Pathways to Academe

“Your husband doesn’t seem like an English professor”: Choices, context, and work on the outside

Ed Nagelhout

In order to reflect effectively on my professional scholarly career, I wanted to craft an apt metaphor. My first attempt was the hackneyed image of a gravel road that stretches on indefinitely through the countryside. This gravel road might represent the acceptable path to a scholarly identity. My stories could then show that this is not the only path, for there are other paths, along the berm or through the brambles in the ditch at the side of the road. But I grew up on a cul-de-sac in a blue collar neighborhood in Southern California, where the fathers went to work on assembly lines, in service bays, or on construction sites. My father was a Teamster, working at a Firestone tire and retread plant in Paramount. There was only one way in and one way out of our cul-de-sac. There were no berms, no ditches by the side of the road, no scholarly pursuits. Only concrete and asphalt.

As a child, my grandmother once told me that there were no wrong choices; instead, she stated, “There is the right choice or there is the hard choice.” I asked her if the right choice, then, was the easy choice. She was adamant that the right choice wasn’t necessarily easy, rather it was expected and acceptable: the choice that insiders get to make. The hard choice, she insisted, is the one that we have to make based on our hopes and dreams, but that falls outside our realm of normal understanding. Grandma was rarely concrete.

At this point, my formal training requires I insert a preview paragraph here, one that states my thesis, summarizes the key points, and establishes signposts for the rest of the essay. And, now, after more than thirty years of writing professional academic papers, that would be the right choice. But this paper resides in a different academic context, and demands something different, maybe less concrete to tell my simple set of stories about choices that I have made along the way to a scholarly identity. Some were the right choice. Some were the hard choice. Some seemed like no choice at all. But each of these choices reveals a small piece of my whole experience as a professional in academia. Each of these choices provides a glimpse of my work from an outside. Each, hopefully, shows a moment when I tried to put insider expectations into a context that I could understand.

I need to go back to school

I earned my PhD from Purdue University in 1996, specializing in Rhetoric and Composition, a discipline I didn’t even know existed when I started graduate school in 1989. Before that, I was a Sears Service Technician: punching a clock, driving a white van around Southern California, and fixing a range of appliances, from washing machines to refrigerators. I was a different kind of professional.

I was fully vested (at 27), accumulating Sears stock options, saving for retirement, meeting the expectations of my blue-collar upbringing. But I knew I could not keep driving a white van around Southern California for 40 more years until I retired. The day I decided to make a change, I walked into our mobile home in Ontario after work, on another cul-de-sac, dressed in my brown uniform. My wife, Sondra, pregnant with our third child, was already home from her job as a bookkeeper at a local Toyota dealership and preparing dinner. “I have to go back to school.” She turned, putting her hands on her belly, and smiled: “OK.”

My mother may have been skeptical about our union, but Sondra was not a hard choice. With her is the only true inside I have ever known.

When I visited the guidance counselor at Cal-State Fullerton in December of 1986, I had more than 100 transferable credits, but as a former scholarship athlete from 1978-1982, these credits were all over the map. My first four years in college were about eligibility, not study plan. I had no declared major, and only chose courses that I knew I could pass so that I could focus on what was important. Baseball. Getting in the cages every day and hitting until my blisters bled. Again. Again. Cliche, but true. I wanted to be a different kind of professional. Surprisingly, the guidance counselor, having evaluated my academic record to date, declared my best choice, and quickest path to graduation, was as an English major. My teammates always called me a weirdo for bringing books to practice.

I walked into her classroom on the first day

Upon graduation, I was accepted into the literature graduate program at Purdue University. My wife and I packed up the three boys and all of our belongings into a mid-sized Penske moving truck and our white Toyota van, and relocated from Southern California to West Lafayette, Indiana. My Teamster father was disappointed since, according to him, I was letting my family down by quitting a good job with good benefits to chase insecurity. My choices were completely outside his realm of understanding.

When we arrived in West Lafayette, one of the first people I met was Bob Johnson, a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. He described the program in some detail. I was fascinated, and wanted to learn more. So the next day I made an appointment with Dr. Janice Lauer, the head of the program, and asked to enroll in her course, Contemporary Composition Theory. Her reply: “Well, if you would have applied to our program, you would not have been accepted, but since you’re already here, and since Bud [Dr. Irwin Weiser] is your first-year composition mentor, you can enroll in my course, and we’ll see how you do.”

