Trocchio is an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Rider University, and she began her position in 2019, shortly before the Covid shutdowns. Like other parents with young children, Trocchio and her partner struggled to keep up with work while sharing child care. But despite reporting by
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Trocchio is an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Rider University, and she began her position in 2019, shortly before the Covid shutdowns. Like other parents with young children, Trocchio and her partner struggled to keep up with work while sharing child care. But despite reporting by The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education about the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on working women generally and on women’s diminished publications in academe specifically, Trocchio felt that her institution ignored these inequities and penalized her for them during her mid-tenure review, when her research productivity came under scrutiny. In light of pandemic disruptions, faculty at Rider University were given the option of a one-year extension. But taking it came with financial consequences, since a faculty member who the reviewers determine is on track to tenure also receives a raise. What was intended to be a compassionate solution, Trocchio believed, perpetuated inequity by delaying promotion and a pay increase for those already bearing the pandemic’s brunt.
But “I am done” did not mean that Trocchio was leaving higher education, at least not yet. It meant that she was done living at odds with herself. Done fretting about standards that didn’t align with her own values. “I can’t be someone who is arguing for systemic reforms,” she told me, “and then not at least attempt to take in some of that messaging when thinking about myself as a professional.”
Much of the recent reporting on academic burnout features mid-career or senior faculty members who are either leaving or contemplating it. Since she has not resigned her position and is not actively planning an exit, Trocchio might seem instead to illustrate Kevin R. McClure and Alisa Hicklin Fryar’s definition of disengagement: “withdrawing from certain aspects of the job or, on a more emotional level, from the institution itself.” (This emotional withdrawal sometimes goes by the name quiet quitting.) Such malaise might seem less remarkable in faculty members who are one or two sabbaticals removed from retirement — but if such withdrawal persists among early-career faculty over the next two or three decades, it could erode the culture of higher education substantially further than the pandemic already has.
Yet Trocchio remains highly engaged with her institution as a mentor, teacher, scholar, and activist. She loves her students, worries about their own signs of post-pandemic disengagement, and considers it her mission to be their advocate. Some experts believe that scholars like Trocchio represent a healthier future for higher education: one in which faculty members define clearer work/life boundaries and advocate for themselves before they feel exploited or become burned out. Is Trocchio’s “I am done” an ill omen for the future of higher education or a sign of emerging resilience among early-career professors?
Indeed, the drop in student performance during the pandemic’s Zoom era has only continued after the return to in-person teaching. Faculty members often feel pressure from administrators to lower expectations for students who are struggling to meet deadlines and sometimes skipping class altogether. Earlier this year, New York University fired Maitland Jones Jr., a respected researcher and teacher, in part because students had filed a petition protesting the rigor of his organic-chemistry course. The story resonated nationally because many faculty members feel similarly trapped between disengaged students and provosts preoccupied with retention. A professor at a regional university in the Midwest, whom I’ll call Dr. Tallmadge, told me, “Recruitment and retention is all anyone talks about anymore.” (Tallmadge and the other unnamed source in this article insisted on anonymity to speak openly about their current workplaces.) Tallmadge’s institution lost 20 percent of its students during the pandemic years. He says he would be willing to support retention efforts if there were clear tasks associated with that part of the work, but there aren’t. “It feels hopeless,” he told me, “and I don’t know what I can do to change it.”
Like Trocchio, Tallmadge accepted a tenure-track appointment shortly before the pandemic began. They represent a cohort whose brief careers have been defined almost exclusively by disruption. Several years into their jobs, many of these scholars are struggling to find mentors, resources, and support systems on campus. Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, sees this group of early-career faculty as isolated rather than voluntarily withdrawn. Faculty like Tallmadge may not be disengaged, McClure told me, but rather struggling to figure out where they belong.
Like many academics, Billing was trained to think of teaching as a calling. In the last few years, she’s begun thinking of it as a job. “I started keeping track of hours that I was working total and where I was spending my time on different kinds of tasks,” she said. “It gives me a daily reality check. How much am I working, when do I need to stop working?” Setting these limits has allowed Billing to focus more on projects like gardening and renovating the home she purchased last summer. She even reconnected with student life by dusting off her trumpet and playing in the pit orchestra for the fall musical. While volunteering for a theater production is a form of service to the college, playing in the orchestra was also fun. “I’m saying yes to spending more time on things that make me happy.”
Another humanities professor, whom I’ll call Dr. Greeley, began a tenure-track position in 2021 at a selective private college in New England after several years as an adjunct. Greeley told me that while there are other jobs she could imagine doing, she still wants the job she has. “I don’t think I’m ready yet to say no,” she said. “I’m still idealistic about teaching and research and service — the whole package.” Even so, Greeley is not willing to sacrifice herself on the altar of the profession. She has small children, and she approaches her work as a 9-to-5. “If I can’t do this job in the number of hours I think are reasonable,” she said, “I don’t want it.” People tell her that she is brave for setting clear boundaries, but to her it’s about remembering why she originally chose the profession: to work closely with students and faculty colleagues, and to immerse herself in research. She said, “If my sense of how to do this job in a way that’s fulfilling to me doesn’t match up to the institution’s, that’s kind of their issue.”
