Thursday, December 16, 2010

Guest Post: Breaking up is hard to do…

So I’m leaving. After more than 11 years at the University of Alberta, I’m packing up my office at the end of this term and starting a new position at Concordia University in Montreal on January 1. As has already been discussed on this blog, moving around is a fact of academic life, but it mostly seems to affect graduate students, post-docs and sessional instructors. Mid-career moves – at least in the humanities – are rare and as I’m discovering, emotionally difficult.

The move to Montreal is a happy one: my new department has existing strengths in my particular research field; my new colleagues are all lovely; I’ll be within driving distance to the archives I use on a regular basis; and I’m going home.

It’s not like I was itching to get away from the U of A. I have wonderful colleagues here and am part of an incredible research community that has fostered my writing and intellectual thinking in ways that I had not imagined was possible. I will admit that Edmonton has been a bit of a tough slog at times (why are the restaurants here so expensive and unimaginative?) but it has been home for a while now and there are many things about this place I will miss when I am freezing/sweltering in the damp cold/heat of Montreal.

But leaving has been hard. I knew that saying goodbye to friends was going to be difficult, but these are the people I know I will be keeping in touch with, the ones to whom I say with all sincerity: “Yes, please stay with me when you come to Montreal.” I’m also sad about leaving my department colleagues, both academic and administrative, but I’m sure I’ll see many of them at conferences. And of course there are the other people in my life that I have been saying goodbye to: my amazing and funny chiropractor, the trainer who has whipped me into shape over the past 5 years. Then there's my partner who has to finish up a job here and will not be moving to Montreal for another year and a half (hooray for skype and direct flights!).

What surprised me about leaving the U of A was how sad I was to leave the institution. Last week I dragged my ass to every class with an overwhelming feeling of ennui and sadness; and on Wednesday, when I told the 95 (ish: it was the end of term after all) students in my 20th century Canadian art history class that this was the last class I would be teaching at the University of Alberta, I got all choked up. This surprised me, because while I knew that saying goodbye to the people I cared about would be difficult, I was unprepared for the grief I would feel about no longer teaching at this institution.

What gives? People in the “real world” leave jobs all the time. What is so special about our lives as academics that we feel so attached to our institutions? As this blog makes clear, we are explicitly and frequently critical of the institutional culture of the university; we rail against the short-sightedness of our senior administration and the inadequacies of our colleagues; and despite many positive experiences, our students drive us crazy with their lack of self-awareness and basic knowledge. Yet the university remains our home, the place we know we will return to physically and psychically for the better part of our lives, not because we don’t know any better, but because it gives us the intellectual and emotional security we need. I know I’ll find that at Concordia as well, but right now breaking up with the U of A is proving to be very hard indeed.

Anne Whitelaw
Associate Professor, University of Alberta Concordia University

3 comments:

  1. We complain about the institution so much because, in the end, we are committed to what is best about it. And as you point out, we don't move very much, so we have a lot of time to become attached to the aspect of the institution that really matters--its people.

    Someone told me once that you never really say goodbye to people in academia because you always see them again, somewhere. But that's not really true, is it, since you have said goodbye not just to your students, but to the space of your teaching for more than a decade. You have said goodbye to a piece of yourself, and although you're going to say "hello" very soon in a new teaching setting, it can't be easy to leave the teacher you were and became at U. of A.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

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  2. Anne, I'm sorry to hear you're leaving the U of A, but allow me to wish you all the best at Concordia!

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  3. What an interesting post, Anne -- I was just thinking as term ended that I've now been at Waterloo as long as I was at Alberta (as a grad student) and longer than I was at York, at Guelph. I began to look around as though this is my forever home. I don't know what it looks like to be at one university any longer than six years. I'm interested to see what comes next: will I get hopelessly bored? Will I feel more and more at home? Will I embed myself deep in the structure and make it my own, help drive the institution forward? I just don't know.

    All the best wishes in your move. How exciting ... but I hope you don't suffer too much trying to find the place where they give you keys. And the other place where they dole out photocopy accounts. And campus id ...

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