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.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Ms. Mentor offered words of advice to a young master’s degree student in the humanities, who says to her, “They say I’ll never get a job.” And Ms. Mentor, thankfully, agrees.  She does her best to dissuade this eager, intelligent young mind who is bent on further knowledge, further praise for his or her pursuit of this chosen field, and offers up the following advice:

So how should you rethink the traditional parade from honor society to Ph.D. to professor? Ms. Mentor suggests you identify your early drive, the thing that you wanted to do—and got praised for—when you were a tyke. Tiger Woods was already swinging a golf club when he was 2. By age 5, Mozart was composing music; Edith Wharton was making up short stories. Jean Piaget published his first scientific paper, on albino sparrows, when he was 11.
Can you make a living doing some version of your youthful drive? That is the stumbly step…

Indeed, I’ve been thinking a lot lately, with the help of my career coach, about this stumbly step, about the things that drove me and what I liked to do when I was a tyke.  This idea, that one should look back to what one wanted to do when very little, seems to have a lot of currency. It’s like finding your passion, but even more so, because when you were a kid, presumably the things you wanted to do with your life had little to do with practicality, feasibility, or any other such humdrum matters that might stop up the thinking of us more world-weary grown-ups.

My daughter, who is five years old, developed out of seemingly nowhere a year ago, a couple of convenient answers to the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” One was to be a firefighter, and the other was to be a paleontologist, because she loves the show Dinosaur Train. I have no idea where the firefighter idea came from.  The paleontologist at least makes sense, until you show her an actual museum of real fossils, and suddenly, when the dinosaurs before her no longer look like Buddy and Tiny, she’s turning into her father’s or my shoulder and waist, afraid of the real bones before her.

Over the years, I had what seems like a fairly extensive, and not obviously well-connected, list of things I wanted to do, ranging from being an astronaut, a park ranger, a writer, an anthropologist, a movie director, a professional classical musician, and eventually, once I hit college and a couple of things came together for me, struck on the idea of being a college professor. Now that I’m pursuing this alt-ac journey, I don’t think I’m going to go back and try to be an astronaut (my fifth-grade teacher was right about the math) or a park ranger (why do I have to have interests for which its damnably hard to find jobs?)… but hopefully somewhere in this list is a clue to that early drive that kicked me into high gear.  What I can see is that  some of them have to do with gathering and disseminating knowledge, and some of them have to do with creating something that evokes an experience. The two are related, really, as two sides of the same coin, two ways of accessing the same youthful questions that animated me for years and years. Recently the weight of the emphasis has fallen pretty heavily on knowledge, rather than creation, and what I will do with that little fact remains to be seen.

What about you? Are you following your earliest dreams from when you were a tyke? Does the post-ac life somehow fit better with those early goals and ideals, or do academia and what you’re doing now mesh pretty well with your childhood aspirations?