Tasks and Strengths of the Warrior

In the second stage of an academic career, which we call the Warrior Phase, the main task is to establish yourself in the world.  Training is over; combat and struggle begin.  In school, you relate mostly with people your own age.  But in the real world you must deal with people of every age, level of experience, or variety of character.  Doors open on situations of breathtaking complexity or slam shut without warning on simple, sincere expectations.  Challenges lurk and opportunities abound.

Erik Erikson calls this phase “Young Adulthood” and defines its tasks as intimacy and belonging vs. isolation, to which we bring the strengths of affiliation and love.  It is enacted in the realm of community, where one learns how to make a living, and in the realm of personal relationships where one finds a mate, establishes a home, and starts a family.   Erikson locates this phase between ages 18 and 35, but in academic life, with its extended adolescence, it more commonly occurs between 26 and 40  – or, in the standard model, between grad school and tenure.

Warrior Pose B. (Liberty Bell, North Cascades)

The image of a warrior suggests fighting and aggression, but we like to think of it more in terms of engagement.  This phase often feels like a wrestling match with life.  To prevail, you must bring to all the skills of a warrior, primarily strength, flexibility, and centeredness.

Yoga embodies these virtues in classic Warrior Poses,  where core strength holds the body in position as energy radiates down through the legs to ground you firmly in the earth, and outward through the arms to engage with the world.  In order to maintain a firm horizontal and vertical alignment, your core muscles have to engage resolutely and consistently.  Without centeredness, your arms flag or droop, your knees wobble, and you can fall out of the pose.   Without flexibility, you can’t enter or exit the pose, nor move from one pose to another, without hurting yourself.

For academic people, staying alive through the Warrior Phase means practicing strength, flexibility, and centeredness in all three dimensions of life: the personal, the professional, and the institutional.  Stay tuned.

Image: NC Mountain Guides

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.

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.

Dimensions of Academic Life

When Dante comes to himself in the dark wood, he has no idea where he is.  Somehow, he realizes, he has strayed from the right path.  He feels disoriented and confused.  It is only after Virgil appears that he begins to get a sense of where he is and how he might get back on track.  And Virgil’s teaching takes the form of both ideas and stories: ideas that orient, and stories that guide.

In the journey of academic life, it is important to get a sense of where you are.  We find it useful to think of three fundamental dimensions: the person, the profession, and the institution.  At every moment, our experience is configured by some constellation or alignment of these three.  And each of them has both a general and a particular aspect.

Think, for example, about your colleagues.  Each of them shares certain characteristics of temperament and behavior with other academicians, but each also manifests distinctive elements of personality, character, and individual history.  Think about academia: it has the general features of all professions, but these are inflected by distinctive values, practices, and taboos such as academic freedom, peer review, or tenure.  Think about your college or university: it operates the way all institutions do but in a style that reflects its particular history, character, and composition.

Much confusion arises, we believe, from ignoring one or more of these dimensions as we deal with our academic experience.  So, let’s take a closer look.