Privilege and Peril: a Warrior’s Tale

Looking more closely at this tale we can see how it turns on the interactions among people at various phases of their careers. Let’s start with the prince, who’s clearly at the warrior stage. He’s the protagonist as well; he initiates and drives the action. Of course he’s young, ambitious, brave, strong, and full of hormones; he just doesn’t know much about how the world works, and especially about magic and ogres. He’s full of good intentions and high aspirations; he’s willing to take a risk. But he’s not up to speed on the technical details.

 On the positive side, he has inner nobility. He’s a prince, after all; he’s been trained and educated. He enjoyed a life of privilege before he was exiled, but lately he’s had to learn how to fend for himself and live by his wits, both of which build character. He now knows that he can’t take anything for granted. But he also possesses innate qualities of generosity, mercy, humility, and compassion, as we see when he helps the old woman.

The Prince on his Quest (by Arthur Rackham)
The Prince on his Quest (by Arthur Rackham)

In fairy tales we tend to focus on what the characters do and say, but what they don’t say or do can be just as important. The prince has had a run of really bad luck, but we don’t hear him whine or complain. He doesn’t kvetch about losing his privilege; he doesn’t brood about injured merit. He’s not a snob; he doesn’t think it beneath him to help a distressed old woman. After all, he’s been working in kitchens and stables; he knows what it’s like to be poor. The stripping away of his royal privilege has allowed his true character to emerge.

 Notice, too, that the prince doesn’t try to second guess the old woman. He doesn’t ask what’s in it for her, or who else she might have told, or what she wants in return for her knowledge. Nor does he suspect her of being in league with the ogre or leading him into a trap. He’s not a calculating person. Now, some might call this naïve, and indeed the prince does put himself in danger by trusting her. After all, her information could be wrong. But once he gets to the castle and begins facing the perils, her intelligence checks out. He proceeds with greater and greater confidence toward victory. Any doubts he may have had at the outset he wisely keeps to himself. All told, it’s his kindness, respect, and trust that persuade the old woman to impart her secret knowledge

 By this point, then, the tale has already begun to redefine what it means to be a warrior. It takes more than a strong arm and royal blood to prevail. Character proves decisive. Strength must be combined with compassion, courage, and humility. You have to be willing to listen and learn. One lesson here for academic people is not to put too much faith in your pedigree; degree, position, indeed all past expertise may not help much in desperate situations. It’s wise to be able to think outside the box and, above all, to listen to elders and outliers, who may know a thing or two.

 In the next post we’ll take a look at the king and the ogre, both of whom represent failures of citizenship.

Warriors, Citizens, and Elders: A Fairy Tale

The relations between these three major career phases are captured succinctly in a fairy tale that occurs in many versions across cultures.  The hero is a young prince who has been forced into exile, living hand to mouth and taking menial jobs in kitchens and stables.  Eventually he wanders into a neighboring country that has been ravaged by a cruel and powerful ogre.  The king has dispatched his best fighters, but all have come back dead or maimed.  The ogre seems to have magic powers that give him both strength and invulnerability.  In despair the king proclaims that whoever can defeat the ogre will receive half the kingdom and his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Well, the prince figures he has nothing to lose.  After all, he’s been working in kitchens and stables; his career is in free fall.  And the daughter, naturally, is both rich and beautiful; he’s already fallen in love with her.  So he sets out for the ogre’s castle.  After crossing the devastated countryside,  he enters a forest, where he wanders for days, increasingly depressed.  He may be a prince, but he has only a common sword and no magic powers at all.  What good is his Ivy League degree?  How will he ever defeat the ogre?

Then he hears someone moaning and groaning in the woods and turns aside from his path. He comes upon an old person in need of  help—in some versions it’s a dwarf whose long beard has gotten stuck in a cleft log, in others it’s an old woman with a hurt leg, hungry and tired, bowed under a heavy bundle.  The prince shares his bread, lends a hand, and when the job is done the grateful old woman asks why someone so young and handsome would look so sad.

The Prince Aids the Old Woman (by Howard Pyle)
The Prince Aids the Old Woman (by Howard Pyle)

He tells her his tale of woe: career in ruins, hopelessly in love, facing an impossible task.  The old woman laughs.  Is that all, she asks?  Well, that sword you’re carrying will never defeat the ogre, because he’s invulnerable.  And I’ll tell you why: it’s because his soul is not in his body.  To kill him you have to get your hands on his soul.

Oh great!  says the prince.  Capture his soul; just like that!  It must be very well defended.  The old woman nods.  The ogre keeps it hidden deep in his castle, she says.  To find it you have to wait until he goes out on one of his rampages.  Then you have to break into the castle after crossing the moat of fire and pacifying the lions guarding the gate. She recites a long list of perils and obstacles but gives him directions for meeting each one.  Finally, in the very center of the castle is a well; down in the well is a duck; inside the duck is an egg; and inside the egg is the ogre’s soul. Get your hands on that egg, she says, and you can make him do anything.

