Blooming where you’re planted, flourishing in stony soil, plus Robert Frost



Tom Bredehoft has another post up at Chancery Hill Books about the ways in which not teaching at an R-1 fundamentally shaped his career as a scholar in fruitful ways.  In brief, he writes that building his career at a regional comprehensive university and then adjuncting for a few years at another university made him a more creative and more theoretically inclined scholar than he ever thought he would be as a medieval Old English literature expert:

Between the University of Northern Colorado and West Virginia University, I regularly offered classes in composition, in the English language, in British Literature surveys, and in both contemporary comics and science fiction and fantasy. Only occasionally, in comparison, did I teach courses in Medieval Literature, which was my nominal specialty as a scholar.

But all that teaching—and the reading and thinking it involved—in areas outside of my primary area of specialization, I am starting to think, is actually what helped me to start thinking more usefully about questions that span all of English letters. For me the study of Old English meter and the study of modern graphic narratives grew to be connected somehow. At one level, I ascribed both interests to my recognition that I was a formalist by inclination. At another level, though, it was the kind of question—just what does link Old English verse to comics?—that could only be answered by looking at the truly big picture. In a sense, I needed to become a theorist to understand the question itself, much less begin to answer it. I couldn’t rely on other theorists’ thinking, or build upon it: the questions I was trying to answer were my own.

As much as the breadth of my teaching helped me both to discover some of these questions and to begin to answer them, it is certainly true, too, that my work in selling books has affected the range of things I attend to in my scholarly work: I know much more about the bibliographic details and publication history of works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from having bought and sold and collected them than I do from having taught them, no matter how often. And both topics make an appearance in my 2014 academic book, The Visible Text.

Perhaps my experience cannot be generalized; I’d be among the first to acknowledge that the way I’ve gone about things in my career may not be for everyone. But it seems odd to me to realize that if I’d had a conventional faculty job at a true research-oriented university, there might have been a far greater match between my scholarly focus and the classes I taught. But the consequence of that greater degree of matching is that I might never have had the tools and experience of books and texts to write a book that considers literature and material textuality from the eighth century to the present. Certainly, as a research faculty member at a research university, I’d have been encouraged (actively or passively) to have a narrower, more defined focus, and the teaching part of my work would have involved fewer courses and fewer sections of them. Part of me thinks that it may well be the case that my work as a teaching faculty member and bookseller might have prepared me to address new theoretical questions better than any other aspect of my training and career.

His experience resonates with me, as I’ve been reflecting on the first twenty years of my career as I chop, hack, and weed my way out of ten months of neglect in my garden.  I’ve been thinking a great deal about what public historians call a sense of place, and the ways that geography and circumstance have shaped both my teaching and my writing, both online and in scholarly publications.

Many of you know me as a cowgirl on the interwebs, an identity I would probably not have chosen if it weren’t for the fact that I have lived in Colorado for fourteen years.  But beyond that, I wonder:  would I ever have been interested in writing a book about an English-born Wabanaki captive turned French-Canadian nun if I hadn’t taught at two Catholic universities along the way and worked with historians of Catholicism?  Would I have had the courage or the tools to write my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (forthcoming, Yale University Press, fall 2016) if I hadn’t landed in my current department?  After all, it’s my colleagues in public history (with its emphasis on material culture and the built environment)  and environmental history, who offered examples for how to use botany, medicine, and ways of thinking about the anthropocene to inform historical analysis.

Like Tom, I chose to bloom where I was planted, and to learn what I could from the colleagues and students I have, rather than worry about the ones I don’t have.  I keep thinking of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” about choosing the road less traveled, and “that has made all the difference.”  I think teaching at a regional comprehensive or at other institutions that require engagement with composition 101 and survey courses is clearly the road more often traveled by most humanists, and that teaching at selective private universities and R-1s is in fact the road less traveled, but the divergence of the roads, not their traffic, is more to the point.

As it turns out, the sandy, dry soils and sunny, clear days out here have proved pretty fruitful for me.  But what about you?  If you’re a scholar or a teacher, how has your specific day job (and/or specific sense of place) affected your scholarship or how you think about your work?

23 thoughts on “Blooming where you’re planted, flourishing in stony soil, plus Robert Frost

  1. Thanks for linking to Tom’s post, Historiann.

    This actually relates to something I talked about in the blogging roundtable at the OI conference last week. By being at a teaching-intensive institution, I’ve both gotten more drawn into and am able to develop more thoroughly as a blogger (or public writer, or whatever term you like), in no small measure because the demands for traditional forms of scholarship are somewhat looser. In that regard, I noticed, it’s actually easier to be public scholar at a smaller school than an R1, where colleagues (and deans…) often look down their noses at anything that’s not producing a book every three years.

