Warrior Tales: the Story of Dave

What if you don’t get a job?  We’ve all heard horror stories of people driving cabs, working at Starbuck’s, or hanging around campus doing odd jobs; some medicate with dangerous drugs, or, in the worst cases, attempt suicide.  No one keeps track of these lost souls; the information is all anecdotal.  We all want to live in hope yet can’t shake the creeping fear that failure may be contagious. Fortunately, there are plenty of hopeful stories out there, and we will lift up a few in the next series of posts.

When I arrived in my first (and only) tenure track job, I probed my colleagues delicately for their tenure history, not to betray too green an interest in my own fate.  Yes, they had used temporary faculty with some regularity, and no, not everyone had gained tenure, unfortunately. They sounded reassuringly apologetic but also a bit vague. There had been unusual circumstances, sometimes of a personal nature, or the fit wasn’t right, or it turned out to be a bad hire, or the person’s career had taken a new direction, that sort of thing.  Mostly, they did not know what had become of their former colleagues, although in one case the person had gone to work for Target and was now making pots of money; he had come down for a visit driving a big fancy car and was apparently putting his intellect and communication skills to good use, with few regrets about escaping from freshman comp and Intro to British lit. This story was conveyed in hushed tones that suggested an odd mix of pity and envy.  It gave me a whiff of hope for other possibilities should things not work out as planned.

Eight years later, amid the unplanned wreckage, I met David Cave.  He had done graduate work at Chicago and Indiana before taking a PhD in religion from a seminary down in Kentucky. Newly-minted and with his dissertation published by Oxford he looked to be in excellent shape for a tenure-track job.  He and his wife, an oncology nurse, had moved to Cincinnati to be near her family; he had obtained a temporary assistant professorship that had recently ended, and he was looking around.  Despite great credentials and active scholarship, he could find nothing in the way of a regular job.  He had spent several years adjuncting, networking with all the local colleges, and even doing regular commentaries for NPR.  He was determined to maintain an intellectual life and keep up his scholarship.

But economics began to catch up with him.  Their son was growing apace and the family needed money.  He finally took a development internship at one of the big hospitals; he learned the ropes and found that he liked the work of building relationships and helping people find meaning and purpose in supporting a charitable mission.  When the internship ended, he became development director for a very small Catholic college, and after five years there he moved over to the University of Cincinnati Foundation, where he worked raising money for the humanities.  And five years after that, he moved to the University of Michigan.

During all this time, Dave continued to read, think, teach, and publish.  He gave talks, wrote radio commentaries, kept a journal of ideas, and stayed in touch with colleagues in his field.  He also organized book groups and found other informal means to pursue the intellectual life.  He liked working with faculty and was received as a colleague because of his scholarship and devotion to teaching and education.  Now, at Michigan, he’s actively involved with the humanities, engaging individual graduates and friends of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts to support the priorities and ventures of departments, programs, and the college as a whole.  He and his wife live in wonderful Ann Arbor, where they host a popular literary salon.  His development work takes him to places like Washington, Atlanta, and Miami where he cultivates visions and ideas with smart, well-placed alumni.  And he continues to read and publish actively in his field.

Dave inspired me with his resourcefulness and devotion to a felt calling.  Initially, he was disappointed not to land a regular teaching job, but he found ways to stay alive intellectually and other venues in which to pursue both teaching and scholarship.  He found another way to make a living that proved surprisingly rewarding, not only for its intrinsic satisfactions and good income, but also for keeping him  connected to the university.  I was reminded how many poets, musicians, and artists have had other day jobs: think of Wallace Stevens or Charles Ives, both of whom sold insurance, James Joyce, who worked in a bank, or William Carlos Williams tending his patients.  The truth is that most of us have more than one passion, and there is always more than one way to use our skills.  A job can’t and shouldn’t provide everything.  Like Thoreau, we’d do better with a broad margin to our life, to keep a light hand on the tiller and take the widest possible view of our horizons.

Master Metaphors: A Newly-Minted Ph.D.


With this entry we begin a series of occasional posts on the organizing fictions of academic life.  Today let’s take a look at the connotations of “newly-minted Ph.D.”

In ancient times precious metals were originally valued by weight.  Adulterated shekels or talents might look and feel the same as the real thing while actually containing less silver or gold, the rest being copper, tin, lead, or other “base” metals.  For this reason,  mints were established to produce coins whose consistent content was verified by the image of the ruler stamped indelibly upon them.  This image was inseparable from their very substance as money.

To be minted, therefore, is to be verified as true, worthy, and authentic; your value is approved and advertised by having the image of authority — in this case, your doctoral institution — stamped indelibly upon you.  Without it, you are not bonafide; you’re worthless.

But that’s only half the story.  A newly-minted coin looks bright and shiny.  It hasn’t been tarnished by the handling of sweaty fingers or greasy palms, or by traveling from pocket to pocket (some deep, some not).  It hasn’t been worn down or worn smooth: all that will happen in due course.  Perhaps the coin won’t lose its intrinsic value, its inner worth, but it won’t look bright and shiny any more; it won’t catch anyone’s eye.  So there’s a cruel judgment hidden in this metaphor.  We’d all rather pocket a bright, shiny coin than a dull, well-worn one, despite the fact that both should be legal tender.  A dollar from Harvard or a dollar from Podunk U. should both buy the same amount of beer.

On a deeper level, the metaphor construes the whole situation under the aspect of economics.  What is your degree worth?  It depends on whose image you bear.  Are you hard currency or soft?  Would you rather be dollars or rubles?  If there was any idealism for teaching or the life of the mind, this dismal metaphor crushes it out, as if academia were not about life, growth, or unfolding, but merely a matter of desire (that shine!) or exchange.

I know that some will say this is too dark a view.  Surely a school’s reputation must count for something.  Thousands of grad students make the investment every year; surely they can’t all be wrong.  Even the most jaded of our colleagues will agree that some schools are better than others, with more demanding programs, more accomplished faculty, better labs, bigger libraries, and brighter students.  Surely not all PhDs are created equal, and what’s more, the job market demands it.  Judgments, after all, must be made, responsible judgments by knowledgeable people.  Rank matters.

Indeed, we all know how exquisitely sensitive academic people are to matters of reputation and prestige. A covert but meticulously calibrated pecking order can be observed at any conference or search committee meeting: people want to know where you studied or teach, and the same for your references.  If you land a position at a reputable school, it can feel almost as good as an above-average salary.  Prestige is a kind of emotional currency, like Jerry Brown’s “psychic dollars.”  It provides a warm glow of satisfaction that you have done better than your peers.  Of course, that won’t pay the bills, and you may be tempted to identify too closely with the institution.  But at the beginning of a career, this can feel pretty good.  It’s almost as if you were made of money.