When a Sense of Place is a Sense of Motion

I’ve been thinking a lot about staying alive by thinking about place.  One of the common situations for those of us that pursue intellectual work is finding one’s way into a life, as Wallace Stegner once put it, where a sense of place is a sense of motion.  I’m interested, then, in the consequences of mobility–the ways we respond to the risk of departures, the enigmas of arrivals, the ongoing challenges of coming to terms with a place-among those of us whose intellectual lives take us (whether by circumstance or by choice) in unexpected directions.

John has written eloquently about the challenges of mobility in “The Road of Exile,” the first chapter in his book The Cincinnati Arch. My own path back and forth across the country-from the oceans and mountains of the West to the fields and forests and rivers of New England-has kept me off kilter as well. A few years ago I wrote a commentary on some of the problems that many of us face as we undertake the move from graduate school to (if we are fortunate) to another college. “Where do you Teach?” questions the commonplace story of graduate students, trained in university-based programs, seeking the few coveted positions but mostly (and unfortunately) settling for jobs at second- or third-tier schools. As the story goes, there are desirable jobs, with course releases, research funding, upper-level seminars, and smart students; and there are less desirable jobs, with barely tolerable teaching loads, lower-level courses, and less-talented students. The myth is as pernicious as it is destructive. As I say in my commentary, “With the values and practices of the research university accepted as the profession-wide standard, we devote fewer of our intellectual energies to teaching, as well as to the ever more important engagements with public audiences who benefit from our work; we diminish the commitments of faculty whose intellectual work is organized around teaching undergraduate students, and whose reading and writing often arises from that work; and we disadvantage new PhDs struggling to imagine rewarding careers in English programs located outside the doctorate-granting institution.”

A few weeks ago, the subject of staying alive by thinking through place emrged in a commentary by the philosopher Gregory Pence in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In “”How to be Happy in Academe,” Spence makes the case that to be happy in the academic world you need a job. He argues that while difficult to come by, academic  jobs require you to “work hard at the three things we are expected to do: teach students who want to learn, publish about things you care about, and be a good academic citizen through service to your institution and field.” I guess Spence is mostly on the mark-at least as far as he goes. For in fact there is something very agreeable in the in the idea that we need to develop a sense of purpose and meaning right where we are.

But I really don’t think he goes far enough. My experiences tell me that the pragmatic advice in his “How to” essay neglects, even plays into, the seductions and betrayals of our professional lives. And my hope is that we might discuss further the ways our migratory patterns intersect with our struggles to build and sustain meaningful professional lives.

Dimensions of Academic Life

When Dante comes to himself in the dark wood, he has no idea where he is.  Somehow, he realizes, he has strayed from the right path.  He feels disoriented and confused.  It is only after Virgil appears that he begins to get a sense of where he is and how he might get back on track.  And Virgil’s teaching takes the form of both ideas and stories: ideas that orient, and stories that guide.

In the journey of academic life, it is important to get a sense of where you are.  We find it useful to think of three fundamental dimensions: the person, the profession, and the institution.  At every moment, our experience is configured by some constellation or alignment of these three.  And each of them has both a general and a particular aspect.

Think, for example, about your colleagues.  Each of them shares certain characteristics of temperament and behavior with other academicians, but each also manifests distinctive elements of personality, character, and individual history.  Think about academia: it has the general features of all professions, but these are inflected by distinctive values, practices, and taboos such as academic freedom, peer review, or tenure.  Think about your college or university: it operates the way all institutions do but in a style that reflects its particular history, character, and composition.

Much confusion arises, we believe, from ignoring one or more of these dimensions as we deal with our academic experience.  So, let’s take a closer look.

Where We Are Coming From

Dante’s Divine Comedy begins with the protagonist coming to himself in a dark wood, astray from the right path, lost and depressed. He feels abandoned and alone; he can’t think straight; he’s easily intimidated by phantoms.  Fear clouds his reason and rules his imagination.  The poem tells us that he’s at the middle of the life journey, ripe for crisis.  Fortunately, he finds a guide in Virgil, who combines reason with imagination to show him the way out.  Virgil begins by telling his own story, then guides him through Hell with a combination of story and interpretation.  In the process, Dante the pilgrim gathers the experience and wisdom he needs to become a story teller himself, and eventually, after climbing the mountain of Purgatory and ascending through the heavenly spheres, he is able to write the Comedy—not for angels or saints, but for people like us.

We identify with the Dante of the dark wood.  How many times in the course of our careers have we felt confused, challenged by phantoms, betrayed by our colleagues or even by our own naiveté.  And at the same time, how often have we been helped unexpectedly, buoyed by the generosity or wisdom of friends and colleagues, gifted with moments of healing insight, supported by the unaffected love of our spouses and children, or inspired—yet again—by the excitement of our students after a good class.

We are both at advanced stages of rather unusual careers.  Mark put off college for more than a decade while he worked as a professional skier and mountaineer in the High Sierra.  Then he married and went all the way through for a PhD in English, eventually landing at Keene State College in New Hampshire, where he achieved tenure and became chair of the English Department. Now, with two preteen-aged kids, he strives to balance work and family with professional ventures such as the ASLE mentoring program.  John spent ten years as a regular professor before going over to the “dark side” as a dean and then resuming teaching as a mentor to adult learners in a nontraditional university, which eventually laid off its best faculty in response to a fiscal crisis.  He has run a doctoral program but never held tenure, published books and articles but had only one sabbatical, and seen ecocriticism evolve from a dubious venture to a mainstream field of study.

Along the way both of us have learned the importance of community, family, networking, and balancing.  Wisdom is as important as knowledge, even though the latter is mostly rewarded.  Relationships count for as much as productivity, though they don’t pay as well.  Balance fosters mental and emotional health, although institutions seldom factor it into their planning.  In the end, we must take responsibility for our own happiness, which should not be confused with success.  Mark’s and John’s complimentary but somewhat divergent histories will, we hope, give this blog a stereoscopic view of academic life.

And, if all goes well, our views will be deepened and enriched by yours.  In the end, we all aspire to journey, as Dante did, from suffering through learning toward felicity.  We all aspire, and need, to become story tellers.  As Barry Lopez reminds us, sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.

An Invitation

“Quiet desperation” was Thoreau’s term for the malaise he observed in his home town of Concord.   He attributed it to people’s habit of focusing on the wrong things, on the superficial cares and duties of daily work instead of the true necessities of life.  He retired to Walden to find out what really mattered, so that, when he came to die, he would not be mortified to discover that he had not lived.

Indeed, it is always much easier to keep on working than to practice living, for work always has an element of routine, but living requires growth, change, creativity, and personal transformation.  Work is a part of living, but only one part, and how easily we confuse the two.  A minister friend, whose wife was coming up for tenure, confessed that they had gone into counseling. “It’s tough,” he said. “The counselor tells us to cut back, relax, devote less time to work, but the college tells you that you must be a workaholic to keep your job.”

We regard living a healthy, balanced life as the fundamental challenge for any person trying to navigate an academic career.  To us it seems far more important than surviving grad school, achieving tenure, gaining promotion, or making it to retirement.  These may be worthy goals, but what does it profit to gain the whole world if you have to pay for it with your soul?  We have seen lots of books, blogs, and syndicated columns about playing the game; they abound in strategies and tactics for achieving success.  But they don’t deal very much with staying alive.

Scott Peck wrote, “Life consists of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them?  Do we want to teach our children to solve them?”  We offer this blog as a forum for exchanging ideas and stories about staying alive, in the academy and beyond.  Please join in.