“I was lucky. There were multiple joints in this path where things could well have gone sideways. Indeed, sideways was my more natural trajectory and temperament. But my luck, I hasten to say, was not just dumb luck. Instead, much of my luck was given to me by others.”
Luck and Precursive Belief
by Amy Olberding
For a host of reasons, I’ve been giving much thought lately to succeeding in academia, about how it happens and about how the pathways to success in place operate. My thinking about all of this has been inspired in part by the work of others (most especially by this beautiful reflection by Alan White), in part by my working in an unranked PhD-granting program where we seek to place students who will be competing in a job market in which pedigree exercises an outsized role, and in part by having a child soon to embark on college applications.
In my own career, I know I made out better than anything in my trajectory would have predicted. Let me just lay bare all the ways I shouldn’t be where I am.
My early schooling was not strong, to understate the matter considerably. I dropped out of high school following my junior year. My mother, panicked about what this boded for my future, discovered a provision in Louisiana law that would give me a probationary year at any public Louisiana college where I could be admitted. To fulfill my probationary terms, I would need a B average for my first year at college and a 26 on the ACT. So off to Louisiana Tech University I went. By the end of the year, I had a B average and I took the ACT, scoring a 26, just barely clearing the bar. And having done this, I then promptly dropped out of college. I was intellectually enlivened by having beautiful, brilliant friends, but in that time and place, most of the beautiful, brilliant people were also, not to put too fine a point on it, disaffected academic fuck ups. I had also serendipitously discovered the word “autodidact” and decided to be one.
After a year or so of working and scraping by, my mother again stepped in to suggest I try a different college. She persuaded me to apply to Hendrix College, a small liberal arts college in Arkansas. This I did and they (rather astoundingly) admitted me. I immediately took to it—it was a place where feeling intellectually enlivened and going to class actually intersected.
After receiving a BA, I worked as a maid, as a substitute teacher, and in a public library. I dabbled in graduate courses along the way and eventually applied to University of Hawai’i. I was admitted, but without funding. I went anyway since trying my chances there seemed as good a bet as any—there are houses to clean everywhere and being enrolled in graduate school would, not insignificantly, keep my student loans at bay.
At Hawai’i, I again found an enlivening intellectual environment and thrived. Even so, I left Hawai’i as soon as I was ABD. I had met my spouse in the Hawai’i program but he left the program precisely because we had married: We knew enough to understand that people who want to pursue careers together cannot both be in Chinese philosophy. So he redirected into another field and was admitted to University of Chicago in Sinology, and I moved there with him. While in Chicago, I got a job, first adjuncting and then full-time, at a community college. I wrote my dissertation while teaching 10 courses a year. At long last, as my husband neared being ABD, we thought I should go on the job market in the more usual manner, casting a wide net. This was when it felt like my initiation into something like the current profession really began.
I never did know all that much about the mechanics and strategies of applying for things. After all, when I applied to colleges, I applied to one at a time; when I applied to graduate school, I applied to one at a time. Moreover, because of its isolation, both geographically and in philosophical focus, at Hawai’i, I never realized how hard it is to get employed in philosophy and how pedigree, rank, traditional canon, and analytical methodology circumscribed the chances for people like me. (This was before the internet told us all sorts of things we’d rather not know.) It was only in being around the U of C culture that I really began to understand the challenges and difficulties of being on the job market in philosophy.
Aware I needed help navigating the market, I smuggled myself into a career services session given for U of C graduate students entering the academic job market. (It’s not like they check student IDs for those things.) The guys sitting in front of me were smugly discussing all the places they would never condescend to work. Louisiana was one. I didn’t much like those guys, but that session did teach me how to present myself for the market and I was hired at University of Oklahoma, making what now seems like a leap—from teaching at a community college to an R-1 in one go. And now, here I am, some many years hence, working at OU.
I raise all of this personal history as a way to illuminate something made more eloquently plain in Alan White’s essay: I was lucky. There were multiple joints in this path where things could well have gone sideways. Indeed, sideways was my more natural trajectory and temperament. But my luck, I hasten to say, was not just dumb luck. Instead, much of my luck was given to me by others, people who were more generous with me than my “on paper” specs would have recommended. And it is this that sticks with me most about my own trajectory. I stumbled upon people who believed: my professors at Hendrix and Hawai’i, my colleagues at OU. At every crucial joint, I found people who believed I could do things and their belief set me into circumstances where I could indeed do things—finish college, get a PhD, get a job, do research at an R-1 level. I could very easily have not done any of these things. Not doing these things was, again, my more probable course. And I suppose this is what most troubles me now that I have gotten to know far more about higher education and academic philosophy in particular.
I got my PhD in 2001, my job at OU in 2004. I expect that a trajectory like mine, however improbable it was back then, is dramatically more improbable now. Many of the graduate students I am involved in training are so much smarter, so much better prepared, and so much more together than I ever was, but they do not, in general, enjoy anything like the luck I had. I was never really faced with any gatekeepers. At first, I didn’t even know there were gates: I mostly just happened upon windows and tunnels under the wall. Sometimes this was because someone beckoned me to them—e.g., at Hendrix and then at Hawai’i—and later I did some of my own tunneling—e.g., sneaking my way into using U of C resources on more than that one occasion. My despair with the present profession is that getting through gatekeepers in the more orthodox way, straightforwardly meeting them and convincing them to open up, seems far more essential. There just aren’t that many windows or earth soft enough to tunnel through. And the gatekeepers are ill-disposed to believe, to take chances on the “sideways” types, those who are approaching the gates from odd directions.
