Interview with J.B.

Writing an Academic Life

Looking at the Role of Writing for a Professor

Summary

To be at a career crossroads can be the result of choice or the pressure of circumstances. It can occur at any point during a career – or it can mean a shift in careers altogether. It can be exciting, or anxiety provoking, or both.

This article explores the attitude and history of Prof. J.B., a midlife academic faced with career uncertainty. It focuses on the role writing has played in building his career to date, briefly discusses the current job market for scholars in the academy, and draws a parallel between his scholarly career and my career as a professional in an academic setting, noting the similarities and differences of the dilemmas that face us both.

Portrait of an Academic Life

I interviewed Prof. J.B. in his book-filled office at Yale. Surprisingly, despite the fact that it is not far from my own office, I had never been there before; our previous meetings had been in my office or in the department’s conference room. His books, like the workings of his mind, were orderly and colorful. I asked him how many of them he had written.

“Only two,” he said, smiling, indicating two heavy volumes with cover depictions of medieval art from a particular period of small slice of Europe. “However, I’ve written chapters for more than a dozen, and as you well know, I’ve edited a volume of the journal you manage, and several others besides.”

I asked him how he had chosen this career, whether he felt it as a calling.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” he replied. “I didn’t choose it, it chose me.”

J.B.’s very first job was as an usher in a Broadway theatre, where he was quickly promoted to assistant to the creative director. He held this job during his years at college, where he majored in anthropology. Thus, his passions for the arts and for history were already in evidence, and the third focus of his career was expressed in the choice of his next degree: a Master of Divinity in theological studies. He also holds master’s degrees in the history of art and in sacred theology (a fourth master’s degree, in anthropology, was left unfinished), and a Ph.D. in the history of art and religion. The choice to pursue further study was, he said, never made with a possible career trajectory in mind. Rather, it was the love of the subject matter and of the discipline of scholarship that led him to continue to expand and deepen his knowledge – and so in fact, the career of a professional scholar, teaching in an academic institution, was ideally suited to him, because that career allows, even demands, the continued pursuit of knowledge even after all degrees have been completed.

Before that, however, and while working towards all those degrees, he held a variety of other jobs. Ordained as a Roman Catholic priest along the way, he did missionary work for a time in Colombia (where he adopted two children), Ecuador, and Peru, where he perfected his knowledge of Spanish. Returning to New York and working as a parish priest, he took his first writing job, contributing travel reports, a liturgical column, and articles on homiletics for the Nuevo Amanecer. It should be noted that this first writing job was in his second language. “For me writing is not my primary interest,” he says. “Writing is a means to an end, to describe and put together what is known and what I have discovered about a particular subject. I don’t aim to create literature, although I enjoy reading it.”

As a parish priest, he continued yearly missionary trips to Latin America, and returned to his studies “because I disliked golf, and needed to occupy my spare time,” he says. He also became chair of the art and architecture committee of the Diocese of Brooklyn. In 1985 he left the parish to direct the office of liturgical and cultural affairs for the Northeast Pastoral Center for Hispanics. In this capacity he wrote reports and press releases. Other writing assignments included the quincentennial script in 1992 for the Corpus Christi procession (liturgy and accompanying booklet) for Loyola Marymount (LA).

Once accepted into the Ph.D.program, the focus of his writing became more exclusively scholarly. “Even though the dissertation is a written document,” he told me, “it has to be defended orally, so oral presentation skills are really equally important.” It was also on the basis of a talk he gave at a conference, later developed into an article, that he was offered a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale. “It does seem strange, now that I think about it,” he said, “that despite the fact that much of my livelihood depends on writing – ‘publish or perish’ – yet that is not what I am best at. What I want to do first and foremost is study and learn. Secondly, I interact with students to transmit what I have learned, and to train them to study so as to add to what is known.”

Therefore, his job as a scholar and professor includes several kinds of writing and communication, in differing quantities:

• Scholarly writing: books, book chapters, and articles for peer-reviewed journals. This includes ancillary activities such as securing permissions to use copyright materials, photographing monuments and artifacts, as well as the basic research, which involves visiting other libraries and making research trips into the field.

• Scholarly editing: collecting, editing, and ordering articles and chapters by other scholars, and writing introductions that “stitch together” the pieces into a unified whole.

• Oral presentation of research: lectures and illustrated talks, for classes and for scholarly conferences. Some of the talks for conferences are then worked into written form as articles.

• Teaching: preparation of syllabi and course descriptions, student evaluations, letters of recommendation for students (“one of my least favorite jobs!”).

• Popular writing: for institution’s alumni magazine, religious publications, art catalogs, etc.

• Job, fellowship, and grant applications, especially during this past interim year: the skill set for this category is an amalgam of the scholarly and popular styles.

“I am an author, for sure,” says Prof. B. “But I do not consider myself a ‘writer’. Writing is not a natural talent of mine. It is a necessary evil.”

Over the past year, Prof. B. has spent a great deal of energy, and spilled a great deal of ink, in searching for a new job. The current economic downturn has meant that a number of jobs posted in early autumn were subsequently withdrawn. Prof. B. thinks that this may be because an institution can fill a vacancy much more cheaply with a visiting faculty appointment (fewer benefits, no commitment to raises), or by downgrading the position to a junior faculty rank than by hiring a tenured or tenure-track professor.

This phenomenon holds true across the board, however. Of the eleven academic job candidates who will receive Yale Ph.D.s in history this May, only two have job offers in their field. “It’s terrible,” says Laura C., who has accepted a position of assistant professor of middle east studies at a large public university beginning in July. “I applied for fourteen jobs, putting a lot of effort into those applications. Of them, all but two were cancelled by February 1. I’m very lucky,” she told me, although clearly luck is not her only qualification.

So how does Prof. B. view being on the job market in middle age? With characteristic equanimity. “Listen,” he said, “I’ve had a wonderful career so far, all of it unplanned. I’ve been doing what I love, and I’ll keep on doing that. I have two fellowships lined up for next year, so I know I won’t starve, and they will build my résumé as a side effect. But by doing what I love, opportunities have materialized for me. I have great faith that this will continue.”

Conclusion

The career of J.B. can serve as an inspiration to anyone seeking (or forced) to make a lateral move in midlife. His career is a byproduct of his driving intellectual curiosity, and he serves as a poster child for the maxim “follow your bliss.”

Writing is the cornerstone of that career and yet it is not at the heart of it. As he says, it is not his natural talent. For him, learning is primary and writing is secondary, both focused closely on his own fields.

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