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.