Wednesday, October 12, 2005


By Request, On Choosing the Monastic Life of a College Professor

(A VEEERRRRYYY long post – as you might imagine)

I’m writing this post in direct response to a request from a reader, who wanted to know how I decided to do the professing thing – whether this was always what I wanted to be when I grew up and how I came to this point. Now, on the one hand I’m flattered that anybody would be interested, and so of course I’m going to post in response. But I suppose that’s not the only reason for this post. I suppose this post also has to do with me coming to terms with the ways in which this profession is a job like any other and not some kind of "calling."

The only way to begin is long before graduate school and long before, even, college. In order to talk about my path to this point, I’ve got to talk about where I come from. I’ve talked a bit about my background on this blog, and so maybe some of this will be repetitive, but I know not all of you have read every word of the hefty tome that has become my blog, and I suspect that even those of you who have don’t hang on my every word and remember everything I’ve ever said, so here it goes. Some of it may be repetitive, but what the hell.

I was born into a solidly working-class family. My mother was one of ten children and was the only of her brothers and sisters to graduate from high school. My father was one of seven. My parents met in high school, and my mom got pregnant when she was 19. They weren’t married. They got married because of me. Well, that’s not entirely true – my mother has said, and I believe her, that she thinks that they would have gotten married even if I hadn’t forced the issue. They were in love, and it was only a matter of time before, given the conventions of their families and their friends, that they made the whole thing legitimate through marriage. Still, I think it’s important that it didn’t go that way because I grew up always knowing that the course of my life could be determined by my body – that opportunities could slip away if I “got in trouble.” So my parents got married, and my dad got a job at the steel mill, and my mom worked at a variety of part-time jobs until I was 8 or 9, when she worked full-time for the first time. When I was born, they were 20 years old. Neither went to college.

So, let’s fast-forward to the childhood years. I guess these are the early things that I think contributed most to my development into this academic that I’ve become. Probably first and foremost are a variety of things related to my mom. Now remember, she is a 20-year-old high-school-educated person from a huge (and dysfunctional – as in violence, drug abuse, alcoholism, the gamut) family. 1) She enrolled me in Montessori pre-school at age 3. Remember that this is the 1970s and it’s not normal for most kids, let alone kids of my class, to go to pre-school. The school was awesome – very diverse (my best friend was a girl Pari from India whose parents were doctors – I was mesmerized by the fact that her mom wore rings on her toes and wore a bindi and I still have the postcard from the Taj Mahal that she sent me when they went to India – my most hated enemy was a girl named Amee from France, whom I still hate to this day though I don’t exactly know why) and very progressive (I saw a woman breast-feed for the first time when my teacher brought her newborn baby to school). 2) Two repeated things that my mother always said: Good, better, best; never let it rest; until your good is better and your better is best; and Anything boys can do girls can do better. 3) I always liked reading. I don’t remember when I learned how to read, but I remember that my mom or dad read to me every night. I also remember that my grandmother always read and that she would read to me from the old volumes of The Book of Knowledge that she had – which she must have procured from a garage sale or something sometime, because they were really old and there is no way they would have had the money to buy them when they came out. Oh, and I suppose in addition to these mom-influenced things, I should also add that there was an element of my personality even then that probably was suited to this life that I had now. My mom tells this story about my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. McNamara, being concerned because I destroyed some art project I was working on because it wasn’t “perfect.” “Crazy is really hard on herself, really critical of herself,” she said. “You need to try to help her understand that she doesn’t need to be perfect.”

Fast-forward. I’m 12 years old. My parents get divorced. I have always been a bright student, but with the divorce everything is in upheaval. My mother gets basically less than nothing from the divorce; my father is required by law only to provide $50 per week in child support for me until I turn 18 and is not required to share in any educational expenses or medical or dental expenses. He does not do what he is not required by law to do. He technically has visitation with me every other week; I see him approximately once or twice a year from the time that the divorce is made final. My mother makes two pivotal decisions at this point: 1) I will not go to Catholic high school and 2) we will move to a border suburb because they have a good public school system, even though it means that ultimately the house that she had owned with my father will be foreclosed and her credit will be fucked for years. It is also at this point that my mom meets my step-dad, who is perhaps the best man I’ve ever met and who has been more of a father to me from that time forward than my biological father has been. When I talk about my “parents” on this blog, I’m talking about my mom and my step-dad. Also, the summer that my mom kicked my dad out, I spent almost all of my time at my grandmother’s, and she let me loose on the classics, and I read Jane Eyre and Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (which I loved then and then hated in high school) and Gulliver’s Travels….