I walked into her classroom on the first day, and Dr. Lauer had written on the board:

An Sit
Quid Sit
Quale Sit

I was hooked. This, simply, showed me what I was about, in a context I could understand.

While I was hooked, I soon discovered that the work, the ideas, did not come naturally, and I struggled to catch up, struggled to make up for too many days in the batting cage, too many days in a cul-de-sac with only one way in and one way out.

But I was hooked. Plodding along seemed like no choice at all. And learning became something different, a daily discovery rather than simply a means to an end. I made progress, sometimes passing, sometimes barely passing. When I met with my cohort to study, I felt like the little brother tagging along, always asking questions and never quite understanding the jokes. But they were patient, and took me by the hand when I needed it, and I will love them forever. The kindness of community should never be a hard choice.

I moved through the program until the time came to begin casting about for a dissertation topic. This seemed like no choice at all, for the guiding question to my entire graduate career (besides, “What the hell am I doing?”) seemed to be, “How does a person learn to write like a scholar, like a disciplinary insider?”

And I soon discovered researchers who described the ways that insiders became insiders and the ways that insiders perform like insiders. I began reading about activity theory and legitimate peripheral participation, and I tried desperately to put these insider theories and practices for learning into a context that I could understand. I grappled with the concept of master/apprentice structures in the liberal arts and the asymmetrical relationships inherent in intentional instruction. I tried to picture what learning might look like when it occurs during the immersion of an apprentice in the context of day-to-day work. I read about air traffic controllers, what they saw when they looked at a screen or out a tower window, and the right choices that they made. Yet, even at this point in my graduate education, understanding insider thinking still arose from the outside: my first attempt at articulating for myself the production, consumption, exchange, and distribution described by activity theory was a model using batting practice as a framework. It seemed for me there remained only one way in and one way out.

I play softball with them

While trying to get a handle on my own legitimate peripheral participation, I was also playing tournament softball. One weekend in the late spring, a local team picked up a few ringers (like me) for a major tournament in Kokomo. On the first day of the tournament, I packed lunches, toys, and softball equipment, loaded the boys into our white Toyota van, and took off down the road through the countryside (giving Sondra a well-deserved day of rest, relaxation, and QUIET). In between games, I struck up a conversation with a teammate who happened to be a PhD candidate in Biology (yes, we were the only two graduate students on the team, probably in the whole tournament). When he found out my area of study, he went into an extended rant about his major professor’s inability to write and therefore to help him effectively with his dissertation. I was fascinated, and wanted to learn more. So, of course, he invited me to play on the Biology summer softball team, the Celluloid Heroes. Apparently, some faculty members in the department were hyper-competitive in the Purdue Summer Softball League and were always looking to try out new players.

I enjoyed meeting the Biology professors on the team in a context, technically, outside of academia, and my ability to hit a softball 400 feet allowed me to easily fit in as an insider. My curiosity and enthusiasm for studying writing, and my endless string of questions after games over the course of that summer about their own writing practices, however, gave those professors the confidence to recommend a variety of labs in their department to contact about my work. And, so, with advice from Bud, who remained my mentor, I took my research show on the road, for the first time, outside the English department. I met with the Chair of Biology and their Director of Graduate Studies. I pitched my research plan to 11 different professors (none of whom had an interest in softball), formally presented my research design to 8 labs, and got the go-ahead from 6 of them.

I eventually chose one lab for a pilot study and two others for the full study. They accepted my work as their work inside their labs. And, in turn, I learned more about drosophila, the Ross River virus, the Sindbis virus, the scientific method, and IMRAD than I ever thought possible. This was a whole learning experience for me, and helped springboard my thinking on program development, on the whole learning experience of undergraduate students, and the ideas that should push us to see beyond the single course, beyond courses in a program or major that are too often disparate and delivered in isolation as insider information.

I completed my dissertation and defense ahead of schedule. Some still tell stories about those weeks before graduation of me wandering through Heavilon Hall or hanging out in the Writing Lab, baseball hat on my head and coffee cup in hand, looking content but just a little bit lost. Maybe there was more than one way out. As a newly-minted PhD from one of the best rhetoric and composition graduate programs in the country, I was prepared as an insider for my future work. They explained the right choices, but I could only nod my head from the outside, struggling to put those insider instructions into a context that I could understand. I no longer lived on a cul-de-sac, surrounded by concrete and asphalt, but the choices seemed just as hard, just as far outside the realm of my understanding.

