Hide it under a bushel? Yes! or No?

I’ve been working on a post about vocation, but I think I will save that one for next week, because this weekend I will be at a conference where one of the topics under discussion will be “scholarship as vocation.” I’m also presenting on the alt-ac part of a panel on the job search, which should be interesting. I’m very much looking forward to all of it!

I’ve also been thinking about African-American spirituals again, or rather, letting their lyrics be a reflection of what I’ve been thinking about. Some of you might know “This Little Light of Mine.”

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. … 
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine!
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine!

When I was a kid, the answer to whether I’d let my light shine or hide it under a bushel. Yes, please, hand that bushel over! Quickly! At night before bed, I’d sometimes invite my mother for what we called a “chat.” Usually this meant not just a five-minute, how-are-you sort of thing, but something much more long-winded, usually about whatever was running around in my head at the time. If I had something particularly weighty to share, I’d put my favorite blanket over my head before proceeding to discuss whatever it was I need to share.

At the public library, of which I was a frequent and enthusiastic patron, I was terrified to ask for help from the librarians, for fear that they would judge me for being interested in whatever it was. The more interested I was, the more terrified I felt. I know now that librarians are some of the most helpful people on earth; helping others find information is one of their reasons for existing. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for advice on how to find books about archaeology, or film-making, or Robin-Hood, or fantasy literature, or what-have-you. Consequently, I became a very good user of card catalogs. My strongest memory is of the old microfilm catalog, where you had to choose if you wanted to search by title, author, or subject, and then sit in front of what, to a 10- or 12-year-old girl must have been an very imposingly sized machine, in order to find those precious call numbers. Once I had the call numbers, I was good to go. I’d see what else was on the shelf and pick up a few more titles, all the while eyeing the librarian to see if she (or he, but usually she) was spying on me or judging me.

In retrospect, this sounds paranoid. What librarian wouldn’t have loved to help a kid eager to learn? I’m glad of my auto-didactic skills in the library (they certainly served me in good stead in graduate school!) but I wonder what it would have been like to trust people a little more. To choose a bushel a little less dark in which to hide, so that maybe some light would shine through.

Light seeped out. It seeped onto the pages of my dozens of little 3″x5″ journals that I’d buy at the local Hallmark store next to our grocery store. Light poured into the warmth of my favorite reading nook in the public library, a window seat in the back corner, as I eagerly read the books I’d discovered.

Open the bushel, close it. Throw the blanket over my head, remove it. One summer, one of those glorious summers in high school that you look back on for the rest of your life as an irrecoverable moment to which you’d gladly return, the light came pouring out. I was at a summer music camp, Tanglewood, where I listened to awe-inspiring music nearly every night. Ironically, I was there to study my instrument, and I did, but half-way through, sitting on a bench in a cozy bookstore in downtown Lenox, MA, I realized I wasn’t going to pursue the French horn in a professional capacity, but probably wanted to do something more intellectual, using my head.

(I may have been under the mistaken impression that it would be easier to get a job as a philosopher than a French horn player. After all, my second cousin was married to a philosopher, and as I’d found out at a family reunion, was getting paid to be in graduate school. What on earth could be better! I think that, the summer after 10th grade, was the most likely start point of this particular career trajectory. I didn’t ask them about what happened after graduate school, of course, but I was 14, doing quite well at school – thankyouverymuch – and the idea that I could get paid to do just that probably left a powerful impression on my young mind.  But I digress.)

At the end of that summer (the summer after 11th grade), I had one of those dreams that changed everything, at least for a little while. I don’t recall the specifics, but upshot was that I raised my hand in class, a philosophy class with my favorite teacher, said my piece, and the sky didn’t fall. I went back to school a different person than the smart, but quiet, person I’d been before. I raised my hand in class, especially humanities classes, and the sky didn’t fall. A little light was shining, and my teachers noticed, wrote glowing recommendations, and I got into a most awesome small liberal arts college.

Eventually stress, or college, or life–I’ll brush past whatever it might have been–got in the way, and things became less shiny again, and the cycle repeated itself a few more times. These things do run in cycles. What’s clear to me now is that I’m at a place in a cycle where I am no longer willing to hide under a bushel.

What that will mean, practically speaking, I’m not sure. I will likely be rearranging this website at some point in the future, or starting a new one (and I hope those of you that are following me here, will follow me there as well!) — all of this remains to be determined.  For now, though, I’m getting ready to take that blanket off my head once again.

