An Academic Wanderer Accepts Tenure

March 01, 2005

Nine campuses in 18 years. That's the most notable thing on my CV.

I count a top-10 research university, two small liberal-arts colleges, three community colleges, two private universities, and a large state university in that number, and I remember them all fondly and well. I was never run out of any of them. I never left in tears or in undiluted celebration. I've simply moved on to another place in search of something.

That "something" is not something I can define for you or me -- or for the various deans I've stood in front of to announce my departure.

The students in those places have been remarkable and remarkably similar. At every institution I've met gifted and challenging students who made the days and weeks of a normal semester fly by. And of course I've been bamboozled and vexed by students at every place who simply didn't want to go to college, and surely didn't want to talk about ways that I thought they could make themselves better writers or readers.

I've occasionally been places long enough to watch freshmen graduate. I've stood alongside some of them at graduation ceremonies, met parents and shaken hands, and heard about careers and graduate school.

But usually, I'm long gone by that point. For years I've taught students who I knew would become juniors without me, graduate without me, find new teachers, advisers, and mentors. I knew I would be one or two stops further along the bouncing and muddy career I have always seemed destined to build.

I am torn about all of this. It has been an aching buzz in my brain ever since grad school that my goal should be to find an academic home -- a place where I want to live, with colleagues I want to see and be around for decades -- and to build a legacy of some kind of teaching and research.

But in September each year, often in the first weeks of a new position, the call of the job lists would be too intoxicating. The towns and the institutions would swirl and settle on my worn and beloved road atlas as I dreamed of the next stop. What hamburger joints would be there? What kind of house would I find? What new challenges would the students bring me? Would there be someone in the department who plays drums? Would my office be adequately heated in winter and cooled in the summer?

I have left confused and frustrated colleagues at every turn, special and wonderful people who can't help but think my leaving was somehow their fault, that my wanderlust was a message to them about how I looked into their world and found it lacking.

When an e-mail message bounced into my box a few weeks ago, I saw it had been rerouted through three institutions to find me. Someone wrote, "How did you survive the hurricane season this year?" even though I'm four years past a teaching job in Florida.

And always there was the question I have for myself: "Am I running to something, or from something?"

Two years ago I quit academe altogether. My wife and I sold our house and a lot of belongings and bought a motor home, which we lived in for a year. We drove 20,000 miles and hit 43 states. Each rise in the highway revealed a place we'd never been, and the towns all were pretty and welcoming. The goal was to find a home, a place where we both thought we belonged.

It was remarkable. Each day promised a new spot on the map. In some towns we'd stop and walk a college campus. Could I see myself here?

And then at the end of the year, flummoxed and confused as always, not convinced that we had learned anything except that the country is big and varied, I applied for and was offered a visiting job at a small liberal-arts college in Kentucky where my new colleagues have been welcoming, engaging, and interesting. They've made me feel at home, put students under my care, and made me feel a part of the larger enterprise.

There are folks in my department who've been here for decades. The newest people have been here for more than 10 years. The town is terrific, with antiques stores, retro barbershops, an art gallery, and friendly neighbors. Groceries are cheap. I found a guy who changes my oil and talks to me about hockey. There's even a place I can get a really good hamburger. It's a place people can and do live in for the span of their lives and their children's lives.

I have students in my classes who were born here. This is the town -- and sometimes the college -- of their parents and grandparents. It's warm in the summer and tolerable in the winter. There's a great library. I walk the dog in a splendid park.

And at night I sit under starlit skies and smoke a cigar.

And today I accepted the college's job offer -- an associate professorship with tenure, teaching the classes I want, doing exactly what I've always told myself I love to do. And I am gripped with a grim and crippling fear.

Despite the difficult job market, each year I've spent countless hours typing application letters to colleges in other places. I've told committees about how I love to teach, how I love the challenge. I have recited my accomplishments, talked about my books, told stories about working with students. My wife and I have bought newspapers from far-flung cities and towns and tried to see ourselves in those worlds. What would be waiting there?

And now, with a tiny note, really just a sentence long, I've put the restless me aside. What am I missing? What will result when I say out loud, "I'm staying"?

Tenure is something I never sought. I never had the dream that many of my grad-school pals did about the promise of tenure, protected employment, an academic home. I never begrudged them their goals. They just weren't the same as mine.

And this year, for the past several months, I kept to that same annual routine. I interviewed with eight institutions at the annual MLA convention. I had four campus-interview offers, two of which I turned down, two of which I took. In a single week I visited Rochester, N.Y., and Boston, two places we'd never lived. And I met terrific folks, terrific students, people who would welcome me and my past. They were places where new challenges would fire my engine, new towns to be unlocked and discovered.

But after several restless years, and after several recent restless nights, we decided to stay put. I've ridden the academic roulette wheel, and, tired of trying out all of the numbers, have put the last chips in my pocket.

Today I stared out the window of my office knowing that this would be home. Not forever, maybe. Not because I have to stay. But because somehow, for the first time in my academic career, the looking around has stopped being enough. The intoxication of dreaming about the next new place has left me -- this time -- with a hangover.

I fear that my old self was braver than this new one. Am I a coward? A realist? Am I (in my mid-40s) suddenly becoming an adult? Will my pals be confused when my address stops changing? When will I pull out the road atlas and begin to wonder again what I've missed, what is still waiting?

W.T. Pfefferle is an associate professor of English at Georgetown College in Kentucky and the author of Poets on Place: Tales and Interviews From the Road (Utah State University Press, 2005), a chronicle and anthology of interviews and poems from 62 American poets he visited in 2003-04.