It’s not (so it seems) me and my teaching, rather the decision (calling it a decision makes it much more personal than I feel it actually is) is based on several broad and intersecting trends. The first is short-term demographics: the number of adolescents has been going down for several years, which means that there is too much collegiate capacity and state funding is tied to the number of enrolled students, with clear consequences for those hired to teach. Second, the cost-benefit analysis for students as they determine whether to spend time and money on college is skewing slightly against the traditional clear-cut preference college attendance. Third, there is a marked decline in the study of the humanities, about which I have previously spoken. History, in particular, is attracting fewer majors and fewer casual students. Again lower demand justifies lower supply (of teachers). Fourth, SF State presents an especially challenging economic proposition to students, on top of the increasingly dubious economic proposition of a college education generally. The Bay Area is extraordinarily expensive, even for the minimal food/housing expectations of public university students. Our campus enrollments reflect this too. Finally, I am a lecturer, which means I sit at the lower end of the pecking order in terms of job security. I had been moving up the list for the past several years, but now there’s hardly anyone left below me. Apparently, all of us at this work status in the department are being offed; University-wide, it’s reportedly about 300 teachers.
It's too bad for the students on several levels; and not just because I believe that I have brought something distinctively valuable to my efforts to engage with the young people I have had in class. As is common in large lumbering organizations facing cost reductions, the cuts are made crudely and broadly. It would take a much more limber organization than a public university—with its unimaginative management style and bound by union and other rules—to redefine itself on the fly. Few private companies: profit-driven among the “creative destruction” of capitalism can pull it off. The CSU System has feet of clay. This is true at the System level, at the level of SF State, and in terms of the History Department. As one example, the elimination of lecturers (who are shockingly underpaid even compared to regular tenured faculty) saves relatively little. The smart move—economically—would be to cut a few senior profs and keep more lecturers (equally capable as teachers). A second approach (even more radical!) would be to put students first. We would have to design a departmental faculty line-up to offer the courses most important to our majors and attractive to a wide range of students who come to us for some aspect of their “general education.” Instead, the cuts are made with little regard to curriculum and pedagogy. Thinking “outside the box” is too sensible and creative a process to expect from a faculty that is reeling from the pandemic, uninspiring working conditions, and which has no particularly capability for innovation and zero-based institutional design.
On a personal level, it’s a big bummer. The health care benefits and (modest) income will be missed, to be sure; but I never went down this road for the money. Much more important to me is not plugging into the energy of youth and the chance to share some perspectives (wisdom?) and gain some of their perspectives. The loss of intellectual engagement is also a problem. Designing a course, preparing lectures and discussion plans and exercises were great learning vehicles for me, even before the students saw any of them. That intellectual engagement is, however, perhaps the most easily remedied; not only by my research and writing projects (several of which have appeared on these pages). I will like teach adult classes some more. I will have to try to figure out a way to keep my full library privileges.
I started teaching at SF State in 2013 while I was working on my dissertation at UC Davis. I’ve been extremely lucky to have been able to do so. When I started down this history road in 2005, I had no reason to expect 1) to get into a Ph.D. program, 2) get any sort of teaching gig thereafter, and 3) to get a gig that was only one bus ride away. So, don’t get me wrong: I am extremely grateful to the folks at SF State, especially the four department chairs who hired me.
I was (am) drawn to history, both the research and teaching aspects. That is to say, I didn’t go in this direction to “re-pot” myself or have a “second career,” even though both have eventuated. As I talk to my peers (even back eighteen years ago, before I went down the History road), I was acutely aware of the perils of non-directional retirement. I have been able to dodge that bullet for a long time. The prospects of “re-potting” grow more challenging as one ages: internal defeatism and the social conventions of age discrimination, to name just the principal obstacles.
What now? I don’t play golf. I haven’t played cards (bridge) with any focus in forty years. I have (as I noted recently) a coin collection from my childhood; but accumulation is not where my head is at. I like our house and I’m happy to do some work here, but I need to get out and mix it up with others at least several days a week (and I don’t mean the neighborhood pub). My next project is to figure this out.
A few years ago, Gina asked me when I planned to retire from teaching. I responded: “Ask me again when I’m 75.” Well, I didn’t make it that far. The future, as they say, is now.