Go Native, Be Happy
Last week University of Iowa professor Stephen Bloom published an article in The Atlantic titled "Observations Fom 20 Years of Iowa Life." I am an Iowa alumnus, though not a native Iowan, and the article caused quite a stir among my Iowa friends. Bloom’s opinion piece (the point of which I already forget) overflows with condescension, patronizing in every paragraph the people who for 20 years he has been paid to educate, and within whose communities Bloom has worked and lived and, presumably, prospered.
Certainly there are things to criticize about Iowa, as there are about every place. And while my friends were enraged by Bloom’s frequently unfair generalizations and constantly elitist tone, I was struck by something different, or perhaps I should say by something additional. I was struck by how sad it is that an academic who has lived and worked in the same place for so many years so clearly detests his home and its people so thoroughly. That must be an awful and sorry way to live.
Unfortunately, Bloom’s plight is not uncommon in the academic world, but it appears to me that he has played his hand particularly badly. In the academic life, if you get any job at all, you are likely to be flung to a corner of the country that you never imagined yourself in. It isn’t a death sentence, and it isn’t something to be resented. And all of us beginning or early in our careers should be psychologically prepared for it. Like Bloom, apparently, we may find ourselves in that "first tenure-track job" for 20 years (if we are very lucky). Hopefully, we will not be so miserable. But I also contend that Bloom’s apparent misery is his own fault. My proposition here is simple: no matter where you end up, there will be good things about your new home, things that you may grow to love deeply, but you’ll have to actively seek those things out.
See article on how faculty members adjust when they take jobs in communities in which they never imagined living.
I remember hearing, early in my grad career, a fellow graduate student say, "I can’t wait to move out of the Central Time Zone." Her implication, in case you can't read between the lines of her own condescension, was that the Central Time Zone is full of hokey rubes, and that the real cultural action is on the coasts, not in the so-called flyover states. But hell, we were in Austin, Texas, which is no slouch when it comes to culture and excitement and educated, sophisticated folk. The comment was much more a reflection of her whiny character than of any place (so too in Bloom’s piece). But, in my experience, the attitude she expressed is all too common among graduate students.
Do you imagine that you'll secure a tenure-track appointment in San Francisco or New York, despite all the evidence to the contrary? If so, statistically speaking, you’re delusional. San Francisco and New York are wonderful cities, and I love to visit them, but wonderful as well are Fargo and Roanoke and Pittsburgh. Wonderful as well are the truly rural areas of the country (yes, all of them), where your college may be the largest community for very many miles around. There are a lot of great places to live in this country, and not only the metropolitan cities or quaint college towns. In some parts of the country, and depending upon your own interests and personality, you may have to work harder to find the things and people you’ll connect with, but every locale has things and people to recommend it.
Thanks to Internet connectivity, there’s actually never been a better time to be flung into the hinterlands. Much of the fantastic culture produced in the world today can be accessed electronically. And while watching art house movies on your laptop isn’t quite the same as in the theater, it’s nonetheless a phenomenal and recent freedom. In my own case, digital technologies allow me to stay in touch with friends and colleagues alike, despite my own geographic isolation in far western, mountainous, rural North Carolina. I live in what is probably the most remote and inaccessible territory east of the Mississippi River, apart perhaps from northern Maine. Yet, I can routinely and easily share article drafts with a friend in Toronto, and play board games on Skype with friends across the country (yes, I just admitted that publicly).
While technology will keep you connected to culture and people that are maybe not readily available in your new location, it isn’t enough to build a life around. Being able to Skype with your old friends won’t make you any new friends. It is easy for academics to build their lives around their careers, but I don’t think that’s the best way to integrate into a new community, wherever that community is. In my own case I have found a connection with my new home less through my work than through my hobbies. Biking, hiking, canoeing, fishing (and associated conservation work), and refereeing high school sports — activities that I love and would engage in wherever I lived — have all introduced me to new people, and helped me to integrate into a new place. Whatever your recreational interests are, pursuing those interests will help you to connect with both the people and place of your new home.
A year before I began my current appointment, two of my friends found academic work at a college in Detroit. Many of our friends in common were initially deeply sad for the couple. After all, our disaster-porn obsessed national media has trained us all to think that Detroit is at the bleeding edge of post-apocalypse urbanism. What my friends found was a culturally vibrant and flourishing city. The economic fallout had dropped rents in the city to the point where masses of artists and restaurateurs had opened new studios and restaurants, undertaking experiments in art and food that would have been impossible in higher-rent cities. Detroit, despite what you may have heard, is overflowing with culture and energy and opportunity. My point is that my friends never viewed Detroit as anything other than an opportunity, and they found they loved the city at every turn, despite its (frequently overstated) problems. They found things that they loved about the city because they embraced the city and its quirks and culture. Detroit returned the embrace.
Midway through his bitter verbal savaging of Iowa and its people, Professor Bloom writes "I've lived in many places, lots of them foreign countries, but none has been more foreign to me than Iowa." I too felt I was in a foreign land when I moved to Iowa at the age of 19. Again, I felt I was in a foreign land when I moved to Texas for grad school. And when I returned to the Appalachian Mountains to which I am native, after so much time away, I once more felt adrift in an exotic new land. Yet, I am wonderfully reassured that a person can travel our country and feel so much difference from place to place, despite the homogenizing forces of corporatism currently crushing down upon us all.That a new part of the country feels foreign is no reason to condemn it.
When I interviewed for my current position the toughest part of the on-campus visit was not the job talk or the teaching demonstration. It was convincing the hiring committee that I really did want to live in rural North Carolina. Hiring committees at regional universities are quite justifiably both weary and wary of young academics who intend to use their offers as stepping stones or bargaining chips. And when it comes time to enter the job market, the grad students who gripe about getting the hell out of the Central Time Zone will suddenly realize that the job listing at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology looks pretty damn good (and I bet it is pretty good — Rapid City is nestled in gorgeous country). Regardless of where you end up though — from Gary, Indiana, to Clovis, New Mexico — there are likely to be a lot of great things in your new home, despite whatever you may have heard, and a lot of great people too, if you simply get out and look, and look hard and honestly.
I suppose that there are those times when, even if the job is good, a certain place doesn’t fit a certain person, and people need to move on. There’s nothing wrong with that, and people have a right to seek work in a place where they’ll be happy. Aside from doing your job, nobody "owes" a college perpetual loyalty. You teach and research, and the institution pays you, and the obligations end there. But at least while you’re in that city or region that maybe doesn’t fit you so well and that maybe you yearn to leave, treat the place and its people with respect.
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