Transitions: A Powerful Time for Vocational Reflection

Welcome to summer

For academics, every summer contains an “eek!” moment right around the fourth of July. Suddenly one realizes that there are only five or six weeks left until the first faculty meetings of the new academic year.

Wait, didn’t we just sit through that long commencement ceremony?

One of the aspects of a life lived in school, to borrow Jane Tompkin’s felicitous memoir title, is almost constant motion. We, and our students, go through a lot of transitions. Consider, for example, the four or five years of the average student’s life cycle in college:

  • Leaving home
  • Moving into a dorm room, perhaps sharing a room for the first time,
  • Food always available, even Captain Crunch
  • The girlfriend or boyfriend left behind
  • The new girlfriend(s) or boyfriend(s)
  • Summer jobs
  • Part-time jobs on campus
  • Family members who divorce or get sick or die
  • Internships and/or study abroad
  • More roommates/new housing every year
  • Choosing (and often changing) majors
  • Graduating
  • Job seeking/applying to graduate school

These are just the most common and most obvious changes students navigate.

But what about their guides in these turbulent times? Those rocks of Gibralter? Those lighthouses in the storm? Those faculty members, career counselors, chaplains?

Well, we are also undergoing constant change. (As readers of this blog know, I am in favor of lists as a tool for reflection, so here is another list!). When it comes to changes in our lives, consider, for example:

  • Leaving grad school, applying for jobs, moving to a new location, and entering the classroom
  • Early years of burning midnight oil to prepare for new classes
  • Summers of re-writing dissertation or preparing other publications
  • Applying for tenure
  • Serving on committees, participating in campus politics, carrying the burdens of financial hardships of self, others, the institution
  • Family commitments. Possibly marriage and children. Parents and siblings.
  • Community connections. Church and other civic activities.
  • Reading books and journals to stay current with one’s field
  • Proposing/traveling/reporting
  • Post-tenure challenges – avoiding burn-out, planning when and how to retire
  • Mentoring younger faculty and former students
  • Building a legacy

Life in academe never holds still. Since I don’t have any other profession to compare it to, I can’t say whether this is more or less true for teaching than for, say, law or medicine.

The rhythms of the calendar year, even without all the major disruptors that come at the big decision points, contain multiple transitions in a single day or week or semester. Consider:

  • Classroom technology is constantly changing and may not be consistent from room to room
  • It takes twelve days of the semester before all the drops and adds are sorted out
  • A three-hour class may become a two-hour class and no one thinks to tell the professor or the student
  • Since half or more of the faculty are adjuncts, they may or may not be granted office space, and likely share offices and even desks
  • Both faculty and students need about two weeks to “settle in” to a new semester, and then again to a May Term or January Term or summer schedule and then again to a new semester.

Transition expert William Bridges refers to this stage of change as the “neutral zone.” Most people try hard to move out of this uncomfortable space as soon as possible. Bridges said successful transitions are not rushed.

William Bridges’ model

It’s this “settling-in time” that often goes unrecognized consciously but affects everyone on a college or university campus. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s not. But, like anything we pay attention to, it’s a learning opportunity. Instead of lamenting all the change that is baked into the university experience, we can be curious and ask questions.

  • What practices might help us locate our academic rhythms – help us realize when stress or anxiety might be normal or abnormal, fleeting or persistent?
  • How might they give our students a set of tools that can be helpful in future transitions?
  • How can both natural conservatives and natural liberals (who value order and change differently, see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind) both contribute to our knowledge of how to face transitions?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these matters.

Here are some things I like to do when I become conscious I am in a new transition.

Looking out over the Shenandoah Valley

First, I believe in the power of rituals. As things change, we need a few things in our lives we don’t change. They are called rituals, and they bring comfort. I like to put my morning ritual up on a big piece of paper on the wall so that I can see it.

Right now, my favorite morning ritual is taking my coffee out on the deck, sitting in an Adirondack chair, listening to wrens, robins, finches, mockingbirds, and blue jays. Enjoying the ever-changing beauty of the mountains, clouds, fields, trees, and farms of the Shenandoah Valley. Naming my loved ones and being grateful. Journaling. On the left hand of the page, I dance with the changes and try to break the big (often scary) new task(s) into a series of small ones that I know I can do.

Second, it’s important to laugh more. Watch comedies. Have coffee with my funniest, wildest friends. Play with a baby or toddler (four-year-olds laugh 400 times a day).

Finally, ask what new story this change wants to tell. Then start telling the story.

Do your students sometimes struggle with the changes of academic life? Do you?

Shirley Showalter is the former president of Goshen College. You can find her essay,  “Called to Tell Our Stories: The Narrative Structure of Vocation” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). For more of Shirley’s musings, please visit her website at For more posts by Shirley, click here. For a link to the NetVUE podcast episode featuring Shirley Showalter, click here

Author: Shirley Hershey Showalter

New book coming in 2022: The Mindful Grandparent: The Art of Loving Our Children's Children. Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.

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