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Simpson Center for the Humanities

Beyond Pensions: The Faculty Retirement Seminar Offers Community and Support to Professors in (and Thinking About) Retirement

Judy Howard and Míċeál Vaughan both know that retiring from academia is a fraught enterprise: “While retirement is typically a life-changing event for almost everyone, for faculty especially it raises fundamental questions about what it means to be a professor and how one’s identity and purpose are defined by more than the specific demands of a ‘job’.”

Having both retired from the UW—Howard from Sociology and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies in 2017 and Vaughan from Comparative Literature and English in 2015—the two emeritus professors launched the Faculty Retirement Seminar through the Simpson Center to provide faculty with a structured setting in which to reflect on retirement with UW colleagues, and to provide some space and time to think and talk broadly about retirement in a collegial environment.

In Winter 2019, Howard and Vaughan assembled a group of ten faculty members from across the College of Arts & Sciences’ four divisions including retired professors Carolyn Allen (English), Joseph Butwin (English), Lucy Jarosz (Geography), Mark Jenkins (Drama), and their not-yet-retired colleagues Paul Aoki (Language Learning Center / Linguistics), George Behlmer (History), Richard Olmstead (Biology), and Mary Pat Wenderoth (Biology). While the size of the group allowed for intimate discussions around topics ranging from finding purpose in one’s post-career life to issues of ageism and the realities of aging and mortality, the seminar members’ experiences pointed to a wide range of possibilities, interest, and concerns to life in retirement. While some faculty desire to continue engaging in research or writing—whether starting new projects or concluding old ones—others are interested in becoming more actively engaged with local, state, or national and international associations and meetings, both in their professional fields or beyond. Some intend to continue mentoring students and junior colleagues. Yet others welcome retirement as marking a clear end to their faculty roles and look forward to a new life in retirement. Finally, many struggle to identify exactly what they hope to do in retirement.

For that reason, Howard and Vaughan designed this seminar to reflect on people’s experiences, legacies, and plans, whether well-formed or inchoate. Over the course of Winter 2020, the group met each Tuesday for two hours. Each seminar session focused on a pre-selected topic with recommended readings, including Diana Athill’s 2008 memoir Somewhere Towards the End;  Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014); Martha Nussbaum and Saul Levmore’s Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, and Regret (2017); and the 2014 edited collection Faculty Retirement: Best Practices for Navigating the Transition. Howard and Vaughan reported that they structured the seminar “to provide a comfortable opportunity for us to read, meet, and talk with other colleagues, to deepen our collective appreciation of what experiences may be available in retirement, and to imagine what steps one could take to ensure they will be positive and productive.”

They apparently succeeded: as one participant remarked, “especially important were the highly personal stories of love and loss.  I admire the honesty of my colleagues: that honesty permeated everything we discussed.”  Another also commented that “as with so many life transitions, we all have a sense of going through them alone.  Knowing that others have had similar experiences is reassuring and encouraging.”

The group was such a success that Howard and Vaughan will be offering the seminar again this spring, to address what they see as a gap in the UW’s programs for those approaching retirement.  While the UW offers many workshops and online resources, the administration does not provide guidance in the non-financial, psycho-social aspects of retirement.

Aside from offering the same structured weekly meetings, they hope the group will discuss ways to expand their reach in order to offer more socio-emotional support to colleagues across the university. 

Those interested in participating are encouraged to reach out to Howard and Vaughan and a call for applicants will circulate at the beginning of Winter Quarter.