On my worst days, I worry that the profession has become so abducted by gate-keeping that (not to sound ancient) the scrappy sideways kids these days have little chance. It can seem that the profession is just all Matthew Effect, all the way down. To get a job, one needs to attend a “top” graduate program; to attend a “top” graduate program, one often needs to attend a “top” BA-granting institution or at least get “top” advising; to attend a “top” BA-granting institution or get “top” advising, one needs to have already enjoyed a great deal of good fortune early on. One best not be a high school dropout or, at any rate, have found your BA institution by your own wits in a high school with little good college counseling. Likewise, if one is to get a job, one may also need to publish in “top” venues, which, given most “top” journals’ practices, will mean one needs to study a “top” area that such journals are far more likely to publish. And one will need to court the attentions of “top” scholars who can write “top-notch” recommendations, and attend “top” conferences where you might stand a chance of meeting all those “top” folks. Each of these “tops” represent different gates to enter, different gate-keepers to convince, and different challenges. It’s just all “tops,” all the way down.
The profession talks sometimes as if it wants to render some of these processes more egalitarian. The PGR ranking system, e.g., purports to publicize just what counts as “top” so that otherwise uninformed students know where to aim when they aim for the “top.” But of course there is a recursive loop here, as one must first identify the most “top” sorts so that they can rank for us all exactly what counts, in their “top” judgment, as “top.” I suppose this does represent a prudential value of sorts—if you want a job in philosophy, this is the way the profession is set up and best get to know that early so you can know what the gates look like. And to know that there are indeed gates.
But I at least regret that the profession is so preoccupied by what is “top.” Let me draw this back to those two guys in the career session at U of C I smuggled myself in to. At the time, I heard them snidely dismissing all the places they would never work and thought they seemed like hot-house orchids, like people who had bloomed into these fantastically impressive flowers but did so in conditions meticulously designed to nourish them. In contrast, I thought of myself as kin to a lesser, less fantastical wildflower springing up out of some manure pile on the roadside. I had a bit of color in me by then, a bit of bloom brought on by good mentors, but except where I could smuggle myself in, had never been in the hothouse, never lived with the sense of high expectations and assumed success. We were like utterly different sorts of plants, yet trying for the same role in the world, seeking to be selected for the bouquet of academic life. Whether for admissions committees or for hiring committees, we inhabit a world in which wildflowers sit alongside hothouse orchids and, regrettably, it’s clear which the field prefers.
There are many who would defend our professional systems as evidence of meritocracy in operation. People who are “top” earned their way there; “top” programs earned their collective way there; and so on. That is, one can just deny that any of this is a problem by saying that the gates and gate-keepers do let pass any who can earn their way in. To tangle up my analogies: you can bloom your way out of a shit pile and take your place in the bouquet of hothouse orchids. Here is my own great, gnawing reservation about that line of thinking: For that to work, somewhere, somehow, someone still must pull you from the manure. And at least for myself, that had to happen multiple times.
It isn’t just that I had to get into a college that nurtured me, get into a graduate program that did the same, and then into a job that did the same. It’s that all along these ways, I could have been otherwise. That is, there is nothing about me that I would count as representing an “earned” way into the trajectories of professional work I have enjoyed. Instead, there were lots of people who helped me swerve off the trajectories my circumstances would have predicted. And with those swerves came arrangements from which I profited. To take but my most recent chance, my job carries a 2/2 load and support for research. Much of the work I have produced is a function of just that, of my having the time, the institutional support, and, put plainly, the kind of job that enables me to do whatever it is I have done. Had I a different job, I would have a different professional profile. The circumstances are set up to favor my being what I am; different circumstances would have yielded a different me, a different professional profile (or no profile at all). So I just can’t get very exercised by assumptions that I have, as an individual, done this thing, that I somehow earned my way to my places in the long stream of life opportunities I’ve had. In each case, I got extraordinarily lucky to get a helpful place, and then the place made me. Hendrix made me viable for graduate school; Hawai’i made me viable for jobs; my job made me viable for greater research.
My concerns with the profession, put plainly, is that it presently inclines strongly against pulling wildflowers into the bouquet, inviting swerves away from predictable trajectories. It inclines to see people’s value by way of too fixed trajectories, top to top to top. Those not already on such a trajectory will find few invitations to swerve away from whatever non-top trajectory they presently have. Indeed, I worry that career trajectories like mine can obscure how rarely swerves happen and can indirectly contribute to myths about the meritocracy or, worse, to Horatio Alger stories. Someone like me makes her way into the profession and it can seem I somehow did that. I write all this just to say I didn’t. And the importance of that, as I see it, is that there are other people in the profession, people like me but younger, who can’t do it either. So long as the profession goes on blithely believing in its meritocratic and egalitarian myths, expecting that any “qualified” sideways types can earn their way to the “top,” we will fail to offer the sorts of chances the sideways types really need. As a sideways type myself, I needed people believe, and to believe ahead of any clear proof. I got lucky to find people who could do that but they’re thinner on the ground now, I fear.
Since I am both engaged in training some sideways types and raising one I birthed, I feel all too acutely the vagaries of luck and, more importantly, how some are just far more vulnerable to luck than others. I long for them to have the luck I’ve enjoyed, but I can’t make luck. Instead, all I can do is this: Own my own luck in the hopes of stimulating those who do stand at the gates to keep a sympathetic, kind eye out for people approaching from the less commonly traveled directions.
Art: Vincent Van Gogh, “Poppy Field” (detail)