No Longer Just Visiting

April 15, 2003

It would not surprise me to learn that I am on some FBI watchlist of people who move around the country too much. I have changed veterinarians, doctors, video stores, and coffee shops so often I surely look as if I am running from something. In five years, I have paid taxes in four states. But each move made sense at the time -- careerwise, at least.

Immediately after I finished my M.F.A. in creative writing at Arizona State University something surprising happened. I got a job. As an assistant professor. In an M.F.A. program.

There were two catches: It was a visiting one-year position, and it was in southern Minnesota, far from the East Coast of my upbringing and the Southwest of my recent friendships. Ultimately, it was a fantastic job for a recent graduate. In two years I taught 11 different creative-writing and literature courses, served on thesis committees, worked with earnest students and was guided in my career by well-published, genuinely kind faculty members.

My vita grew in publications, conference presentations, and teaching experience, and I was able to openly conduct a search for a tenure-track job that was growing ever clearer in my mind. I wanted a job like the one I had, but somewhere else. Somewhere that would not be described, as my onetime neighbor put it, as being "trapped inside of a nap."

When the chance came for my visiting position to turn into a tenure-track job, I opted instead for another one-year position, at Oberlin College.

At Oberlin, I was again surrounded by well-published, genuinely kind faculty members who became my mentors. I taught students who were indecently talented. My vita grew a little more, and my ability to draw an MLA interview (though not necessarily a tenure-track offer) grew exponentially.

Reality hit several months later: My one-year stint was nearly up, and I did not know where I would be going next. I was left with the choice between another year as a visiting professor in another state (another veterinarian, another doctor, another video store, another coffee shop) or moving to where I had longed to be for years, back to my friends and family outside of Philadelphia, maybe putting off another job search until I had finished and published a novel, maybe giving up all together and accepting a different life.

The pros and cons of visiting positions are many. You get varied teaching experience, but little chance to repeat a course and incorporate what you learned from the first go-round. Typically, you do not have to advise undergraduates or do much if any committee work, but your inexperience in those areas is frequently pointed out to you during job interviews. You are able to be entirely open about being on the job market, which allows you to seek advice and letters of reference from your current colleagues, but you are always on the job market. You tend not to have many thesis and independent study projects to oversee, but when you do, you have to plunge in with a student you have just met and whom you know you will be deserting in a year.

For me, the professional positives outweighed the negatives. I was able to discover firsthand what I wanted in a position. I experienced different parts of the country, the advantages of being at a large university versus a small college, of teaching largely regional graduate students versus elite undergraduates, and the list goes on.

But the professional positives were in strong counterpoint to some personal negatives. It would have been nearly impossible to take the visiting positions I did with a family in tow, but it was still difficult to do it as a single, young woman.

When you spend your fall unpacking your belongings and your spring packing them up again, you barely feel like making friends let alone entering into romantic relationships. By the time you learn what your favorite local restaurant is, you are contacting AAA for maps to your new location.

I feel lucky in the people whom I met, and grateful for the friends who visited me everywhere I went, not to mention my friend Oliver, who drove with me first from Arizona to Minnesota and then two years later from Minnesota to Ohio, getting lost only once, when we could not resist a highway sign that read, "Oliver, next right." But no matter how you spin it, three years of short-term relationships is difficult.

Perhaps even more difficult was the toll my frequent moves took on my creative life.

I am working on a novel, and the stops and starts that accompanied each move -- settling into a new location, packing and unpacking my computer -- have slowed the process considerably. On top of that, writing well, for me, seems to require a mysterious combination of joy, stability, inspiration, and time. Of those, the only one I had consistently was time.

Of all the sacrifices that young faculty members are expected to make, my lack of a life outside my work was the most devastating, for me and for my work. So when the time came to leave Oberlin and choose between the professional and the personal, the personal won.

I moved home to Pennsylvania without any job at all. I knew I would not adjunct, and with the University of Pennsylvania as both the biggest and the best college nearby, I stalked their human-resources Web page, which amazingly changes every day. My hope was to find a job in development since I have long felt that book people owe it to themselves and their industry to learn from money people.

I got lucky almost immediately and found a position working as a stewardship writer in the communications office of development and alumni relations at Penn. During my lunch hour, my commute, and that lost hour between 7 and 8 p.m., I worked on my novel. On weekends and evenings, I saw my young nephew, my elderly grandmother, friends I have known since the second grade.

The question then became, Would I enter the job market this year? It promised to be a tighter year than ever, and there was nothing to suggest I would achieve a better result than the year before. My father suggested I broaden my requirements and apply to more jobs than I had in the past; I decided to go the other way. I was happy seeing my family and friends on a weekly basis. I was happy being with people who laughed when they heard the term Professor Bucak. So I applied to a more select group of jobs than ever.

For the first time, I felt relaxed about my job search; I had nothing to lose. If I did not find the job, I would stay right where I was. In December, I was invited for a small number of interviews at the Modern Language Association convention, during which I completely enjoyed myself. I was happy and relaxed in New York, another one of my former hometowns, and in between interviews, my cross-country friend, Oliver, and I went to dim sum, Pedro Almodovar's movie Talk to Her, the American Folk Art Museum, and a play that took place in a pool of water. I waxed nostalgic over the men playing drums on plastic buckets in front of our hotel, the Bertelsmann Building (where I used to work), and the crowds around the TKTS booth.

It felt right that in my year of being home, MLA was as much a trip into the past as a hope for the future.

Things almost did not work out. I felt indifferent about two of the colleges that interviewed me, and the one I liked took a long time to call, bringing in other visitors before they decided to reel me in for a look-see. But it did work out. This summer, I'm moving to Boca Raton for a tenure-track position in a brand-new M.F.A. program, at Florida Atlantic University, with faculty members who seem both ambitious and kind, with students who seem earnest and culturally well-rounded, with a 3-2 course load and a view of the ocean.

And one of the things they liked about me? That I knew about development.

I suspect that the longer I had stayed out of teaching the harder it would have been to find my way back in, but by doing something a little different, I perhaps stood out a little more. It still feels like I gave up something during my visiting years, but I have unquestionably received a great deal in return.

Had I not gotten a tenure-track offer this year, I still believe I could have happily stayed in Pennsylvania, but in the end, going back to teaching feels completely right. It feels, actually, like going home.

My fifth state in six years. You're welcome to come visit.

In August, A. Papatya Bucak will start as an assistant professor of English at Florida Atlantic University.