This is part of a series on our current situation with unemployment and March 2013 generally being kind of rough. To read the whole thing, check out March Madness 2013.
I have been working, in various capacities, with the theater department at Eastern Mennonite University since 2008. I adore EMU. People tend to assume I went there because all of my friends did. One friend said, “Oh, you remember so-and-so, she graduated with us,” and I had to remind her that I did not “graduate with us.” I feel at home on that campus. Over the past five years, I have designed and built costumes, taught workshops, directed two productions, and informally mentored a dozen or so students. Several EMU alumni have performed in plays by The Great American Theater Company, which I co-founded with genius playwright (and EMU alumna) Pam Mandigo. This semester, I have had the privilege of teaching theater history there.
When a full-time position opened up, I was hesitant to apply for it. For all the supposed advantages an “inside” candidate might have, the risks, in terms of relationships, are much bigger. There’s also no guarantee that being a long-time friend of a department is actually helpful, either. As my Aunt Marta, who has been on both sides of university hiring processes, remarked, “Ah the problem of familiarity, Programs almost always want a different lover…”
But I did take that risk, and, frankly, I killed it. I felt great about my interview. Friends and fairy godmothers blessed me with all manner of help, from wardrobe consultation to presentation critique. One friend lent me her purple gloves to go with my purple coat, telling me that this coordination was “very Michelle Obama.” I went into the day of my campus visit nervous, but also feeling incredibly deep support from so many people. I had a great time. I enjoyed my conversations with the dean and the hiring committee. I had to take a break in the middle of it to teach my regularly scheduled class, and that was great–and this was a discussion on Horace and Roman theater criticism. I had no reason to believe it would be a particularly good class (quite the opposite), but it was amazing. My presentation/test class went well. I went to a beautiful chapel service with a student. I managed not to spill anything on myself at dinner. When I got home, I felt like, if I wasn’t selected, it wouldn’t be because I had done a bad job sharing who I am and what I have to offer to the university–it would be because I wasn’t what they wanted.
Ultimately, their assessment was the same as mine. They complimented me on my materials, said they loved my class and found my interview impressive. They wanted me to know what an amazing pool of candidates they had and how pleased I should be to have been on the short list of people invited for a campus visit. But I wasn’t what they wanted. They chose someone with a different background and set of credentials than I have. I wish him (and them) the best. This position has had a lot of turn over in the past decade (one friend actually said, “So, I hear you’re not going to be the next Defense Against the Dark Arts professor after all.”). A number of people have suggested that if I just wait a couple of years, I’ll get another shot. I hope, for the sake of my friends in the department, that this isn’t the case. The instability has been incredibly hard on both the students and the faculty. If it did open up again a couple of years, I’m not sure I would apply for it. I can’t imagine that the department or I will change enough in a short time frame to make the fit any better.
Parker Palmer writes, “As often happens on the spiritual journey, we have arrived at the heart of a paradox: each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens up. All we need to do is stop pounding on the door that just closed, turn around–which puts the door behind us–and welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our souls. The door that closed kept us from entering a room, but what now lies before us is the rest of reality.”
Turning away from that door is harder than I might have expected. The question is–what is this door? Is it teaching? Is it EMU specifically? How big of a door do I have to turn away from?
I believe that teaching at the college level is my calling. Class is the best part of my week. Even yesterday, when my students came in with their Friday doldrums and tech-week panic, and I was, to say the least, not in the best frame of mind, we had a great class. It might not exactly be a party every day, but I think we are all having a good time and learning together. I can see them developing new ways of looking at their art and new ideas about how to execute it. They are becoming aware of the default assumptions they didn’t even know they had about how theater has to be.
This stage of their development–late teens and early twenties–is an interesting one. They are leaving behind the black-and-white thinking of their high school days and learning the nuance of the adult world. I see them change so much through the course of their years in college, from wide-eyed first years to the sophomore slump to the mild panic of junior year to the seniors’ eagerness to break out into the big world. I am good at meeting them where they are and walking alongside them as they get where they are going.
In my own undergraduate years, at Hiram College, I had the liberal arts experience that people are talking about when they tout the value of the liberal arts. I had professors in a variety of disciplines who took a genuine interest in my personal development and showed me entirely new ways of looking at the world. I want to help others have this same experience of supported and guided self-formation.
Although I want very much to remain in the valley, I understand that there are only a handful of theater professor jobs that open up every year, and rarely any at all near my home. The more I teach, the more I will get to teach. I’m casting a wide net and sending my materials out to all kinds of places, anywhere that has English as the language of instruction, basically. I don’t know where I’m supposed to be, but by making myself available, I create the possibility that someone, somewhere, will say yes to me.