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“We’re Not in Kansas (nor Cambridge) Anymore”

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21 Jan 2013
Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
Tags: philosophy of teaching   |   self care   |   faculty well-being

Arriving onto the campus of my first fulltime teaching job in higher education was not unlike finding myself in a strange land with a little dog under my arm. “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” I remember saying aloud, wondering what I had done in accepting this new job I thought I wanted. I was disoriented, to say the least. I’d never expected to land a teaching job—too competitive, options quite scarce, two-career family. I certainly had never intended to come back to the area in 

Lisa with Marleywhich I grew up, southwestern Ohio. I had left there with good reason, after all, choosing to live in big cities and pursue various ambitions in well-established institutions. Yet, here I was, an assistant professor in a freestanding seminary in an economically depressed area of the Midwest. This short clip isn’t far from the sense of it all.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQLNS3HWfCM to ‘clip’)

Without proceeding to the bemusing images here—the Yellow Brick Road, flying monkeys, the Wicked Witch, or the Wizard—you should know I now spend time regularly between Oz and Kansas. I love them both, and have met marvelous companions (Wabash and others) along the way in both ‘locations.’ What do I mean? Some days, I wouldn’t trade what I do for anything; I’m Home in ‘Kansas,’ with family and cherished colleagues who can frustrate me to all ends. On others, I’m wearing these glittery red shoes on a journey with strange companions to ask a Wizard to get where I’d left behind; I’m on my way to Oz with a deep sense of a lost Home.

I invite you into the very real divide within every new faculty person I’ve encountered, including myself: a tension between “having arrived” at the rare privilege of a fulltime job, perhaps even tenure-track, and the dawning realization that you are in a strange land with a dog under your arm. The politics you had to weather to successfully defend your dissertation? Vastly different and unhelpful for the politics and skills you need to learn as a fledgling professor with responsibilities as a faculty colleague. The research-writing skills you honed to pursue your passions? Minimally significant, except to fan the embers of your passions and those of your students. And did anyone tell you the vast differences between doctoral institutions and those of the majority of teaching posts? Of course not, because doctoral mentors rarely know the realities of such things for themselves. It can feel a bit like wearing a lapel pin that says, “Congratulations! Now you’re on your own.” All of this makes most of us scan the horizon for that One Place where we could finally do what we thought teaching in higher education would be. Oz, in other words. Do you find yourself scanning the “Job Openings” to resolve the tension? A sure sign of a new faculty member. Sadly, some of us never grow out of that. Some of us never realize that Oz and Kansas are actually the same place, that the Wizard is really only a drab little man behind the curtain.

Yes, the realities of teaching are nothing you could have known, nothing you thought you were choosing. No, you’re not doing what you thought your discipline or role would require. Yes, the institutional trappings of this new place are nothing like the institution of doctoral formation, nothing like you knew higher education “to be.” Of course it would be like that. It’s so obvious to me now, nearly ten years later. Institutions are vastly different, with vastly different educational missions related to their own contexts and communal narratives.

The invitation I wish I had known was coming, if you asked me today? Don’t get lost in the terrible splendors of some imagined Oz, nor the black-and-white frustrations of today’s Kansas. The marvelous trick is to develop a levity and amusement about being in both places at once. Buy a pair of glittery red shoes, if you must, but don’t waste your energies trying to get to the Wizard. He’s old, timid, and tired. Learn the politically-fit ways to develop your passions and become a colleague within institutions focused upon important concerns of economic stability, administration, and constituency-development. Get to know your own strengths and limitations better so you can steward both for the good of your institution. It will thank you for it, eventually, and if it’s some place good for you to be, you both will become healthier. Avoid those who are obsessed with Oz and find companions along the way who will make you belly-laugh out loud, who will encourage your best self in a life worth risking into things your mentors never knew.

Not only does this make teaching a lifelong vocation of fascination and wonder amidst real challenges of hard work and foibled companions. It allows you to discover and realize your gifts in Kansas—which needs the color of your dreams, incidentally—instead of constantly looking for them in some imagined Oz, over the rainbow. When you can see Kansas in Oz and Oz in Kansas, teaching in higher education becomes both a child’s nightmare and wise woman’s dream, shared in bemusement with companions along the way…including Toto, or in my case, Marley.

