Can an Academic Failure Retire?

Yes, apparently, if you find some kind of job with a pension or have enough SS credit years. But if you were an academic wanderer like me, don’t expect it finally to add up to much.

I’ve thought about this post for a long time and have a story, but am weary of recounting it to myself. I’ve gone back and forth over which of my blogs to post it on, but as it signals the end of my academic employment, as far as I can see, the portfolio seemed like the right place for it. This article in Inside Higher Ed is timely and hits the mark for me here:

Yet of all the machines that humanity has created, few seem more precisely calibrated to the destruction of hope than the academic job market.

So, I retire at the end of June. Here’s a mix of the high and low points without a narrative thread to bind them into a shroud:

Both high and low:

  • I began college as a freshman in my 30s and finished the PhD at 48. In hindsight, this was one case where it really was too late to go to college. I have anecdotes about age discrimination in higher ed, but I’m sure it’s not the only reason I failed.
  • I tried to be a good teacher of composition in all the adjunct positions I had, even though that’s not what I ever wanted to be (See the post on Why I Probably Won’t Teach Again for that explanation).
  • I found one niche in online teaching, but could not continue riding the adjunct train, especially in conjunction with another full-time job (my fault).
  • I am pretty good at designing and delivering teaching online, but the grading of essays is just too much for my sanity (my fault).
  • I successfully moved into another field as a director of a center for instructional technology. I thought it was my dream job until they fired me and closed the office for what they said were budget cuts. That changed me forever. (Maybe it was my fault).
  • I moved into a second position in the instructional technology field, a lesser position down the ladder.


  • I had publications in good journals before finishing my degree (see CV).
  • I started an editing project that may prove to be satisfying (see Special Projects).
  • I paid off all my defaulted credit card debt after the job loss in 2008. Yes, this was a high point, enabled by academic employment.
  • I’m finally going home and will not miss the lonely apartment.
Photo Credit: robynejay via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: robynejay via Compfight cc


  • I never got one interview at MLA or elsewhere for a tenure-track job (so you can’t blame my flawed personality). My application letters must have been the worst ever and/or my academic pedigree really did matter, despite what people may tell you.
  • I gave up, probably too soon, trying to publish more articles, etc., after so many years of failing to get an interview (my fault).
  • I made no attempt to turn my dissertation into a book, because I was waiting to get into a tenure-track position where I might be mentored (my fault).
  • I’m kind of embarrassed to say my field is American and working-class literature, because I was never able to develop or teach a course in either. I tried to incorporate such literature in Western Classics and World Literature surveys, but that’s not the same as developing your expertise.
  • I will never be able to pay off SallieMae and have a deep fear of this organization (my fault).

Great photo of a train wreck that came up in the image search for failure.

It’s sad that I am still wandering and may always be, or maybe wandering is its own kind of profession. Maybe that editing project will be the verse that Apple > Robin Williams > Whitman have asked me to wonder about.


Author: Barbara

I have a PhD in American Literature, taught in higher education for over twenty years, and directed two Centers for Instructional Technology before retiring.

3 thoughts on “Can an Academic Failure Retire?”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: