At Retirement, Looking Back on a Career in Academia (posted on 5/13/22)

Today, on my last official day as a professor, I’d like to share a few reflections on work and career.

First, thanks for all of the good wishes on my retirement, which I wrote about on Monday.  As many of you guessed, given my politics and my snarky disposition, it has been a challenge to make through three decades as a prof in a university liberal arts department! 

I’ve been biting my tongue at work for a long, long time – which is why I am not exaggerating when I’ve talked about what a joy it has been to write for CO and this site.  It’s been cathartic, even as it’s carried with it more than a little uneasiness about the chance that some of my colleagues might find out about my columns here.  (My saving grace might have been that there’s an apparently impressive British guitarist named Martin Simpson, and if you google that name, he’s the one who’s going to pop up first.)

Having said that, I have loved my time with most of my co-workers.  They are a useful reminder to me that as much as the leftist elite in our country seem like reprehensible people with terrible politics, that’s not the case with everyone on the left by any means.  My department is full of friendly and generous people, and it has been a pleasure knowing them.

One quick example: in the fall term of 2014, when my dad was dying of cancer in TN, I was teaching a course in Writing in the Law.  During the last month of that course, the students in each class were put in teams, and they debated a specific case.  The best of those teams would then debate against the best teams from other sections of that course, with law school faculty judging the competition.

I got the news in late October that dad had just a couple of months to live.  I had been driving back and forth from FL to TN to spend time with him each week for most of that semester, but I decided then that I was going to TN to spend those last few months with him.  I went to my Director’s office prepared for a confrontation, and ready to quit my job if I had to.

But he was nothing but gracious.  One of my other colleagues stepped up to take over my class, and coach my students through the debate part of the course, while I was able to stay with mom and dad – Cassie the Wonder Dog went with me, of course, for moral support – and grade my papers from up there.  I don’t think many workplaces would make that kind of accommodation to a co-worker, and I’ll never forget it. 

So whenever I’m writing about some reprobate like Joey Gaffes or Que Mala or the Deerskin-Dress Demagogue Grandma Squanto (#wemustneverstopmockingher), and feel my heart hardening against all leftists and their ideology… I think of my kind, thoughtful, lefty colleagues.   They are a useful reminder that there is more to life than politics, and people of good will can get along despite political differences, if they’re willing.  (I know: that last part is key.) 

One other valuable aspect of my professional life has been the chance to experience both blue collar and white-collar life.

My mom was one of 4 kids and my dad one of 8, and none of them went to college; everybody had blue collar jobs.  I spent most of my 20s getting a BA, MA and PhD in English, a field in which job prospects weren’t great.  By my mid-30s, I had cobbled together some college teaching gigs, but without a pension or a very high salary, I realized that I needed to do something to prepare financially for retirement.

So I bought two rental houses in several years, and then two more a decade later.  They were all in rough shape and needed work, and dad happily came down to teach me all of the stuff I’d been uninterested in when I was a teenager with my head in a book all the time.  Now, 25 years later, we’ve got three old rental houses (including Rosewood, the burned Victorian that I’m hoping to be able to restore and keep), and I’ve spent decades with two distinct circles of friends: blue-collar family and tradesmen who have helped me with my rentals, and white-collar university faculty. 

I’m glad to have been both a professor and a landlord, for several reasons.  First, because mixing physical with intellectual work has felt like the best of both worlds.  I’ve always loved reading and writing, and it’s been a joy to teach great lit, to be able to communicate some of that greatness to those students who were receptive, and to help those who were ambitious to become better writers.  

On the other hand, academic politics have become more and more stultifying and intolerant, I’m allergic to meetings, and the results of the work can often feel like casting seed on rocky soil.  Spending three hours grading produces nothing tangible.  And in the last 10 years or so, political correctness and intolerant woke-ness have made it tougher to have the kind of lively, thought-provoking debates and discussions that were a significant perk of intellectual life.

By contrast, home renovation and repair can be very challenging and satisfying, not least because the results are tangible.  Doing demo is therapeutic, and there’s pride to be earned by learning skills from various trades.  Spending 3 hours hanging sheetrock or painting produces obvious, dramatic progress.

And renovation and property management engage the mind at least as much as teaching does.  Solving layout or repair problems takes creativity; evaluating various properties and estimating ROI on potential purchase or renovations involves risk, along with the possibility of gratifying rewards.

On the other hand, doing only dirty, physical work – full-time, 50 weeks a year for decades – would drive me crazy.  There’s nothing like getting clogged toilet calls or doing roof repairs in a steamy summer to make you appreciate reading great books in an air-conditioned office and having people call you “Dr. Simpson.”

And yet, there’s nothing like a semester trying to teach Shakespeare to kids who complain that he’s a dead, white male with a patriarchal, capitalist bias to make you want to put on some work clothes and a tool belt, and knock down some lathe and plaster with a small sledge and a crowbar.

Ultimately, working in such different environments has kept me from retreating into a bubble with other like-minded people, which is a strong temptation for those in high-status jobs in politics, business and academia.   It’s given me an appreciation and understanding of different kinds of work, and differing classes of people.  And while I really admire some of the very intelligent scholars I’ve met, doing focused, diligent work in their fields, I’m looking forward to retirement partly because I feel more at home working on houses with my blue-collar friends.

Now more than ever, I find myself agreeing with William F. Buckley’s famous quote that goes something like, “I’d rather be governed by 300 people drawn from the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University.”  

As much as I’ve enjoyed my time in academia, it’s felt less and less like a natural home to me.   I know that blue collar people can be too dismissive of “intellectuals,” believing that they have no common sense, and are too concerned with theories at the expense of reality.

But I think a lot more damage is done by intellectuals and other elites who look down on regular people.  And when you combine the perks of a high-status academic job with the utopian and quasi-totalitarian aspects of leftist politics – they generally believe they know better than the masses how those masses should live – what results is not often pretty.

That’s why it has been so gratifying to participate in the Cautious Optimism website: it feels like the best of both worlds.  Writing these columns involves engaging in discussions among some very smart people on some very high-falutin’ subjects… combined with the chance to mock some people and ideas that richly deserve it, often with some satisfyingly juvenile humor mixed in.

Now that my professor days are behind me, I’m looking forward to doing more writing here on the CO site — I’m hoping to start writing two columns per week, on Fridays and Mondays – and maybe even experimenting with some podcasting. 

Thank you all for reading, and I’ll be back on Monday with a look at some of the hysterical lefty commentary on the potential reversal of Roe v. Wade, along with whatever trouble Joey Gaffes manages to get himself into over the weekend.

One thought on “At Retirement, Looking Back on a Career in Academia (posted on 5/13/22)”

  1. Martin, thanks for your columns on CO and especially for the insight you provide from the world of of something that before reading you, and my niece getting a degree and maintaining her conservative view, I thought was lost


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