Eight years ago, I suffered a long-term bout of post-tenure blues. I was pretty sick of myself as both a researcher and a teacher, and I lacked enthusiasm for any part of my job. I wrote about my melancholy on my now-defunct academic blog, which helped, especially since I received useful suggestions from readers. It also helped to know that I was not alone. But it took some time to develop new habits and kick those blues.
One of my problems at the time was the "what now?" conundrum. I had published my first book, received nice reviews, and had done some work toward articles related to it, but other than that, I didn’t have a vision of where to go next. Since I don’t work at a two-books-for-tenure kind of university and was never looking for that kind of job, I didn’t have a second book in process or on the back burner. I was also not really feeling the excitement of my research field any more. I had said what I thought needed to be said about it, and I was out.
In part, I needed to give myself permission to rest intellectually. I needed to go fallow for a while. There is no timeline to full professor except the one you give yourself. This can be a problem for some — putting off research too much in favor of other demands — but it can also be a boon, allowing for serendipity.
I have the good fortune to work at a university and in a discipline that is not expecting me to run on the grant-funded-research treadmill all year, every year; I can do some intellectual wandering and don’t have to worry about dead ends. So I wandered and explored. Eventually, I felt the research spark again and found a new long-term project, one that has come to fruition only in the past year, as it took me into new subfields that required teaching myself new skills. But that work was energizing; it made me feel as if I were in school again, starting fresh.
In the meantime, I also discovered what it means to be established in a field. That helped give the work I had already done some purpose, and it generated a new kind of satisfying work. About the same time as my funk, my first book started to get citations, to be added to syllabuses and recommended-reading lists, and to influence younger scholars. As a result, I was asked to write review essays, reviews, and chapters in companions and guides, and I was invited to be a respondent at conferences, a contributor to special issues, a visiting scholar in graduate programs, and an organizer of panels and seminars at conferences. I was also invited to edit an anthology of texts for classroom use.
Such meticulous work also helped save me, getting me invested in the subject of my first field again. It was satisfying to have a clear goal in a project and to be able to meld my classroom experiences with my research knowledge.
The production of textbooks and editions is not something that every university or department values, but they should. Not only did such work, with a clear goal and purpose, help me kick my scholarly melancholy, but the anthology further enhanced my reputation in the field. If the reputations of researchers help build the reputations of departments, colleges, and universities, then widely read and assigned texts should matter. Textbooks and editions are also among the clearest indicators that research and teaching are related, a concept that academe often has trouble articulating to the public. Making space for this kind of scholarship and rewarding researchers for it might help combat post-tenure blues while disseminating the work that we do.
My blues also reflected a dissatisfaction with the classroom, after multiple years of teaching the same things over and over and realizing that I would have to do this for many more years. Two things that really helped: seeking out new and different teaching opportunities, and refreshing my usual courses as much as I could. I team-taught for the first time, with a colleague in a related discipline, which revitalized my way of thinking about both my specialty and my methods of teaching it. And I redesigned all of my recurring classes, from the content to the methods, partly inspired by the team-teaching experience.
Here’s the other thing that really helped with both research and teaching: a sabbatical. Taking an entire year, using it to move forward on that new project and to spend serious time in manuscript libraries (your version might be the lab or another kind of archive or library or the studio), reinvigorated me, reminding me of the exploratory side of research and discovery. I allowed myself to fall down rabbit holes of curiosity because I had the time to do so. I came back to teaching rejuvenated and taught some of the best classes of my career.
Colleges and universities can help stave off post-tenure and other blues by building in a sabbatical for all, not just for research projects but also for the scholarship of learning and teaching, even if just for a semester. Summers free of teaching are good but sometimes not enough. Intellectual work requires fallow time, and the time and space for exploratory work at a quieter, slower pace. Also, teaching is emotionally and psychologically draining. I’m an excellent teacher, but after seven or so years, I get grumpy and become less effective. If colleges — or other professions — want to combat burnout and various other mental funks, sabbaticals are worth the investment.