The Career Cost of Life Long Learning

I recently ran across a Washington Post article that sent me down a path of intense reflection.

America’s Next Union Battle May Be On Campus

The article discusses a growing movement of full and part-time faculty seeking Union representation in the face of significant labor issues. This topic is important to me on a number of levels, but let me set the stage so you can understand where I’m coming from before we get into this deeply.

I spent most of my growing up years on university campuses. Many people have heard of the term “military brat”, well, I was a “university brat”. There are some amazing perks of being a member of this community. You often get to tag along with your parents to meet VIPs, attend concerts and lectures that are oftentimes outside of the financial reach of many Americans. We often were able to take trips to places that might not have happened otherwise. But one of the most amazing gifts was being exposed to an atmosphere where dreaming big was the norm, not the exception.

For many years I could not imagine a life outside of higher education. I just knew that I was going to make the right moves and one day become a college president. I informed my parents of this at a very young age and they dutifully and lovingly made sure that I was aware of the academic preparation that would be required for me to pursue that goal.

Being the child of parents navigating academic careers also presented a lot of challenges that are not often discussed outside of this rather small community of The Academy. I witnessed up close and personal the sausage making viewpoint of the tenure and promotion process. I saw and internalized behaviors and practices that were extremely unhealthy that I would learn were broadly used to cope with the peculiar stressors that the higher education workforce suffers through in relative silence. I wept over the disparities in the treatment of women and minorities regardless of standing and rank and it was heartbreaking.

I, myself, experienced the disappointment of not one, not two, but three separate post baccalaureate educational experiences. My disappointment is not aimed at any of the schools that I attended in particular. Looking back at it now, I can recognize that what I experienced was bad timing. The Academy I had dreamed of joining was a beautiful dream of the past and perhaps one that was never designed to fit me in all honesty. I didn’t see the signs for a very long time but they were there.

I remember conversations as a graduate student when the need for union actions became necessary and I witnessed state legislatures and university administrators fighting against graduate students and para-professionals having access to livable wages and benefits. I remember the fear that roamed the hallowed walls of buildings that should have been filled with ideas of improving the human experience but instead had scholars wondering if they would lose their graduate school appointment for standing up for their rights as workers. Have you ever seen a “conduct unbecoming of” clause in a graduate school appointment letter? It gives university administration a way to terminate a student from a graduate program with very little opportunity for the graduate student to defend themselves.

Now imagine how a clause like that can affect a graduate student who embarks upon a controversial field of study. Or someone who attempts to maintain healthy boundaries and work life balance and is told that they must not “want it bad enough” if they choose to coach their child’s soccer team over taking on an additional “other duties as assigned” mandate from their advisor? Can you imagine how that clause could be used against a student who had a difference of opinion with their chair or dean? In a place where you are supposed to question and stretch and grow your mind, you have to also contend with not ruffling the feathers of the powers that be because it could end your career.

And then there is the matter of the workload. The Academy is one of those places that for most employees they never really get to clock out. The ideal formula is supposed to be that you balance teaching, learning and service. It sounds great on the recruitment poster. What it often turns into is unreasonably heavy teaching loads, little to no release time to do research that also requires hours of grant writing and administration to fund said research and a lot of fire ant dancing to try to be visible doing enough “service” to keep your career on track.

I spent years watching my dream of building a career of teaching, learning, research and community service morph into a decidedly dystopian and heartbreaking reality of a beleaguered workforce that is continuing to lose top talent at an alarming and increasing rate to other industries outside of education.

There are some who remain to carry on the good fight. Even I learned how to retool my skill set and support the higher education workforce as I can. I still believe in the vision of an Academy that holds precious the mission of pursing knowledge for the benefit of humanity. A place where we think deeply and solve problems and contribute meaningfully to society at large. A place where we grow and develop minds that think critically and expansively for the good of ALL mankind.

The cost is high and the scars many of us carry are real and deep, but I still have hope because we NEED to protect the mission of higher education. Young people need to understand and be well versed in critical thinking and logic. They need to be exposed to the arts. They need to explore the human condition and develop empathy for their brothers and sisters. Now is not a time to surrender white flagged to the pressures of respectability politics. Colleges and Universities have a responsibility to protect the pursuit of knowledge and this is a fight we cannot afford to lose.


Marta is an award winning filmmaker, writer and producer committed to sharing the rich and complex stories of America’s Heartland region.  Marta wears several hats as Chief Creative-in-Charge of MartaGwyn Productions, LLC as well as the Co-Founder and Senior Grant Writer of Youngblood and Associates, LLC and Chief Operations Officer of Marta Collier Educational Systems and Services, LLC.

Marta is also the founder and editor-in-chief of TheWRITEaddiction.  An online community of writers that publish creative and inspirational works daily at www.TheWriteAddiction.com.

Marta is an alumna of The Ohio State University and Tougaloo College with degrees in Sociology and English-Journalism and resides in Little Rock, Arkansas, with her husband and unconventional college sweetheart of 11 years, Terrance Youngblood.

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