When a Sense of Place is a Sense of Motion

I’ve been thinking a lot about staying alive by thinking about place.  One of the common situations for those of us that pursue intellectual work is finding one’s way into a life, as Wallace Stegner once put it, where a sense of place is a sense of motion.  I’m interested, then, in the consequences of mobility–the ways we respond to the risk of departures, the enigmas of arrivals, the ongoing challenges of coming to terms with a place-among those of us whose intellectual lives take us (whether by circumstance or by choice) in unexpected directions.

John has written eloquently about the challenges of mobility in “The Road of Exile,” the first chapter in his book The Cincinnati Arch. My own path back and forth across the country-from the oceans and mountains of the West to the fields and forests and rivers of New England-has kept me off kilter as well. A few years ago I wrote a commentary on some of the problems that many of us face as we undertake the move from graduate school to (if we are fortunate) to another college. “Where do you Teach?” questions the commonplace story of graduate students, trained in university-based programs, seeking the few coveted positions but mostly (and unfortunately) settling for jobs at second- or third-tier schools. As the story goes, there are desirable jobs, with course releases, research funding, upper-level seminars, and smart students; and there are less desirable jobs, with barely tolerable teaching loads, lower-level courses, and less-talented students. The myth is as pernicious as it is destructive. As I say in my commentary, “With the values and practices of the research university accepted as the profession-wide standard, we devote fewer of our intellectual energies to teaching, as well as to the ever more important engagements with public audiences who benefit from our work; we diminish the commitments of faculty whose intellectual work is organized around teaching undergraduate students, and whose reading and writing often arises from that work; and we disadvantage new PhDs struggling to imagine rewarding careers in English programs located outside the doctorate-granting institution.”

A few weeks ago, the subject of staying alive by thinking through place emrged in a commentary by the philosopher Gregory Pence in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In “”How to be Happy in Academe,” Spence makes the case that to be happy in the academic world you need a job. He argues that while difficult to come by, academic  jobs require you to “work hard at the three things we are expected to do: teach students who want to learn, publish about things you care about, and be a good academic citizen through service to your institution and field.” I guess Spence is mostly on the mark-at least as far as he goes. For in fact there is something very agreeable in the in the idea that we need to develop a sense of purpose and meaning right where we are.

But I really don’t think he goes far enough. My experiences tell me that the pragmatic advice in his “How to” essay neglects, even plays into, the seductions and betrayals of our professional lives. And my hope is that we might discuss further the ways our migratory patterns intersect with our struggles to build and sustain meaningful professional lives.