Thoughts on Academia and the Tenure Track: 3 years Later

A little over three years ago, in May 2019, I graduated with my PhD in Ancient Greek and Latin from Catholic University of America. At that point I had already decided to earn my bread as a software developer instead of pursuing tenure track positions or visiting professorships. I intended to keep publishing research as an independent scholar, a plan I laid out in October, 2019. What I have since discovered, not entirely to my surprise, is that meaningful research output is difficult to sustain without a community of learning and the professional incentives provided by tenure. Over the past year I’ve finally let my research plans go dormant and I’ve happily released the guilt of “not writing.”

I had high hopes when graduating that I’d be able to make meaningful research contributions even without an academic affiliation. I’d done the time-math and knew it would be possible even with a full time job. I had some clear next steps to work on, and planned to attend conferences so that I could stay connected with the Classics and Patristics research communities to which I belonged. My plans worked out to a degree. I presented a paper at my alma mater on early Christian poetic aesthetics; I attended the yearly conference of the Society for Classical Studies in 2020 and presented a paper just a few months before COVID shut the world down; and I was able to publish a text crucial appendix of my dissertation as a peer reviewed article. These were all efforts, however, that derived from work completed during my time in graduate school. I never moved beyond dissertation-adjacent work.

It might seem that time was the main impediment. After all, I have young children. I also miscalculated how much I’d need to work to offset the additional cost of childcare and the need to make up for my final year of graduate school (during my final year I was making no income and we had to dip heavily into savings). An entry-level software developer’s salary of $75k / year seems like a fortune after being in a humanities PhD program, but much of this went to childcare and other expenses that come with being in a high cost of living city like Washington DC. Around the time of that first blogpost my wife told me that I’d need to keep up the 5-10 hrs of freelancing a week if we were to stop treading water financially. Naturally instead of poring over ancient tomes of poetry I honed my craft as a software developer. And with 2 young children in the home, it was not as though I could easily pursue scholarship and on top of two jobs, unless I wanted to shoulder my wife with a load of extra childcare. So my well-remunerated labor (software) naturally took precedence over a (serious) hobby.

Yet the time problem eventually resolved itself, so I can’t really attribute the failure to launch a research career to time. When our third child, Maximus, was born, I was given 20 weeks of parental leave, fully paid, to be with my family. Moreover, we continued to pay for childcare for the older kids for almost half of that, which meant that I had 1-2 hours most days to work on something intellectually stimulating while Max slept in the wrap. I went into this period with several ideas for research projects, but found that what I really wanted to do was learn new programming languages, not deal with the externalities of peer review or book publishing. This was quite illuminating to me and it finally helped me realize that, at least in this phase of my life, I simply do not want to publish scholarly writing and that’s okay. Academic publishing is a rigorous, often frustrating, process. Academics put up with it because it does tend to make the work better and because they don’t really have a choice: peer-reviewed publications are the currency of an academic career. But frankly neither the esteem of my niche of the Classics world nor the personal satisfaction of placing an article were worth the months of unpaid effort that would be required. I still read ancient Greek for pleasure on almost a daily basis, but I have no active writing projects and have no desire to contrive any.

It’s not surprising that my desires would be shaped by my communities. It’s the same phenomenon that makes religious beliefs much stickier for members of a resilient church or synagogue. My desire to create scholarly articles was nascent as an undergraduate, but only grew once I joined a community where that was prized. On graduation I joined a different community that values other outputs (technical projects, software architectural designs, etc). And far from boring or monotonous projects, I’ve found creating software to be both intellectually stimulating and impactful. On one side, while freelancing with Crosscut I’ve helped build software that health campaign planners in low and middle income countries use to create better, more equitable health campaign plans. And in my full time work at the Washington Post, I’ve contributed to systems that help power thousands of websites and are used by millions of end users around the world. So though I’m not publishing peer reviewed papers, I have no lack of intellectually demanding work ready to hand.

All our efforts are ultimately a “chasing after the wind” and “there is a time for all things.” As the seasons pass I may eventually find myself wanting to return to teaching literature or producing research. These are beautiful and worthwhile human endeavors. But even if I never do, my time in the gauntlet of a PhD program was not wasted. I’m a better human being because I spent seven years attending closely to some of the most lovely literature that humanity has ever created. For that I will be ever grateful.

Winter Gales (A sonnet)

Aeolus was not kind to this young pine
that prostrate lies, still green, beside the way.
Winter’s cold, lonely duties snapped its spine
as dancing light of dawn gave way to day.
My soul’s acute, scholarly aspiration
was like this pine, strong, green, and adolescent.
It has not crashed from Boreal spiration.
It withers slow, a moon no longer crescent.
My God, these hopes deferred have left me ill.
How long must I a craftsman only be?
I know not how these longings still to till,
when failure, when postponement’s all I see.
“Ask, ask, my son, seek seek what you desire,
I’ve promised this; I won’t be found a liar.”

March 7, 2021. Rocky Gap State Park, Maryland.