Fast-forward. High school. I was always encouraged to be involved in things. I was (and I suppose still am, as I signed up for the lifetime membership when I did enough to qualify) a thespian. I was in the Latin club. I was on the high school newspaper. And the newspaper was a big deal – it was one of the best high school newspapers in the country, and ultimately I was editor. I won national awards for high school journalism. I went to conventions and workshops in states other than my own. I achieved. And, well, I was always good with writing and stuff, and so when I went to college I went as a journalism major.

Yeah, so here’s the thing, I realized, in my second semester, that being a journalism major was wack. I realized that the likelihood of my ending up as either Woodward or Bernstein was slim to none. On my high school newspaper, I could do things I cared about and make a difference. (I won’t go into my uncovering of violations to the student council constitution or my story about censorship and the PMRC, but let me tell you, I was awesome.) But when I got to college, a few things became clear to me: 1) journalism is a business, and ultimately the purpose of newspapers is to sell advertisements; 2) the pose of objectivity is a lie, and I couldn’t pretend not to have opinions about the things that I covered; 3) the likelihood had I continued with the journalism major was that I wouldn’t end up at the New York Times but that I’d end up at the Local Podunk Weekly writing obvious stories about city council for very little pay and still working a zillion hours a week.

So how did I end up a college professor? Well, the first time the idea even entered my head (and let me tell you – I had always planned on cosmetology school if even the whole college thing didn’t work out because I wasn't even sure about that, let alone graduate school) was in my first semester of college when my freshmen English teacher told me that I should think about graduate school because I was a talented writer and a good critic. Now, when this idea was first presented to me, I thought to myself, “You’re entirely crazy. What am I going to do with a graduate degree in English?” I thought she was a fool. But once I realized journalism wasn’t for me – and once I realized just how many "unnecessary" English classes I wanted to take – I thought about it again. Because I knew I didn’t want to teach high school. Any job that could require me to teach Billy Budd every year until I retired was not for me. Period. I wanted to teach – if I was going to teach – things that I loved and not things a school board told me to teach. And so, after much soul-searching and a good cry confessing my dream to my mom, whom I thought would disapprove because more school would mean more money, whatever the financial aid package, I changed my major to English and I decided I would be a professor.

So was I “called” to this? I wouldn’t say so. I’m not sure how anyone from my background could be. But I wouldn’t say I fell into it, either. I would say that I chose this life, for better or for worse. But then, even then, I didn’t really think it would happen. Part of this because my adviser told me – when I told her in my junior year of college that I was thinking about graduate school – that I shouldn’t bother because my GPA wasn’t high enough to get me into the kind of school I’d need to get into in order to get a job. (I hated her at the time, but I now realize that she gave me good advice, and that I got incredibly lucky to land where I did.) I also had my mother telling me “You can type; you’ve got the skills to always have a job working in an office” (which, of course, is exactly what I did while finishing my dissertation) and family members asking me constantly, when they found out I was doing an English degree, “What are you going to do with that?” (even after I was in a fucking Ph.D. program). So I had a variety of back-ups in mind, the most exotic of which was going to Eastern Europe to teach English if I didn’t get into graduate school, and the most mundane of which was to go to Law School if I didn’t get a job as a professor (which my step-dad still wants me to do – I think he wants me to be president or something).

So that’s my story. But I think what my reader really was asking was more than for me to write about my path. I think underlying that question is another: if you had it to do over again, would you do it? Is this right for you? Are you happy? And honestly, I think the answer is pretty much yes for all three of those questions. Not because it’s a calling, though. Rather, I think that this is right for me for the following reasons: 1) I am a good teacher, and my students come away from my classes engaged with literature or writing or both in a way that they were not when they entered; 2) I am a good critic and writer, I see things in a unique and original way, and I think that I contribute to the field because of these characteristics; 3) I like being basically my own boss and I don’t like being bossed in the way that I would be in corporate America; 4) I care about what I do, and I feel like what I do gives something back to the world; 5) I can’t imagine myself in a profession in which I didn’t think about things that matter.