The prince thanks her and hurries off.  He finds the castle and waits in the shrubbery until the ogre goes out.  Then he crosses the fiery moat, tosses a  steak to the lions, and heads inside.  After surmounting all perils he arrives at the center, dives into the well, grabs the duck, and squeezes it until the egg drops into his hand.  At this moment the ogre returns, bellowing that he smells a thief.  After raging all through the castle he finds the prince leaning nonchalantly against the well.  He grins horribly, flashing a set of really  bad teeth, and raises a huge hairy arm to bash in the prince’s head.

The Prince and the Ogre (by Arthur Rackham)
The Prince and the Ogre (by Arthur Rackham)

But the prince just reaches into his pocket and holds up the egg.  He cocks an eyebrow; the ogre freezes, then deflates, groveling at the prince’s feet.  The prince makes him open his dungeons and treasury, free all his prisoners, restore all the gold that he’s stolen, and clean up the farms and villages he’s destroyed.  When it’s all done, the ogre wipes the stinking sweat from his brow and falls on his knees, begging forgiveness.  And what does the prince do?  He breaks the egg.  Because, after all, he’s read Machiavelli (in Western Civ), and besides, you can’t trust an ogre.

Back at court the king and the princess are waiting anxiously for news.  The prince returns bearing the ogre’s head.  Amid general rejoicing, the king grants him half the kingdom with an option on the other half as soon as he marries the princess.  Everyone celebrates and lives happy ever after.

What does this tale have to do with academic life?  You can see right away that its characters embody three career stages that we have been discussing: warrior, citizen, and elder.  Stay tuned for subsequent posts as we unpack this tale and explore its implications.

What is Truth? Find Out with Memo Decoder®

Acheson’s Rule has proved a major stumbling block to thousands trying to navigate their way through organizations.  And universities can be  just as confusing as  any government, corporation, or church. That’s why conscientious professionals like you need this week’s killer app.  Click on the video for details:

Killer Apps to Boost your Career in the New Year

The R & D Team here at Staying Alive has been hard at work devising a suite of career security apps that we are pleased to release  just in time for the new year.  Those of you dreading an upcoming tenure review, grant deadline, or MLA convention need look no further for simple, hi-tech solutions!  They’re perfect gifts for any stressed-out professional.

Click on the video for a quick preview of our first app, MakeNice®:

 

Tenure: A Fork in the Road

yogi-berra-quotes-13People have debated the tenure system for years, parsing its costs and benefits and proposing alternate models that generally stick in the craw.  Maybe it’s like what Winston Churchill said of democracy: it’s a lousy system but better than the alternative.  Whatever the case, it’s not going away any time soon, so those of us who aspire to make our living in academe must learn to deal with it.  Until universities start paying adjuncts and part-timers a living, professional wage—which they won’t until forced by collective bargaining—tenure remains the name of the game.  And the tenure review marks a fateful turning point in one’s teaching career.

Yogi Berra famously advised, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it!”  Indeed.  But in fact this is easier said than done.  Most of the time we don’t take it at all, don’t choose or act with deliberation; we slide into it or let ourselves be drawn in with only the dimmest notions of where were going or what may await us around the bend. Mostly we don’t want to hear travelers’ tales of dragons or wizards up ahead.  We still like to think we’re the exception.  So in fact when we come to a fork, we don’t take it; it takes us.  But this is no way to live.

The tenure review can have only one of two outcomes: up and in, or down and out.  A true warrior must be prepared for both, so that when the path opens, he or she can take it and adventure upon life now.  We commonly think that a “successful” review leads to tenure, but “success”, as we’ve discussed in previous blogs, is a slippery and deceptive thing;  it means you get to do more of the same, which may not be conducive to your own personal growth.  In fact, not getting tenure may turn out to be better for you in the long run.  But of course you can’t know this at the time.  All you can do is take the path that opens and make the best use of it that you can.

The review itself resembles nothing so much as a trial.  Months, nay years, go into building the case: research, discovery, assembling witnesses.  Eventually, the court convenes.  You, the candidate, sit in the dock, silent, powerless, and apprehensive, facing a jury of your “peers”  while administration presides from above.  The good news here is that, by this point, the whole thing is out of your control.  You can’t affect the outcome, but you can affect what comes after.  So in the next few blogs we’ll talk about doing the math, the after-math.  How do you go on, how do you stay alive no matter what happens?

 

 

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.

Warrior Tales: My First Job Search 3

After that conversation with Barb I pulled out of my depression.  Despondency was getting me nowhere.  I had financing for the rest of the year and a dissertation to complete.  That was the first order of business. Perhaps with degree in hand I would stand a better chance on the job market.  I resolved to stay in New Haven, finish up, and try again in the fall.  Meanwhile, I would look for stop-gap employment.  If worse came to worst, I could survive for another year on savings.  That would give me three shots at landing a teaching job.  Three strikes, and I would have to think about changing careers.

