Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A conversation with myself

At some point in my life, long ago, I came to the realization that there really is only one person who will have spent my entire life with me, who will know me better than anyone, who will have seen all the things I saw, heard the sounds that accosted my ears, thought my thoughts, questioned my questions. So, it is above all with that person's judgment I must contend: …

Me: So... what's the deal, my friend?

Myself: What do you mean?

Me: Come on. Who do you think you're kidding? ... It's me, remember.

Myself: Yeah. Well... I mean, what do you want?

Me: [waits]

Myself: Okay, okay. You win. [mumbles to self] What's the deal? What's the deal? The deal is... the deal is I hate this game. I hate writing these letters. I hate hearing the endless advice, that simply takes me in circles. What's the point of it all?

Me: It all?

Myself: Yeah.

Me: You mean, ... help me out here. You mean, what exactly? Applying for jobs, for faculty jobs?

Myself: Look, it's not just applying for jobs, it's... I can get a job, okay. I mean I could. I'm not a bum. I've been working all my life. Had my first paper route at nine. I can get a job.

Me: Calm down. No one said you couldn't.

Myself: Yeah, well it's the way you asked, okay? The way you look at me.

Me: [laughs] Look in any good mirrors lately?

Myself: [chuckles] yeah, whatever. I mean, it's just... okay, look, here's the world I'd like to live in. You do your schtick. You impress enough people. They say nice things about you. You show your wares so to speak, your publications and your presentations, and somebody hires you, and gives you a chance to prove yourself.

Me: And this you see, where?

Myself: Hey Rocket lives in that world.

Me: Yeah, but you're not an engineer.

Myself: I could be.

Me: [laughs] And that's what you want, right? ... to go back to school for anoth--

Myself: NO!

Me: Alright then. So... you don't live in her world... at least not her professional world. Big deal. It's got it's plusses I admit. But then, she's not exactly content there either. Not fully, anyway. See, you... you're a different sort. You always have been. Poe's Alone and all that. I mean, most people are content to get a job and work, only then to figure out what they don’t like about it. But you, you always seem to know beforehand. I mean, at least they’re capable of getting the jobs.

Myself: Hey!

Me: Come on, now, it’s me. I’m not judging you. I’m just telling it like I see it. You can’t hide your feelings, never could. Problem is, you always seem to have them figured out ahead of time.

Myself: You saying I can’t interview well?

Me: No, that’s not what I’m saying. At least… not entirely. You'd interview great, for your perfect job! It’s just you haven’t found it yet.

Myself: Tell me about it.

Me: So, what are you going to do then? I mean, it would seem that you’re pretty excited about this research, and applying for patents, and building a firm around those ideas.

Myself: Yeah. Sure. But, um…

Me: [chuckles] What? That doesn’t sound like enthusiasm.

Myself: [laughs] Yeah, that’s the problem. There’s a reason I haven’t followed through on these calls to venture capitalists in the past couple weeks. I don't really want to call around when I'm not feeling up and chipper. I won't exactly convey the level of excitement that I really feel, and that the work deserves. That, and I’ve been quite busy traveling and getting settled teaching again.

Me: Oh yeah. Having fun?

Myself: Yeah, sure. I love teaching. I really do. It’s a rise for sure, like being on stage, only, I get to write the script. You know… one of the kids came up to me after class last week and said “Hey, I just wanted to tell you that I’m really enjoying this class. A lot of my other classes are real disappointments, but not this one. I just wanted to tell you that.” You know, you can’t really beat that. Eighty students. It’s no small feat to keep eighty students alive and engaged. I think I’m doing alright.

Me: Yeah, but what about yesterday?

Myself: Yesterday, hmmm. Okay, I guess there's a bit of the impostor syndrome. It's not that I think myself incompetent. But... I'm teaching this non-majors survey class, covering a massive swath of material. Much of that material (in particular what I'm talking about this week) has never captured my interest. So, it's probably my weakest area in [subfield 1].

Granted, I went to grad school for this stuff, and I've taken classes in that particular area, and I've even taught it before. But that was years ago, and frankly it's telling that I forgot much of it in the interim. So, it's tough to keep a good face on it all when I'm not enthused about the material. But that's just this segment.

Maybe I was projecting, 18-19 year olds often look bored in class. Maybe it wasn't as bad as it felt. I just hate it when a student asks a question, and the real and true and honest answer is: gee, you know what, I really forget. I'll have to look that up and get back to you. And normally, I'd be happy to say to a student that I just don't know the answer (I say that a lot)... but in this particular case, I felt like it was material that I've studied, and that I'm pretending to teach. So I mumbled some partial response... good thing it was the end of class. I'll look over my references and have something better to relate on Thursday.