Faculty like Billing and Greeley might be described as pragmatic rather than disengaged. They remain committed teachers, but they know that investing too much of their identity and energy in that role makes them vulnerable to disappointment. Billing said: “Ideally, I’d like to give more to my job, but that would require more support coming from the administrative side that just isn’t there. It’s been helpful to face that reality and make changes within myself and my own attitude.”
If I can’t do this job in the number of hours I think are reasonable, I don’t want it.
Regina Musicaro, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, takes a similarly nuanced view of her future. Musicaro’s position is not tenure track — but it could become so if she secures half of her salary through external funding, such as a career-development grant from the National Institutes of Health. She takes the uncertainty in stride: “Why wouldn’t an institution not want to pay the salaries of their employees?”
Still, Musicaro prefers her situation to a more clandestine tenure process, where she might face reprisal for speaking candidly. She knows she can always fall back on clinical work if necessary. “My identity is not about my career,” she said, although, for a while, the culture of academe had encouraged her to merge the two. Her experiences outside of work sharpened the distinction. “When I was helping my dad out of homelessness, it forced me to measure human worth,” she said. “Achievement gives me incredible benefits, but it’s not who I am. I value living a meaningful life. My life is primary and essential.”
Where older faculty members might see entitlement, Morris sees self-respect. Millennials have higher expectations for being treated with civility. They want to be heard, and they are not as loyal to organizations as boomers were. “Incivility is not as acceptable in the workplace now,” Morris said. “That’s healthy.” While younger generations might be transforming corporations by insisting on more respectful work environments, they have not yet brought the same influence to academe, which still requires poorly compensated labor to function.
“A lot of that work has traditionally been done for altruistic reasons,” McClure, the higher-education professor, says. “And people are saying, ‘I want to do a better job of accounting for that labor. I need to better understand how this work fits into how I’m being evaluated and ensure that it doesn’t balloon beyond the amount of time I have to dedicate to it.’”
But not everyone feels they have the power to set these boundaries. Trocchio, the Rider University sociology professor, points out that saying “no” is more difficult for some scholars than for others. “The exploitative nature of graduate education crashes up against the way that women and other marginalized people are being cultured in this society: to be deferential, to say yes to avoid being defiant,” she says. When there are no accountability structures for equal contributions to service, even those who study systemic inequities can internalize skewed expectations.
This was one reason Trocchio wrote that Post-it manifesto.
A polarized political environment in which scholars are painted as the enemy only makes matters worse. Tallmadge, a queer scholar, has felt increasingly targeted by public scrutiny of academic speech. “It’s very easy for someone who knows nothing about me to say this person is indoctrinating our children,” he said, “or even worse for someone to say I’m a pedophile.” Higher education is an incubator for queer theory, perhaps the place where a scholar like Tallmadge ought to feel most protected. Yet he remains unsure if feeling as vulnerable as he does is worth it in the long run. Tallmadge has a tenure-track job and a book contract with a major university press, yet he feels as pessimistic about his future as anyone I’ve interviewed.
Trocchio is among the early-career scholars who’ve come to see professional boundaries as a form of self-protection. She says the pandemic revealed many things about academe, like the inequitable distribution of service work, that her cohort can no longer ignore. “You are opting into or out of a particular value set in this Covid landscape and post-Covid landscape,” she said, “and you have to own that.” While Musicaro was completing her doctorate, she had idolized academe, but she has come to see it as one of many possible worlds, each with its own idiosyncratic set of values. She now embraces faculty life on her own terms: with contentment, gratitude, and fearlessness. “When I die,” she adds, “I won’t be thinking about tenure.”
Both Musicaro and Trocchio have found comfort in identifying backup plans: clinical work for Musicaro and career coaching for Trocchio. In fact, Trocchio believes her faculty work and coaching fuel one another. “I feel far more hopeful than at any point I have since I started in my Ph.D. program,” she said. “Just the practice of looking beyond, of exploring the beyond, is incredible for its ability to inspire potential within oneself that is not defined by external academic validation.”
It is difficult to say which model — pragmatism or a more negative form of disengagement — is more representative of this cohort. Most of the young faculty I reached out to declined to speak with me. That’s understandable: Scholars who are working toward tenure but have not yet earned it have a great deal to lose.
Paul Musgrave concluded his essay on professorial discontent on a sobering note: “Each semester, I end my classes with an exhortation to students to take what they learned in the course and use it to be more active, creative, and engaged in their lives. This time, as I delivered the lines to an audience of 30 in a course with 200 students enrolled, I was wondering whether I wanted to give a lecture ever again.” I thought of those lines in late November, when I stumbled onto a Twitter thread by Peter Olusoga, a senior lecturer in psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, in England. Olusoga posted three snapshots of an empty classroom along with a frustrated-looking selfie, presumably after none of his students attended that day’s lecture. “I think it’s important to ask why this is happening,” he wrote. “There was a real clamour from students for face-to-face teaching after 18 months of lock-down, zoom teaching, but they just aren’t showing up.”
I don’t know if any amount of boundary setting will help professors face another 20 or 30 years of that.