The day after Christmas, I was in the airport waiting for my flight from Charlotte to Philadelphia, and I picked up a copy of Vanity Fair. I admit that I purchased Vanity Fair instead of a less-exulted magazine because I was riding on an airplane that, assuredly, was also carrying other academics to MLA. The magazine was all part of the charade of intelligence and professionalism that begins as soon as I began my journey toward the conference. BUT I did remember how much I like Vanity Fair. Very few overpriced handbags and heroin-chic models. So much writing!
Anyway. In the current issue, A. A. Gill ends his short article on “stalking rutting stags” in Scotland (seriously) with a brief account of an old man who recently died trapped on a mountain overnight with his family.
“The paper reported that they’d become crag-fast,” writes Gill. “This is a psychological shock that renders the victim immobile. It strikes climbers and those unprepared for their journeys. It happens when you descend a path and reach a point where you dare go no further and can’t manage to go back.” Gill finds the phrase useful. “Crag-fast precisely encompasses so much of my own life. And, indeed, so much of current affairs.”
I love discovering handy phrases like crag-fast. Some of my more loyal readers may remember my post on the cone of uncertainly, which I still think is an extremely useful concept, especially for graduate students.
I realized, as I read Gill’s article, that this coming year holds a lot of crag-fast potential. I can definitely see the possibility of being trapped on the mountain. In the current academic job market — when each tenure-track position garners 300 applications or more — it is possible or even probable that, come February, I will realize that, this year, I won’t get the type of job that I intended to get when I enrolled in an English PhD program. I will be clinging to the last revisions of my dissertation, hanging onto the last course I’ll teach at Rice, too afraid to get off the mountain into a landscape that is not a tenure-track professorship. It could be a community college position or a secondary school position. It could be a job outside of the field of education altogether.
If this is the case, I need to reformulate my perspective, find a place where success is defined in a number of different ways. This is difficult as an English PhD. Even the friendliest programs — and I count Rice’s among these — often implicitly define anything less than an assistant professorship or competitive post-doc as failure.
And if I do get a tenure-track job — as that is still a possibility — the danger remains. The transition from graduate student, a role I’ve been in for over five years now, to faculty, will be an exciting but truly frightening transition. Being a graduate student in May and teaching and advising them in August? Wow. If I arrive at a new institution, there will have to be a moment when, sitting in my new office, I decide to let go of the graduate school anxieties and really step into this new position, confidently and wholeheartedly. Even if I have to fake it. For now, I’m going to put any worries about that transition in a mental holding pattern, until a know a little bit more about my future.
This may seem like a cynical way to begin the new year, but it’s really not. It’s an attempt to be open of all the directions my life could lead this year.
So happy 2010, everyone! Make it a good one.
[I’ve posted a new pick by carrots. The holiday selections are gone and will return next year!]