    Being engaged publicly has then had all sorts of other residual effects (some positive, some negative) on my career that I’ve written about elsewhere and will spare your comment section of. But place has definitely been important for me, and not just geographically.


    • Sorry to have missed the Omohundro this year (as well as the NAISA in Washington earlier this month)–but I was moving back to Colorado last week & so it wasn’t practical at all.

      I think you’re right that it may be easier to be a publicly engaged scholar at regional comprehensives, but I think that’s mostly because of the range of students and courses we teach, and the fact that we’re the resident experts in our own field (or fields, since most of us wear many hats.) I don’t think it’s true in all cases that folks at R1s look down on public history or publicly engaged scholarship–in fact, they’re demanding it as much as our unis are.

      However, in the context of those larger departments, you’d be just one person among four or maybe five other people who also teach in your field, and those departments tend to be really hierarchical and territorial about who can do what, who’s allowed to submit an op-ed to the local paper, who gets called to comment on a current events issue, etc., as well as the usual top-down academic politics of who gets how much say over grad student admissions, curricular issues, etc. It’s needless to point it out to you, but this means that frequently the younger and more digitally experienced & aware & creative people are told to back off and tone it down for fear of disrupting this hierarchy.

      Whereas in departments like ours, we’re the sovereigns of our own castles. (They may be castles no one else wants to occupy, but whatever! It’s home for us.)


  2. This is a great post, as is Tom’s. I don’t know that I’m a *better* scholar than I would have been had I landed at an R1 job–it’s impossible to know what those conditions would have been like, or what specific teaching or colleagial resources I would have had at some imaginary other job–but I’m certain that I’m no worse, and like the two of you I see concrete connections between the teaching I’ve been able/expected to do and the research I’ve done.

    I consider myself primarily a Miltonist, and I’ve been lucky to be able to teach either an advanced undergrad or M.A. Milton class roughly every other year–probably as often as I would have been able to teach it at an R1. But I’ve been expected to teach Shakespeare every semester, which I definitely would not have been allowed to do, in a department with four or five early modernists. I now have one forthcoming article on Shakespeare and another in process.

    My research has also started stretching back to the Middle Ages–the literature of which I know mostly from teaching surveys or from self-designed topical classes–and I’m doing work even further afield in biblical literature and early church history, because my closest colleague is a New Testament and Classics scholar and we’ve often collaborated or swapped classes. Being in a smaller department, and having the freedom to teach things outside my subfield, has definitely made me less inhibited about researching them: sure, it means working up a large body of new knowledge, but it doesn’t feel inapproachable, or off-limits, or like stepping on anyone’s toes.


    • Yes, exactly: not allowed to teach something! It seems like such an outrage, but that’s the way they roll in those big departments. I remember those lines even being drawn around me as a grad student when I (officially an “Americanist”) wanted to TA for Lynn Hunt, because Lynn Hunt!!! but also, I figured that some experience teaching Western Civ might come in handy in terms of my future career. (I attended a college in which *everyone* taught Western Civ). Some of the Europeanist grad students resented my interest in TAing for Western Civ, because Lynn Hunt!!! but also, they decided that I didn’t *need* to teach Western Civ because I was an “Americanist”.

      Isn’t that stupid? I like to think that that kind of boundary-patrolling has gone way out of fashion because of the transnational turn in history, but who knows? My perspective has probably been unalterably changed by my career on the open range out here, where never is heard a discouraging word. (Or at least, if I’ve heard a discouraging word, it’s been only rarely.)


      • Here’s my favorite boundary-patrolling story, from my Ivy Grad School: I was a TA on the first offering of an introductory world religions course, a class that was extremely controversial to get through as faculty believed that you should not teach anything about any religion for which you did not have the requisite languages. The fact that the professor would be talking about Hinduism for three weeks without knowing Sanskrit was a huge deal.

        At my regional comprehensive, people teach either “Eastern” or “Western” depending on their general area, but it’s a given that if you do Christianity, you’ll cover Judaism and Islam, and the same kind of thing on the Eastern side. And most of the upper-levels have to cover multiple traditions. This hasn’t affected my research, exactly, but it does make me think differently about the distinctiveness of Christianity, and I think that filters in to everything I do.


  3. Oh, and teaching lower-level classes focused on skills and methods (how to analyze poetry; how to write a coherent argument), and teaching a graduate student population that also benefits from giving careful & explicit attention to things like how scholarly articles work, has also helped me think more clearly about my own writing. Turns out that being able to break down and demystify our methods to others helps us to understand our own processes, too!


