Professor No Longer: On Capacity and Risk

Originally published in the Winter 2013 MLA Newsletter

This fall, during the week of 22 September, I served as the guest blogger for PhDs at Work, a Web site where people like me who earned PhDs but do not hold academic appointments describe the daily activities they perform in their jobs. I welcomed this opportunity, because I think it’s important for those of us who use our degrees outside the classroom to speak about our positions and to offer our guidance to others who wish to pursue alternative academic careers. What follows is a modified version of my blog post for Friday, 27 September.

My workweek draws to a close, and I’m satisfied with what we’ve accomplished on staff. Rather than tell you about my day—the highlight of which was wonderful discussions with the Publications Committee and the Committee on Assessing Student Learning—I’d like to reflect on my response to one of the statements PhDs at Work asked me to complete: “If I had to do it all over again, I would. . . .” What I wrote was this: “I would have been less conventional and more of a risk taker when young. I’m making up for that now.” What does this mean for my career? To most academics, I probably appear to be conventional, at least more conventional than they are. I hold an administrative position in an association that runs like the not-for-profit enterprise it is. Lawyers, auditors, fund managers, and consultants all pass through my office. I study the bottom line, I assess progress on strategic priorities, I assemble creative teams, I run workshops, and I work long hours in the office and on the road.

Yes, I recognize the conventional in me, yet I know I take more risks now than I did in my professorial days. I always had many interests, and learning languages, which came naturally to me, served as a connector to the larger world. By the time I was seventeen, I had spent a summer in France with a school group and a year in Guatemala as an exchange student. If you’d asked me back then what I wanted to do for a living, I would have said (and did say, in fact) “secretary of state.” Yet I didn’t pursue an academic path that might have led to government service. Instead, excelling at languages meant that I majored in French and Spanish and studied literature. I didn’t know that I would love doing the literary part or that I’d have a talent for it. In my senior year, I half-heartedly applied to law school (just one) and wasn’t admitted, and I also applied to a PhD program in Spanish—and was courted. The conventional path begins here, and, in some ways, it was the path of least resistance.

The usual stages of an academic career ensued: TA, MA, ABD, adjunct, PhD, more adjunct, postdoc, assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, department chair. During those twenty years I wrote a few books and dozens of articles, gave conference papers, continued expanding my scholarly range, taught tons of courses, got very involved in the MLA, and so on. None of these things could be construed as “outside the box” or risk taking. I suppose some of the scholarly work I did treated unconventional topics, but it was all in the service of a typical academic career.

When I say I take risks now and am making up for the conventional years, that’s an exaggeration. First off, it never really occurred to me to take risks by exploring nonacademic jobs when my life as a professor seemed to be unfolding so well. Had I not obtained a tenure-track position (I worked for three years off the tenure track after I finished my PhD), I would have surely sought out other options. Yet I do wish I would have known I had so much untapped capacity in me. Whenever I describe the varied responsibilities of my current position, most of which I learned on the job, I can hardly believe that the trained academic has become a proficient executive. But why not? I see models all around me now that I know where to look.

Knowing that I have a depth of potential, and that I have already realized a good chunk of it, means I can take risks. In fact, leading an association requires an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to calculate risk and then go for it when warranted. I have led major change (though hardly by myself!), and this is decidedly not your mother’s or grandmother’s MLA. Not only do I want to pursue the right kind of change, I also want to shake things up in more ordinary ways that reflect my personality. Come to my party at the annual convention, and there may be a conga line, much to the surprise of those who are accustomed to a tweedy kind of dignity. I have found ways to carry out my duties with the seriousness required of the position while also managing to “be myself,” because who else is going to do that?

In my professorial days I was raising a child, which added to my sense of inhabiting conventional limits. Now, my after-work hours belong to me. Since becoming executive director of the MLA, I have trained for and completed two half marathons, joined a hiking group, learned meditation, attended four silent retreats, walked the English Way of the Camino de Santiago, and, just this fall, taken sailing lessons and achieved my basic keelboat certification. My job energizes me to learn more, try something new, reach a bit further. It also pushes me to take leisure time and use it for something other than work whenever possible. I’ll be back on a sailboat this weekend, enjoying a few hours on the Hudson River, too busy tacking and jibing to worry about drafting and revising.

Postscript: More than one person who read this text as it was originally published on PhDs at Work remarked that my going to graduate school for a PhD could hardly count as a conventional thing to do. Even though the year was 1977 and the gains of feminism were fairly well established, I had no family members after whom to fashion a postgraduate career path. My father had a high school education, and my mother, who immigrated as an infant to the United States from Sicily, attended what was then called Buffalo State Teachers College. Her parents studied reading and writing in primary school, and they were proud that their daughter became an elementary school teacher. If my mother had graduated in 1977, she surely would have been seen as “PhD material.” In truth, I’ve been a risk taker from the moment I boarded a plane for France at fifteen, as were my immigrant, working-class family members who sailed on a ship bound for Ellis Island nearly one hundred years ago.

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