I suspect all our American readers know this passage from Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken:”
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
We read it in classrooms as teachers enjoined us to confront each day with brave creativity. I never trod well traveled paths as a woman in the academy, but the decision to veer away from the predicable progression along the tenure track onto uncharted territory as an independent scholar, freelance writer, contingent instructor, and academic administrator made all my previous choices seem comparatively safe.
No question elicits quite such a visceral response as “what do you want to do next?” When on the road less traveled, you have no idea what lurks behind the next bush. It might be wonderful beyond belief, or it might be a hungry, career-killing beast.
I am blessed by abundant mentors: men and women who for whatever reason want me to succeed. But what defines success on the road less traveled? I am nearly a decade down the unworn path, deep into the woods, with little light to filter through and direct my steps. Although mentors make the effort to meet me here and help me see the forest beyond the trees, what advice can they give a gal without an immediate goal in reach?
Demonstrate leadership. I can and do charge headlong down my unknown path. I meet younger women who say my tales here and elsewhere give them courage to advance towards their own uncharted territories, but it makes me feel like a fraud.
I tell my advisees to dream big - to imagine the cabinet position they want to hold or the Nobel Prize they want to win. Visualize, one mentor tells me, and that will enable you to create what you see. Force me to honesty, and I’ll confess that the Pulitzer still flits through my fantasies. Maybe, someday, I will see my path open onto the ultimate prize, but I struggle to identify the intervening steps. I determine the degrees and projects that pave the way to my advisees’ grand aspirations with ease, but I cannot picture the pit-stops required to take me from present to Pulitzer.
My path must differ from the steady stream of tenured professors and trust-fund journalists who claim the prizes in history and biography. Poets often emerge from lives like mine to accept lofty awards. Historians rarely do. ‘Day jobs’ leave spare moments for poetry. Six to twelve months in archives around the globe seem harder to accommodate among the responsibilities of a ‘real’ job. I fail to fathom where those archival expeditions might fit with a life on the tenure side-lines and with my definition of daily mothering.
Upon the announcement of my first pregnancy, a dear friend told me that I would discover my lateral thinking skills had risen to new heights. I think she was right. My life off the beaten path with children in-tow demands an ability to synthesize disparate information that the solitary scholar would never cultivate within the clear confines and steady ascent of the ivory tower. I try to convince myself that these skills will have a professional reward. At some point, someone will see their value and aid my attempt to tread the less-traveled trail.
In the meantime, I remind myself that no one else could birth my babes, and no one else can write my books. Medics counted as I pushed; and mentors can shine a light through the brush before me; but only I possess the power to proceed.
Evanston, Illinois in the USA
Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a regular contributor to the University of Venus and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at her undergraduate alma mater, Northwestern University. She earned M.Litt. and M.Phil. degrees in European History as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University before completing her doctorate in American History at Princeton University. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to http://elizabethlewispardoe.wordpress.com.