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.