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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

What I Did During My Summer Spring Vacation...

Summer's here, I'm for that / Got my rubber sandals, got my straw hat / Got my cold beer, I'm just glad that I'm here....
Summer's here, that suits me fine /It may rain today but I don't mind / It's my favorite time of the year and I'm glad that I'm here.

As it happens, I don't own a pair of rubber sandals, nor a straw hat, I don't drink beer, and summer is definitely not my favorite season of the year (I'm an autumn person myself). But I can't resist slipping into James Taylor mode, here on the first day of summer, with me feeling--given that things are going far different and far better than I thought was possible three months ago--very glad that I'm here indeed.

When I wrote my last post (both versions!), I figured that my professional life, and thus to a great extent my whole personal gestalt, had dead-ended. We left Arkansas State last spring because it'd become clear that, despite three years in that department and the support of my colleagues, other agendas were going to make very unlikely that the permanent post we'd been waiting for would ever come through. We came to Western Illinois because we knew there would be a search here, and thought this was my best chance to be an inside candidate and finally get some permanency. And then....well, they had the search, and I wasn't the department's choice. And we asked ourselves: if there are various intangibles that prevent me from being hired at a place where I've taught and published and made friends and (if evaluations are any indication) served the students well, then what reason have I to think that it would ever be different anywhere else? I mean, sure, it could be....but how long ought we drag our children around, waiting for a break? We'd kind of decided when we left Arkansas that we would give academia one more year. And so, when I realized that I'd been passed over, it seemed like more than a year had ended; it seemed to me as though Melissa and I had been booted back to 1995, and we needed to start all over again along an entirely different path.

It was a pretty terrible few weeks. It was terrible because I felt about as low, bitter, useless and screwed-up as I've ever felt in my life; and it was terrible because all through it I was fully aware of just how pathetic and self-centered my feelings were. They weren't entirely self-centered; much of the pain I felt came from the conviction that I'd led my family across the country, from one low-paying position to another, all while I might have been building something for them rather than insisting we live off whatever my dream vocation made possible. But even in putting it that way, I can see a fair amount of self-regard creeping out. I'd suffered a professional setback, a bad one to be sure, but hardly a personal tragedy....yet I did experience it as a personal failure, a loss that loomed largest when I looked at my office and realized how little of it--the books, the files, the half-done projects--I could reasonably expect to take with me wherever it was we ended up going. And I hated experiencing it in that way. There are real tragedies all around me, and I'm tearing up over the fact that I couldn't find work as someone who lectures to students about Kant? Oh, poor poor pitiful me.

I guess this all, in some fashion or another, serves as another testimony of the complicated way in which teaching and the academy--this vaguely elitist vocation we love--worms into our self-understanding, producing a level of pathos far out of proportion to its social and economic reality in our present world. Or maybe it's just another example of the things we humans can do to ourselves when we commit to trying ever harder to control something even while we tell ourselves that, of course, we know none of it is under our control. Or both.

I owe more than I can say to Melissa, who after giving me some time didn't take any more of my "what have I done to us?" crap, and told me in no uncertain terms that if she hadn't been on board with the idea of ours being an academic family, then she would have gotten me off that career track long ago, and so--along with exploring all sorts of other job options--it was time to be go back to the job listings and see if I really had exhausted every viable alternative. Similarly, I owe a lot to my local church leader; a fellow professor here in at WIU, and far more cynical and dark-humored than any Mormon bishop I've ever known, he at once curtly responded, when I had poured out to him one day in April all my doubts and confusion about continuing to look for an academic position even when it seemed that I had every reason to see in my situation the message that I wasn't cut out for this line of work, "You know, maybe WIU isn't worth being turned into a sign." Along the way, a lot of old friends, and some new ones, really went out of their way to help me: giving advice, sharing leads, writing letters, sometimes calling me up short, and always, listening to my rantings on the phone and trying to distill something helpful from out of it all. I'm very grateful to each and every one of them, perhaps especially those blog-friends that I've never actually met before, but whom I contacted out of near-desperation and who responded with an embarrassing generosity.

How did it all turn out? Quite suddenly and unexpectedly, with more success in the academic market than I'd ever experienced before. All my other applications--to government agencies, professional journals, think tanks, public interest groups, etc.--disappeared without a response; my random and desperate school applications, by contrast, resulted in four interviews and three formal offers (plus a fourth, sort of). How all that played out testified of nothing more than how random and haphazard this whole process is. One department--at a highly ranked research institution--apparently had decided to offer me a temporary position (with good pay) barely a week or two after the news from WIU came down....but they didn't get back to me with an actual offer until June, by which time some decisions had already been made. I was one of two finalists invited out to interview for a tenure-track position at a growing state school on the East Coast....but my flight through Chicago was cancelled (curse you, O'Hare!), and the school couldn't get their act together in time to refund my ticket and line up another flight before I had to make decisions elsewhere; so I'll never know how things might have gone there. And then there was the fine little liberal arts school, and the prestigious research university, both in beautiful (but very different) parts of the South, both of which offered jobs (one tenure-track, one short-term) that, if things were slightly different, I would have jumped at....and was prepared to do so anyway, despite the fact that we couldn't see how we could make either work for our growing family financially.

Fortunately that choice was taken out of our hands by a tenure-track offer from Friends University, a small (1100 regular students), formerly Quaker, now non-denominational Christian, liberal arts school in Wichita, Kansas. I'll be running the political science program there, in time hopefully building a major, but in the short term teaching a little bit of everything. I liked the school and liked the city, and most of all liked the people I met there. Melissa is going down to Wichita this weekend to look for a place for us to live; we think it's likely that we'll be living there for a while, perhaps a very long while. Which is what we want, really; finally, a place to stay and watch those things we love and are involved in (our children, our garden, my students) develop and grow. For myself, taking this job does mean a real change from the previous five years; I've never been a generalist before, nor worked at such a small, teaching-focused institution. So perhaps the crisis I went through this spring had a point after all; it truly made me willing to imagine myself doing something different. The wonderful thing is that I'll be able to do all those different things, while still being where I've always wanted to be, after all. (An academic, that is; not necessarily a resident of Kansas. Though we're intrigued by that as well.)

Anyway, that's the story. As for the blog, given my past blogging habits, it's madness to try to start it up again right when summer vacations and relaxation--or, in our case, the by-now regular summer moving stress--begins. Still, I've let it go for too long. There are too many comments on all that's gone on over the last three months crammed in my head to ignore for much longer. So, as much as I'm able, I'm going to crank out some posts on rather dated topics over the next little while, as well as hopefully, whenever I have access to a computer, try to get back up to speed. I've missed the blogosphere; missed being part of its conversation(s). I was right to take a break, but I'm so glad that my early, morbid thoughts (namely, that my involvement in blogging and intellectual engagement in general was at an end) turned out to be wrong. Indeed, in regard to so many things which I was thinking when I wrote that "goodbye" post last March, I've never been happier to have been proved wrong in my life.

Thanks everybody. I'm glad that I'm here.