Cocktail party dilemmas

Yesterday evening I joined Professor Spouse’s colleagues at their monthly post-faculty-meeting gathering, a school-sponsored social hour with food and drinks. I had to pass on the drinks given the pregnancy, but the food was quite tasty and the conversation added much food for thought. I met many people I hadn’t met before… all of whom wanted to know what I did. Many seemed to guess that I, too, might be an academic. (One asked, “and what department are you in?” to which I had to respond that I wasn’t part of a department).

I found myself at a loss for what to call myself. A couple of times I referred to settling in and job searching, being in search. Other times, I settled on “roving academic,” delivered with what I regret was a self-deprecating tone. Even this phrase wasn’t quite right, since it conjured images of the pavement-pounding adjunct cobbling work together. They asked if I was interested in teaching, and what research I was working on? I had to stammer that I was in the working on alternatives to teaching, possibly with an interest in academic administration. I could feel the question marks rolling out of my conversation partner’s eyes. (You know the ones: why would she do that? What could be better than teaching?)

When it came to research, I didn’t really want to talk about the dissertation I finished over two years ago, and haven’t worked on substantially since, as my research. It’s hardly “what I’m working on,” as academic parlance would put it. I’ve never liked talking about my topic, except with people I knew would actually find it interesting — rather than those who offer the obligatory response of “interesting,” in the way they might describe a haystack or a speck of dust as “interesting.” Even at academic conferences, I dreaded those moments when a well-meaning professor in my department would introduce me to some longtime, important friend, and the friend would ask, well-meaning of course, “what do you study?” I hated saying my truthful response of what my area of interest was. As much as I do (did?) find the topic interesting, I was never one of those people who woulds start to either practically or actually jump up and down as if they’d just found the pile of gold at the end of the rainbow. In retrospect, this reluctance is telling.

One of my interlocutors last night could tell from my face that I wasn’t about to become an independent researcher, either. “Well, it’s rather more solitary than I’d like for a long-term plan,” I explained.

I was left wondering what I would rather have talked about, what answer I would rather give to the question “what do you do” that would show excitement, rather than fluster and mild embarrassment. I think I spoke enthusiastically about the digital library project I manage, but what excites me most about it – the challenge of getting the a redesigned site up and running, as well as thinking about collection development for the site – wasn’t really what interested this particular person.

Clearly, I need to work on my cocktail hour repartee, and come up with a snappier way to characterize what I’m currently doing with my life.

Beginnings in informational interviewing

This past week I had several of what I thought would be informational interviews. But I’m not sure I’m doing it right. Informational interviews, as I understand them, are meant to be conversations in which you ask people whose jobs, or industries, or career paths, are something you’d like to learn more about, to tell you more about what exactly they do.  I had read many suggestions for how to conduct an informational interview, especially at this helpful website. However, in the four conversations I had this week, I never managed to get through all of the suggested questions. Most of the “interviews” instead became casual conversations about what it was like to work in an academic center on a university campus (in one case) or in various aspects of a small college library, in the other three cases.

I usually managed to ask how one gets into the area of work, and what the job entails. I did not always manage to ask the questions that seem possibly very revealing, such as “what do you like least, or most, about this job?”. In the case of the library’s archivist, I learned a lot about the collection holdings, but not much about the background of my interviewee or the field of archives work in general. In the case of the woman working at a university center, I learned a lot about her career path and why she chose to go back to get a master’s in higher education, but not much about what her day-to-day is like. In speaking with the library director, I learned a lot about what happens when you integrate a library and an IT department. When speaking with a reference and circulation librarian, I found out a good deal about the kinds of activities her job involves, but not whether or not helping students with their research queries would feel the same as pursuing my own research projects.

In the end, I think I let each individual interview have its own flavor, as I would have done were I conducting a research project using qualitative interviews. I don’t know if I did it “right,” but I felt comfortable, like I was making new contacts and having interesting conversations, none of which is bad.

What I’m really wondering about, though, is how I’m supposed to use these conversations to figure out what kind of job I might like. Are the metaphorical skies supposed to open up, with a metaphorical voice booming, “This is it! You’ve found your path!” (I’d like that. A booming voice would make things easier). I rather doubt that’s how it works, however! I expect I am supposed to talk to people whose jobs and careers are a little less familiar to me. I’ve worked in academic libraries before, both as a researcher and as an employee, so I know a little about them. I’ve benefitted from the kinds of services offered by the type of center my administrator contact works in. So none of it was terribly mysterious, as these are career paths in which I’m sincerely interested and could actually see myself pursuing. I think, in order to find a bit more cognitive dissonance, I’d need to talk to people a little farther afield, such as those who’ve successfully applied their humanities transferable skills of writing or research to work in a much more business-y context.

Next challenge: to seek out new human voices to speak to, and worry less about booming voices from the sky.