It’s too early to tell if 2022 will continue “The Great Resignation,” in which millions of Americans, a record number, left their jobs in 2021 for more money, flexibility, or fulfillment. Even though my salary was low, I never thought I would join them.
Why should I? I loved being a writing professor at a local university just a few blocks from my home. For a quarter of a century, my students took me home from crowded, high-energy evening classes that made me feel hip and useful. Unlike my frustrating release rejections and erratic contract assignments, this gig was consistent: I showed up, they paid me. They collected taxes and even gave me a 401,000 and a teaching award. My respectable Midwestern father, who had scoffed at me for being “all freelance,” said, “Finally, a real job!”
When the coronavirus hit Manhattan, I was heartbroken as my students got sick and were kicked out of their dorms as their jobs and internships dried up. Several struggled to return to their homes amid travel bans and chaos. As a struggling technophobe, I was determined not to let her down. I got dressed from my laptop and put on my makeup for Zoom, grateful I’m still working and amazed at how intimate distance learning can be.
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I had promised my students, “Writing is a way to turn your worst experiences into the best,” but now the stakes were higher. Her powerful essays, reinforced by the pandemic, uncovered issues ranging from sudden poverty, racism and homelessness to anti-Asian and anti-Semitic violence and a lack of childcare. A mother held her child and tried to get WiFi from her hall closet. I was moved by their dedication to showing up despite obstacles while everyone was struggling through escalating trauma.
To combat budget problems exacerbated by Covid, the school hired management consultants. Layoffs, pay cuts and union grievances over executive salaries followed. Shortly after, they sent a group email urging teachers to complete a 20-hour remote course to master Canvas, an “asynchronous mode” digital learning management system. This means you can post and access lectures, assignments, and homework on discussion boards, but don’t actually have to meet. The “custom portals” were designed to keep overseas students in different time zones (although the same system crashed twice in December, screwing up international college degrees). It was owned by a billionaire CEO of a private growth company. I was busy helping my students create and publish poignant me-pages on a one-to-one basis and had missed the corporatization of science.
For an author with a creative writing degree and a brain whose operating system was synchronized by denominational poetry and Bob Dylan lyrics, that technical terminology was gibberish. As a part-timer, I juggled a book closing and ran two Zoom courses for the university, along with other private seminars on the same platform. After a week of grappling with the convoluted jargon and trying to translate “custom integration with SIS and open, cross-platform compatible LTI,” I gave up and asked to continue zooming. When I failed to meet the new requirement, the school’s software automatically canceled my already full fall list. I was shocked to be canceled by an algorithm. But I rallied and decided to teach this semester alone and posted flyers on social media. The answer was encouraging; so many people signed up that I could afford more visits from top editors. Still, I expected to be back to normal work next semester. That didn’t happen.
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I couldn’t go back to my personal (now masked) classes without completing the computer stipulation in case the virus would throw everyone back online. It was hard to see new teachers who were half my age and had little experience posting photos on social media in the rooms where I had taught. A colleague suggested I pay an IT professional to do the 20 hour course for me. But as someone who only worked four hours a week at the university and was making them ten times my salary in tuition for courses I invented, I wouldn’t fake it. They had called me a “distinguished” professor with 25 years of faithful service. I couldn’t resign myself to ruining classes that were better on Zoom to fill a post requisite from business outsiders who didn’t teach or write. I assumed they would excuse the unnecessary computer requirement since my classes were crowded with students paying $4000 for credits during a financial crisis. I assumed wrong. I didn’t hide my disappointment.
When I read a former student’s paper in the New York Times about why she would never love a job again, I was intrigued. She was employed by a technology company where she was sexually harassed by a manager. When she reported him, the company protected itself, claiming he had been fined, while insisting they still work closely together. She left betrayed and disillusioned. Despite the big differences – I was twice her age and wasn’t molested – I shared her story. I naively thought my close connection to the school made me more than a cog in its machinery.
“Most institutions operate with a bureaucracy of groupthink and self-protection,” a colleague reminded me. I’ve been privileged to make decisions denied to essential workers who put their lives on the line for employers who didn’t protect their health or safety. I had advised students in the arts to take a day job or part-time job to pay bills, citing my teaching background. It felt like I missed my own plan B.
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In her 2021 book Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exhausted, Exploited, and Alone, labor journalist Sarah Jaffe exposed the dark side of employment in a capitalist society as a power struggle over time and as contradictory goals. However, that was not the case in my family. My parents’ profession lifted them out of poverty, as if achievement were salvation. My mother, orphaned at 13, put my father, a street kid from the Lower East Side, through medical school as he went from secretary to office manager. A doctor by his 80s, his title became his calling as he advocated for black doctors who were being abused in his hospitals and cared for low-income patients for free. He made time to teach, waking up at 5am to make rounds with interns. Like him, I valued the dual career that I didn’t want to give up. But I didn’t know how to contain the pain and change the narrative.
Then I read a tweet that I found enlightening: “Never get attached to one person, place, company, organization or project. Bind yourself to ONLY one mission, one calling, one purpose. That’s how you keep your strength and your peace.” .” It was from Erica Williams Simon, author of You Deserve The Truth: Change the Stories that Shaped Your World and Build a World-Changing Life, who had resigned from a senior position to find more satisfying solo work.
This helped me see that I was not a powerless victim or martyr. I was just too emotionally attached to my longtime employer. At first I was afraid of not having a personal plan (besides being able to afford to stay in my town). Then I realized that I always knew what I wanted: to teach budding writers who felt marginalized how to find their voice and their place in the publishing world. It took me until my forties to make a living in my field. I wanted my past challenges to strengthen my students.
For the past 20 months of teaching alone, I’ve been hitting the same zoom buttons to bring up faces of all ages and backgrounds. New York neighbors mingled with early risers in Vietnam, Hong Kong, Malaysia and India, who looked bleary-eyed before dawn as light streamed through windows and balconies. Revelers from Brussels, France, Italy, Israel, and Egypt—some sat outside in the dark—stayed up late to meet the editors and agents I’d invited to join us. It was like an airport full of international travelers meeting on my small screen. “You’re better than caffeine,” a European student commented in chat.
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As I zoomed in while visiting my Michigan mom, a Hong Kong student emailed me, “Welcome to the life of the gig economy. You are also a digital nomad.”
Surprisingly, I fell in love with my new way of learning online. At the university, only those who were officially enrolled were allowed to sit in my lecture hall. I could not make exceptions to help alumni, those with scheduling conflicts, or special needs due to disability, financial or childcare limitations. Now it was my choice who was allowed to participate. I was able to invite more than a hundred different students who were in need or going through crises to audit, many of them having experienced Black Lives Matter protests and injustices related to Covid. It was gratifying to see her bold and timely debuts in top newspapers, magazines and books. Someone who portrayed the poverty and homophobia he faced was offered a position as a staff writer. A 17-year-old West Coast high school student who had been zooming for 15 weeks said his new clips resulted in a full Stanford scholarship. Two former students in Texas and Michigan brought the first children’s books onto the market. A single mother of two has landed a six-figure deal with Random House for a paper on racism and gentrification. I felt incredibly proud and blessed that I was able to turn my past mistakes into inspiration for a younger generation.
While I’ve updated my Zoom account in case Omicron goes ahead, I remain open to a mix of in-person and e-learning in the future. However, I have learned that not relying on a job or institute can enhance a mission that means more.
Other stories related to the Great Resignation:
https://www.salon.com/2022/01/15/a-zoom-of-ones-own-leaving-my-job-helped-my-mental-health–and-my-mission/ A Zoom of one’s own: Leaving my job helped my mental health — and my mission