Poem: My Lover’s Eyes

My Lover’s eyes, they bade me hail,
as I awoke these winter days,
her dry, her thirsty lips did raise,
within my heart a heady gale.

The goad, the spur, the cattle prod,
Ambition’s yoke at last put off,
Anxiety I seem to doff,
as I behold her, grateful, awed.

The sparrows sing, the crows they caw,
Hivernus’ quiet winter song–
when all is right that once was wrong,
when all await the shepherds’ call.

My Lover, Wife, my Bride, my Sun,
for thee my eyes shine radiant blue,
in thee my soul is knit anew,
as in thy womb is knit our son.

Our Shepherd came one winter morn;
our lady lay him near a stall.
The shepherds came and sang in awe–
no more were Adam’s sons forlorn.

Let angels sing and wise men kneel,
hivernal nature prostrate lie.
In him our tears, our sorrows die
who bear the Shepherd’s rod and seal.

Sunday, December 13. In Middletown, Maryland, on retreat cum uxore.

Poem: In the Hills of Western Maryland

When in the wooded lands of fall I tread,
I take my mask down, breathe the dry oak air;
skyward I peer, as Aurora with her red
hands hails these hills of deer, sparrow, and bear.
The forest breath, it strikes against my cheek.
Freed from abstraction I’m thrust into this,
this solemn joy, this province of the meek,
where time dissolves, where space bestows its kiss.
O Mary, here the pine hills bear your name.
Mother, you held their author in your womb
so full of grace: may I become the same,
weighed down with Christ, before I meet the tomb.
O holy Lady, do not spare your power;
pray for us now, and in death’s final hour.

Sunday, November 22, 2020, near Middletown, Maryland.

Poem: Gentleness in Late Summer

Gentleness– tying one’s shoes in a rainstorm,
the feel of water giving all its rinse,
the dragonflies producing their own form,
the savoring of your sensuous feminine scents.
With gentleness I said “yes” to a child,
a crop that is still many years away–
Our bodies tangled up, so spry and wild,
embracing toil in hope of harvest day.
The meek, you say, the gentle get the land,
“indulge they will in plenitudes of peace.”
A home they find, not crashing in the sand,
but one from worry proffering release.
My Christ, in you I’ve found a fortress strong,
that gentleness for which I deeply long.

August 30, 2020 at Elk Neck State Park.

Late Spring (A Sonnet)

One spiritual practice I’ve found richly rewarding over the past few years is poetic composition– to try to wrap words around a moment of unveiling. There’s something sacrilegious about putting words to the ineffable, yet I find the practice grounds me to a certain extent; the words help me remember, return me to that moment of insight, beauty, and grace. The sonnet below I composed several weeks ago after a long hike through the Maryland wilderness.

Late Spring

Here, the wet weight of honeysuckle scent,
the shadows dancing on the brook’s brown bank,
the brook’s deliberate gurgling descent,
the poplar tulips flowering its flank,
assert the withering to naught of Spring,
its ceding to empyric Summer’s glow,
th’exhausting days that toil from us wring,
the heaviness that rests on those that grow.
My god this too’s the season of my life,
of limits I am achingly aware.
My soul with cares, with duties now is rife.
They close in on me with a haunting stare.
“My son, beloved, look into my face,
And feel the natural rhythms of my grace.”

Saturday, May 30, 2020. On personal retreat near Waldorf, MD.

Ps.-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology 1.3

This is why holy Bartholomew says that theology is both expansive and minute, and that the gospel is both wide and broad, and narrow. With extraordinary insight he seems to have intuited that the cause of all things, being inherently good, is worthy of long discussion, yet also ineffable, requiring but little speech. It cannot be fully grasped nor described, since it itself lies beyond all things and appears in true, uncovered fashion only to those who have gone through the holy purification rites, ascended all the way up the holy summits, left behind divine lights, sounds, and words from the sky and entered into the darkness where the scriptures say the One who is beyond all things really is. After all, it isn’t just that Moses is bid to purify himself and separate from those not like him; nor that after his purification he hears the ensemble of trumpets and sees lights flashing pure and varied beams of light. After this, he separates from the many and arrives with his chosen priests to the highest summit. Even in such circumstances, he does not meet God himself, nor does he see him (for God cannot be seen). Rather, Moses “saw the place where God stood.” (I think that the “highest and holiest places” signify certain suppositions about how visible and intelligible realities are ultimately subject to the One that transcends all, yet through these assertions we see the presence of the One who is beyond every thought, since it appears to those “peaks of spiritual in sight” in those “most holy places.”) Then Moses separated from them, both things that see and things seen, and went into the darkness of unknowing that is truly a mystery. In this darkness, he closes off all that is grasped with knowledge and enters that which is entirely unseen and intangible. He is entirely of the One who is beyond all things, and of nothing. He is not his own, nor another’s, yet through the complete ceasing of all knowing he is all the more perfectly made one with the One that is unknowable, and through letting go of knowing he begins to know with something that transcends the mind.

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



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.


  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.