Returning to a big conference and the place from which I started

This past weekend before Thanksgiving, I attended the main conference of religious studies academics, the AAR’s annual meeting. I actually enjoyed myself tremendously. Conferences are great fun when you’re not looking for a job, or giving a talk on which you think the rest of your career might depend.

Given that we were in San Diego, the weather was incredible (remember: I flew in from a polar vortex). I saw many old friends, some with whom I had good long conversations that remind you of why you like that person in the first place, and some with whom I had those awkward conversations with acquaintances that last about two minutes. I saw former professors I’d worked with, including my dissertation advisor, and again, had some nice casual conversations. I talked to publishers about my still-unpublished dissertation, and I talked to them about other ideas I have, and got some useful suggestions on how to proceed.

After the conference, we headed to where my mother and her husband live for Thanksgiving, and my mom asked the question I’d dodged at the beginning of the conference: how’s the career coaching going? What are you thinking about, now?

We were standing by the kitchen chopping onions and measuring ingredients for Thanksgiving. It wasn’t like I’d pictured coming back to the topic. I always figured it would be in the evening, after the kids were in bed, a glass of wine in our hands. We’d sit on the couch and it would be time to talk. I’d take a deep breath and tell her that I’m not exactly job-searching yet.

In retrospect, the less-formal way we talked, standing by the sink, probably made the conversation easier. I didn’t have to look at her. I didn’t have a blanket on my head, but I could focus on where the knife went, on the measuring cups, and not on her reaction. I think I expected that she expected me to describe the kind of job (you know, like, higher ed administrator, or something) I’m supposedly searching for now, but the truth is not that simple, so I was worried. I’d wanted it to be simple: “no, you’re more inclined towards librarianship than towards higher ed administration,” or vice-versa, or something else.

But from the moment I opened my mouth in a coaching call goodness-knows-when ago, and blurted out the truth with a hesitant voice breaking with emotion, it’s been nowhere near that simple. The decision to work with a coach, I now think, was a way that long-quieted inclinations found a way out, a little space in the silence through which they could be heard, and maybe this time I would listen, maybe it would be the right time, just maybe. Or not, but it had my attention.

I explained how my coach got me thinking about things that mattered to me on an almost spiritual level. My mom knew what I meant: she was the one who suggested to me in a middle-school chat that an emotion I eventually learned to identify as “the numinous” might actually have religious import. Standing there in the kitchen, the sky didn’t fall. I even went so far as to mention the parts that have kept me from the blog for almost a month, the weird uncertain tugs whenever my friends mentioned words like ordination or ministry, which I had felt at the other religious studies conference a month ago. I still don’t quite know what I will do about those words, and I’m okay with that. Strangely enough, my mom seemed okay with the continued uncertainty. The sky didn’t fall, and that in itself seemed kind of amazing. We went on chopping onions.

I told her I wasn’t sure about what those words implied: ministry, but in a parish?, or in some other arena, like writing? (The words that have echoed in my mind the past few weeks echo in my mind: Tell your stories of this joy.) I explained that more than one religious studies academic I’d spoken with had both 1. been asked by unknowing strangers if a Ph.D. in religious studies was training for the ministry/priesthood/rabbinate/etc. as well as 2. had in actuality thought either seriously or fleetingly about whether their interest in religion lay more on the knowledge/academic side, or the experiential/practical side. Some people try to balance both, like a good number of the academics-in-training at the conference of a month ago. I think I’ve spent my time shoving the latter aside, vehemently protesting too much that no, I’m just in this for the academy. Hah. There’s a voice in my head that knows better, that knows where this path started.

This might also be where this blog ends, with this uncertainty and these questions. In his famous poem “Little Gidding” — famous for the lines that come after this one — T. S. Eliot called it “the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling.” This is hardly an alt-ac blog anymore, as it’s more about what has come to be my search to articulate this vocation in the world, and I think that the average alt-ac job-seeker isn’t struggling with how to reconcile a childhood call to deep religious experience with making a living in the world.

But there you have it. Elsewhere in “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot said:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

Well, that is as clear as mud and makes total sense. In some ways I have come full circle to where this story starts (a beginning which includes details that didn’t make it onto the blog). Just a little while later that the poem utters its most famous lines:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It’s been a lot of exploration, but I’m back where I started, haltingly and a bit uncertain of where exactly that is, but I’m there, and if I can’t say I know it for the first time, I know I’m learning about it from a whole new angle, which might as well be the first time. I don’t want to leave again. I know I will: I have done so before. But perhaps I can linger longer this time, with greater intentionality. Only time shall tell.


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? 


Acorns in the grass

This isn’t really about anything explicitly post-ac, unless you count the fleeting reference to cover letters, but as it happened, I found myself thinking about it as I’d write it, so a day later, with the baby asleep and Professor Spouse and Older Daughter out on an errand, I’m writing it down. 