 

Lisa M. Hess

About Lisa M. Hess

Associate Professor of Practical Theology, United Theological Seminary

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the reflection, Lisa. What caught my attention was the point about taking a job in a location that you may not have chosen if it wasn’t for the fact that your job is located there. I have read a few people say something like this in articles on The Chronicle of Higher Education. As someone who would like to teach someday this is one of my bigger fears: living somewhere I hate because that is where the job is located. How have you navigated these waters to find contentment?

  2. A good question…whose answer DOES mean negotiation of competing goods. I took my first post with care of my family’s needs–another job perhaps more settled for me would have been near impossible for my husband…so we discerned & chose with a sense of trust that each would wind up making some compromises for doing what we love, we’re called to do (language of my faith community there). Once here, it probably took 5 years before we really knew it was working! Each step along the way required recommitment to the work in front of us, not what we thought (from grad school) we wouldshould be doing. We are happier than we’ve ever been, and it took work to enter into (and choose) what we do in fact love. What do you think? 🙂

  3. Brian, I remember crossing the Oregon border on the I-5 with a 17″ Moving Truck and my companion, Bob Cargill, driving my Highlander behind me. I had a lot of anxiety moving my family from LA to Oregon. Almost five years later, we couldn’t be any happier here!

  4. Many thanks, Lisa, for an amusing and inspiring reflection! And “recommitting to the work in front of us” is imperative, though it’s important to also make time to ask: “What is it I really want to see happen (as teacher and as scholar/theologian)?” The tension between what is and what could be never goes away, and it’s joy-generating to know you sound like someone at peace with this fact. And I think the greater temptation after a while is to not make time for cultivating the Oz-es of old–not making time for the work of reading and writing in one’s field (however that might get reshaped, more or less, by the institutional landscape at hand). It can truly be hard to find time to do this, if you’re busy committing to the tasks of being involved at your institution, from course prep to grading to committee or administrative work.

  5. Locations can also grow on you. My spouse and I are not madly in love with central Michigan (though our 8-year-old thinks it’s perfect), but over the years I have come to appreciate lots of things about it. Especially while spending a sabbatical year near Atlanta, where EVERYTHING is at least a half-hour drive from anything else, I find myself missing my little town where I can walk to work, get to a grocery store in 2 miles, etc. And where the waitresses at the local diner know my son’s name.

  6. Hi Amy,
    You note an incredibly important challenge, particularly amidst what I will call ‘normal’ teaching life, by which I mean teaching + administrative responsibilities + community life + advising etc. I have a fairly large guilt-quotient in my life for not being able to be at as many functions as I would like, or not being as present in students’ lives as I thought I could be. The upside, which allows me to shoulder my own sense of guilt about these things, is having so much more freedom than I ever thought I would to MAKE those choices toward my own work, the “Ozes” of old, as you say. Part of this gift has been working in an institution that values the contributions I make, but a big part of it is also having worked with a coach for the last 10 years or so. She helps me be my best self, on a regular monthly basis, honing my own ability to ask the question, “What IS my work here?” instead of “What do they think needs to get done?” I sometimes think if I worked in what I would call a more “establishment” place like a div school or well-endowed institution, I’d rarely feel the freedom to do the good work I’m to do. I think I’d sacrifice that under the weight of other senior authorities in my field, my department, etc. Who knows, though…? What if, what if, yadayadayada… 🙂
    thanks for the comment!
    LMH

  7. And Brian, p.s. My family and I have new ‘local litmus tests’ for your question too:
    Is there an NPR radio station, or better yet, two, where the job is?
    Does the closest airport have airport-shuttles or not? (Those that do show a density level to support the kinds of diversity and ethnic communities we yearn to spend our time in)
    What is the largest employer in the area, and can we stomach its ethics and/or its product? Sitting regularly with Quakers, it was quite an adaptation to find myself in an area where the largest employer was an air force base.
    Finally, what skills in surprise and laughter do I have? If they are underdeveloped, then prepare to have them develop en route…

  8. Thanks for the thoughtful reflection! I want to expand on something you wrote, though. You wrote “The research-writing skills you honed to pursue your passions? Minimally significant, except to fan the embers of your passions and those of your students.” But I think they’re far more than minimally significant. I think finding ways to continue your passion into the classroom, to continue to learn and to grow with your research questions, is crucial to learning to teach well. And part of that is seeking to remember what it is to “have a beginner’s mind.” It’s seductive, in that newly won tenure track position, to inhabit the role of the expert. But it’s the role of the beginner that will bring deep empathy for your students. So what brought you to that research question in the first place? What was involved in trying to translate it into the language of the academy? How can you translate it back into the lives and questions of your students? How will you help them to “catch fire” in your classroom? THOSE are research questions that can fund/fuel/be generative of good teaching for years to come. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know — let’s find out!”