And the truth of it is, I could not have articulated all of this in graduate school. In graduate school, I was as unsure as anybody about whether this was really for me. It’s only now, that I’m in it, that I’m sure that it is. And as much as I bemoan certain things about this particular job or this profession generally, I wouldn’t trade either for something else (or something less).


My grandmother was also fond of that "Good better best" verse. And one of her kids became a college professor, too.
You're awesome, Dr. Crazy.
Dear Dr. Crazy,

I'm a fellow college professor, and I had been teaching full-time for five years before I found my calling.

It may happen to you yet.
What a terrific post! And your mom and grandmother both sound awesome (like mother, like daughter -- right down to you!).
My mother is brilliant, and always pushed me to get as much education as I can possibly handle. Though she never worked outside the home while raising me(and my five siblings), she is one of the main reasons that I know that I can accomplish writing a dissertation and then becoming a professor.
Thank you, Dr. Crazy! Your closing remarks about the five reasons you think it's right resonate with me. I think my big fear is sucking as a teacher. I've only been a TA for intro Arabic courses. I am so scared of sucking as a teacher of history, no matter how much I want to be good at it. I guess I won't know til next year, and it's next year I am contemplating not starting. This post was thought-provoking, and thanks for sharing so much about your own way here. And have you seen this article by Mark Danner? I thought of it when you were talking about how others wondered "what you are going to do" with an English degree.
lovely post. And I now am worried I should do some careful redaction of my posts to remove my specific redsearch interests ...
now by calling people mean some pseudo - religious experience that makes everything clear? (i usually just assume that they are caused by minor strokes or other brain injuries)

masterfraud: i've been working as a college teacher since '98, i've only met one bad teacher, out of all that have came and went (20+), and even he was trying to get better. teaching is a practices, you learn by doing, so don't worry, just start, and over time you'll get better.
Jeremy: love the minor strokes/brain injuries theory :) But yes, I think many people view this profession as something one does because they've had some kind of epiphany that it is their Life's Work. And I think that this is ultimately mystifying.

Totally agree that teaching is about getting in there and figuring out how to do it, too.
This is a wonderful post. I've been noodling about a very similar post for myself for quite some time but have never managed to get myself to commit to actually writing it down.

I am in total agreement about that idea of the profession as a "calling." I am committed to what I do, and I think it's important, but to phrase it in those terms is a romanticization that not only mystifies the process but obscures the labor that is involved in it, and the choices (ill-advised and otherwise) we make to get here.

Thanks so much for telling this story.
Thanks, Scriv :)

And I'd really enjoy reading a similar post from you if you've got one in you.... I know you posted a while ago about your experiences growing up and it was moving to read. I think it's really important that people post about these things to show the range of backgrounds we academics come from and the range of paths we take. Partly I feel this way because of the community-building aspects of it, but in part it's more about my hating the way that all "academic bloggers" are lumped into one category, which in no way resembles what my experience reading academic blogs is. (In fact, academic blogs as most people talk about them are exactly the kind I don't read.)
So, Dr. Crazy and scrivener and jeremy, do you think it's problematic for someone to have a calling?

I agree that it's mystifying. I also agree that it's ridiculous to think that almost any profession is a calling for most of its practitioners. (...maybe religious professions are different in this way...?)

However, I don't think that having a calling necessarily implies romanticization or obscures the labor involved in it or the choices made to achieve it. That all depends on the way you present your calling.

Almost every semester I have a couple of students who ask me why I decided to teach subject X at institution Y. I give them an abbreviated version of the type of story Dr. Crazy has told here. I don't mention the whole "calling" thing unless I'm having a conversation with a student who is baring her/his soul and trying to find her/his place in the world (and even then I often don't).

I've noticed that some of my colleagues treat being a faculty member as though it were an ordinary 9-to-5 job. Many others have a very high level of committment (in terms of both time and emotion invested) to the profession. I suspect that one reason many outsiders think teachers are "called" to teach is because of this high level of committment. They don't understand that doing work can be rewarding; it seems like an all-or-nothing system to them, so it seems that someone who enjoys her/his work must be "called" to do it.

