On fear at 39

Years ago, when I was working in academic technology and faculty development, I teamed up with a group of extraordinary women—Laura Blankenship, Barbara Sawhill, Barbara Ganley, and Martha Burtis—to present in various ed tech venues about a phenomenon we termed Fear 2.0, the constellation of fear-mongering around the use of social media in higher education, student-created media shared publicly, and born-digital, non-peer-reviewed scholarship.

Recently, I’ve been thinking again about fear.

Several weeks ago, a friend told me that when she heard several loud booming noises on her block, she retreated to the basement, opened her gun safe, retrieved her handgun, and began loading magazines in the dark, lining them up just under the windowsill, all while peering through the mini-blinds to scout for threats.

Two senior colleagues whom I also consider good friends reminded me that I should be careful what I post on social media, particularly when it’s about Boise State. (So did my mother, repeatedly, though she has never been on social media to see what I post.)

Every few weeks at his Taekwondo studio, along with Taekwondo techniques and forms, my son learns a new self-defense method to geared explicitly to protect him against strangers who mean him harm.

A month ago, two older women tried to make me feel anxious about dressing appropriately for a job interview for a relatively senior, high-profile position.

Another friend told me it takes several days for her to open readers’ reports on the articles she has submitted to academic journals. She fears the commenters will be abusive (as they sometimes are; in fact, just this week I received feedback on an article from three readers, all of whom offered great suggestions for revision, but one of whom couched it in the form of ad hominem attacks).

The common thread here, of course, is anxiety, paranoia, and fear.

I’m not going to say I don’t feel fear.

Reading the #YesAllWomen thread on Twitter last week, I was reminded that as a woman, I live an imperiled existence relative to men.

And of course, as a parent, as one therapist pointed out to me, it’s normal to always feel “a low-level terror.”

Plus, even my work duties can inspire fear. For example, this week I have to provide the names of eight potential external reviewers for my tenure case. The very thought gives me palpitations, as my work is deeply interdisciplinary and I’ve neither focused my publishing in traditional journals nor have I shopped around a book manuscript.

To list particular scholars for my tenure case is to constitute a new tribe rather than to delineate an existing subfield to which I belong. And that’s a frightening thing, as I’m asking these people I’ve never met to say Yes, this is an established scholarly community and yes, Leslie belongs, even though that community (which must comprise only tenured faculty, not alt-ac folks or museum professionals) does not in fact exist in any form these people would recognize. In fact, the people on my list might never have heard of one another, so diverse are my interests and publications.

But there are other options.

I returned last week from the Berkshire Conference on Women’s History. There, I reconnected with Cathy Kudlick, a mentor and former colleague who embodies (for me, at least) fearlessness, who in turn introduced me to the absolutely amazing Katherine Ott, a deeply generous and insightful soul who also struck me as fearless.

In talking with Katherine, I was reminded of my Fear 2.0 days, and I expressed to her the belief that, though I may be on the job market now or in the future, I’m at a point in my life where I worry very little about what people will think of what I say on my blog or in social media. Rather, I want to be relatively transparent; I don’t want to work for or with anyone who would reject me outright because of what I write here. Katherine made clear that was an obvious conclusion, but it’s taken me a while to get here.

Thank you, digital world, for making it easy for folks to discern that I am not the right person for them—and conversely, for me to discern that they might not be the best colleagues for me.

Once again I’m at an inflection point.

The last few years have been full of them.

I interviewed a month ago for a terrific staff position at a phenomenal institution, and I felt I nailed the campus interview, really connecting with the students and faculty—but at this point I’m guessing the job has been offered to someone else.

At about that same time, I realized my antidepressant had stopped working. It’s not a big deal in the long run; it happens, and I know intellectually how to deal with it, even if emotionally I feel like a wreck. I am fortunate, as I’ve said before here, to be an exceptionally high-functioning depressive, so I was able to show up for work and get things done; doing so just took more energy than usual.

But the combination of high (a strong interview) and low (transitioning to a new antidepressant) kicked me back into a deeply self-reflective mode in which I asked myself, yet again, what I really want to do with my life.

Today is my 39th birthday, you see, and I’m finally feeling that time is not unlimited—nor is my energy.

The answer? Beyond being able to support my family—a dicey proposition at best at the moment—I want to be in a place where I can be professionally fearless, where I can admit I’m still learning, where no one is going to try (even with my own best interests in mind) to shame me or frighten me into silence.

Also, about that supporting-my-family thing: I want to shift my perspective.

