The interim chair of my department stopped in to see me earlier this week. The committee that's evaluating my progress toward tenure wanted me to revise one element of my dossier. "You tell us that you're curious about the things you study," she said, "but we want you to spell out why your work is important. When your tenure dossier goes to the college committee in two years, that's what they're going to want to see. So go ahead and rewrite your statement from that angle now."
Let me be really clear: I love my department, I have faith in the committee's good will, and I have known and respected the interim chair since I was a master's student. I rewrote the statement as instructed. But just between you and me and the internet, let me say: the first version was better.
I think my curiosity might be the strongest asset I bring to my department. Longtime readers might remember when I was working on my dissertation, thinking, "I'm not sure I can do this but I think I was born to do this." My research takes me to that intersection, invites me to shift the boundary between the known and the mysterious, and I find it exhilarating and joyous. It's a place I love to be, even though I am still plagued by self-doubt. It is curiosity that keeps me there, not impact factors or other measures of "importance." I don't pursue my research agenda because it's "important." I do it because it lights me on fire.
I have written repeatedly about this prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas, about how Christian scholarship means inviting the light of God into the places where the darkness of ignorance still reigns. Isn't that a crazy idea, that my curiosity can allow the light of God to gleam a little more brightly? Doesn't it make you want to get a PhD and join me?
In my teaching philosophy statement I wrote a little shyly about Chaucer's clerk of Oxford: "and gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche." (You can take the girl out of the English department, but you can't take the English department out of the girl.) I've written about it here too: joyful scholarship, fueled by genuine curiosity, is the foundation of my teaching. On my best days in the classroom I almost incandesce (she said shyly) with enthusiasm: I love what I am teaching, and it shows. I say to my students, "Here is the path to the edge of the forest -- the things we know. Let's shine a light into the trees, to get a glimpse of what we don't yet understand." And they respond.
The day that I want to be an important professor more than I want to be a curious professor is the day I should find a new job. I can tell a version of my story that will please the administration's bean-counters and align more neatly with the new business model for higher ed; I can be more explicit about exceeding their publishing expectations. (Curiosity can motivate a person to write more papers and write them well -- who knew?) But I just want to say, friends, here on my blog where nobody is counting beans: I like the real version of my story better.