A few days ago I was sitting in my office with a student, discussing a corrected draft of a term paper. We had finished our work together, and he was gathering his things to leave.
"Can I ask you something personal?" he said, looking at me earnestly. "Did you always want to be a college professor?"
I had a hunch that the question was really about him, since he had told me earlier that he wanted to go to graduate school. Still, I wanted to give him an honest answer. I leaned back in my chair, scanning my memory, trying to summon a proper response. None was forthcoming.
This question -- why I'm in academe at all -- almost never comes up. I've had 12 or 13 job interviews over the last three years, and never has an interviewer asked me why I picked my career. This may be the only line of work where you are not expected to have a prepared and succinct justification for your choice of professions.
I remember the 1980 interview for my first real job, at the Albany Gun Club -- a semi-legal (now possibly defunct) establishment located in a dreary corner of Linn County, Ore. The one and only question in the 30-second interview, absurd even to a 14-year-old, was the following:
"So, Danny -- what brings you to the world of skeet shooting?"
I improvised on the spot. "Let's see. We're mired in a recession, I have six brothers and sisters, and my family needs money." All true. "I'm too young to work for a reputable company, and you pay $5 an hour under the table. Most of all, I've always wanted to sit in a swampy bunker loading clay pigeons on a diesel trap while out-of-work lumberjacks fire buckshot in my direction from 50 yards. And I love small arms!"
Anywhere else, this stupid irony might have cost me the opportunity to make a little money, but not at the Albany Gun Club. "That's good enough for me, kid," beamed my new boss. "Get in the hole!"
At the country-club dining room, the ice-cream-truck gig in Seattle, the au pair work in France, even the three-year position at my college bowling alley, I was always asked the same question: Why do you want to be a [blank]?
But not in academe. This may be on account of the length and intensity of the academic route. Once you're four or five years into the degree, you tend to be sufficiently motivated to see it through. In the process, you leave behind any earlier alternative paths. Whatever the reason, academics don't need -- nor are they expected to have -- a pat answer to this particular query.
The student sitting in my office broke the silence. "I guess you've always wanted to teach, huh?"
"No," I said to him, as the memories of my pre-academic days came rushing back. "Teaching was my second choice."
"So what was your first choice?" he asked.
And this is what I told him:
When I was a teenager, I was never interested in pursuing a formal education. I dropped out of high school at 17, and it was only to placate my parents that I took the trouble to get my GED. I eschewed not only books but all aspects of the so-called examined life. I didn't enjoy deep philosophical or intellectual conversations; in fact, they typically made me writhe in barely concealed discomfort.
This is not to say I knew what I wanted. I didn't. But I was certain that college wouldn't be a part of my immediate future. Instead, I was drawn to the pleasures that interest most young people: new experiences, travel, and most of all, the elusive possibility of fame and fortune.
So I left my hometown and rented a tiny room in a shared house in Portland, the big city some 120 miles from where I had grown up. I soon found work in a couple of restaurants, one of which was a trendy downtown bistro, frequented by the hippest young crowd, including a high proportion of local artists.
One day in early 1984, I was at work as usual, cruising the floor of the bistro, when one of the regulars -- an indistinct man of about 30 -- called me to his table. He asked me if I'd have time to talk to him about something. I told him I was getting ready to have lunch, and, if he liked, I'd eat with him.
Thirty minutes later I was sitting with the stranger.
"I've been watching you for a couple weeks," he said. "I think you have a very interesting look. How old are you?"
"I just turned 18," I replied, not having any idea where this was headed.
"Eighteen is fine," he continued, looking at me intensely. "Anyway, you look younger. Which is good."
"Why is it good?" I wondered aloud.
"I'm making a movie," he responded, without any arrogance or pretentiousness. "Have you done any acting?"
He didn't wait for my answer. "It's about a young Mexican who lives on the streets of Portland, and gets into a lot of trouble. It's a dark picture about the urban underworld," he continued. "I'm hoping you'll take a look at the script. If you like the part, we might be able to work together."
I could scarcely believe my good luck. Keep in mind that this conversation was taking place only months after my sudden flight from home. I thanked the director, took the script, and went back to work.
Getting the part in this movie now became my singular obsession. The role I was reading was for a teenage runaway who had found his way to Portland. This was just too coincidental, I thought. This is my part. I finally knew what I wanted in life. I was going to be a movie star!
Although the director had said he could probably postdub my voice with another actor's, I made a valiant attempt to quickly learn Spanish. I spent hours every night listening to cassette language courses, working on each word and turn of phrase, saying these out loud, honing my accent. I soon moved on to the screenplay. In the space of a couple of weeks I had memorized my part -- in the original Spanish, no less.
The screen test took place in a public park near my restaurant. Several people were present whom I had never met, including the actor I was playing opposite, an older man of about 55. The director and his assistants took dozens of still photographs and then shot several takes of my scene with an eight-millimeter camera. At the end of the session, amid much enthusiasm and genuine good will, I was excused.
I nailed it, I thought, heading off to my job. Wait till they see me back home!
Two weeks later the director came to see me at work. He said we needed to talk. It was a slow day on the floor, so I clocked out and sat with him at his usual table. He laid out all the photographs taken during the audition. While I listened intently, full of unbridled expectation, he gestured to each of the photos, explaining that I had many of the features he was looking for, and that his backers had been impressed with my natural presence and childlike playfulness before the cameras.
"All of these things," he finally said, "make it even harder to tell you that I've chosen someone else to play the part. The kid I found is a little younger than you, and he's a native Spanish-speaker."
And so, having been briefly plucked from the crowd, and nearly rescued from obscurity, I was just as quickly plopped down in my previous place. Even at the time, I knew that my only chance at instant stardom had come and gone. I never pursued another acting job, and I immediately abandoned any hope of working in show business. Instead, after some soul-searching and foreign adventures, I turned to academics and writing. Eventually I found my way to the University of Oregon, where I got a bachelor's in history. Then came the 10-year stint in graduate school, the arduous, solitary research, and, finally, the dissertation write-up and defense.
In case you're wondering, the movie I read for became a minor cult classic; the director went on to work in Tinseltown with the biggest stars in the industry. He's a household name now.
So that's it. I wanted to be a screen actor more than anything else, but it didn't work out that way and I got a Ph.D. instead. And now I teach here.
"That's a good story," the student said. "It's all true?"
"Yes, it's all true," I answered.
"I have to go now," he said, getting up to leave. "Can I come back and talk to you tomorrow? I'll bring in the paper with the changes you suggested."
"Sure," I said. "See you then."
On his way out the door, he glanced back at me briefly. "Hey, Professor. I bet you never thought you'd be glad you didn't get the part in that movie."
The comment took me by surprise. I fumbled for a comeback, but he had already disappeared down the hall.
I looked at the clock and suddenly realized I was due in class in 10 minutes, and made my way across campus. I stood at the lectern, watching the students file into the hall, saying hello to some of them as they claimed their customary places. Someone came up to return a borrowed book. I joked a bit with two students in the front row. I fingered my notes and shot a quick glance at the clock. Another couple of minutes, and then it would be time.
I looked up to start the lecture, gazing out on the full room, seeing all the students I had worked with and gotten to know over the course of the year. Just then, at that precise moment, I finally made sense of the conversation in my office. The kid was right, I thought to myself. I am glad. And then I taught the class.
Daniel Kowalsky is a visiting lecturer in history at Washington University in St. Louis. He has written about his search for a tenure-track job in a regular column for The Chronicle's Career Network, where this article first appeared.