I’ve been helping a family member with a job application this week, and the application requires a salary history. Twenty-four years ago, this woman, working as an entry-level public high school administrator, was making 10% more than I earn today.

If I have one fear, it’s financial insolvency. I have expressed my concerns about salary and cost of living to a few colleagues, and while many of my junior colleagues understand exactly what the challenge is in living on my salary, a senior colleague recently pointed out to me that (more than 10 years ago) another colleague (whose life context is entirely different from mine) managed to make the salary work with two kids instead of one.

I don’t need that kind of comparison and subtle shaming.

I don’t need to be told it’s more expensive to live in California than it is in Idaho. Because here’s the deal: it was cheaper to live in Davis than it is to live in Boise. Really. No one believes me, but my bank statements don’t lie.

I especially don’t need people who own houses to tell me my rent is unreasonable (it’s not), when they haven’t looked at rental prices in a decade or more.

And yes, I realize some parts of California are exceptionally expensive places to live. Salaries in those cities also often are commensurate with the cost of living, unlike my salary here.

Confessing about professing

I admit it: I take a good deal of pride in being able to say I’m a professor. I love being called “professor.” I’ve worked toward this title my entire adult life. And many of the people I’ve most admired over the past 20 years have been my professors. To be counted among them is a joy. To give it up would cause me great sadness.

Yet I’m not yet convinced the profession is sustainable for me, either financially or emotionally.

I really had hoped that by the time I turn 40, I would be able to support my family without fear of not being able to pay the bills. That’s looking less likely with each passing year because of career choices I’ve made and because of a lack of state and public support for higher education, especially here in Idaho.

Dancing with fear

Seth Godin emphasizes that the process of building a professional life and forging an individual identity requires a good deal of dancing with fear. He’s absolutely right, and since my internship with Seth last summer, I’ve been more serious than ever about identifying points of resistance and dancing with the fears that underlie that resistance.

For me at this moment, this dance is about balancing progress toward tenure (playing the game) with a desire to experiment in new fields (breaking the rules), about bringing home a paycheck while also seeking more remunerative work, whether that be a different job or launching a freelance/consulting endeavor that I hope will provide me with a comfortable income—all while living in a context (academia) where I’m supposed to do the work because I love it (which I do), because I’m supposed to eschew material reward because only the uncultured value money.

I want to be fearless professionally, but there it is, laid bare:

I’m so tired of the fear that comes with living paycheck to paycheck.

I’m weary of the fear-mongering around work I enjoy but which other people deem professionally risky.

I want to do new, exciting things, but sometimes doing them—thanks to an academic culture that rewards conformity over risk—jeopardizes my ability to put food on the table.

Still, I’m off-contract in the summer. Summer is, then, the best time to embrace fearlessness, to break new ground, to embrace the advice a spectral James Joyce gave to Seamus Heaney:

Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,
so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.

Everyday liberal arts

For more reasons than I could adequately explain here, I’ve been thinking even more often than usual about the value of a liberal arts education in our understanding of the world and the ways we ought to engage with it. As Jeremy Hunsinger has written,

Coming to know, as the primary process of knowledge, is a mobile, communal and material effort, and it engages people, places, and things, through our memories and practices tied to the histories of knowledges, its fluxes, and its futures.

The liberal arts are about engagement with ideas, places, and people. To be frank, in my experience, people educated in the liberal arts tend to be more interesting than those with a more vocational education, and they take delight in details and phenomena that others might not even notice.

What does a liberal arts understanding look like when deployed in our everyday lives? Here are a few examples from my experience.

  • Understanding that landscape architecture transcends Sunset magazine. It’s being able to look at a public space and ascertain for whom it was designed and why, how it might have changed over time, and whose values it represents. . .and both taking pleasure in this analysis and knowing such interpretation is important for all kinds of reasons.

  • Looking at a chart published by a major news organization and redesigning it so it conveys information more clearly and to less partisan ends.

  • Pawing through the medical artifact collections at the Idaho State Historical Museum, making connections between practices a century ago and those today–and realizing that in many cases, practices persist but values shift, while in other cases values persist but the practices around them have changed. And then formulating arguments as to why those shifts and continuities matter to Idahoans’ beliefs about health and wellness, then and now.
  • After seeing someone on Facebook mention being able to hold two opposing thoughts in her mind at the same time, musing on Keats and negative capability and wondering how the concept might be useful in understanding Idaho politics.

