Warrior Tales: My First Job Search (2)

Back in school after the MLA convention I resumed my grad student routine, working at home in the morning and then trudging to the library in the afternoon.  Leafless New Haven was wrapped in what that old Connecticut Yankee Wallace Stevens had called a “wintry slime.”  The days were short, the wait was long.  Everything felt cheerless, dark, and deadly.  By the end of January it became clear that I would not be interviewing on any campus.  I had failed in the job search.  How could this have happened, when always before I had gotten top grades and succeeded with every application?  How was I going to live when my fellowship and GI bill ran out?  What was I going to do next year?

Having never imagined any career other than teaching—having, indeed, considered teaching a vocation rather than a job—I had no idea, no Plan B.  By early February I had become seriously and uncharacteristically depressed.  I could not concentrate on reading; I could hardly write, not even notes or sketches.  My guts hurt like a clenched fist.  I slept lightly and woke in a sweat from anxious dreams.  But by day I tried to keep up appearances, as if routine itself would somehow magically compensate for the disaster ahead.

One day as I walked in to campus past a row of stately mansions that the university had purchased for offices, a door opened and my friend Barbara came out of the anthro department.  She had been working on a dissertation in Old Norse when her advisor had suddenly died, and no one else in the English department had been willing to take her on.  Then her fellowship had expired.  Now she was trading water as a secretary.  She waved and smiled, “Hey JT, how’s it going?”

“Aw, Barb,” I said, “no interviews. I’m depressed.”

Her jaw dropped, “But you’re the blithe spirit!”

I shrugged, waved, and went on, thinking, “Shit, even my friends won’t let me be depressed.  This is the worst!”  But at the same time I realized the utter futility of it.  The feelings were real—the worry, the anger, the sense of injured merit—but they weren’t getting me anywhere.  Self-pity was not productive; there was no point in wallowing in it.  The thing was somehow to salvage my career and make a living. I had to figure something out.

Barb’s comment, so kindly meant, was really a whack on the side of the head.  I needed it.  It was a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for moving on.  I would also need luck, and plenty of it.

Warrior Tales: My First Job Search (1)

In the fall of 1976 I was in my last year of grad school and two chapters away from a finished dissertation.  After five years in gritty New Haven, I longed for a job near wild country, preferably out west and close to the mountains, ideally at a small liberal arts college, but failing that, even a big state university would do.  In those days the job crunch was just coming on, and most universities offered little coaching or placement assistance beyond the requisite dossier file.  Your degree was expected to open doors and speak for itself. We all anticipated a soft landing right down the middle of the tenure track.

In October the MLA Job List arrived with about a hundred positions in American or Comparative Lit, a third of them in tempting locations.  I pulled out my Hermes manual typewriter and set to work.  This was long before word processors, flash drives, or email.  Each letter had to be composed and typed by hand, with a carbon copy for reference.  Rereading those letters now, after thirty years on both sides of the desk, I’m struck by their wooden formality and self-conscious posturing, both natural and logical consequences of following the MLA’s bad advice: their template for job letters guaranteed that readers would learn as much about the candidate as they would from a dissertation abstract.  But who knew?  We did what we were told.

I typed and mailed thirty-five letters, then sat waiting for replies, as nervous as a teenager hovering by the phone two weeks before prom.  A few places acknowledged my application, seven requested my dossier, and two invited me to interview at the MLA convention in New York.  Two out of thirty-five seemed like pretty tough odds, but at least I was doing better than some of my colleagues.

I remember standing on the sidewalk outside the Hotel Americana in Manhattan, wondering what my first MLA convention would feel like.  Inside were over two thousand English professors of every rank and station.  When Dante envisioned Hell, he simply crowded like-minded people into small, overheated places where they all talk past one another and nobody listens.  Such was the scene that I encountered inside.  Senior professors, fat with privilege, sailed through the press of job- and tenure-seekers like forty-foot yachts riding a light chop. The rest of us, lean and hungry, ranged about looking for sessions or interviews.

I arrived for my first interview at noon and was promptly offered a drink.  I noticed that the shades were drawn and the air smelled of whiskey.  After fumbling through the preliminaries, my host asked how I would teach Henry James, something that neither the job ad nor my dossier had mentioned.  It soon became clear that he had no idea who I was nor, indeed, what job he was trying to fill.  At my second interview, two hours later, a team of eight professors sat in a semi-circle firing questions as if I were a duck in a shooting gallery.  I must have held my own well enough, for they invited me to a departmental reception that evening, during which I was cornered by several grad students and regaled with horror stories about junior faculty life.

All in all, this hardly seemed like an auspicious start.  Nevertheless, I returned to New Haven undeterred and modestly hopeful.  After all, I had made the second cut and was still in the game.  I might still be called for campus interviews.  And both places were located in California, a stone’s throw from the glorious Sierra Nevada.

Why the Warrior?

Recently I visited an old friend from graduate school who has just retired after a long and distinguished career.  He had been a pacifist during the Viet Nam war and had taught at a small liberal arts college, inspiring generations of students to love poetry and protect the environment.  He was excited about our work with the Staying Alive Project but disturbed by our use of the Warrior as a key metaphor.  Why had we chosen a figure that evoked violence, aggression, and the crushing of one’s opponents?  Wasn’t there already enough conflict in academia?  After three decades of trying to make things work in his own department, where many of  the old guard had been hostile to new theory and felt threatened by dynamic younger faculty, he had concluded that peace was much better than war, compassion more honorable than judgment, and reconciliation preferable to outright victory.

As we traded stories, it became clear that he had actually fought in many battles, from which he still bore scars.  He had nurtured junior colleagues only to see them denied tenure; his scholarship had been publicly attacked by ideologues; he had arm-wrestled with deans for the resources needed to sustain a nascent environmental studies program that is now regarded as one of the best in the nation; he had been tempted by offers of high-ranking administrative positions that would have given him power at the expense of family, community, and teaching.  How had he managed to survive with both soul and career intact?

Our conversation rvealed that warrior skills are not just for war, but for life, and for peace as well.  In order to prevail in these conflicts, he had had to keep his balance, cleaving to his core values while listening to others and trying, always, to turn the conversation down a creative path.  I remember him saying how much he valued the moral support of his wife and friends in the community, and how he had drawn strength from poetry, nature writing, and religious practices such as Quaker meeting and Zen meditation.  Throughout it all he had clung to his faith in the best possibilities of human nature, forgiving as best he could those who had crossed or attacked him, recognizing their own suffering, inviting dialogue while standing his ground.  He never lost hope or aspiration.  He never became embittered or indifferent.  But it was not easy.  He suffered, and he sometimes lost.

My friend is a remarkable man, but his situation and skills are not.  He is a man of peace who had to become a warrior. For conflict is inescapable in human life, because we are different, and whenever we get close to one another, the differences rub and chafe.  Friction causes warmth at first, then a spark, and finally an explosion.  All that energy!  How can we use it for creativity, growth, or healing instead of blowing up the house or wounding each other?  Every conflict with others is also a struggle with ourselves, with our own ideas, identity, and limitations.  It’s always easier to push the other away than to entertain a threatening idea or listen without anxiety. And if attacked, we first react defensively, striking out or running away.  To stand our ground and listen takes a lot of work.  In the end, peace is not only nobler, but more challenging than war.  It takes more strength, balance, will power, and imagination.

Think about it.  Which is harder, overcoming the other, or overcoming yourself?