Saturday, September 23, 2006

Life and career choices

Yesterday morning, I got a call from the host mother of another au pair, close friend to our own au pair. She happens to be a regional manager for Big Academic Publisher, and is looking for a sales consultant for the Rocket City area. She knew we were moving there, and thought she'd see if I'd be interested. I sent her my CV, without bothering to rework it into a resumé.

It's not a career I'd ever really considered. I'm curious though. What would it be like for me to take a job, simply a job, related to academia (though perhaps by some lights parasitically so), while I continue to seek a foothold on my professional life. I'm curious to find out what they make. Do you really have to sell your soul to work in sales for textbooks? I'd far rather be the one reading them, and deciding, on the basis of value and quality, and appropriateness for the course, which text to choose. For the moment, however, that choice is not available to me. Of course, in many cases, the text matters less than the teaching. This particular division probably falls within that category, so I certainly (possibly?) wouldn't be doing any harm (a dilemma which my father dealt with at my age when the advertising agency he worked for assigned the task to him of selling sulfa drugs in advance of their ban by the government).

I found an old letter sent to my father a decade ago, from my first trip overseas. For one month of that trip, I had been involved in an international workshop related to my old life as a performer:
Back in [city], where we had the [workshop], I had a dinner with a group of people including the founder and organizer of the whole affair, Dr. Werther (Jerry to me). He explained his philosophy on life, and I heard your voice. He said he thought of Goethe, of his spending more than half a lifetime working on "Faust", and of the lesson of Faust as he saw it. He said Faust was a man who did many bad things, many foolish things - but that the reason Goethe has him saved at the end - is that he woke up every day - and tried - tried to learn something new - throughout his whole life, despite a deal with the devil - he sought to accomplish something, through all his foolishness, most of all, he cared whether or not his life had meaning, and whether or not his life had any effect on the world. Jerry explained how to him what was always most important was that he leave the world a little better than he received it. Jerry said it, but I heard your voice saying it to me 20 years ago.
I think of the recent news about Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, and I wonder about my earlier rejection of the notion that one can make their millions first, then do good works. It would seem that the potential really is there, and the legacy that these men (I hesitate to call them "great men") will leave will likely have a longer lasting effect than what I might muster with my high-minded commitment to research and teaching. I can't say I'm ready to sell out, but these thoughts do give me pause.

The Rocket Scientist has suggested that it might be good for me to get a part-time job (the one above is full-time though). It's not so much that we need the money (though we could surely find ways to spend it or save it), but rather that it might help me feel less isolated and less useless if I'm doing something, and interacting with others.

Let's look at the faculty job search. One approach, which I've pretty much held for the past couple years is apply for every reasonably potentially appropriate post. Another tack, suggested in part by my interactions with Martin Chauffeur, by undine's advice, by the comments to my recent post about reworking a base cover letter, and by some recent remarks by Tasse Plein, is to focus merely on those positions that really speak to me, that seem to be seeking Articulate Dad.

I think of a friend of mine, Tom Hula, with a very similar focus to my own, who spent a year or so working for a tech start-up, then about three years working in administration at a university, before being offered a tenure-track job (which in fact he wound up turning down, because it was 1000 miles away from where his wife had a good career), eventually finagled a visiting faculty post at the institution where his wife was employed (when she was offered an attractive post at another institution), which has since been transformed into a tenure-track post.

First off, committees can't fault one for getting a job, while continuing the search. And, in Tom's case, I can't say that he had really maintained an active profile in the meantime. As far as I know, he didn't attend many conferences, give many presentations, submit articles for publication. He had simply stepped away for a time, working a job. Yet he was able to land himself a good situation, when the opportunity arose.

I've mentioned before that in some ways not needing to work is a double-edged sword. It frees me to work on my things... but that freedom itself can be confusing, overwhelming. What would I do, if I didn't need the money, if I didn't need a job? It's an amazingly, unexpectedly, difficult question to answer. I think of the book Money and the Meaning of Life, by the philosopher Jacob Needleman. At one point in the book, he discusses this question, and how the freedom from financial need has at times had devastating effects on individuals, from those who win the lottery, accept a large inheritance, rapidly achieve great success. It's an odd scenario, but one which is real.

I can't say that we are wealthy. But we are comfortable. Most importantly, we live within our means, which are sufficient to provide for all our needs, and a few of our wants. That could change of course. Rather, our income could change. But we've had many years of experience living within our means, which before recently were far more modest than now. And, I could easily take a job to bring in money if we needed it. But I don't fear that we'd have trouble living off far less. I mean, let's get real, we've both been graduate students.

What path to take? What face to present to the world? What voice to direct toward hiring committees? Which jobs to apply for? What to do?


betty said...

I'm sooo feeling this post, AD. Except I'm not in a situation where I can be free not to work while I searchm, even for a month. I have to do something while searching. Right now I have some freelance editing, but soon I'm going to have to settle, probably for Just A Job and I'm having a really hard time with this. I'm not looking for an academic, tenure track position, just something in student/academic affairs, but still I worry that if my Just A Job isn't related to my field of study or at a university then I risk losing the opportunity to get a job I really want.

I too was applying for everything that seemed remotely interesting and relevant to what I want, but I wonder if the energy spent on thos applications would have better used some other way. And what do I do now? Because I'm more desperate now than I was before (when I started this search I was still employed).

Just wanted to say that this post really spoke to me. If you figure out a good solution, I'd like to know.

Mel said...

One useful question to consider might be what is the implied opposition to the boldface word "job" in your post. What is it that you think you're looking for in your academic job search? And what does the word "job" mean to you? where does that definition come from?

Laura said...

I feel your pain, intensely. I have *a job*. I actually like my job, but there are lots of things I don't like about my job and so I'm tossing my hat into the faculty job market--sort of. I'm actually looking for--wait for it--a non-tenure track job. I do not want a tenure-track job. For lots of reasons I won't bore you with now. Anyway, I'm also stuck in a particular geographic area--for the most part.

The thing is, I'm worried how a two-year gap in teaching will look. My job is in academia. Though I haven't published, I've given many presentations pretty nearly directly related to my field. And yet, yet.

The other path I could take would be to climb the current ladder I'm on--which I can't do at my current institution. So basically, I'm on a two-pronged job search, limited to a 50 mile radius around my current spot. Sigh.