HTD: On Opting Out of the Tenure Track Search

The last 15 months have been almost dizzying. In that period, my wife gave birth to our second child; we moved twice and bought a house; I wrote the bulk of my dissertation, defended it, and graduated; and orchestrated a career change. It’s that last I’d like to reflect on here. Deciding to forego the tenure track job search was both painful and liberating; before too much time passes, I want to capture my thoughts.

Like many PhD candidates in the final year of their program, I was torn between two conflicting goals: applying to as many postdocs/teaching jobs as possible, and actually finishing the dissertation. The latter necessarily took precedence– I decided not to teach at all so I could finish, which meant that we were now paying the university a couple of thousand dollars a term for tuition. We were both committed to me finishing. I did apply to a few posts, and put considerable effort into both, but, as I fully expected, neither worked out. When 2019 rolled around, I saw only two academic options: 1) trying to string together a few adjunct posts in the DC area; 2) trying to find a 1–2 year appointment somewhere else in the country. Neither, as you can imagine, sounded particularly appealing. Things at this point came into much clearer focus.

The key question that emerged was this: do I have a strong enough sense of vocation to the academy to justify all the suffering that a tenure-track job search will cause for both me and my family? (Spoiler alert: no!). Throughout my time at Catholic, I felt strongly that what I was doing was worthwhile, regardless of what came next. It was a marvelous investment in both my mind and my soul, and shaped me in ways for which I’ll always be grateful. I embarked on this journey so that I could make meaningful contributions to the scholarship on early Christianity. Yet I began to see that the tenure-track path was not the only, nor necessarily the best path for what I’d set out to do. Though I’d begun with the expectation of eventually being a professor, it was the intellectual work of research that drew me, not teaching in a college setting. All I needed for research was a good library, and then time and space to think and write. The tenure track search promised neither time nor space, and much pain besides.

There were, of course, other reasons for foregoing the tenure track search. My wife, sister and I wanted to stay in the Washington DC area. After 7 years here, we’d developed friendships, particularly at church, that we were loath to give up. For cultural, educational, and demographic reasons we thought it a good place to raise our kids; and my wife loved her job and didn’t want to leave it. So too, my mother wanted to move to be close to us, but couldn’t really do that until we’d committed to being a particular place for a long time. It seemed to me much wiser to put relationships with friends and family before a particular job, because I knew I could find meaningful employment in a variety of settings, not just in the academy. I saw in fact that working outside the academy might give me the stability I need to pursue meaningful research projects in the time I’m not working.

This shift in perspective was easier for me than it would be for most: I had a skill (software development) that is both remunerative and in high-demand (my undergraduate degree is in Computer Science, and I worked at IBM in college as a Software Developer). It was, to use that word again, dizzying to go from a situation in where dozens or hundreds of highly qualified people would apply for a single position (the academy) to a context in which recruiters were calling and sending me e-mails regularly, even though I hadn’t worked as a software developer in 7 years. It wasn’t a cake walk by any means: I had to spend focused time getting caught up technically. But within a couple of months I was earning money as a developer. I started doing some freelance work over the summer, building a book search facility for a small press (https://buzzellbooks.fifthpress.org). In July, I started working in the Division of IT at University of Maryland, College Park as a software developer. Being on staff with a large university means, inter alia, full library privileges, for which I’m enormously thankful. It’s certainly been a challenge to remain connected to intellectual life, but it continues. I’m working slowly on a book proposal; this week I give a research presentation related to my dissertation work; and in January, I’ll present at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies, the national academic organization for Classical Literature.

When I talk to friends still in graduate school, many tell me, “I wish I also had those technical skills!” The implication is that such a transition is impossible for them because they weren’t programmers in a previous life. It certainly was an enormous advantage for me that I had that prior experience. But my ability to write software was actually integrally connected with my ability to read classical languages (code is language, after all). So I’m convinced that nearly anyone smart enough to be in a PhD program that requires foreign language is also smart enough to learn to write software; it’s just a matter of time and opportunity. It’s also important that the intangible skills gained in a PhD (dedication to a long-term project, time management, self-motivation, analysis, writing…) are all extremely valuable in the marketplace; it does, however, require creative reconfiguration of how you see both yourself and present yourself to potential employers. The jump was easier for me than it would be for most (which is not to say it wasn’t painful and stressful). But above all, people in PhD programs (and those adjuncting afterwards) need to realize that they have autonomy. My last few years would have been considerably less stressful had I realized that sooner.

The change has certainly been painful, as all change is. We grow attached to our visions of the future; I’d imagined I’d end up teaching in some small liberal arts college in some small town. Visiting such places does make me yearn sometimes for a different modus vivendi. Friends and professors have been supportive by and large, but there’s certainly disappointment too– “o we’d hoped you would be the one to land that tenure track job!” And yet when I see how beautifully things have worked out, I’m overwhelmed by the mercy of the One who orchestrates all things with more intricate care than I could fathom.

What about research? One of the things I learned in my last year was that I could only do serious research for about 20 hours a week. I saw that even with 10 hours a week, I’d be able to make legitimate progress on research goals (articles, translations, etc.) During my final year, I had also gotten in the habit of getting up early before my kids got up to work for 60–90 minutes. I’ve maintained that practice since starting work as a developer. So there’s consistent time built into my schedule to do things not related to my full-time job (as it happens, I’ve been using that time to freelance lately). Not being under the eye of a hiring committee also affords me greater flexibility in the types of intellectual work I do. I can work on translations or editions instead of articles and monographs, for instance, or submit my work only to presses/journals that support open access. I’ll also have space to engage in digital humanities endeavors that wouldn’t necessarily map well onto a traditional publication. So I’m excited about the possibilities for my research. We’ll see what comes of it.