All that said, the few people who know I have a calling usually find out because they're asking why I'm putting so much work into it, why I'm always thinking about it, etc. The labor is open and the calling obscured, I think. (I should also disclose that my calling isn't actually college teaching, despite the fact that college teaching is my profession and I'm quite committed to it.)
Thanks to all y'all. I appreciate the kindly-couched "take your rose-colored glasses off NOW" approach. I can see that the 'calling' is crap. It takes a lot of work. I know this intellectually, but I suppose it's going to take some time, some more experience, and more perusing of blogs like Scrivener and BitchPhD and, or course, Dr. Crazy, to evaluate what I'm doing. I'm an atheist; where the shit did I come up with "a calling"??? Thanks again, all.
I understand what anonymous is getting at, but I think I think I need to take more responsibility for agency in my own life, and stop thinking that a lightbulb will appear. This is not a cartoon. That's what I get out of their comments, anyway, and why I find them so helpful.
I hope I didn't sound mean when I brought up the calling thing. I think that way of thinking about it is the privileged way and I think that I felt like I was supposed to feel "called" when i was in graduate school and I felt fraudulent or out of place because I didn't. Part of the problem was I went to grad school with a lot of people who were from academic families and who had never considered doing anything else with their lives.

Anon: I hear what you're saying, and no, I don't think I think there is anything wrong with having a calling or feeling called to do something - and yes, I can see the ways in which this profession can seem like a vocation or a lifestyle rather than just a job. I suppose what I'm saying though is that to characterize the profession in those terms - and only those terms - as many of us do (I even find myself fighting the impulse to characterize it this way to students) is a bad thing. I think that it makes it possible for us to feel bad about ourselves in just one more way.

Ok, must grade now so that the weekend is my own!
Anonymous, I would say something very close to what Dr C just did. In fact, if you hadn't asked me directly, I'd probably just remain quiet since I'm afraid I'm being totally repetitive.

I don't think there is anything wrong with feeling a calling, to the profession or anything else. And I think there is something admirable, when one does feel that calling, to recognize it and to pursue it, which is never easy. (I think that's more or less part of the definition of a calling, right? One is never "called" to follow the path of least resistance.) So I didn't mean to sound entirely dismissive of that language, and I know I've used it myself. As I was typing my earlier comment, in fact, I paused before I hit publish, because I knew that the language I used there would come to haunt me when I try to write up my own version of that post.

That said, I think the language of being called to the profession in the same way one talks of being called to the priesthood, is dangerous because it seems so widespread. I think it becomes a kind of justification for paying us so little and demanding so much and discounting our agency--professors are doing it because of some almost metaphysical force that makes them do it, so why treat them like professionals?

Or the opposite occurs. Every once in a while I bump into a student at a movie theater or something, and they always seem utterly astounded that I am out in the world, as if when I finish my teaching, I'm supposed to lock myself in a cell at the cloister and contemplate Literature until it's time to sip a cup of water and eat a few crumbs of bread and then go to sleep. Some of that is general cluelessness, of course, but I think the "calling" language helps that attitude along.

Just one more thing: in my class today we were talking about labor and an essay by the historian Richard White. One student made a dismissive remark, essentially implying that as an academic, White couldn't possibly know anything about what it means to perform manual labor and some students immediately agreed. I know that this idea comes from a wide variety of places, but again I think this attitude is aided by the myth that people are born to be teachers in the same way they are born to be priests and that their path is laid out clearly before them long before they get to college by some godly force directing them.

I'm sure I'm exaggerating my claims here somewhat. I hope I don't sound like I'm accusing anyone who speaks of a calling as undermining the profession or some such, because I don't intend that. I know I have used the language myself at times, and in some ways I do feel an almost religious conviction about what I do. But it is also, in very real and practical ways, a job. A job much like other jobs, with demands on time and energy, with perks and annoyances, and which I sometimes feel frustrated about.
Dr. Crazy, you are never mean on your blog to people who engage you with intellectual honesty (the others can blow us all). I went off to a meeting with my advisor after commenting, and came home to news that I've been accepted to my first conference! After the excitement wears off, I'm sure I'll be reminded of exactly what Scrivener said: the J-O-B. Actually, right this moment, I'm scared shitless. Thank the god of your choice for the myriad of academic bloggers out there. I'd feel terrifically alone (and hence more special and unique in my dramatic suffering) without reading you!
Congratulations on the conference acceptance! (I should note that conferences are the one part of my job that to me feels entirely like pleasure and that I feel like the conferences make up for all of the other garbage things I have to do - have a great time!)
"good, better, best; never let it rest; until your good is better and your better is best;"

I love your blog! It puts so many things into perspective.
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