From my blog for the Presidential Leadership Academy.
Today I was interviewed by a student for her COMM 260W class, “News Writing and Reporting.” At one point she asked me if I had a personal motto. I was surprised that I had never thought about such a concept. I do have some thoughts on how I choose to live my life, the outlook that I take, but I had not tried to pare it down to a simple phrase.
Initially I was tempted, although I have never been a Boy Scout, to go with “be prepared.” I said that because that is certainly part of my approach to life (perhaps guided by watching too many Bond films as a kid), but it doesn’t sum up my view. As usual I do better with a longer description or explanation, hence my lack of a pithy phrase. So allow me to explain.
In many ways I have not applied for any academic job that I have had. When I was applying for jobs out of Oxford I had put my CV into the big recruitment notebooks at the SBL conference. I had applied for a lot of jobs that fall of 1996, but it was Tulane University that pulled my CV and asked to interview me at the conference. I knew they had advertised for a modern Judaism person, but what I didn’t know was that if the spouse didn’t take that job then they would have a vacancy in ancient Judaism. I thought nothing of it until late spring 1997 when I received an email asking if I was still interested in the job. It was originally a visiting assistant professorship and I did apply for the permanent position (which I got) so I suppose I did apply for one job that I had.
Being director of Jewish Studies came with that job and so I was thrust into administration before I even had tenure. I did my best to publish, created good courses, and run a good program. The result of doing well at these things, particularly the last, led to the provost inviting me to consider being director of the honors program at Tulane. I became associate director of the honors program in 2003 and director the year after that.
At the start of my third year in honors Katrina came calling to NOLA. My wife and I felt very strongly that we needed to remain and help rebuild the university and the city. And we did that. In the spring of 2006, however, a recruitment firm called and asked if I would be interested in applying to be dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State. I raised objections (I was young, recently, tenured, and only three years into honors work), but he asked “what does it cost you to email me your CV.” Nothing, obviously. When the call from then-provost Erickson came we were thrilled and have never regretted our decision to come to Penn State.
Where is my motto, my theme? At each point in my career I have simply tried to do my very best at whatever I had in front of me, whether that was research (or weekend manager of a hotel in Oxford), teaching, or running a program. The result is that I was prepared when opportunity presented itself. Then we were willing to weigh the risks and take a chance. So I guess this is my motto:
Do your best, be prepared, and take some (calculated) chances.
Operam parari, et alii (ratione) potestas.
(Thanks Google translate!) Still fairly prosaic, but now all I need is a crest to go along with it.