  9. Thanks Lisa for a thought-provoking reflection. For me, “Oz” was a move south of the border to Chicago. I was actually surprised how quickly it came to feel like home, in part because of the friendly and welcoming people at my institution and in my community. But I also think that part of the sense of “hominess” stems from familiarity with the rhythms of the academic life. I quite agree with you that there exists “vast differences between doctoral institutions and those of the majority of teaching posts.” Yet, there is a comforting familiarity to the seasons of the academic life. Having spent so long in studies, I can’t imagine moving into a job that didn’t think of the year “beginning” at the end of the summer and “ending” in late spring. I think this helps the transition a bit. I was only in Chicago for two (great) years before returning to Canada to take up a new post, this time at the University in the town in which both my spouse and I grew up. We presumed we would immediately fit in since we were familiar with the lay of the land and had extended family and friends all around us, some of them even from high school (yikes!). Yet, we had a more difficult time adjusting, I think because of that presumed familiarity. Returning after two decades we had changed much and much had changed. My personal reflection: there truly is no place like home, even when you go home!

  10. “When you can see Kansas in Oz and Oz in Kansas…”–Spoken like a good Buddhist (or at least like *some* Buddhists), Lisa! Samsara is Nirvana. Nirvana is Samsara. It’s a matter of perspective, which I think is one of the most important implications of your essay. Being willing to devote several years of one’s life to grad school generally requires a fair bit of ambition. But ambition can also get in the way of happiness. When we want to criticize someone who hasn’t “realized their potential,” we say they “settled.” But if one is 70% happy with one’s job, that’s hard to beat, and certainly better than the constnat feeling of uncertainty and dislocation that comes with trying to get somewhere–anywhere!–else. There are therefore times when putting down the want ads is not to be criticized as “settling,” but rather to be lauded as having the wisdom to know when to “choose” happiness.

  11. Richard,
    Loved the narrative and the shared impressions. My return to this particular post felt VERY similar, in that respect. I had grown up in this part of Ohio, my parents live relatively close by–actually, it felt ‘too close’ at first, as we had transitioned into the rhythms of long-distance family and had to learn new ones of being ‘local’ family–but mostly, I KNEW Ohio. Or so I thought. I had not calculated the effects of living nearly 20 years in Minnesota, L.A., the Northeastern Corridor, then back again. I was not remotely the same person I was, nor was Ohio unchanged. So strange to have ‘gone home’ and felt so very unfamiliar, new-all-at-the-same-time.
    Thanks for the comment! And I hope the hockey-season hasn’t been too traumatic either. 🙂
    LMH

  12. Hey Mary,
    Yes, yes…perhaps the language was a bit strong for the point, but I’m learning blog-speak–emphatic prose for provoking response. 🙂 I don’t think I could have withstood some of the challenges of these last years if I hadn’t found avenues of stoking these research passions, finding the ways to provoke/instigate curiosity and passion in my students. That said, I have been incredibly fortunate in both institutional receptivity to my work/creativity and guild/research community response to it. I think if my discipline were more historical or scriptural in nature/focus, this wide-ranging integration of my interests and students’ needs for their professional (yes, I hate that word but we cannot neglect it either) formation would be less feasible. Being responsible to a school’s traditional curriculum, for instance, and one’s role IN that curriculum. My discipline gives me extraordinary flexibility to explore and interpret, challenge and re-orient students to contemporary challenges, rooted in historic faith commitments. Anyway, gotta run. Fodder for thought! Thanks for the post.
    LMH

  13. Chad,
    Amen (spoken like “some” Presbyterians, or at least this one, in affiliation with a local sangha, Kagyu lineage 🙂 )! I’m tickled to have the perspective-izing acknowledged, especially with the word “settling” (or not). I’ve wrestled with that question in my path over the years, looking particularly to whether I’ve settled in a decision, or chosen the better half. Imagine my heart-ache when I chose “so as not to settle,” only to find my attachment to others’ notions of ‘success’ and my aversion to “settling” in equal proportion, pulling me completely out of my path AND any satisfaction in my work. Live and learn, we say. The Buddhist angle has much more power for the practical application here, but one could say the Oz/Kansas thing is Chalcedonian as well. 🙂 I’ll leave that for now, unless someone is actually interested in hearing more what I mean!
    Thanks for the post.
    lmh