Thursday, September 01, 2011

Which Pond I'm In

So, after 6 years here, one degree program, and an unnecessarily humiliating turn trying to get a job in the public school system here, Willow has secured employment. Insofar as she is not teaching literature or creative writing, or, for that matter, anything, at the moment, it is not an ideal job, but it is a good position that pays well.

She is working as an executive assistant to a very highly-placed official on our large (30K students) campus, and so in her first week she has been very, very busy, and seems (if I may speak for her) both energized and exhausted by the work.

She has also met, very quickly, the most important people on campus in a very short time. And while her job is, as she put it, "to hold their sandals," the sense of access that she has serves to underscore just how little access to big decisions any of us has at any time. So on the one hand, I'm tenured faculty at a Carnegie High (very high? I can't remember. Borderline, either way) Research Activity University, with a comfy teaching load and humane publishing requirements and a rising, if not firmly established, reputation in my field.

And yet how small I felt just from hearing her rattle off the names of the people to whom she was introduced on her first day. It was such a curious feeling, and the vertigo of privilege and influence that it has initiated (admittedly, not all consuming, but definitely perceptible) has me questioning a number of things: how much I imagine I can accomplish in a career, how significant (or not) my idealistic and utopian visions of academia might be in enacting change.

There's an exchange in the film The American President between the Chief of Staff (Martin Sheen) and the President (Michael Douglas) in which Sheen tells Douglas that without him, Douglas would "be the most popular history professor at the University of Wisconsin." Ouch.

And as not-even-the-most-popular English Professor at an institution further downstream, having just secured most of my tangible career goals (tenure, book) I am wondering: where to from here? Do I aspire to work in the fancy building with the busy staff? I imagine I can get there, but would that be aspiring for the sake of aspiration? Would I be happier where I am? Would my sense of integrity (hardly unimpeachable, but trying) and idealism (ditto) be put to better use on some further path, or is it best placed here?

From the new perspective provided by Willow's new job, the pond I'm in suddenly seems smaller than before, a small departmental inlet off of a minor university pond. But I'm not yet clear on whether I'm better off in another pond, or cove, or whatever. At the moment, I'm feeling just slightly....adrift.


feMOMhist said...

sciDAD aspires to the big and fancy, while I"m happy swimming in the tiny pond, thanks. The upside to the big ocean-like pond is mostly $ (and the inside scoop). Downside is working summers and so much political crap it isn't even real

Congrats on the two incomes!

Horace said...

I don't think we can understate either the disciplinary element here, or the gender element. That is, at least here, the old boys network is still quite functional (though not universally so: Willow's boss is a very compentent woman), and the STEM fields are getting a LOT of rhetorical push.

So my thinking here is ambivalent: Being in a position like would put me in a stronger position to advocate for the humanities, to be sure, and as a male feminist scholar, at least I could argue for positions that are pro-feminist (and generally progressive). This does not change the fact, though, that I'd be another white guy in administration, something I recognize is at once part of my potential ticket "in" at the same time that it is a contemporary reality that needs to be resisted.

Tom said...

Horace--to me the question is who do you want as your audience, what do you want to do, and for whom? Do you want your legacy to be in your scholarship, your students, or your institution? (I guess I think only superhumans can really do all three, although, of course, our expectations in research, teaching, and service parallel those three legacies quite closely). But the choice of what building or university one works in might be affected by the kind of legacy one has most in mind.