Ps.-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology 1.2

Take care that none of the uninitiated should hear these words. I refer to those who are bound up in things that are and imagine that there is nothing beyond these entities, nothing that transcends being itself, but instead think to know through their own knowledge the one who has established “darkness as his hiding place.” If this mystical invitation into the divine is beyond these people, what may we even begin to say about the truly uninitiated, who define the cause that lies beyond everything as deriving from what is and who say that there is nothing beyond the varied forms that they have concocted, forms without divinity? In the face of this transcendent cause, we must establish and assert certain theses, as it is the cause of all things, and still more properly negate them, as it transcends all things. Moreover, we mustn’t think that these assertions are opposed to the negations, but rather that this cause is beyond all lack and is beyond both assertion and negation.

Ps.-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology 1.1

I decided to take a bit of a break from Evagrius’s On Prayer. I’ve been itching to read some from Ps.-Dionysius for some time now, so I thought I’d try my hand at some of his short treatise, Mystical Theology. Ps.-Dionysius is hard to render into English in a way that does justice to the beauty of his Greek. Rendering him literally results in ridiculous gobbledegook.1

1

1.1

Trinity, beyond all being and divinity and goodness, you bestow on Christians insight into the mystery of God; direct us toward that highest peak of the mystical scriptures, which is both supremely radiant and dense with unknowing. There the simple, purified, and unchanging mysteries of theology are concealed in the luminous darkness of mystical silence, where in that place of utter tenebrity they shed light on that which is beyond revealing; where all is completely invisible and beyond grasp, they fill to repletion minds unseeing with brilliance of surpassing beauty.

Let this be my prayer; as for you, my dear Timothy, through this short treatment of mystical vision take your departure from the senses and from mental activities, from all that is perceived and from all that is thought, from all that is and from all that is not. To the degree possible, strain through unknowing toward oneness with the one who transcends being and knowing. After all, through pure “coming out of oneself”, wherein you set aside all things and are cleansed of all things, you will with purity lead yourself up to that gleam of divine darkness that transcends being.

Notes

  1. If I may shamefully pick on a predecessor, you may compare here John Parker’s rendering from 1897:
    TRIAD supernal, both super-God and super-good, Guardian of the Theosophy of Christian men, direct us aright to the super-unknown and super-brilliant and highest summit of the mystic Oracles, where the simple and absolute and changeless mysteries of theology lie hidden within the super-luminous gloom of the silence, revealing hidden things, which in its deepest darkness shines above the most super-brilliant, and in the altogether impalpable and invisible, fills to overflowing the eyeless minds with glories of surpassing beauty. This then be my prayer; but thou, O dear Timothy, by thy persistent commerce with the mystic visions, leave behind both sensible perceptions and intellectual efforts, and all objects of sense and intelligence, and all things not being and being, and be raised aloft unknowingly to the union, as far as attainable, with Him Who is above every essence and knowledge. For by the resistless and absolute ecstasy in all purity, from thyself and all, thou wilt be carried on high, to the superessential ray of the Divine darkness, when thou hast cast away all, and become free from all.

SCS 2020 Scattered Thoughts

The annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) is over a week in the past. I had a delightful time at the conference. A few of the highlights:

  • Presenting a delightful poem. I presented in a panel entitled, “Literary Texture in Augustine and Gregory.” (Handout, full-text, and primary text here) Late Antiquity never draws crowds, and this was no exception. However, the audience present listened attentively and asked good questions. Since I presented on a topic few people know anything about (the poetry of Gregory of Nazianzus), I knew that I had successfully connected my niche topic to texts and themes of more general interest. That’s the mark of a good conference paper, I think, at least for a large conference. As I’m now working full time as a software developer, it was quite fun to wear my “scholar of literature” hat again.
  • Meeting other digital philologists. It’s always worthwhile listening to Greg Crane talk (the nous, inter alia, behind Perseus and the Open Greek and Latin Project). I got to sit in for most of the Digital Philology panel, which meant I got to meet people involved in terrific digital projects (like Logeion and Tesserae). This also led to a meet-up about the Classical Language Toolkit, where I got to meet Kyle Johnson. Chatting classics and code with someone who’s tread a similar path was absolutely delightful. I’m hoping to make some contributions to the CLTK in the coming months. I also got to meet Luke Hollis and see some of the terrific projects coming out of the Center for Hellenic Studies. A lovely time!
  • Seeing old friends. Though I still live quite close to my alma mater, I don’t frequently get an excuse to see my colleagues and professors from Catholic University. It is always fun to catch up. Special κῦδος to my friend, Patsy Craig, for presenting a terrific paper on Vergil!

Conferences like these are best spent strengthening old ties and making new ones. By that measure, these few days were a great success! I’m looking forward already to the next SCS.

Evagrius, On Prayer 59-60

59

If you wish to carry out your prayer, you need God, who “gives prayer to the one praying.” So persist in calling out to him, saying “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come.” His “name” is the Holy Spirit and his kingdom is the only begotten Son. After all, this is what he taught when he said the Father was worshipped “in Spirit and in Truth.”

60

The one who prays “in spirit and in truth” no longer extols the creator for created things, but sings his praise for his very self.

Evagrius, On Prayer 57–58

57

It is not necessarily the case that the mind has obtained the place of prayer once it no longer is among thoughts of day to day life. After all, it can be in contemplation of these day-to-day doings and spend its time among the explanations for these events. Even though they are just words, because these contemplations are directed at daily matters they shape and fashion the mind and lead it far away from God.

58

Even when the mind has moved beyond contemplation of bodily existence, it has not yet beheld the place of God’s perfection. For it may become enamored and divided with knowledge of the intellectual principles of things.