Last week, I left my teaching job at Arkansas Tech University. I made the 11-hour drive back up to Arkansas, cleaned out my office, left my keys on my desk and sent in my resignation letter the following morning.
While the official number is 15, the true number of years I taught was 16. I never intended to be a professor. At the time, I was doing cool work in communication for the United Methodist Church and this new thing called social media, I was getting to travel around the world to tell stories and coach people around the country. Occasionally I got asked to come and give some guest lectures at my alma mater to journalism students. Then one day I got asked if I would be willing to teach a multimedia class as an adjunct because the professor who taught it had left. Being a professor sounded pretty swanky and so I agreed. Then a couple of days later I got another call asking if I’d be willing to teach an intro speech class, and then a business communication class. The following year the economy crashed and all my freelance contracts crashed, but Tech offered me a visiting position. Full-time with benefits. It didn’t pay as much as I was making before but it was a stable job in an unstable economy. I got the chance to attempt to emulate some of the qualities of my own professors who had meant so much to me. I got to be weird. I got to ask hard questions. I got to have hard conversations. I got students to play dodgeball in the rain. I got to steal a few bits from Dead Poets Society. I got to play devil’s advocate. But, I never felt like an academic. I didn’t have a PhD. I didn’t really feel like I belonged there. Imposter’s Syndrome is a real thing. But one day I realized I wasn’t an academic. I was a storyteller and a teacher and that felt way better.
I saw some lights start to come on in my students’ heads. I saw ideas click into place. Obviously not everyone. But some. I saw that the things I was doing worked. I saw that the part I was playing in a University education was paying dividends. My classes got larger. Class discussions got better. Students would stay after class to ask more questions. Students would stop by my office to ask even more questions or sometimes just to plop down in a chair and start telling me about their lives. There was hardly a subject that wasn’t discussed. We laughed and at times we cried. But, most of all we connected as humans.
Those were some of my best days that I will treasure until I am no longer capable of thought.
But winds change and some courses are hard to hold onto. The call of the wild has steadily been growing in me and the Covid lockdowns sent everyone home to their screens. While teaching remote allowed me more time on the boat, the human connection I had with new generations of students slowly began to decay. Under the 45th US President’s tenure, international students stopped enrolling, tweets of “fake news” and the university’s move to largely abandon the humanities over STEM fields has made it less and less likely that new students would to enroll in journalism school.
Whatever the reasons, enrollment plummeted and still hasn’t found the bottom. There were two moments over the past semester that I knew for sure that this ship was taking on water more water than she could take. The first is when my department head questioned me if we should change the name of our degree from journalism to something else since journalism is now such a dirty word. (It had already been removed from the name of the department when it was changed from “Communication and Journalism” to “Communication and Media Studies.” And secondly, on the last day that I was physically in a classroom to teach, not a single student showed up in person. Instead I spoke to a camera on a wall to two students (out of twenty enrolled) who logged in online.
When that class was over, I knew it was time to go. There’s not a moment of that time at the university that I regret, but it’s time to adjust my heading.
The Arkansas Tech University professor is no more. The Pirate Professor sails on.
This morning I woke up on Mistress, my boat in South Texas on the first day of a new tack. She’s 42 feet of sail and teak and she’s now my permanent home. In a couple of days Mistress is getting hauled out for some much overdue TLC and then once that and hurricane season have passed, we’re going to do what I set out to do so many years ago and chase some horizons, tell some stories and play some music.
When the winds change, the course needs adjusting, and it’s time to tack. Don’t hesitate. Spin that wheel.
Money can be found. Time cannot.
or Amazing alliterations?
Going once… going twice… go away.
I’ll see you next time.
– The Pirate Professor