The concept of impermanence is one of the foundational principles of Buddhism. The idea of impermanence can be summarized in the statement, “Everything changes, and nothing lasts forever.” Acceptance of this premise may lead one to enlightenment, while denying it is considered one of the primary causes of human suffering.
In my academic career, for example, I have served as a teacher/conductor at nine different institutions over a twenty-year period. Eight of the nine positions have been temporary, interim, or visiting. Through these experiences, I’ve learned a great deal about impermanence, a bit about how people relate to this idea, and a few ways to help people process this concept. In this post, I’ll describe the various types of temporary academic jobs I’ve held and offer ways accept impermanence in order to negotiate our work lives more skillfully, even in permanent positions. Class is starting; I am the Visiting Professor of Impermanence.
Before I delve into the details of my interim positions, a word about my one permanent position. I served as director of choral activities at South Dakota State University from 2003 to 2012. During that time, I progressed from probationary (tenure track) to permanent status (tenured). I continued some traditions that I inherited from my predecessor, and I started some new initiatives; I worked together with several colleagues my entire time there, but also was present when my department hired a new voice professor, a new department chair, a new band director, a percussion professor, a clarinet professor, and a jazz professor. At the university level, SDSU hired a new Dean and a new President, during my time there. I attended 9 years of graduations and had a hand in recruiting 8 years’ worth of new students. There were a myriad of retirements and changes at the high school and collegiate levels across the state. Short of my body occupying the same physical space for nine years, there was nothing else “permanent” about my position at all. Things were constantly changing, starting, and ending. Eventually, I left SDSU for another job and became a more obvious part of this cycle of change myself. Change is inevitable.
1. The Lecturer
Within the eight temporary positions I held, there are several subsets, and each of them presents a unique set of challenges. My first job was a visiting position that was renewable year to year. My predecessor departed, my department lost a tenure line, and the institution didn’t have the resources to do a search for a permanent position anytime in the immediate future. My colleagues were terrific, and the students were great, despite feeling a tad undervalued. Some students questioned why the professor in their area of interest (choir) was not being replaced with a permanent hire, while others were resigned to the idea that they would have a new choir director every two or three years. This was a good first job for me – a way to gain experience, but I left after two years because I simply couldn’t afford to stay in a position with no chance of advancement. These days, positions like this are often designated as “lecturer” and are a good fit for people who need teaching experience, people who are independently wealthy or have a spouse/partner that can bear most of the financial load, or people with a unique connection to the institution (an alum) or area. Generally, it’s difficult to build a dynamic, thriving choral program with a cadre of perpetually visiting professors.
2. The Interim Professor
The “Interim Professor” position usually opens at institutions that had an unexpected departure and need to fill the position during a search for the permanent role. In some cases, the institution will communicate up front whether the interim person will be considered for the non-temporary role. I’ve been the interim professor at three places, and it can be a little trickier dynamic than the lecturer role. At one place, at a time before I regularly thought about the impermanent nature of all things, I wondered why it was difficult for students to transition to my leadership. I wondered if they were having a hard time simply because they did not know who the choir director was going to be in 365 days, or if another issue was present. What I didn’t realize until several weeks into the semester was the unexpected departure that precipitated this position change probably caused some bad feelings, if not trauma, and that this trauma needed to be named, addressed, and resolved, before the students and program could move forward.
In general, happy people do not leave academic jobs in July or August, tenured professors don’t mysteriously disappear, and even at the best places, people talk, people speculate, people gossip, and, yes, people know that there are many reasons beyond “leaving to pursue new opportunities” that people leave jobs. Some of these reasons make logical sense, while others are painful, difficult, or just plain bad. The Buddha taught the impermanence of all things, but he also knew that accepting the teaching was a process — a process that should be led with patience and compassion. I did a better job of this at my second interim position. Instead of worrying about “quality”, I made space for the trauma and uncertainty, tried to consciously lead with compassion, prioritized the well-being of the students, and accepted the fact that it took time to build trust. In this case, the transition to my temporary position was quicker, smoother, and ultimately, musically satisfying.
3. The Sabbatical Replacement
Finally, I’ve served as a sabbatical replacement for colleagues at four institutions. The last sabbatical job I took was the best of the four, and in some ways, the most rewarding semester of teaching of my entire career. My advice is to carefully consider taking a sabbatical replacement position, or, at least, go into the position with your eyes wide open.
The sabbatical replacement will never just be about the music and rehearsing and performing great literature at a high level. The choir you agree to conduct, and the individual students in that choir, will be forced to confront who they are without their permanent conductor. You may choose to avoid this issue, but the very act of avoidance (in Buddhism thought to be one of the three main sources of suffering), will cause a whole slew of other issues. As a sabbatical replacement, you are walking into an existential crisis.
Students, colleagues…HUMANS…love the illusion of permanence and stability and a choir director taking a sabbatical is inherently destabilizing. Seniors will worry about their graduation, and the other students will wonder why or how much they should invest in a new person for a semester if it’s simply going to go back to the way things used to be next term. There will be a period of comparisons; you’ll hear “Professor X does it this way, you do it differently” and “we are having trouble following you” at your first rehearsals. Some students will prefer your approach and you’ll hear words like “loyalty” and “tradition” and “betrayal” thrown around. The unspoken hierarchy of the choir will be turned on its head, and some students will be unable to function in this environment of uncertainty. There will be a private Facebook group and…it’s best not to think of what will be said on the private Facebook group.
There are, however, some tangible ways to succeed as a sabbatical replacement.
1. Make sure you like, respect, admire, and trust the person you are replacing. Everyone has their own style, but yours should not be diametrically opposed to that of the permanent conductor. As I said above, the students will naturally want to draw comparisons and you should do everything in your power to avoid any speech or action that could be perceived as negative towards the permanent conductor.
2. Second, think of your role less as a conductor and more as a musical caretaker for the students in the choir. You are not going to perform at an ACDA conference at the end of your term as a sabbatical replacement. The students need space to process their feelings as they learn; be patient, get to know them, establish trust, and lead with compassion.
3. Look for opportunities to maintain some continuity. For example, let a student warm the choir up “their way” or conduct a piece on your concert. If there is a choir board or student leadership council, let them perpetuate the choir traditions.
4. Don’t take anything personally. Some students will disengage, and others may drop. Most of them will continue to experience the normal ebb and flow of emotions of their everyday lives. Not everything will be about you or the temporary change of leadership. Share with the students that you are in this process together and that every day is an opportunity to learn and grow.
The Buddha taught that the reaction to impermanence should not be despair, but, instead, freedom and joy. If you accept the idea of impermanence, practice present moment awareness, and lead with compassion, you’ll inspire the choir in your care to deeply and fully engage in their own lives in the present moment.
Steve Grives, D.M.A., is a choral conductor and certified meditation teacher currently living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He can be reached with questions or comments through his email, . For an expanded version of the topics covered in the blog, listen to “Midweek Meditation” on “The Steve Grives Podcast” each week. The podcast is available on your preferred podcast platform or at https://anchor.fm/steve-grives