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Your Guts

I’ve been told that leaving academia when I did, at the relatively tender age of 63, and at the top of my scholarly and teaching game, “took guts.” It is true that I’d only recently been elected to an international scholarly society, co-organized a conference for what was once my primary identity organization, and gotten an unprecedented second senior merit award at my little liberal arts college. I’d also married a student, and the semester after my salary went to six figures, I took a parental leave. I couldn’t believe I was getting away with that. And perhaps I wasn’t. I’d both been an administrative fly in the ointment for years (a full Professor for 20 years can do that, and probably should), and the outrageous classroom style that made me effective as a teacher, was increasingly found “uncomfortable,” or even “offensive” by some of the more sensitive millennial students* [see note].

Administrators were fearful enough to actively want me gone. Since they were giving a nice “early retirement” offer, it seemed to be the “right time,” o kairos. I was told by a colleague that I would leave a “living legend.” I had a wonderful send-off from the entire group of graduating seniors in my History of Psychology course, making gumbo for a “Last Supper.” At their senior luncheon, not only did I share the experience of many of them about what they were going to do next, “beats the heck out of me,” but the precipitousness of my departure meant that my retirement gift was the same coffee cup given to the graduating seniors. My department had also just hired two superb new faculty members, just under the bar of a hiring freeze. So it was also the right thing to do.

I loved being a college professor. The intellectual interplay of scholarship, the opportunities to speak all over the world, and the excitement of being in front of a classroom, still made me feel like a god, even when top-down administrative decrees and decreasingly motivated students made it all the more sour, occasionally even nauseating. Gut feelings. Tess Vigeland, in her book Leap, a memoir about leaving her incredible job, a job she felt she was meant for, and loved for years, talks about such feelings, “I’ve come to believe, without reservation, that no matter how hard it’s been, it was the right thing to do.”

"I believe that you know in your belly, what you have to do and what’s best for you. The hurdle you have to get over is the rest of your body, your head and your heart which are actively telling you to ignore your gut. I interviewed about eighty people who had also left their careers without knowing what they wanted to do next, and most of them had been ignoring their guts for months if not years. But we know when something is wrong." (Vigeland)

A study using the Iowa Gambling Task, also illustrated in my blog on “Anticipation” of 1.14.2018, in which the participants are given multiple decks to pick cards from, one of which includes some catastrophic losses, despite superior gains. It takes participants forty or fifty cards to figure out that this deck is a serious loser and stop picking cards from it. But their stressful bodily response to the losing deck, measured by Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), starts appearing after only ten cards, well in advance of their consciousness that something is amiss. So, unless you are brain damaged, your body knows something is up, and it may start showing signs well before you know it is time to go. It may manifest as any number of bodily symptoms, from unexplained pains, illness, or an exhaustion beyond what is justified by workload. You probably shouldn't ignore these. “What’s it like to leave a job you’re still good at, still love, and can’t imagine life without and to do it devoid of any idea of what you want to do next?” It may be making you sick.

A new Humanist Club I’d sponsored on Campus, a no-holds-barred forum for discussions which students couldn’t have elsewhere, even among their peers, summarily vanished. While one of my colleagues would carry the torch for “embodied cognition,” in his research course, and they’d have a new offering in Health Psychology, I was sad that Emotion would be dropped. Though such an undergraduate course is rare, for historical reasons, I still find it disturbing that psychology students, most of whom are headed to lives as therapists or human services workers would not have taken such a course. These days, with college debt loads running so high, students may also be less likely to pursue graduate training, and even there a course in the science of emotion would not be common, and the research in this area has blossomed of late. So I find myself validated reading Antonio Damasio’s newest (2018) book The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. Damasio does a remarkable job, relating much of the evolution of nervous systems to the maintenance of the basic homeostasis of living organisms, and ultimately makes a case, a reflection of much contemporary research, for the ubiquity of embodied emo