Oftentimes these days, my 15-month-old falls asleep in the car on the way home. Lately I’ve taken to bringing my computer with me when I think she’ll do this, so I can type crooked-handedly on the keyboard, trying to answer an email, post to Facebook, or in one case, finish a cover letter.

Yesterday, though, instead of poking on my phone or using my computer (which was far away inside the house, anyways), I slipped out of the car and sat down in the grass. Professor Spouse was inside, feeding our elder daughter lunch, and the baby seemed in a deep sleep. The day was warm, in the low-seveties Fahrenheit, with a light wind and generous sunshine.  We’d already had some early fall cool days, so I wanted to enjoy this moment of sunshine. I chose a spot in the sun where the grass didn’t look so wet, and sat down, half expecting to hear the cry of my daughter any minute. She didn’t cry, so I started to look at the acorns.

We are lucky enough to have our front yard, and the yards of our neighbors, graced by old maple and oak trees that have been cared for the college for a very long time, but no longer than a hundred-odd years. Every time I’m outside these days, I hear the “plonk” of an acorn as it falls off of a tree and hits a car.  Now, my car is not so nice that I worry about this at all, so I actually enjoy the funny sound. Who know that something as small as an acorn could make such a large “plonk”?  Or that squirrels, running up and down the trees gathering food for the winter, could make such loud chattering, squirrelly noises?

Every day, I hear the squirrels as they chatter, and the acorns as they fall, but I don’t usually take time to stop and look at the acorns. Sometimes my older daughter brings me acorns as presents, especially if they’re twin acorns still linked together, or more rarely and much more fun, a bouquet of three acorns still linked together. But I myself don’t spend that much time just looking at them.

With a few spare moments to sit in the grass, though, I started looking at acorns. I picked one up. It was green, and it had lost its little cap. Another one was brown.  Many were half-open, brown and mealy on the inside, as if the squirrels had already started their feast. I tried different caps on the acorns as I sat there, realizing how each acorn’s “hat” was uniquely suited to its own small head. I felt the warmth of the acorns, warm like the sunlight in which I sat. I’d never thought of acorns as being warm before. I felt their smooth skin and wondered what an acorn tasted like to a squirrel. It felt heavy in my hand, heavy enough to “plonk” as it fell on to the roof or hood of a car.

I remembered moments spent like this as a child, looking a single rock and feeling its warmth, or its coolness, or how sometimes, I’d lie down in the grass and shape it back into a little half-egg shaped hole, and marvel at the insects scurrying about. I’ve always loved nature, taken note of it, but I realized that I usually go for the big, pretty picture these days — a field of wildflowers in a forest preserve, a sunset over the tops of the buildings around me. It was strangely refreshing to pick this quiet moment when the baby slept, the computer was away, my phone wasn’t even buzzing or beeping, to just look closely at something and see it in a new light.

Eventually, though, my stomach rumbled and I picked up my phone, texted Professor Spouse, and we switched shifts. I went inside to have my lunch, the acorn lying where I’d found it in the grass, and he came outside to take over watching for our baby’s wakings.

Writing as a “craft”

One often hears the phrase, “writing is a craft.” I’d never thought much about it until recently, when I’ve been thinking about other types of “crafting,” usually knitting or spinning yarn, but more recently, quilting. When I tell my family, “I’m going to do some crafting now,” I don’t mean I’m going to the computer to write. I’m usually off to find something made fiber that I can touch with my hands.

As I think about transferable skills, though, I’m aware that I’ve rarely thought of myself as “a writer,” despite generally enjoying writing. I always liked the “write a book and bind it” projects we did in elementary school, and one of them became a 200-page historical fiction novel (handwritten, and in cursive!) that I scribbled out between sixth and seventh grade. My favorite paper assignment in high school was the extra one I wrote about Camus and existentialism because I couldn’t choose between topics. I liked being on the editorial board of my high school creative writing magazine.

When I got to college, though, creative writing was much more high-stakes and critical and I stopped doing it. A poetry editorial board tore apart the heartfelt poem I’d written about my summer crush, and I think that was the end of my attempts at creative writing for pretty much forever. Perhaps it was no longer fun, or done for sheer enjoyment, because the stakes of “being a writer” seemed that much higher.

My parents, in a frequent refrain throughout my life, have always said, “you’re such a good writer!”, with this undertone of, “you could do this professionally, you know!” In fact, as a little kid, when I consistently received “O’s” in elementary school for “outstanding” skills in reading and writing, and a little later on, A’s and A-‘s, I may have thought, “maybe I should be a writer!” But I’ve never pursued it. I think I never could quite wrap my mind around the nebulousness of “being a writer,” compared to my parents’ more cut-and-dry professions.   I’ve envied friends and colleagues who write (professionally, I assume, or at least in some side-gig professional capacity) for newspapers or magazines or who blog in a more official capacity than this particular exercise. I expect I could do so myself, but I haven’t sought these opportunities out.

