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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Letters from Exile

Ovid Beginning your career as a new prawf can be a difficult endeavor.   To fulfill our academic dreams, many of us have moved all over the country, left behind family and friends,  uprooted spouses and children, and said goodbye to beloved haunts and byways.   A full calendar year after doing all of the above, I still wake up some mornings and think:  "Do I really live in Oregon? Huh."

Of course, this is not exactly a new problem, nor is it confined to the academy.  Wiser heads than mine have tackled these issues and come up with some excellent guidance on how to live life when--not to put to fine a point on it--you initially feel like you've been transplanted to Mars.  Today, I offer two of these sages:  Ovid and Miss Mentor.

Age before beauty--so let's start with Ovid.  As I'm sure all of you remember from your ancient history class, Ovid was a Roman poet exiled by Augustus for his scandalous love poems.  Unceremoniously ejected from Rome, Ovid was permanently banned from ever returning, and forced to live in the "barbarous lands" of Tomi, well outside the pale of Roman civilization. 

His response to all this upheaval?  Writing some of the finest poetry ever written about the changes in his life (in my humble opinion):  Tristia, or Letters from Exile.  Here's a sample:

[N]ow the journey’s done, the toil is over

and I’ve reached the country of my punishment,

only grieving pleases,

there’s no less rain from my eyes,

than water from the melting snow in springtime

Rome's in my thoughts, and home, and longed-for places

whatever of mine remains in the city I’ve lost (Tristia, Book 2).

Powerful stuff.  The irony is, of course, is two-fold;  (1) Tomi was not nearly as bad as Ovid made out, especially after he acclimated to it;  and (2) his fame only increased after his exile spurred him to write these poems.   So clearly there's a lesson there for all of us.

Sage #2 is Miss Mentor, whose advice column can be found in the webpages of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Miss Mentor, also known as Emily Toth, dispenses advice on all sort of academic affairs, and I highly recommend perusing her old columns, which include such perennial topcis as mean search committees, tenure-track anxiety, dysfunctional departmentswhat to wear, and--oh dear--getting in trouble for blogging.  Naturally, she's written a fine column discussing academic relocation as well.  Here are some excerpts:

Ms. Mentor has long been intrigued by the yearning and moaning of certain academic personages. Like latter-day Romantic poets, they look before and after, and pine for what is not. Or they imagine themselves as brilliant flowers, wasting their sweetness on the desert air.

But Ms. Mentor reminds her readers that the Romantic poets had a habit of dying young -- which made them poor candidates for tenure. New academics would do better to follow Lenny Bruce's blunt advice: "Time to grow up and sell out."

More gently, Ms. Mentor exhorts fledgling faculty members to ponder which is more important: the place or the profession? Rare is the soul who can get both. Will you move to wherever a tenure-track job surfaces, or would you rather be a clerk in Seattle than a professor in Saskatoon?

The rest of this wise and very funny advice can be found here

Hopefully none of you will need any of this guidance--but if you do, remember:  there are far worse things than being the next Ovid....

Posted by Laura I Appleman on June 24, 2007 at 03:30 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I am absolutely delighted by the mention of Ovid on these pages.
Let's hope the Ars Amatoria can join the Tristia soon!

Posted by: Frank | Jun 26, 2007 10:46:23 PM

It is a weird profession in at least initially, but often later as well, one has relatively little control over the geographic location of one's job. On the other hand, law professors, have a leg up over profs who teach undergrads. Law schools are almost always attached to universities, and are almost always in cities of at least some moderate size.

Folks who teach English, History, Philosphy, Econ, etc. often wind up in colleges in college towns that are REALLY small and REALLY in the middle of nowhere.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jun 25, 2007 11:08:39 AM

When I started the AALS process in Fall 2003, I told my wife something along the lines of, "At the very worst, we won't end up in Kansas." Sure enough, at the end of the process we ended up taking a tenure-track job at Washburn Law, which is in Topeka, Kansas. We made the best of the geographic situation. We found a nice college town nearby (Lawrence), and we've enjoyed our stay in Kansas (having our first baby, and a nice house with a nice yard dramatically helped). The object lesson for me is that you have to make the best of the situation once you commit to an academic career. Family (spousal) support is most important. It is the rare superstar who can dictate location in the initial job search process. For the rest of us, the job takes us to whichever school gives the offer (and we are all lucky to have received an offer in this highly competitive field). Another point to consider is that a candidate should consider the possibility of being in a location for several years at least, or even through tenure. The lateral hiring market for untenured profs is active, but in order to be competitive in this market you have to be a very active scholar. Thus, "writing your way out" is a definite option, but my advice is that a new prof really has to hit the ground running. Translating this into tangible goals, I would say that a new prof should publish a substantial first article in the first year, followed by a minimum of one subtantial article per year thereafter. It's vital to get the scholarship going as soon as possible, even while you struggle with class preparation, committee work, and finding your comfort zone in a brand new career.

Posted by: Robert Rhee | Jun 24, 2007 11:07:49 PM

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