Wednesday, November 7, 2007

agreeing to disagree

It was indeed cold tonight. At around 10 pm I brought my overwintering plants inside and placed them in the large window. Most annuals survived the night, only the sweet potato vines suffered, the ones in the ground still hold on, the ones in the pots are dead. They did well this year, the obelisk on the front porch was covered by the vine. Tonight temperatures will be in the upper twenties, then it will get warmer again.

I am concerned about the hostility of exchanges I have read in the past weeks discussing job related issues, specifically should assistant professors keep looking for new positions. What worries me is the use of language, belligerent and not ready to agree to disagree. I can see value in both sides of the argument, but I actually cannot comment since I do not know the specifics of the situation. In the end it all comes down to if someone is happy in one's position or not. Sounds cheesy? So be it, but here is why.
I am always restless. My father was a DP (Displaced Person) and he never felt really at home in the country over there where he ended up living and were I was born. At least that is how I perceive it. I know that he would move away if his wife should die before him. I think that I inherited this restlessness, or you could say, he modeled this restlessness, which became even more prevalent, after his wife and my mother died when I was five. This inner restlessness is part of who I am, even though I always long for a place to belong. You strive for what you do not have. Others might admire this multiculturalism, the coming together of different worlds in one person, but as I have said many times - it can be tiresome. Where do I want to live if I could choose? I do not know, probably more than one place at the same time, hardly possible, and even then I am not sure if my restlessness were cured.
So being happy or not is what counts - easy said, but how do we know what makes us happy? The t-t position at the prestigious research institution, or maybe the one at the SLAC in the most beautiful area (whatever most beautiful may mean)? And there are many more options: the private institution with a lot of money or the mid-size one with small classes? The Christian U with the nicest students, great financial support, but... or Public U with students where teaching makes a true difference, or the college one always has dreamed to teach and close to loved ones? Shake up these constellations, and many more possibilities evolve. So how can I judge if assistant professor X in a t-t position should apply some place else or not? If the person is not content, the job performance will suffer, regardless if teaching or research, and nobody will be happy in the end. Too simple, you say? Not at all. Intrinsic motivation is what counts. If you like what you do, you will be good at it. Have you ever noticed how well your teaching goes when you have a good day and you are happy and content? The same is true for your research - how the thoughts fly and you almost cannot contain your creativity and suddenly all puzzle pieces fit together. In that sense, a job is not just a job, it is idealistically a fulfillment. I do believe that a true professor who does enjoy exploration and sharing knowledge will find fulfillment in being a professor. If you are not content for whatever reasons, you should move on, regardless what others say, regardless what you do, but move on for the right reasons. It could be hard for those who stay to see you go, maybe because they liked you and wanted you to stay and become part of the identity they have engaged in with the institution. Simply put, they could feel rejected. Everyone who has ever served on a search committee knows the time and work it takes. (I do read everything we ask for, if I serve on a committee, because I get to choose my future colleague.) So for some left behind, it also could mean resentment, but I do not like the phrase "We invested so much in X" or "The U invested so much in me." This is passive aggressiveness from others or against oneself. This is not about a business investment, it is about the most personal of all matters, finding happiness and fulfillment. The ones who will understand if X wishes to move on, will be the ones who are for the most part content with their own lives, or the ones that realize that they are not and wish well, which does not mean that they cannot wait to search for a replacement at the end of the academic year. But they will not hold a grudge if they see that X will be happier at New Place U. It gets complicated if we do not know what position or place makes us happy, and how many can say that they know the answer to that. Maybe we think we know, but that does not make it true. So maybe they think of X as immature, not even trying to see if the place "is a fit." But how often do we realize only in hindsight the values of what we had before? So I do not think that we can talk about immaturity or take a position from above.
I want to belong, but once I am part and do belong, will I be happy and content? In some way I doubt it, but I have to experience it in order to know. But I also have to give a new place time, in order to experience belonging. How many have encountered love at first sight? Not too many, if any at all. Love grows over time and gets stronger, and needs constant attention, then it will bring mutual respect and understanding and the love will grow and deepen.
You need time to see if you are happy and content, if not, you have to move on, which could also mean admitting to have been wrong: wrong in assumptions about the institution where you are now (you either are disappointed if you expected more, or you like it even though you did not expect to do so because the place was not your top choice). Being content means also being open about one's own expectations and frustrations. I cannot judge if X is selfish or Y is frustrated, if I do not know the circumstances. So it is good that both get to express their wishes, dreams, but also insecurities. And I truly respect that.
You strive for what you do not have. The hard thing is first to find out and then admit to yourself what it is you are truly striving for. And maybe you will never get it. You might have the greatest of all academic positions with hundreds of awards, and still could not get the recognition of your father, if that is what you are yearning for.
I for my part enjoy planting and seeing the flowers grow, even though it sometimes takes time to find out the right plant for the right place. Oh well, I know, this story has become tiresome.
I still believe it to be true, and if others think of that as pathetic, it is just fine with me. Just do your own thing.

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