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.