After a tough day's drive, we'll stop with William Least-Heat Moon (LHM) in Shelbyville to get a bite to eat and spend the night. We'll see a little of Kentucky in the process and reflect on the meaning of a job and work. Click on the thumbnail to your left to see where Shelbyville is, and the path we've taken.
"At Shelbyville I stopped for supper and the night. Just outside of town and surrounded by cattle and pastures was Claudia Sanders Dinner House....
"....A man, in a suit of sharp creases, and his wife, her jacket lying as straight as an accountant's left margin, suggested I join them....
"'What do you do?' the husband asked.
"I told my lie, turned it to a joke...
"He said, 'I notice that you use work and job interchangeably. Oughten to do that. A job's what you force yourself to pay attention to for money. With work, you don't have to force yourself....You know what my work is? You know what I pay attention to? Covering my tracks. Pretending, covering my tracks, and getting through another day....'
"'....There's no damn future whatsoever in what I do, and I don't mean built-in obsolescence. What I do begins and stops each day. There's no convergence between what I know and what I do. And even less with what I want to know.'"
Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 5
LHM spends a bit of time on Shelbyville, which encompasses the end of Part 1, Chapter 5 and goes through Chapter 6. He writes about spending time at the Claudia Sanders Dinner House, which still exists by the way, and is a restaurant started by the wife of Colonel Sanders of chicken fame. While there's only one Claudia Sanders diner, and you have to go to Shelbyville to partake of its menu, you can find Kentucky Fried Chicken everywhere. Claudia Sanders Dinner House and KFC is an interesting contrast between restaurants, one that is very local and specific to the community in which it is situated, and something that I've railed on before, the sameness one finds in cuisine around the the country because of the fast food chains. And they were born in the same household!
He also walks the streets of Shelbyville, and speaks to some men exposing a log cabin under siding. He muses on how they are uncovering the past in smells and the feel of the wood while they build and work, and how he envies them. In Chapter 7, he devotes most of the chapter to Smitty's Trading Post, a roadside stop farther down the highway. And being of a certain generation, one cannot forget that Shelbyville is Springfield's neighboring town and archrival in The Simpsons.
But I chose to focus on the exchange I highlight above, because it's something that has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Why, you might ask? Let me give you the story. If you've read my About Me page, you know that I am a PhD in Political Science. I got a bachelor's in English a long time ago, and moved to Milwaukee where after volunteer work, I lived without much direction and worked in non-profit organizations. It was service that was needed, but it didn't give me much financial security - no retirement and no major benefits most of the time.
After I got married, I moved to San Antonio, worked for another non-profit (at least I had health benefits) but again, no retirement. During this time I went back to school and got a Masters in International Relations. I enjoyed the subject a lot, and jumped when I was recruited by the University of New Orleans to go for a PhD. At UNO, I threw myself into my studies and spent a lot of time helping my fellow graduate students. I loved the academic atmosphere. Unfortunately, I didn't spend a lot of time trying to publish papers. Perhaps it wasn't pressed on me hard enough that publishing as a graduate student would help me immeasurably, or perhaps I didn't listen. I got my PhD, and went onto the job market just as the worst recession in decades hit. Universities cut their budgets, making less jobs for more PhDs, and without publications under my belt I was low man on the totem pole.
By this time, I was living in Albuquerque, and I was offered a one-year teaching position at Texas Tech, which I accepted. In academia, these types of jobs do not get one's "foot in the door." You can be the best teacher in the world, but publications are what matter most. I enjoy teaching, love it really, but I was separated by a five hour drive from my wife, and I was lonely. So I jumped at a job opportunity back in Albuquerque, even though it was in medicine and outside my field, and came back home.
I am now in a job that I am overqualified for. I am not using my PhD, except when I can get the occasional adjunct teaching gig. I have a job, which like the man LHM's passage says, I must pay attention to for the money. There are aspects about it I like, such as working with people, but it's not teaching about the dynamics between countries or the politics of development in third world countries. On the other hand, if I were to find my true "work," I would have to adhere to academic conventions. I would have to put more effort into research and publications, which would probably take away from the teaching that I love to do. In the Political Science publication world, only about 10% of submissions get published. Those publications are read by a small number of people. So, my entire academic employment future is decided by a small group of people who review manuscripts and grind axes if their books aren't cited in my articles, and then read by a small group of people and critiqued and chopped up and commented on and lambasted.
My wife once interviewed a marketing PhD who explained the absurdity of it all. He said that to get ahead, he has to write articles that if published, will be read by a small number of people in a very narrow discipline. Yet that's what advances his promotion. On the other hand, he could write a column or article for BusinessWeek that gets read by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dedicated readers, and that will do nothing for his professional career. That's crazy.
So, I languish right now. I go to my job, I make my money and I wonder if I even have the stamina, should I make it through the grueling academic job application process (I did 85 in 2008, got 5 interviews which last 2-3 days, and one offer by a small 2 year college in Wisconsin that wasn't worth my wife quitting her job for), if I will have the wherewithal to endure 5 more years of trying to get published so that I can get tenure. I'm not sure it's worth it. At least I have a job right now, unlike many others in our economy. So for the time being, I must live with "no convergence between what I know and what I do," and dream of the day that educating the paying students in America's colleges and universities is put back in its place as those institutions' primary mission. To paraphrase the man LHM quotes, perhaps when America outgrows academia, we'll begin to have something.
If you want to know more about Shelbyville
City of Shelbyville
Claudia Sanders Dinner House
Colonel Harland Sanders (founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken)
Sentinel News (newspaper)
The Simpsons: Shelbyville
Unusual Kentucky: Smitty's Trading Post
Up next: Frankfort, Kentucky