics with long-postponed research projects, set aside for any number of reasons, that they could finish if they retired. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan's handpicked biographer has been holding the materials for a decade and a half, and a Johns Hopkins University chemist once sat on his results, not writing them up, for more than 15 years. (Now he would probably be the subject of a stern post-tenure review.)

As a cautionary tale, Ms. Mentor also cites Frederick Jackson Turner, the historian who created the influential "frontier thesis" in the 1890s, but never wrote "the book" setting out his argument in all its glory. Many graduate students have heard the story (perhaps apocryphal) of how on his deathbed in 1932, he reportedly whispered to a younger colleague, "Finish the book, Max."

Turner may not have truly wanted to finish: What would he do next? Happier retirees tend to be those with plenty of plans and plenty of changes to make.

"Marshall," who always resented wearing a coat and tie, now spends much of his time happily in his old ratty bathrobe. "Matilda" no longer wears makeup, and her hair is her natural color. Both belong to a retirees' group that meets weekly at their local Barnes & Noble to hash out "the meaning of life." They yell a lot about "responsibilities" and "rights," and they delight in scaring younger people without having to threaten them with bad grades.

For it is students, Ms. Mentor is sad to say, who are sometimes the reason that academics hear an insistent little voice urging them to "Flee! Flee!"

Some kinds of students do drive their professors out the door. "Harry," a physics professor, quit in his early 50s, tired of trying to get lusty teenagers to care about particles instead of private parts. "Ben" decided teaching political science was a hopeless cause when more than half of his students admitted they hadn't registered and didn't plan to vote. (Ben ran for public office himself and is now a vocal city councilman, inveighing against waste and corruption.)

"Claudia," a literature professor, had an epiphany one day when half a dozen of her students who'd earned B's on their term papers staged an in-class protest, marched to the department head's office, and got their parents to bombard the dean with telephoned complaints. They demanded the "right to rewrite," so they could get A's.

Claudia told them they could rewrite to their heart's content, and some did. She read none of the rewrites, gave them all A's, and filed papers to retire. "I couldn't stand the whining anymore," she says.

There are also retirees fleeing from their colleagues. The late Carolyn G. Heilbrun retired from Columbia University after decades of sexism and lack of appreciation for her pioneering work in feminist criticism. "Chad" hid in the men's room so as not to have younger colleagues ask "your generation's opinion" on current events.

Many would-be retirees no longer care about what's new in their professions. Some, in science, lose interest in new computer gizmos. "Georgia," a generation ago, dutifully learned the jargon of literary theory but never liked it, and eventually could not bring herself to read it at all. It gave her migraines.

But what is the number-one reason for healthy, solvent academics to retire? Ms. Mentor, querying her usual sources, got some version of the same answer: "Administrative baloney."

Many do come to dread the paper in their mailboxes: more forms, more reports, more questionnaires, more ballots. They despair of regime change in hostile departments; they suffer from chronic turnover in the dean's office. They hate their legislatures and wish they could find a way to shred their e-mail messages.

Sometimes they wake up with jaws aching from grinding their teeth at night.

Yet all academics have learned so much from their years of teaching and committee service. They know how to make an agenda, move decisions along, find out who really has power. They know how to lobby colleagues and how to rig a meeting through strategic rumors, changes of site, losses of key pieces of paper, and e-mail messages mysteriously undelivered. They know how to be Gandhi or Genghis Khan, as needed.

And so some of these vociferous, newly retired, Vietnam-era academics have moved into politics and activism. They've defended abortion clinics, sometimes escorting their former students past picket lines. They vote actively and are vocal on school boards.

Ms. Mentor, who is of an age herself, believes that those who can teach with vigor and enthusiasm should never stop. Especially when they're able to teach new things, academics of any age can learn from their students. Those who can produce research that's humanly valuable should keep at it. Those who do committee work fast and well should do it and save others.

But Ms. Mentor would also like vital academics to retire and move into "the real world" -- not just gardening and golf, but fighting for health care and other rights that will come only when articulate, committed citizens write convincing letters, use their lecturing skills to sway audiences, and yell a lot.

All ye who've pontificated from a podium, says Ms. Mentor, can just as easily pontificate to the world and make it better than it was when you began. Retired or not, we owe that to ourselves and to our posterity.

Question: Is it possible that the interminable tergiversation and malodorous pomposity of Faculty Senates make their members want to retire now?

Answer: Perchance.

SAGE READERS: As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes invective as well as praise, astute commentary and one liners, gossip, rants, and questions. She rarely answers letters personally, but has covered many a noble theme in her tome (Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia) and in her archive on this site. Correspondents are always guaranteed anonymity, and details are scrambled and even pureed when queries are used in this column.

Her views do not necessarily represent those of The Chronicle.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her Chronicle address is "Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia," by Emily Toth, can be ordered from the University of Pennsylvania Press.