I’ve also never been the type of writer who bangs stuff out–blogs, op-eds, encyclopedia articles, conference papers, journal articles, etc., like some of the vastly productive scholars I know. Part of me wants to say that I’m just not disciplined enough, but I don’t think that’s the case. I’m starting to think it’s not about discipline, but about inclination.

One thing I wonder is whether I haven’t become this type of writer because then it would become a chore. Just as I couldn’t see knitting hats or scarves or yarn on any type of quantity or speed to make a business venture out of it, perhaps it is that way with writing. Yet, people sometimes have idly asked why, if I enjoy knitting, etc., so much, I don’t make a business of it. I think that trying to monetize what I enjoy on my own time for the pleasure of creating something would take away the fun, turn it into a chore, and make it something I no longer enjoyed. I wonder if this relationship to fiber crafts is mirrored in my relationship to writing, and explains my reluctance to frame it in professional terms.

As I write this, though, I am wondering if the analogy is not so strong: I have written for business purposes, if you count a dissertation, journal articles, review articles, conference presentations, etc, and it hasn’t become a chore. It is still a craft. At some basic level, just as there are words in my head, I find myself trying to get them out there on paper or on the screen, to help myself, to inform others, to spread the word, to aid in remembering, or just in some strange existential way, to make them real.

I find myself wondering, why did I keep a journal at the age of 6 when my family took the train across the country? Why did I do the same, interspersed with postcards, when we took our first international family trip a year or so later? For virtually as long as I can remember, putting thoughts into words has come naturally to me (not so much concepts into numbers, but I’m not really worry about that).

I wonder how the necessity or choice to write plays out in practice for people who do say, “I’m a writer.” Those academic friends who blog and write articles and conference papers and books, always producing. Do they feel a drive to write? Or is it a craft that’s become a chore, necessary to get tenure? Perhaps it’s a pendulum, and sometimes one gets lucky, and the writing that needs to get done to get tenure (or in other arenas, to get paid) will occasionally match up with passion, but more often — like knitting rows and rows of very basic garter stitch — it’s the grinding work that simply needs to be done.

Transferable skills: writing

A little while after I first started this blog, I posited that we post-acs and alt-acs, at least in the humanities (I can’t speak very well for STEM) would probably list three things as our main transferable skills: research, teaching, and writing.

I know there are many, many post-academics who make a great life (I hope!) out of writing, whether it’s working for a corporation, a news agency, freelancing, editing, or some other such use of the written word. That’s great, and in some ways I’m envious. I don’t have the time or the will (I wonder?) to develop a portfolio of writing that might lead to enough freelancing to have writing be my “thing.” I also don’t think I have enough entrepreneurial spirit to develop a freelancing business, and I often find myself jealous of those who do. Maybe I could, if motherhood didn’t take up so much time and mental energy. (I need a penny for each time I write “time” and then I’ll be rather well-off!)

That said, I did debate about which transferable skill to write about first, be it research, teaching, or writing. About a year ago, I received an email from a press with whom I’d been corresponding and working for almost two years about publishing my dissertation. (That’s three years, now). I’d done a bit of revision for the press, but not enough to have it published by a university press. Or at least, that was the conclusion after the university press board met: they didn’t want to offer a contract for a manuscript that still needed substantial amounts of work, according to the editor I worked with.

And my manuscript would need work. I’d need to delete a chapter, smush two other chapters together, add a bunch of “analysis” (as opposed to description, at which I apparently do much better), and contribute more to prominent conversations about theory. None of which I’d done in the dissertation up to this point. I was left trying to decide whether to do this heavy revision without a contract and submit again to the same press, or whether to do it and submit to another press. I found myself also left with the question of whether or not I want to pursue publication. Since I’m not looking for a tenure track job, but am most likely looking for an alternative academic job, I expect that publishing the book would only help, not hinder, my career in the long run, but as of a year since I received this email, I’ve done no work on the manuscript.

Clearly, it would appear, writing is not my preferred transferrable skill, if I’m really sitting on my behind so long about this manuscript. Part of it is frustration, still, with a topic that “failed” me in terms of being not “cool” enough (I’m just guessing here) to help land me a tenure-track job or posdoc or VAP.  Part of it is about finding time (oh time!).  Part of it is the question of what the payoff would be for writing. I’m not sure. It can’t hurt.

Maybe one day I will get back to the manuscript. As my children get older and I work on time management, I can only hope that it will get easier. When I told an academic friend that I was putting my child in part-time out-of-home care to get more work done, she eagerly asked me if I was getting back to writing. I don’t think she knows that, in the couple of weeks since I’ve had my baby out of the house for a few hours a week, the writing I’ve done is mostly here, on this blog. Baby steps, perhaps, back to the writing world.