Why didn’t I become an academic?

The second of my three times of stepping out of the news business came when Vincent and Elinor Ostrom invited me to return to Indiana to become the social sciences editor in their new Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. Vincent had been a wonderful mentor through my undergrad years, and the opportunity to work with them again was truly exciting. Besides, I was newly married and the move would allow my wife to continue with her college studies. It was a pretty heady undertaking all around.

We settled in at the edge of town, pretty much as I describe in Nearly Canaan. But having Indiana show up so much already in my fiction – Daffodil Uprising and What’s Left, especially – as I revisited this stage in my life, I looked around for a landscape with similar features and people, which I was surprised to find arising in the Ozarks. Now you know. In full candor, I have to admit I’ve never been in Arkansas or that swath of Missouri, even though my mother was born in St. Louis.

Two important things emerged for me personally during this sojourn. First was my shift from yoga to Quaker as my spiritual path. Second was my emergence as a poet, largely through a lively off-campus circle that was surprisingly free of academic influence. As a research associate, I could borrow books from the graduate library for unlimited periods, and so I had a shelf of small-press chapbooks at hand – what a luxury! And my interludes in the renowned Lilly rare-book library remain treasured, where I handled rare editions of Samuel Johnson’s Ramblers (1750-52, including a few coffee stains and pencil marks, presumably from their first readers) and Audubon’s original luxurious prints (all birds presented life-size, as if stunningly pressed into the pages) and fine-arts broadsides of Gary Snyder’s poems from the 1950s onward.

I found the academic life to be much to my liking. I’ve been asked since why I didn’t go on to graduate school and a professorial direction. My answers are muffled, beginning with the personal finance situation and the glut of doctorates already looking for tenure, at least in my fields of interest. I would have chafed at the internal politics, naturally. And then I came across Snyder’s reason for not continuing his own post-graduate degrees (at Indiana, when he made the decision) – he realized he could be a good professor or a good poet, but not both. I would later arrive at something similar when it came to the management track I pursued through the first half of my journalism career, as you’ll see.

Those of us in the Workshop had barely celebrated our getting the second phase of our major grant renewed, meaning I’d be staying in Bloomington another four years, when we were hit with the devasting news that the amount had been drastically slashed during an unanticipated realignment of the federal agency’s priorities. What it meant for me and my wife was packing up and moving on again.

The next opening felt like a ticket to Heaven.

4 thoughts on “Why didn’t I become an academic?

  1. I have been contemplating returning to academics. It’s been a few years… I did love the library more than the courses, but like you, that life agrees with me in a way…

  2. very interesting. I know why I didn’t become an academic: although I enjoyed the research and writing aspect, I was the worst lecturer and teaching assistant ever. I forget what I’m saying half the time, which I attribute to having part of my brain on “wait and see” half the time…while the rest is racing ahead to what I’m going to say. I don’t want to hurt their feelings. I want to help the lowest achieving student in the class, who doesn’t give a fig about the course except to the point where he needs a passing grade or he can’t play basketball.

  3. I still remember that young man, a transfer student from another school to the university. When he turned in his blue book with nothing but his name I stopped and asked him what was going on. He said he had gotten a basketball scholarship, and moved into a frat house…the first time he had lived on his own more or less. Wow! Wonderland! He was very popular, and so busy with his considerable social skills that he didn’t have time to study. So although he was managing to drag himself to classes, he just didn’t have time to study. The first exam was his downfall.

    So I insisted that he do a make-up exam, a practice that made perfect sense to me but was frowned upon by most of the faculty. My philosophy of teaching is always centered on simply doing my best to help my students learn something. To make a long story short, the student managed to eke out a barely passing grade in all of his classes…and protected his GPA so he could maintain his basketball career. Actually he had been previously a good enough student, but all the partying nearly caused his downfall. LOL

    My left-wing radical ideas always prevail, although they get me in a lot of trouble.

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