“You won’t get tenure without it”

I have always worked in English departments, where the scholarship of writing studies has traditionally been deemed irrelevant by my literature colleagues. Likewise, their choices were completely outside the realm of my understanding. I grew up a library kid, riding my bike to the Stanton library 2-3 times a week. Since I didn’t have to buy the books, I could put a book down or quit reading if it was no longer interesting. School tried its best to break me of this un-scholarly habit: to press on through the boredom, to overcome my ignorance, to appreciate truth and beauty to the very end, to understand what was important. I have never finished a book by Jane Austen, but I have read each book by Rainbow Rowell more than once from cover to cover.

Since the time of my dissertation study, my work and research has remained collaborative and interdisciplinary. Very un-scholarly in English. On my campus visit to UNLV, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and the Chair of the English Department both emphasized that tenure and promotion meant a single-authored scholarly monograph. “You won’t get tenure without it.” I could only nod my head from the outside, struggling to put those insider requirements into a context that I could understand.

I work to promote writing in all of its applications and iterations. My scholarship seems far-reaching and expansive, to me, but my daily work too often feels like just so much shouting about the same things from too many outsides; and so my most satisfying research has grown out of some local context, or blossomed from some chance encounter, driven by a desire to understand how writing operates in some specific academic or professional rhetorical situation, and I tell my stories in the disciplinary spaces that are important to my work, even if those spaces are deemed less legitimate choices in my department. I can only make choices in a context that I understand, no matter the context of my immediate surroundings.

I write every single day, but I have yet to write a single word towards a single-authored book. Very un-scholarly in English. Instead, I take my show on the road, outside the department. To date, I have published work with 34 different scholars from 12 different disciplines. I have presented more than 100 papers at a wide range of disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary venues. When I applied for promotion to full professor, a literature colleague came up to me after the department vote and said, “You have so much stuff. I voted for you, but I still don’t understand what it is you do.” My choices are completely outside their realm of understanding.

He broke his wrist trying to dunk a basketball

Inside and outside are too often talismanic when we are growing up because simple binaries can define our world more concretely. As a teenager, it too often feels like the only choice. As I grew older, understanding how I fit in became tempered by reflecting on why I wanted in. This felt like a better choice. In graduate school, getting in often felt like a survival mechanism. Sometimes, that can be painful.

When my youngest son was eight years old, he wanted to be a professional basketball player. He played every day. He watched games on TV. He was tall for his age, so he was going to be a center like Shaquille O’Neal. And he was going to dunk. Just like Shaq. Of course, when you are eight years old, and not over seven feet tall, you have to adapt. He broke his wrist trying to dunk a basketball by jumping off a picnic table. Eventually, we all run into our limitations. Sometimes, that can be painful.

At this stage in my career, looking forward to retirement, I find that I have been the happiest and the most productive in spaces where my limitations are accepted, even encouraged, where inside is engaged and engaging, and the expectations are a part of the experience, rather than a prescription. Sometimes the inside is fleeting, a mere glimpse from the outside. Maybe that can be painful, but if we are kind and do our best to share the inside with the outside, to blur those arbitrary lines, no matter how fleeting, our work, and our world, can be the better for it.

I grew up in a cul-de-sac, surrounded by concrete and asphalt. There were no lessons, no brilliant insights, no scholarly pursuits. Ultimately, the inside is what we make it, the sum total of all of our choices, the place where we feel at home. This is not news because at the end of the day, we all go home to a life. This should be no choice at all.

With Sondra is the only true inside I have ever known.

“Your husband doesn’t seem like an English professor”

I was the first person in my extended family to get a Bachelor’s degree. That was something to be proud of. Getting a PhD just made me suspect in their eyes. My wife’s extended family, mostly living in rural Wisconsin, were uncertain how to react when they heard Sondra was married to an English professor. When they met me, they really weren’t much interested in hearing about what I did. They only told her, “Your husband doesn’t seem like an English professor.” My colleagues in the English department tell her the same thing.

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Voices of Practice by Ed Nagelhout is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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