Like many of my colleagues, I found myself looking for something – anything – to inspire me in the fall of 2020. I had managed to pivot my classes during the previous spring semester and found myself familiar with synchronous and asynchronous online teaching. I released a major publication in May 2020. I have been involved in some of the highest levels of service in my field.
However, I had started to feel like I belonged and my purpose in academia was quickly fading. I mentored my own graduate students, offering encouragement and a safe place to share frustrations, but where was my mentor? I wasn’t burnt out like so many of my colleagues, but I needed to figure out my next “why” in my career. When the call went out from our Center of Academic Excellence for a mid-career learning group called ReVision, I quickly joined the cohort.
From the first meeting, I knew I had found a place to be vulnerable and honest. We talked about how, even 20 years later, many of us were still trying to please our supervisors with our research. We discussed how the pandemic has taught us the importance of getting away from our screens and spending time with our family. We talked openly about how tired we felt, both professionally and personally, and shared ideas on how to recharge in the classroom. It would be at least a year before the publication of “The Great Faculty Disengagement” by Kevin R. McClure at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Alisa Hicklin Fryar at the University of Oklahoma, but in hindsight the description in this article is precisely what some of us felt in this group.
The cohort started reading the book The Peak Performing Professor: A Practical Guide to Productivity and Happiness. We began by asking ourselves why we embarked on the career of teaching and research at the college level and what motivated us to stay. We have studied how we manage the time of our lives, including aspects of community, health and relationships. Through a long process of self-reflection, we began to create our statement of intent. My statement of purpose ended up being “to encourage, motivate, and help others find their own path and understand their own why.”
This statement of purpose sounds like someone who was meant to be in the classroom, an academic who was dedicated to students and educational research. This is where I have always seen myself. But I was a little surprised when we embarked on the task of writing our own mission statement, where we outlined our strengths. I was surprised that so many of my strengths (organizing, leadership, teaching) relate to community – which has been so lost during the pandemic. My final professional mission stated: “I want to mentor, lead and teach for/to/with students, colleagues and administrators who want opportunity and change”.
The end of the mission chapter ended with a quote that read “Mission makes strong yeses and easy noes”. I wrote both my purpose and my mission statement, along with this exact quote, on my office wall and stared at it throughout this fall. I researched every activity I was involved in and determined if it was part of my purpose and mission. Within a month, I had resigned as editor of a leading journal in my field and a major academic committee. I threw myself into mentoring students and professors, teaching, and doing research that matched that goal. Strong yeses and easy noes.
From that moment on, every decision I made was based on those mission and purpose statements. When an email came in from Lipscomb University in the fall of 2021 applying for an Academic Director position for their growing school of music, I considered the possibilities, but didn’t seriously think I could. leaving my college home of 17 years. I was titular; I was a full professor and ran a successful graduate program. I had just published an article in Inside Higher Education it was a love letter to my own graduate students. Lipscomb didn’t even have a graduate program in music.
Yet, as the weekend wore on and the email lingered in my inbox, I wondered if a new administrative/teaching role was a better fit for my assignment. Could I leave comfort and security behind and go to the “dark side” of administration? I decided to apply for one reason: the position corresponded to my objective and my mission. Strong yeses and easy noes.
When I visited the Lipscomb campus in early spring 2022, I quickly knew I had to start packing my office in North Carolina. Every lamppost on campus had a flag that read “Magnify Your Purpose.” I took a photo of this flag and sent it to the leaders of the ReVision group, describing this moment of clarity before I even started my full day of meetings, interviews and educational demonstrations.
The administration has been honest and open about some of the issues in a department that had experienced a growth rate of over 150% over the past five years. New teachers needed to be hired, more connections needed to be made in the Nashville music community, and the curriculum needed to be redesigned to better meet the needs of the musician. During the interview, I also had the chance to spend an hour with only the student body of the School of Music. Many search processes have drop-in times for students to visit applicants, but something about that was different. I was in a room with only students, and they were ready to talk. They shared with me what they were looking for in their Academic Director, and I knew I wanted to teach students and lead the school in its growth. I took pages and pages of notes and was truly inspired by their honesty and commitment to making the School of Music even better.
A few hours later, I was sitting at dinner with seven of my future colleagues, where they talked about growing up and the successes of the School of Music. There was laughter and respect for everyone at the table. I was part of a community. I knew my strengths and what I could give and what I wanted to give, and I was ready for the challenge. I wanted to be in the middle of this environment. I started ticking the boxes on how exactly this position fit my purpose and mission. Each box has been checked. Strong yeses and easy noes.
I was called brave for leaving my permanent position where I knew exactly what I was doing. I have been called inspiring for the search for the unknown at a time when the world seems unstable. But for me, letting go of the new position at Lipscomb was not an option. Every teaching assignment, mentoring opportunity, major publication, and service appointment has led me to leave my old institution for my dual role of administration and teaching here.
Most importantly, taking the time to develop my own purpose and mission statements gave me the clarity to say yes. I am exactly where I need to be.