  • Seeing an allusion to the “Draw a Scientist” activity and understanding the confluence of historical events and cultural beliefs and values that has led to our narrow understanding of who qualifies as a scientist—and knowing where to find and how to interpret the research being done on the best ways to combat this stereotype.

  • When besieged by an enthusiastic evangelical Christian who kept stuffing tiny comic-panel tracts into my hand, I used my understanding of the culture and geography from which she emerged to steer her away from proselytizing to me and toward mutual understanding. Whenever I run into her now, she seems genuinely happy to see me and doesn’t try to save my soul in any explicit way.

  • Watching pretty much any segment of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report, and being at once dismayed and delighted by what I see and hear in its coverage of the countless hypocrisies in U.S. political life and media representations.

  • Watching, as I am now from my perch on the fourth floor of the university library, a Canada goose floating on the moderately swift current of a river that flows between the university and a large public park, and mentally mapping the confluence of events that made the moment possible, the mind piecing together a quilt whose pieces include but are not limited to the Army Corps of Engineers, water rights legislation in the western U.S., climate change, treaties governing migratory wildlife, the pastoral aesthetic, and municipal recreation priorities. . . but also having empathy for the goose, for it must be a fun ride.

I’ve found that people with a quality liberal arts education tend to be lifelong learners, participating in both formal and informal learning opportunities and indulging in a good deal of autodidactism.

In short, viewing the world through a liberal arts lens is delightful, and I’m so grateful for my time at Grinnell College, which informed my years afterward studying literature, writing, and culture.

Of course, one need not attend an elite liberal arts college to acquire one, but it’s clear it’s getting harder to pursue the liberal arts at regional public universities.

What about you? If you have a broad-based liberal arts education in the humanities, arts, and sciences, how do you find it influencing the way you view or experience the world?

A full deck


Usually when Fang‘s birthday rolls around, we’re ready to duck and cover, as April 19 and 20 are two of those days when crazy people are wont to do and say stupid and dangerous things. Strangely, though, this year Fang is doing the opposite of ducking and covering—he’s been doing amazing work, running around Boise […]

[Continue reading...]

Things I’m thinking about these days

As, of course, a random bulleted list: My fellowship research on how Idahoans have understood health and wellness, as represented by (sometimes very weird) artifacts in a museum’s collection. Found thus far: various fraudulent “cures” for gynecological ills, countless jars containing Chinese apothecary treatments (including shriveled animal testicles, starfish, sea horses, and paper wasps’ nests), […]

[Continue reading...]

Concealed carry culture is antithetical to higher education’s mission

(written in response to Idaho Senate Bill 1254, which would allow concealed weapons on campus) Idaho has long nurtured what some have termed “a gun culture.”  Hunters and ranchers reasonably see rifles as necessary tools. Families pass treasured rifles from grandparent to parent to child and educate the youngest members of the family about gun […]

[Continue reading...]

DIY College Metrics

Screen shot 2014-01-06 at 9.58.25 PM

The headline at the NPR site says it all: “Idaho Universities Must Decide Which Programs Matter Most.”  Not surprisingly, then, at this year’s welcome address, Boise State President Bob Kustra emphasized the role of analytics in the process of program prioritization. My college’s dean also emphasized metrics and analytics in the college-wide meeting that week. […]

[Continue reading...]

Idaho is waiting. . .

Screen shot 2014-01-06 at 3.34.36 PM

The Boise Convention and Visitors’ Bureau recently commissioned a video about Boise: When I first saw it posted by a friend on Facebook, I commented, “This has not been my experience of Boise.”  The response was basically, “You should get out more.” Ah, I would. . . if only I could afford skiing, snowboarding, horseback […]

[Continue reading...]

Still too many guppies

During the holiday season last year, two things were proving particularly worrisome: pneumonia, which was also in my lungs, and guppies, of which there were far too many in the tank. Once again, I start the new year with too many guppies and crud in my lungs (but hey, not yet pneumonia). I need to […]

[Continue reading...]

On Calling, again

As I wrote earlier this year, I’m participating in Marci Glass’s STARward project, in which participants reflect on a word given to them by Marci (who not only writes a thoughtful blog, but also happens to be the pastor of a church a few blocks from where I live). I drew the word calling. It’s been […]

[Continue reading...]

Catching up


Long time, no post. I’ve been processing a lot of mostly unbloggable stuff about the boy. For now, I’ll share our little Halloween triumph: The boy wanted to be Calvin.  We painted stripes on a t-shirt and sprayed his hair yellow.  But of course he also needed a Hobbes, and you can’t just buy a Hobbes […]

[Continue reading...]