My workweek draws to a close, and I’m satisfied with what we’ve accomplished on staff. I still need to finish my remarks for the panel discussion at the Languages for All conference at the University of Maryland, College Park. Fortunately, a three plus hour train ride on Sunday will give me that stretch of silent time. I know the Northeast Corridor of Amtrak well, given that I travel to Philadelphia and Washington fairly often. As @jeffreyjcohen said on Twitter yesterday, “If I could live in the Amtrak quiet car I would do so.” Except for the so-so food, that is.
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 “If I had to do it all over again, I would….” I said “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 that 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, I work long office hours and I make good money. . . in the shadow of the Wall St. Bull. I certainly dress the part of an executive (although even as a graduate assistant I usually wore a dress and heels, and I never once taught in jeans).
Yes, I recognize the convention 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 large world. By the time I was 17, 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, in fact) “Secretary of State.” Excelling at languages for me meant majoring in French and Spanish and studying literature. I didn’t know that I would love doing the literary part or that I’d have 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. Conventional path begins here.
The usual stages of an academic career ensued: TA, MA, ABD, adjunct, PhD, more adjunct, post-doc, assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, department chair. During those 20 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 all in the service of a typical academic career.
When I said I take risks now and am making up for the conventional years, that was an exaggeration. First off, it never really occurred to me to take risks by exploring non-academic 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 the 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 became a proficient executive. I’m 99% sure I would never have been named Secretary of State, but an undersecretary? Yeah, I coulda’ been a contender!
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 the willingness to calculate risk and then go for it when warranted. I have led major change (though hardly by myself!), and it is decidedly not your mother’s or grandmother’s MLA. Not only do I want to “chase 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 will be a conga line, much to the chagrin of those who expect a tweedy kind of dignity. I have found ways to carry out my duties with the seriousness required of my 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 the sense of conventional limits, especially with my free time (as in, what free time?). Since becoming executive director of the MLA, I have trained for and completed two half-marathons, joined a hiking group, learned meditation , attended three or four silent retreats, walked the English Way of the Camino de Santiago, and, just this month, took sailing lessons and got my basic keelboat certification. My job energizes me to always 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 tomorrow, enjoying a few hours on the Hudson River, too busy tacking and jibing to worry about drafting and revising.
I didn’t expect to learn so much about myself this week, yet why am I surprised? The word is the way, for self-expression and self-knowledge. I’ve enjoyed writing these blog posts all week. Apparently Meiga has enjoyed it, too. She’s settled in with me each eve on the end of the sofa, lulled by the steady clicking of keys hour after hour. I’m grateful to all who have accompanied me this week (feline included). And now this PhD at Work is ready to join the sleeping cat.