  4. Blooming where you’re planted is an interesting metaphor. I literally landed on rocky ground (at least the acidic residue of the nickel refining process makes for good blueberry growing) so maybe that explains why some years were so difficult but maybe, as well, how I’ve been so resilient.

    Working as the only premodernist in a program was scary but also refreshing. A friend working in a much larger department told me about how carefully scribed her teaching options were by other colleagues who jealously guarded “their” courses and subjects. I can (and have) taught almost anything. 5500 years of history and a bit more across many different topics. This has sparked research interests and publications far afield from my early Tudor political history dissertation, so yay?

    I also think that working at a regional comprehensive and combining that with some online community connections profoundly reshaped my career. I focused on online sources and made online connections. I got creative with how I thought about history and what types of source analysis I could employ while I worked with the place-bound consequences of a special needs child. I valued making connections with my communities, near and far, with my writing and teaching. I even dabbled a bit in Canadian history: ask me about Victorian Canadians and the Vinland craze!

    So while the winters drive me to despair, while the distances to relatives and archives are daunting, while my partner’s lack of possibilities here remains maddening, and while I continue to curse my subpar French-language skills, I know how fortunate I am to be on faculty here.

    If you have supportive colleagues and/or a good community connection, if you get encouragement and excitement regarding your prospects, if you have all of that, you may well find that even the rocky ground on which you’ve found yourself can be a place where you can bloom.


    • Thanks for this, Janice. You’re one of the people I had in mind when I wrote this post–your career reminds me of Tom’s, given your mutual interest in sci-fi/fantasy literature as well as the distant past! I think we can make connections if we’re offered the opportunity and have the inclination to wander around in a 5,500 (or merely a 1,000) year timespan.


  5. Glad that you’ve made it back on your patch, Historiann! I’ve heard you use the phrase, about blooming where you’re planted, multiple times over the years, and thought about it in that context a lot more times than that, without ever thinking specifically about scholarly choices and outcomes. None of my projects has ever had any resemblance to any of the others, that I can see, at least, but I’m not sure whether that reflects internal idiosyncratism or institutional contexts. Probably the former, I’d say, now that I think about it. As to teaching, I never took a single course at any level from pre-school to grad school that bore any categorical resemblance to any of the courses I’ve subsequently taught, not a one. How I bootlegged that kind of a profile past even a single search committee is probably one of those wonders of academical nature. I don’t think I would have bloomed where I was planted, in any serious way, save for a willingness to be locationally nomadic on a continued basis, within the context of a long-term stably-tenured situation, with attendant costs and benefits. But you do what you think you have to do. Good post–this subject will be a matter of ongoing meditation, as it always has been, albeit perhaps in somewhat different terms now!


    • Hey Indyanna–I still can’t get email to you. It says that the operation timed out before your account would accept delivery. We got your nice card from Britain, though–that arrived this afternoon, so thank you!


  6. Yes, I think there is a lot to be said for place and how it affected my work. I’ve been at my institution for eleven years now. Its a regional comprehensive that specializes in turning out nurses, teachers, and a slew of liberal arts and science majors. The emphasis is on teaching and some scholarship. I’ve struggled with the scholarship part; not enough time for conferences or resources to go to the archives of the Peoples Republic of Megalomania. I spend most of my time trying to research like I was at an R1 and that has resulted in a bunch of dead ends. I will admit that my mistakes were mostly self-inflicted. A different approach, one that rejected most of the lessons I learned in grad school and was more flexible on what counted in my own mind as scholarship would have yielded a better crop. I have changed my ways, lets see if it produces better results.

    The one place I have bloomed is in teaching. I have taught three surveys and an upper division every semester. Most of the things I have taught have been well outside my narrow area of expertise. Boy, those comparative fields in my MA and PhD exams have come in handy! Plus a voracious reading habit and generous colleagues have made it possible for me to develop expertise in teaching a lot of areas. Western Civ, East Asia, Eurasia, Middle East, Antarctica, I’ve taught almost all of the globe, except the Americas. We are going to develop a contemporary world history class, so I bet I will get to teach some case studies from US and Latin American history at some point.

    All these experiences have encouraged me to write a textbook on my regional expertise of Central Europe in a global context. I don’t think I could have seen the comparative approach without teaching these different classes and a ton of survey level classes. My goal in writing now is to figure out how to explain things to my students rather than trying to impress the specialists in my field. I feel more comfortable with that kind of writing and it shows in the number of pages I can write in a day and the way the project is taking shape.

