Monday, May 4, 2015

Getting to Where You Are, Part 1: The Interests

I just attended a class of undergraduate English majors at Seton Hill University where I and a number of my colleagues were asked to share our past experiences and to show how we arrived at the career that we did. The point was to give to the students an “inner picture” of what really happened for several English majors in becoming their faculty, and to provide a better idea of the decisions made along the way.

When my turn came to summarize my road to where I was now, I mentioned that the story offered a few actual themes—to make the comments more than just a lot of reminiscing:
  • The route to a career can go in many directions (you don’t know where you’ll end up) 
  • You need to be prepared for the sudden chance, ready to leap when the moment is offered (or, as Hamlet said, “Readiness is all”) 
  • An interest in popular fiction—in my case, science fiction—can take you far 
  • And the special nature and understanding of Seton Hill University (hey, they were SHU students, so I wanted them to know they made a good choice) 
I repeat the story here, first to put it in writing for next year, but also to show just how accidental, and yet fated, any career seems to be.

My first interest was art. As a kid I made a lot of drawings, and though my talent was not great, it was good enough to sustain an interest. Though I moved from colored pencils to painting in oils and acrylics, I never excelled, so I knew it wouldn’t be my career. (Yet if I realized I would end up in academia and that teaching would become my profession, I well might have followed art history—if I couldn’t teach literature that’s what I’d do now.)

Another early interest was science—very different from art. And I especially loved astronomy (with geology a close second). I studied astronomy so extensively that I felt, someday, it would be my career. I wasn’t sure how likely that was (I knew even then there weren’t a lot of positions for astronomers out there) but that’s what I hoped for.

On top of these interests were comic books. I loved them. Imagine: an entire portfolio of art for a dime. Incredible! But graphic art cannot be separated from the story that’s told, so I became even more involved with reading fiction. And since the comics I enjoyed most were science fiction, the interest I followed all my life became quickly and firmly established: the reading, study, teaching, and writing, of science fiction. Even when preoccupied with other subjects, I always come back to it: spaceships, other planets, future technology, alternate cultures, stellar vistas, the galactic sublime—I couldn’t get enough. And I wanted to write it—though my early efforts were horrible.

By the time I went to high school, the reading interests grew. I read other popular genres besides SF: mysteries, spy novels, historicals. And then, rather suddenly, I got hooked by literature. I had felt until then it was too “out of reach,” too difficult, too deep, too complex, but suddenly it made sense to me (I guess I had grown old enough). I related to Dr. Zhivago, I understood Lord Jim, Raskolnikov was fascinating, and even Hamlet’s dilemma seemed familiar—literature sucked me in, completely.

But I still believed that a scientific/technical career was the best to follow (my father had a lot to do with that). So my ideal was that astronomy would be my day job and writing science-fiction my night job (or “alternative” job, since astronomers work at night too). But there weren’t many colleges where you could major in astronomy as an undergraduate. Most schools said to major in physics instead (or electrical engineering), and then go into astronomy in graduate school. I enjoyed science more than engineering, so I chose physics. That was the plan, and I went to Carnegie-Mellon and majored in physics—though I took all my interests in reading with me.

I did okay in physics but I wasn’t outstanding, and it bothered me that I was pursuing a career in which I couldn’t excel. Yet, at the same time, I was doing very well in the few English courses I could take. Things weren’t right; I was working too hard for mediocre results. But I did nothing about it until the end of my sophomore year, when matters became obvious enough that I needed to make a change.

At the end of the semester, I had four final exams (and they were quite demanding at CMU, lasting three hours each): two in physics and two in English. I studied for a total of 50 hours for the two physics finals, and I got two C’s. I studied for a total of 5 hours for the two English finals, and I got two A’s.

I realized the universe was trying to tell me something, and I better listen.

Luckily, the physics program offered a double major in Physics and English—you decided which subject you wanted to pursue after graduation, and all your electives were taken in that subject. So I chose to double major, with the intention of pursuing English after graduation.

And I was immensely happy. Though my career seemed much less certain, I felt I could worry about that later. I lavished in literature. All the interests in art, science, and especially SF were still alive and strong, but for now they were secondary to my ravenous consumption of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Blake, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Vonnegut, Shakespeare, Borges, the Romantics, the Realists, the Modernists, the Existentialists, and so many more. Comic books I had left long ago—branded as “kid stuff”—but even those were not forgotten, just on “hold.” I was too happy discovering what I felt were the great voices of humanity.

But the career? What was I going to do?

Continued in the next blog . . .

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