February 16, 2014 by Jean
Recently, I asked one of my senior students how she was feeling about her impending graduation from college, and she replied that it is “both exciting and scary.” “I know exactly what you mean,” I said. “This is my senior year, too, and I’m also finding it both exciting and scary.”
I was reminded of this conversation as I began reading Carl Klaus’s Taking Retirement: A Beginner’s Diary (Beacon Press, 1999). Klaus, a Professor of English at University of Iowa began his journal in February of his last semester of teaching – exactly where I am now. The impetus for him to begin writing about retirement was that some of his plans for “keeping his hand in” at work fell through and his retirement suddenly began to seem much more scary than exciting.
I was struck by Klaus’s ambivalence and sense of loss as he approached retirement and wondered about why our reactions were so different. One possibility is gender. Klaus also considers this, noting that the women of his acquaintance seem to have much less angst about retirement than do the men. As he reflects on these differences, he concludes that “retirement, like everything else in the world, is … deeply differentiated by gender….” (p. 20) and realizes “how differently men and women have been acculturated to think about working and retirement.” (p. 21) Men in our culture are encouraged to measure success almost entirely through occupational achievement, while women who focus single-mindedly on career are suspect. In a course on “Changing Sex Roles in America” that I was a teaching assistant for at Brown University in the 1970s, the professor teaching the course, sociologist Nancy Williamson, assigned students to write “future autobiographies” in which they imagined that they were reflecting back on their lives from the vantage point of their eightieth birthdays. The women in the course tended to write accounts full of details about balancing personal and professional lives. The men tended to write accounts of successful careers, many of which ended with the sentence, “I also had a wife and two lovely children.” Just as neuroscience has found that women are likely to have more neural paths linking the left and right sides of their brains, women also seem to have less differentiation in emphasis between different parts of their lives and more varied sources of life satisfaction and achievement.
Another difference between Klaus’s experience and mine might be that he “phased in” to retirement over a period of five years, while I have continued to work full time. On the face of it, this difference would seem to make Klaus’s transition easier than mine. This is what Klaus expected. He begins his journal with these words:
Retirement. I’ve been phasing into it slowly, gently (three years at three-quarter time, two years at half-time), so I figured it would be an easy transition when the no-time begins in a few months from now. I’d step into my new life so well prepared for it that I’d hardly miss my old one. (p. 1)
But Klaus’s phase-in to retirement involved gradually divesting himself of the parts of his job that had made retirement attractive. He was no longer working long hours, facing huge piles of grading, or dealing with the hassles of committee work or the stresses of administrative work. By the time he began keeping this journal, he was teaching one much-loved course and advising a few doctoral and master’s projects. No wonder he was having trouble remembering why he had wanted to retire.
My college also offers the kind of phased-in retirement that Klaus experienced, but it never seemed like an attractive option to me; working part-time for less money would just delay the date when I could move back home to Maine. So, I have continued to work long hours, to deal with a sometimes exhausting load of grading, and to continue with non-teaching academic responsibilities. I have tried to divest myself of some of these, but not very successfully. So, while I am not participating in the sociology department’s search for my replacement and have stopped attending faculty meetings, I am still involved with faculty evaluations and participate in more than my share of meetings. Especially during my overwhelming fall semester, I was reminded every day why I wanted to retire.
Even so, I have been experiencing some twinges of impending loss. In this last semester of teaching, I am hyper-aware of how much satisfaction I get when students’ suddenly grasp a new concept and how much of a buzz I get from the exchange of intellectual ideas in the classroom. Losing this does seem scary. There’s a buoyant moment in Klaus’s journal, near the end of his last semester of teaching, when he attends a talk by a visiting writer and friend and describes what happened this way:
Adam’s thoughtful talk about varieties of nonfiction writing … led to such a provocative discussion that it drew me into the give-and-take, and helped me to see that what I crave, after all, is not the opportunity to keep teaching , so much as occasions like this, wherever I might find them, that will keep me mentally stimulated – on my toes.
Like Klaus, I can imagine getting that intellectual stimulation outside the classroom; but I do wonder how difficult it will be to find (or make) those occasions.
As my about-to-graduate senior was leaving my office, I offered this thought about the exciting/scary life transitions we are both approaching: “It’s like turning a new page in the book of your life,” I said. “It’s a new, blank page, and you can write anything you want on it.” “Thank you,” she said with a big smile, “I’m going to hang onto that image!”