ANNIVERSARY Countdown (Count-Up?)

Today is Friday, March 7th, 2014. We were married 986 days ago, on June 25th, 2011.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Two out of three ain't bad?

I think about funny things.  I've been at a small workshop in Washington D.C. for a couple of days, and pondering something about baseball.  There are thirty teams in the major leagues, and Major League Baseball limits each team to forty roster players at a time (including those who are on injured reserve or temporarily posted to the minor leagues).  So everyone currently wearing a major league uniform is one of the 1,200 best baseball players in the world.  Out of 6.8 billion people, 1,200 are playing in major league baseball right now (well, a month ago, anyway; now most of them are on winter break as we work toward the World Series).  That means they're in the top 0.0000176% in terms of global baseball talent.

And even some of THEM are second-string outfielders for the Houston Astros, who lost two-thirds of their games this year.

I was in a room this weekend as one of eleven senior college administrators--four professors and four deans and a provost and a director of undergraduate research--along with the executive director and a senior staff person from our national research organization.  Good people, smart people, real leaders on their campuses and in their fields. 

I had a long talk during a break on Saturday afternoon with one of them, who's also a very close longtime friend, about whether there are things that I'm doing that have kept me from being able to make stronger career progress.  I've had my Ph.D. for 15 years, Nora for longer, and neither of us have gotten hold of the brass ring that was promised.  We've both had peripheral contact with higher education: adjunct teaching, fellowships, oddball administrative positions at... well, anyway, nothing that looks like "Welcome to the Club."

And so we both wonder whether we've done things wrong.

When we teach, we both give our students acres of feedback on their work.  Nora writes more back to each student than each student writes themselves.  I spent two hours Saturday between work sessions writing praise and suggestions for my teaching assistant, who I'd worked with for a couple of hours before Thursday's class and observed for two hours during class as he led his very first seminar.

And so we both wonder whether we've done things wrong.

I had a student in the office last week who told me that my class was unlike anything she's ever had, that she tells her friends at other colleges about it and they don't believe her.  I ran into a former student of Nora's two days later, saying she was disappointed that Nora wasn't back at our school this fall "because I told all my friends to take her course.  It's a huge loss to our school that she's not here."

And so we both wonder whether we've done things wrong.

Nora spent much of today working on academic applications, and I talked with her late this morning.  She had to send writing samples for a couple of packages, and said "I was looking through my files of finished articles and chapters... they're not bad."  Damn right they're not bad.  It's her writing that got me to meet her in the first place.  Over dinner in Washington, one of our community was talking about a book that she had spent a long and happy day with; and another of our colleagues said, "Herb writes like that.  His writing is just beautiful; I could totally spend a long day with his work."

And so we both wonder whether we've done things wrong.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues against one of our most central cultural myths — that hard work and talent are foolproof means of success.  He says we've forgotten a third additional ingredient, which is opportunity.  Hard work and talent don't grow in arid ground.  But nobody likes to think that their success is in real ways out of their hands; better to believe (regardless of how painful) that you either haven't worked hard enough or don't have sufficient talent.

And so... well, you get the picture.

There are only 1,200 major league baseball players in America, so we can all be excused for not having had our backyard dreams fulfilled.  But there are about 420,000 tenure-track faculty positions in America, 350 professors for every weak-hitting, bench-sitting backup second baseman.  There are more tenure-track faculty in America than there are people living in Cleveland or Omaha or Miami or Atlanta.  We're a big enough city, taken together, that we could have our OWN major league baseball team.

I look around that room of eleven of us.  Ten have had tenure-track academic positions, and one has not.

Am I whining?  Yeah, probably.  I have a job that pays well and is indoors out of the rain.  I work with some really good people, both inside and outside my school.  I'm luckier than a lot of my generation, and a LOT luckier than the kids who are out in the rain in the Boston and New York protests, entering the worst economy since Hoover, many with tens of thousands of dollars of student loans that previous generations never experienced.  Hard work plus talent, awaiting opportunity.  Two out of three.

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