But it did make me rethink my goals and wants. One of the posts I'm looking at, in the Midwest, say 2-3 hours' drive from my inlaws is to teach two sections per term of the same survey class. Do I really want to do that? Sure, I could get stronger on the topics I'm weakest on. It's true (as was portrayed as they key to me by those who hired me at Lemon) that I do know more than my students (even where I'm weakest). But what do I want?

Me: So, then, you want to teach?

Myself: I just don't know. Teach. If only it were that simple. I can teach. But my enjoyment of teaching is up and down, I guess like any job. Mostly, I seem to have trouble getting a goddamned interview. And the few I’ve had haven’t turned into anything.

Me: Fair enough. But you’ve got yourself a teaching gig now. Maybe that’ll help you get your foot in the door. Or… what’s saying you couldn’t stay on at Lemon?

Myself: No… Lemon’s not a long-term prospect. I mean it could be, but we really don’t want to settle here. Too many people, too much congestion, long commutes, too hot… This just isn't home. Rocket & I have been looking through this cities guide we bought. This area has just about the worst possible air quality of anywhere in the country. Some of the highest population density. Probably the most overinflated house prices. There's little to recommend it.

Me: I get it.

Myself: As for the foot in the door… who knows? I must say I feel like I’ve tried everything else. Got an email back today from [my ex-stepdad]. There’s a posting at the university where he teaches. Thought I’d see what he might say.

Me: And?

Myself: Basically he said (these weren’t his words, but it’s the upshot of their meaning) it’s an old boy’s network. Look like them, talk like them, make them think you’re one of them, and you’ve got a shot.

Me: Hmm.

Myself: And me? See… I don’t really look like… well, who knows?

Me: Setting yourself up to expect disappointment?

Myself: Safer that way, isn’t it?

Me: Well, yeah… but then, you might get just what you expect.

Myself: That’s my dilemma. If I expect this season to pan out like the last three, my heart’s just not in it.

Me: And is that what you expect?

Myself: I don’t know. I just don’t know. I guess I probably do, which makes it that much harder to wrap myself around writing up thrilling, exciting (self-indulgent) letters (of self-praise). If I tone it down, and leave it to my recommenders to do the praising, then I’m criticized for not letting my personality show.

Me: [laughs] Well, there must be a balance there.

Myself: I guess I just haven’t found it yet.

Me: So, work on it. Couldn't hurt.

Myself: Alright. So here's the plan moving forward. I look over postings as they come up. I assess 1) does the job as described sound interesting (always dangerous, because who knows how well the write-up reflects the actual job); 2) is it in a location we'd like to live. Period. I'm not afraid to weed out many or most of the postings. The advantage of course to landing a faculty gig is 1) a bit of validation for the PhD and my efforts over the years (I admit this is a weak reason, but it soothes my ego a bit); 2) there's a degree of stability it offers in terms of salary and benefits which we'll likely otherwise forego, for instance if we simply choose a place to move, Rocket takes time off from work, and I build this business.

Me: But it's exciting too. Clean slate.

Myself: Granted.

Me: Besides, if you ever make those calls to VCs, you might just find you've got as much financial security (or more) than a tenure-track post offers. Remember it's not tenure. They give you a couple years to prove yourself, then possibly cut you loose. Maybe you can get 2-3 years of venture capital, including salary and benefits. And worst case, you've got enough savings to survive a couple years, without even touching retirement.

Myself: Well, that depends on where we live, and the cost of living.

Me: Exactly, but that's what you're trying to decide. Apply for those faculty gigs if you like, but plan. No use holding your breath for that. And more importantly, no use continuing to give away your power. It's not for them to decide where you're going to live. There is no them. It's just in your head. They are simply people, or schools, or committees looking to fill their own needs. They don't care one way or another about your needs. That's not a judgment of them. They've got a task to accomplish, fill the faculty slot. Your task is different. Keep that in mind. You don't need to put on their mask if that's not the role you wish to play.

Myself: You're right.

Me: Hey, friend. Let's keep talking. I think this helps.

Myself: You can count on it.

1 comment:

Greg Weeks said...

I think your last paragraph is the key one. Obviously, things vary across disciplines, but I disagree that the old boy network image is accurate. Departments have needs, and want people to fit them--sure, contacts play a role, but not always a huge one. It's cool, though, that you have your feet in other rewarding doors as well.