Stepping Away from the Job
The Privilege of Scholarly Retirement
I might be retired, but I’m not tired.” With this, my friend Timuel Black, then in his late 80s, summarized his commitment to continued vigorous civic participation. When he could no longer comfortably take the bus to meetings, someone would give him a ride. If they didn’t, he’d take the bus anyway, so friends and former colleagues made sure that a ride was forthcoming. He also didn’t stop smoking, telling me in his late 90s that there was no longer any reason to deny himself such pleasures.
Richard Brown, my former colleague at the Newberry Library, 10 years Tim’s junior, took a different tack. For a while, Dick went to the library every day and, like so many other historians, turned to “that book that I’d been meaning to write for years but I’ve been too busy working.” Then he stopped writing altogether and turned to painting instead. Still in his 80s, he was indeed tired, so he sought out something relaxing but still intriguing and creative. I doubt he attended many meetings.
This issue includes six short essays by historians reflecting on their retirement, and a seventh focused on its approach. It offers different angles, different perspectives, but just like any attempt to explain or describe the human condition, it cannot comprehensively cover even part of the spectrum of “retirement.” There are just too many different experiences, different ways of living a life as a historian and then stepping away from the job, not to mention that most historians in a position to write about their retirement have had the privilege of a full career spent in (or very near) their chosen vocation.
“Stepping away from the job.” I use that phrase because the one thing all the retired historians in this issue have in common is that they have left institutional employment, the source of their regular paycheck. At that point, they might be divided into one of three crude categories: entering a new stage of life with another focus, whether painting, gardening, travel, or activism; retaining an engagement with history but largely as a reader and perhaps a visitor to historical sites; or not really retiring at all but leaving the classroom or public history appointment to write that elusive book, whether a magnum opus or a “side project,” while in some cases continuing to earn lecture and consulting fees. As Jim Gardner puts it in his reflection after a long career in the federal government, “Retirement would give me the opportunity to finish some projects and start others that always seemed to be out of reach because of the long hours I invested in my job.”
The one thing all the retired historians in this issue have in common is that they have left institutional employment, the source of their regular paycheck.
It is this last pathway that characterizes the unusual nature of scholarly retirement, symbolized by the honorific “emerita/us” status—a practice that occasionally extends beyond academia. A historian can continue to be a historian, to practice historical work for years after leaving their job. Emerita/us status might not seem like much (I once described it to a curious nonacademic as a library card and the right to teach without compensation), especially at institutions where the memo to clear out the office follows closely on the heels of the final submission of grades and loss of travel and research funding. But the title keeps some doors open and enables retention of identity and status. “Hi, I’m Rebecca Smith, professor emerita of history” is just not the same as “Hi, I’m Rebecca Smith, former business executive/lawyer/schoolteacher/engineer.” For most professionals, retirement means one is a “former” something or other; historians, no matter where they do historical work, can still call themselves “historians” long after their official retirement. Even without the formal title and fancy Latin, historians employed in higher education often retain library privileges and an email address. This is a remarkable privilege, even with all the qualifications and exceptions that readers no doubt will identify.
This issue of identity varies with the way historians attach meaning to their research vis-à-vis the everyday practices for which they receive a salary. For college faculty, this refers to the way many refer to “my own work” after responding to the standard “What do you do?” query with “I’m a history professor at Ohio University. I teach Latin American history, and my own work is on . . .” Many public historians use the same framework (“I’m the executive director of the American Historical Association, and my own work is on . . .”). If “my own work” is “who I am professionally,” then retirement offers the opportunity to finally come into one’s own.
It also offers opportunities for new ways to enjoy being a historian. As we stood perusing books in a publisher’s booth at a recent conference, recently retired Randall Miller told me that he was looking forward to “just reading—not taking notes.” I have similar thoughts as I sit amid shelves filled with books I haven’t had time to open, and will no doubt enjoy “just reading.” If my interest flags, I’ll have the luxury of simply putting down one volume and reaching for the next.
Sounds like a good deal. So why are so many of our colleagues hanging around for so long? One reason is straightforward: we like our jobs. We enjoy engaging—bringing our insights and way of thinking to the public, whether that means students, readers, museumgoers, government officials, or any of the many other stakeholders in our work. And for some, it’s even a bully pulpit. Our institutions are platforms and sources of legitimacy, as well as providers of resources and a locus of community.
Sounds like a good deal. So why are so many of our colleagues hanging around for so long?
Other reasons for avoiding retirement are less idyllic. Many historians have told me that they would step down tomorrow to make way for the next generation but have reason to believe that their department would lose the faculty line. This sense of responsibility to the community is complemented by the value of the community itself. In many places, retirement means deletion from the invitation list for department receptions, events, and other gatherings. I’ve even heard of people, faced with the decision to retire, admitting (albeit grudgingly and with sometimes twisted logic) that they enjoy department meetings. For many, the loss of an office is no trivial matter, not only in terms of space to work but also as a place to interact with colleagues and an implied connection between office and status. It’s not enough to remain a historian or even to be honored as emerita/us. It’s the underlying fear “out of sight, out of mind.”
And then there’s that retirement event. I’ve been to my fair share, and while the compliments and fond memories may be satisfying for some retirees to hear, more than one has confided that the heartfelt tributes can sound like eulogies. “Out of mind” indeed.
Financial concerns can generate a different kind of anxiety. Life without a paycheck can be a bit terrifying, even if one has had the good fortune to accumulate savings. The structure of retirement policies over the past half century has shifted from defined benefit plans to defined contributions, especially in the public sector. A steadily decreasing number of historians, like Americans in other occupations, can count on a pension as a fixed percentage of their salary depending on longevity; we depend instead on the fragile balance of growth and security in investment markets.
Risk aside, however, many historians can afford to step away from both job and paycheck, given the impact of a rising stock market on defined-contribution retirement accounts. And increasing numbers of our colleagues apparently want to retire. Changes roiling the landscape of higher education and other institutional settings—including the implications of COVID protocols—are providing further incentive to some colleagues: “This isn’t the job I signed up for.”
I’m grateful to our colleagues who have shared with us their reflections on retirement, the past, and the future. Stepping away, even optimistically, is still a transition into the unknown.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
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