So I went forward with this plan, slogging ahead with the dissertation while exploring entry-level or temp jobs at Yale.  There were some possible admin or support positions, including sub-sub deanships, assistant program coordinators, and the like that would have kept me in bread but felt, at this point, like potboilers.  I thought about writing on the side, for self esteem as much as anything.  But in any event the positions wouldn’t come open until summer. There was nothing for it but to finish the diss, which seemed an increasingly hopeless chore.  What was it for?  Wouldn’t it just mean I would emerge overqualified for anything other than college teaching?

By the middle of March I had become inured, both to winter and to the general hopelessness of my prospects.  But then, unexpectedly, a call came from the department secretary.  They had heard of two temporary positions that might be attractive, “given your unusual interests.”  She meant, of course, mountains, wilderness, and nature in general.  Remember that this was the heyday of deconstruction; no one at Yale had heard of the nature writers, and ecocriticism was not even a blip on the horizon.  The positions  were at the universities of Montana and Utah, so of course she was right.  Both wanted a “utility infielder” to teach interdisciplinary humanities courses for the next three years, a perfect fit for a comparatist.

I applied right away and heard back within two weeks: a form rejection from Montana but from Utah an invitation to interview on campus. I remember stepping out of the plane to the uplifting sight of the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains towering eight thousand feet above Salt Lake City.  No doubt it was my enthusiasm as much as my degree that got me the job.  But after a winter of despair resided over by dismal numbers, it felt like a stroke of the purest luck. And three years seemed like all the time in the world.

What had I done to deserve this?  No more nor less than any of my grad student colleagues.  I was prepared for failure.  But I got lucky.  I got a start.  At the time it felt like a lottery, just like they were using for the draft.  It seemed a matter of chance rather than justice.  But all the same, before you can stay in the game, you have to get in.  And once you’re in, there’s a whole other set of issues to deal with.

But more on that later.  What did I learn from this experience?  First, you can do everything right and still not get hired. Qualifications are necessary but not sufficient; you also need luck and chemistry, both of which lie well outside your control.  Second, you need friends. Barb’s innocent comment shook me loose from paralysis, and I realized that no one would talk to me if all I did was mope and complain.  Third, you need a plan and you need to keep working.  Idleness only feeds depression, and almost any plan is better than none, as long as it gets you moving, and besides, you can always change it as things develop.  And finally, a bit of savings can make a huge emotional difference.  Knowing I could get by for a year gave me breathing room to imagine alternative futures.

These lessons paid off dramatically in the years ahead. I also saw them reflected in the experiences of colleagues and friends, both in  job searches and tenure reviews.

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.

Entering the Warrior Phase

As I write on this snowy winter day, hundreds of athletes are competing for gold in Vancouver BC at the Winter Olympics.  Trained, toned, stoked, pumped, psyched, they hurl themselves down mountains, onto the ice, or into the air at heart-stopping speeds.  It’s thrilling to see them win; it’s agony when they crash. The full gamut of extreme emotions ripples like firelight across the faces of parents, coaches, and loved ones in the crowd.

I love to watch the downhill racers and figure skaters.  You can see how wonderfully strong and fit they are, and when they fall, as some always do, it’s amazing to watch them get up and go on.  How can they stand those tremendous crashes and joint-wrenching falls?  If they weren’t in top shape, they’d be seriously, perhaps even fatally injured.  The strength and control that allow them to ski or skate right up to the edge also protect them when they slip over. Resilience, courage, and stamina radiate from the bodies and faces of these young warriors, who fight to overcome not just world records and treacherous snow conditions, but also their own fears and limitations.

Of the dozens who race or perform, only three will get to stand on the medal podium.  And for every one who makes it to the Olympics, hundreds more have fallen by the wayside in qualifying trials.  I cannot help thinking about all these other ones, about their hours of training, their hopes and fears, and the hundredths of a second that can make the difference between moving up and being eliminated.  In the winner-take-all world of big-time sport, there is no place for the also-rans.  They must look within themselves to find satisfaction, affirmation, and the courage to go on.

Nor, at this time of year, can I help thinking of all the highly-trained people struggling to find or maintain a place in the academic world.  It’s the season of job hunting, on-campus interviews, and tenure decisions.  You smell the tension in the air, acrid as burnt wiring.  The race is on, and at the end, some will advance and some will not.  Those who do will have new challenges, about which we’ll be writing later; those who don’t will be challenged in a different way.  And all the while, close behind, the next year’s competitors crowd toward the starting gates.

In the warrior phase of life and career, everyone struggles to find a place in the world.  Training is past, school is past, and now we have to deal.  The world is big and strong, and it asks us to do many things at once.  How can we find the strength and balance to rise to the task and survive the bruising we are bound to take on the course, no matter what the outcome?

Our next series examines the phase of the warrior.  As you read, think of people you know who seemed to lead a convincing life at this stage.  What were their secrets of balance?  Feel free to share a comment or, better yet, a story.