    I think I am a late bloomer. In ten years we’ll see how it all worked out.


  7. I think I am a much more interesting historian because I’ve had such a non-traditional career. I started at a SLAC with a pretty predictable teaching profile, though it was a broad European focus, and probably a bit longer than most would have. But I then spent 18 years teaching in an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program, where I functioned more as an intellectual editor and guide than a subject expert; I think I worked with two people in that time who were interested somewhat I what I did. But that gave me great freedom as a scholar, and allowed me to take a non-traditional turn. . .


    • I’m trying to cultivate the “every crisis is an opportunity” attitude. It’s like the improv rule that you can’t ever say “no,” you must always say “YES, and. . . ” You’re really good at the YES, and. . . part of life, Susan!

      I want to move this way because 1) it’s better for overall happiness to say YES instead of “no,” and also I find that History departments seem always to be the department of “no” and the HQ of “we’ve always done it THIS way” thinking. So boring & shortsighted!


  8. I’m an earth scientist teaching at a community college, and since there is no research requirement here my answer may be slanted differently than the intent of your question, but compared to what I thought I would be doing (running a big, happy lab full of grad students at an R1), my specific day job has waaay more 101 again and again than I ever thought I would teach. I have kept it fresh in part by basically teaching myself a lot of sub-topics that I had no interest in before (landslides, soil development, glacial processes, forestry), which are highly relevant to our school’s geography, and by finding local and regional examples of most other topics. I’ve also found that I’m more able to read broadly in the primary literature than I would have as a researcher. My next question is a combination of “Can I develop other 100-level courses that give me some new things to think about and still draw students?” and “Can I get myself and/or some of my students involved in some kind of research about the stuff I was actual really good at before teaching became my primary focus?”


    • Hi Geogeek–thanks for commenting. It sounds like your trajectory is very similar to Matt L’s, described above. He’s taking his expertise in teaching broad surveys into textbook writing–something that can actually make you some $$$ from your broader secondary reading and innovative teaching, with the added bonus of writing the textbook most useful for your students and teaching goals.


  9. I left a department that was my disciplinary native ground in which I taught the stuff I know best, albeit broadly, and moved to a department in an allied discipline where I teach fundamentals, plus a really eclectic combination of high end specialty modules in other people’s classes. It’s been harder than I thought it would be and I miss teaching the things that made me special but I am learning how to be a good teacher in a substantially different environment and I value that.

    Folks in this new department are excellent and I feel like I’m part of the (extended) family but I still don’t feel like these people are my people, if that makes sense. I’m working on it, and I think following along with what others have written, I’m doing so by picking up what used to be a side interest and turning it into something more. It turns out that a colleague here does related work, which means I have a chance to follow an interest that was out of reach before.


  10. Being the only person in my field at a SLAC, and so having to teach the entire 1000-year range of Russian history plus other areas, has been crucial to my intellectual development. My best article to date (on a slice of Soviet history) could not have been written if I had not become familiar with a bunch of sources from much earlier eras — I would not have been able to draw the connections. I think the biggest benefit of having to teach broadly is that it enables me to see my own research area in a much richer context than I would have if I confined my reading to just my niche. My graduate professors are eminent in the field and excellent scholars, but the fact is I know the big historical picture much better than they do, and I think it makes me a better historian.


  11. I like this phrase! In terms of teaching, I’m the only women’s historian, so I’ve always been able to teach what I want. I think that has helped me keep current in my field (even though with a 4-4 load, most of my courses are surveys). For scholarship, sense of place played a part in choosing my second book project, the biography of an “ordinary” woman from the state I teach in.


    • And that was a smart move, too, Theresa–to write a second book with a local connection and presumably nearby archival and library resources. It’s something I failed to to, big-time, with my second book. PRO TIP: Don’t try to write about a subject on a faraway place from where you live and work UNLESS there are archives in faraway place that dole out research grants to help facilitate your travel, or UNLESS your institution can support your research generously.

      My uni has supported some of my travel, but I always have to partially self-fund my trips. And while Quebec has been a congenial place to do my research, the archives I’ve worked in don’t offer travel grants or fellowships.


  12. In the poem, it’s the choosing that makes the difference, not the road.

    One thing I love about teaching at a community college is that my students take literature, and its connection to life, absolutely seriously.


  13. And in the poem, the speaker can’t conceive of off-roading, or walking outside the paths already well-trodden by other feet. While that’s laudable in a delicate ecosystem, it’s not really a big challenge to the status quo.


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