Sunday, January 29, 2012

Another bit of autobiography: contingency and careers

Doris and I have been watching a video about the making of the award-winning movie, Temple Grandin, based on the true life story of an autistic woman who has made good in a big way and had a very successful career. Temple Grandin herself participates in the discussion, along with the actress who portrayed her in the movie.

Grandin makes a big point about how chance events played a major role in her career, and it got me to thinking about my own career as a political scientist. one which seems extremely unlikely for someone whose main interests during my early life were the natural sciences and music. I can see, looking back, that if it had not been for a series of important chance events I would never have had such a career.

Perhaps the first event leading to my 36 years as a faculty member at Adrian College was a terrible stroke that disabled my 72 year old grandfather in 1952, when I was 12 years old. ( I have written about this in an earlier autobiographical sketch in which I discussed the several times I have been "uprooted.") He needed a lot of physical help moving around, especially at first, and my grandmother was unable to give all of the needed help. So I was sent to live with them for the whole summer of 1952 and provide the needed assistance.

In a small town where I knew nobody and had no friends, and unable to leave the house more than briefly, I became horribly bored. Since it was a presidential election year, both major parties had their nominating conventions that summer, which were broadcast gavel to gavel on the radio. This was before primary elections had taken over the nominating process, and nobody knew who the nominees of the major parties would be until the conventions made their decisions. In both parties, it was a genuine horse race, and, out of my boredom, I listened to both conventions with increasing interest. This probably laid the foundation for the decisions I would be making when I got ready to go to college in 1957.

A second chance event, or series of events, consisted of the above ground testing of atomic bombs over at the proving range in Nevada, each of which produced before-dawn flashes visible from Vallejo, California, where my family was living during my junior and senior years of high school. I probably got up to watch these flashes because of my interest in physics, which everybody including me in the family assumed I would be majoring in at college. But they were laying more groundwork for my ultimate decision to major in political science, because they dramatized how our technological capabilities had gotten out in front of the ability of the world's political institutions to cope with such weapons.

A third chance event was a book by Norman Cousins, Modern Man is Obsolete, which I bought for ten cents at a used book store in SanFrancisco in 1955 during a field trip by members of the Vallejo chapter of the California Scholarship Federation (honor society). The book argued that the atomic bomb made development of a world government absolutely essential if we wanted to avoid blowing ourselves all up like a bunch of idiots. I was very impressed by this book and by its argument, though looking back now I realize that there is often more than one way to skin a cat.

Finally, during my senior year of high school I became a semifinalist in the second annual National Merit Scholarship competition, and was forced to write an application to become a finalist in which I had to state what career I wanted to prepare for, and why. It was during this process that I decided I wanted to become a diplomat, join the U.S. Foreign Service, and work to try to preserve the peace. And, therefore, I decided to major in political science and to take a lot of languages to prepare me to work in foreign countries. (I got the scholarship.)

The final chance event in the chain leading to my actual career in college teaching, not in diplomacy, took place my senior year at Willamette University, when several faculty members asked me to consider going to graduate school and going into teaching. I had just finished a 3 month summer job as a management intern with the Oregon State Welfare Department, and I had not found it very habit-forming. Perhaps generalizing too quickly on limited experience, I decided I was not exactly gung ho to have a career working for government. That, combined with how much I had enjoyed my years at college, combined to make me very receptive to the suggestions about graduate school.

And it turned out that the languages I had taken at Willamette (Spanish, French, and Russian) got me a major head start when I got to Johns Hopkins University in the fall of 1961 to start my Ph.D. program and was able to pass the required reading test in two modern languages within two weeks of arriving in Baltimore. Several of my fellow graduate students got really bogged down by this requirement and I think some of them never managed to finish their doctorates becaused of it.

At some later time I will discuss how chance events during my career had a huge influence on how that career developed.

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