Okay, now what?

I don't know who said it, but it's the truth: the biggest surprise in life is old age. And the biggest surprise in academic life is becoming one of the senior faculty members. "When did this happen?" you find yourself wondering. When did all those people who used to do the heavy lifting around here just up and leave? These were the people who sat in long meetings with the administration haggling over issues of compensation, workload, tenure and promotion, curriculum change... These were the people who led initiatives, developed departments, created new programs.

But there comes a moment--it could be while sitting through a long, acrimonious meeting--when you realize to your utter astonishment that you're the grown-up. You're the person you always formerly looked at for a clue on how to move forward. It's a shocking realization, too, because you never set out to become a grown-up. No, you set out to explore ideas, to teach, to try new things in the classroom, to have intellectual fun. The dirty little secret of being an academic is that it's an incredible dodge. You get to have fun doing stuff you like and they pay you for it.

Besides, being the grown-up was never part of the plan. When I look in the mirror I still see that same clever, rebellious-minded graduate student. I certainly don't see Ward Cleaver, a guy who had grown-up written all over him.

Nevertheless, one day you think "Holy cats! I'm Ward Cleaver!"

Academics deal with this realization in various ways. Some retreat back into their disciplines and define themselves as a professor of X, and that's all I do, thank you very much. They prefer not to get involved and let others handle the larger issues of the university. That's easier at a bigger institution than a smaller one. At a small college like mine there is forever too much work and too few seasoned faculty to do it. A place like this necessitates the wearing of many hats. A few of my colleagues (and don't ask me why) actually like being a grown-up and transition into positions of authority. Most, however, just soldier on, a bit beleaguered, a bit stunned and maybe even a bit resentful. This wasn't what they signed up for.

I came out of a long meeting yesterday and realized I have become one of the people entrusted to make change happen. I'm the one who has to sit in those rooms and be a Ward Cleaver.

And it is a surprise. Like old age, I didn't really see it coming.


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