Many people are familiar with the race for partner that takes place in many law firms, and with the struggle for tenure that occurs in academia. These two cases are examples of what game theory calls a “tournament,” in which many workers compete for some prize based on their productivity. It is seen as a way to encourage workers to do their best and to act in ways that are in the best interest of their employer. I thought of this concept recently when I spent some time on the campus of my first job out of graduate school, a job that I left only steps ahead of what would almost definitely have been a tenure denial. As I went back there to work on some research, I realized that while the experience had been difficult, I had landed on my feet.
When I cleaned out my office to leave to begin my current job, I left a pile of research in progress with a former colleague, not sure what else to do with it and not yet wanting to formally commit my work to the “circular file”. I had been teaching in my new position a few months when he called me with excitement in his voice. He said that he had looked at some of the research I had left with him, and that he thought that with only a little work, we could make them publishable. He was particularly good at editing papers to make them presentable for journals, and with finding the right journal for a given research paper. I agreed to work with him on them, and watched him work his magic on papers that had previously been rejected from at least one journal. In only a short amount of time, with his help and wisdom and only a few changes, we were able to publish all of the papers that I left with him. And then we set out to write some new papers. Again, it was only a short amount of time before we wrote and published a list of papers that possibly could have earned me tenure at that previous position.
The first few times I returned to my old campus, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. After all, this was the site of my dreams that did not materialize, and I needed to walk by the office I had occupied when I met my husband. But after a few times, I hardly gave it a second thought. I did, however, usually park my car close to his office and just walk directly there and then go directly home. I saw no reason to spend a large amount of time on that campus when I preferred my own office at Ursuline College. And so, with the exception of a handful of former colleagues, I saw no one on campus when I went there to work on research.
Last week was different, however. My co-author’s office was being renovated and we needed to meet in the library. For the first time in years I walked across the campus, and as I did, I saw several people I had not seen in a long time. I was surprised at how many recognized me, and even more surprised that one said they had been reading my blog columns on a regular basis. I chatted with people from that former chapter of my life, showing off pictures of my daughter and asking how things were going. I will probably never again feel at home there, but the experience was ok.
Part of me would prefer to offer my daughter a model of a woman who dreamed dreams and then watched them come true. Alas, that will not be the case as it relates to my first academic job. However, I can teach her what is perhaps a more important lesson, the lesson that life continues in the midst of disappointments, and that sometimes the lives we end up living are much better than the ones we had planned for ourselves. This is an important lesson because, if my lawyer husband has his way and she follows him into the practice of law, I am sure that she will be participating in a tournament or two at some point in her life.