A Sense of Where you Are

In a lunch conversation with a job candidate yesterday we found our way to the subject of student engagement. We were talking about developing what John McPhee memorably called in his book-length profile of Bill Bradley, a sense of where you are. We touched on the struggles young people have as they weigh the experience of college, sort through the often conflicting impulses to focus on means or ends, and imagine a meaningful relationship between their academic experiences and the results of those experiences beyond school.

The challenges of our academic lives, it seems to me, revolve around similarly conflicting impulses. On the one hand, we are where we are, and the opportunities of our professional lives take place in the day-to-day labor of reading, writing and teaching. On the other hand, we frequently lose that place as we seek to move from where we are to someplace else. I’ve already written here on what seems to me the necessity of movement in academic life. But what about learning to embrace the work we are privileged to find ourselves doing? What about making the most of it? What about living in the present, the place we have constructed through the choices we have made as well as by the conditions that have shaped our choices?

My conversations with John have helped me to think more productively across the phases of an academic career. These conversations have intersected with the little reading and thinking I have done on life stages: Erik Erikson’s stages of adult life, Robert Keegan’s evolving self, Carl Jung’s process of individuation and Parker Palmer’s more recent explorations of identity and integrity. And I have sketched  the map of development that identifies the student or apprentice, the warrior, the householder, and the sadhu.

Complicating my own personal and professional arc has been that my initiation into the apprentice phase happened much later in life (I decided to go to college when I entered my twenty-eighth year). In fact, the first piece of writing I published in an academic journal, a collaboratively written essay, sought to complicate the phase of apprenticeship in an academic life. For me, the warrior phase was mostly played out in athletic competition—through years of national-level Nordic ski racing or through the inwardly focused challenges of mountaineering. I now see that my successes in graduate school may have had much to do with having already entered into a transitional phase, as a “nontraditional student,”  where struggling and settling in were unfolding in a mutually constitutive way. Looking back, in fact, my intellectual interest in methods of inquiry that preoccupied me during graduate school may have been working through the complicated intersections of personal and professional development precisely where I was.

More recently I had the good fortune to have been granted and, perhaps more importantly, to have returned from a sabbatical leave. This hard-earned moment helped me to see the rewards of what we have been calling here the settler/householder phase, where scholarly commitments and productivity are deeply entwined with commitments to leadership and community. This has been the most apparent gift of my academic life. For I am fortunate to be a member of an academic institution that genuinely values forms of intellectual work beyond the more solitary activities of reading and writing. I cannot imagine any more a life without this solitude (as I once could not imagine a life without days, even weeks, in the mountains). But as I look at where my energies are focused these days I can see how deeply invested I really am in trying to honor the communities of people in which I work.

My sense of where I am includes an awareness of transition and movement. Carrying forms of wisdom and cultivating the significance of story in our lives—what we are calling here the elder phase—seems to me to be associated with the phase of life and profession named in that strange metaphor of the full professor, a title I now find myself carrying. Come to think of it, part of what I have been doing these past few years is listening to those elders I most admire, allowing their words and actions to infuse the possible ways I might move through the ongoing succession of moments that will make up the coming years of this academic life.

We need more of what Bradley brings to all of what he has done in his life—in his case, that preternatural presence on the hardwood floor, that intellectual ability to move without the ball and the awareness that one’s life unfolds across a life’s path that we really have more power to live in than our past (and future) experiences might suggest.

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