Saturday, April 30, 2011

up against the wall

I am reconsidering my choice of career.

I don't mean my decision to become a minister or spiritual leader. I am given repeated examples that I do that well and seem to be uniquely qualified by my past to help people recognize the hopefulness surrounding us. at the same time, of course, I'm very conscious it's unlikely I can make a living doing only that, at least among unitarian universalists.

no, what I'm reconsidering is teaching.

let me be more specific: teaching is honorable and good. I've always considered myself pretty good at it, too, maybe especially so. and I've had scores of students who credit me with their new appreciation of reading or writing or learning, and there are few things more exciting to me than listening to someone argue himself into realizing something he hadn't before. my mentor in grad school, bill dyer, used to tell me the aim of teaching was to make everyone feel like the smartest person in the room, and if I haven't always hit that mark I've still aimed for it.

but I'm tired. I'm 50 years old and realizing that to remain in academe requires me to hustle every single semester for the next one. after 10 years and nearly as many interviews--there are so few positions out here--I've come to think of something for the 1st time or at least to put it this way for the 1st time.

I know a lot of very good tenured teachers. I know a lot more mediocre tenured teachers. I even know several lousy tenured teachers. I know a lot of lousy and mediocre non-tenured teachers. besides me, I don't know any very good non-tenured teachers. I'm humble enough to wonder whether thinking I could be the only one I'm familiar with is self-delusion.

I know there's a good reason to believe in oneself and I know that many of my students will argue that it's not just a question of good: I know I've opened things in them (and in myself) that no one else could and that can't be discounted or forgotten. it's hard to explain. I know I teach well and there are some people I can teach that other people can't. the image of one prison student suddenly understanding how satan is damned in paradise lost in the middle of a statement that started out a question is one I'll take to my grave, and I flatter myself no one else could have helped him get to that point. I know I've been there to help a few lives change drastically and for the better.

but I've also watched people move around and in front of me when it comes to full time positions. I don't begrudge them that, I know they're talented and have worked hard for their positions and deserve them. I'm not questioning whether I've worked hard or my talent: I'm questioning whether my talent is enough to deserve a position.

maybe it's as shallow as this: at 50 I'm aware I've hit the wall beyond which I'm simply too old to start a career and the best I can do is operate at the fringes of it where I know I'll never make enough money to afford allowing my wife to quit the job she hates or for us to retire. I live a better life than I expected to and I know there are a lot of people who live worse lives, so I don't want to sound like I'm bemoaning anything. when it comes to world population, I'm in the top percentage purely through accident of birth and the chances I've been given. I've been lucky I've been allowed to butt my head against the wall of education for a decade. but I'm in exactly the same position I was in in 2000 except with a better reputation and a sore head. a definition of craziness is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. maybe it's time to stop ramming my head against the wall.

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