On a recent campus interview a friend of mine quickly got the sense that something slightly strange was going on in the department. More than once the mention of “Bill” triggered a series of knowing smiles. My friend knew Bill, or thought he did, from the department’s Web site, which included faculty photos and biographical notes. In fact, he was looking forward to their meeting since it seemed they shared certain specialties, but those smiles scared him away from questions. Toward the end of his visit, though, my friend and his host bumped into Bill in a hallway, and he finally got the joke.

This was not the trim, black-suited Bill from the Web site. This man wore dreadlocks past his shoulders and dressed in shorts and sandals. A cannabis leaf was painted on each of his big toenails. Their research did overlap (or had at some point), but, as my friend discovered, he was interviewing as Bill’s potential replacement. After their meeting the host confided that Bill had chosen to leave tenure and academe to pursue a career in country outlaw music.

Of course there is much more to the story than my friend learned in that hallway (and I’ve changed both Bill’s name and his field for the purpose of this post). The transformation from tidy, young, early-American-literature professor to middle-age “outlaw” who teaches courses on the contemporary avant-garde may be as mysterious to Bill as it is to his co-workers. Though my friend saw only those before and after images, the process certainly didn’t happen overnight.

With that in mind, I can think of several cases in which professors I know have been led away from their original specialties by some new line of inquiry. Few academics turn country musician, but perhaps even fewer retire as the same scholar they were at hiring. In practice the borders of most fields are remarkably porous. Perhaps they only look rigid when we consider them in the absence of professors.

It strikes me too that some kind of continuing transformation is natural and healthy for academics because we so often approach new problems in our research through the lens of personal (and potentially fickle) interest. And yet an English department still needs someone to teach those early-American-lit courses, whether Bill is as interested in them now or not.

Have you run into this problem at your institution? How do you balance shifting interests and specialties with the responsibility to teach the core of your subject? If you have been a professor for some time, are you studying and teaching today what you thought you would be when you finished graduate school?

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