Searching for the
A Career Move
During my first quarter at RIT, I quickly learned how demanding college teaching is. Despite my previous experience as a graduate teaching assistant, I had my hands full preparing new lectures. Subsequent quarters were easier. Yet I still faced the on-going demands of meeting my classes, grading student papers, and updating the course material.
Meanwhile, I also had my dissertation to finish. From the outset I knew that RIT wasn't a "publish or perish" university. Teaching—rather than research—was (and is) the primary criterion for tenure, for pay increases, and for advances in rank. In my case, however, obtaining my doctorate was a job requirement. Besides, research had become too deeply linked to my sense of self-esteem for me to give it up.
Fortunately, I soon figured out how to balance research with teaching. If I used my summers and vacations to build up a project's momentum and if I continued working at a modest pace—several hours a session, several times a week—during the academic year, then I made slow but satisfactory progress.
Where that routine posed problems was at annual meetings of the History of Science Society (the main professional society in my field). As I walked the halls and listened to the talks, I came into contact with others who were spending far more time at their research than I was at mine—which left me feeling quite inadequate.
One obvious solution was to leave RIT in favor of a university where my teaching load would be lighter and my opportunities for research greater. In fact, that's what my original intention had been, and all along I had been watching for likely openings. Finally, in late 1988 after learning about one that seemed to fit, I submitted an application.
Then came an unsettling dream:
After wandering on foot through several different terrains, I found myself at the end of a long spit of sand. As I stood there, surveying the ocean, I suddenly realized that the sand was about to give way.
I rushed back to the building that stretched the length of the spit and was one of the last to board the departing train. At about the same time a young woman wearing some sort of special gear boarded behind me. "We'll be safe now," I said to myself after seeing her. "She's skilled in rescue."
Back on the mainland, we came to a narrow canyon—where we changed trains. This time I sat at the very front, with the engineer and the young woman. The locomotive climbed quickly, and soon we had a clear view of the huge storm behind us. Its clouds were a sickening grey-brown color, and its center was just where we had been a short while before.
As I awoke, my first tendency was to take the events at face value. "Thank goodness," I said to myself, "I escaped the fury of the storm." But over the course of the next several days, the dream's symbolic meaning gradually surfaced.
From my reading I had learned that the "I" of my dreams was the conscious part of myself—my ego—and that large bodies of water represented the unconscious. Apparently, then, my dream represented an effort on the part of my ego to venture further than was warranted—thereby provoking stormy objections.
The next step in the tricky process of dream interpretation was to link my ego's act of overreaching to my real-life efforts to find a new job. Viewed in that way, my dream had sent the message that taking a position like the one at MIT would be a grave mistake. But my dream hadn't told me why. Nor had it suggested what—if anything—I should try doing instead.
The "why" became clearer as a result of my late-night reading—a habit that I had acquired after coming to Rochester. Until then, I don't recall having ever read a book more than once. But as a way of winding down from full days of work, I took to re-reading several novels—especially, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Herman Wouk's The Winds of War, and James Clavell's Shogun. Each presented a world on the verge of cataclysmic war. But somehow each offered me escape—and solace.
From time to time I tried other books, and during the fall of 1990 I got around to one that I had first read as a young teenager. The main story line of Lloyd C. Douglas's The Robe—about a young Roman soldier who came into possession of Christ's robe—was still familiar to me. But quite unexpected was the terror I now felt over the extent of Rome's power.
From the first chapter onward, the corruption and vindictiveness of the imperial government was one of the book's main themes. Another was slavery. And underlying everything else was Rome's military might. Thus Marcellus—the young Roman soldier—confided to an acquaintance in Galilee (p. 269):
…I lie at night, looking up at the stars, and suddenly I recall Rome!—its greed and gluttony at the top; its poverty and degradation growing more and more desperate all the way down to the bottom of damp dungeons and galleys and quarries. And Rome rules the world! The Emperor is a lunatic. The Prince Regent is a scoundrel. They rule the world! Their armies control the wretched lives of millions of people!
What now frightened me was the kind of authority that Rome had exercised—arbitrary and absolute. Yet my response seemed to come less from the words themselves than from associations between the book and other experiences.
In high school I had taken two years of Latin. My grades were satisfactory, but hammering out the translations made my head feel like a cinderblock. Later I felt much the same way about solving physics problems. Even though I ended up with a master's degree, my understanding of what I was doing remained limited.
By contrast, historical research came far more naturally. To my great relief, I found that I had a knack for identifying good topics, for locating relevant sources, and for writing historical prose. But like Latin and physics, history required its share of memorization and rule-following, logical reasoning and detailed assessments. I was able to do such things. But part of me found them as oppressively foreign as the Romans had been to the people they conquered.
When viewed in that way, my striving to become a full-time professional researcher was like striving to become a full-time soldier in the ranks of the very power that held me enslaved. No wonder my efforts to leave RIT had kicked up such a storm! Fortunately, however, an alternative was already emerging—out of my contact with Grandma and out of my regular efforts at writing.
Early on, I decided that whenever I visited Grandma I would play by her rules—because, after all, she was my grandmother. From time to time, as we interacted, I'd get antsy. To my way of thinking her ideas sometimes seemed trivial or irrelevant. But I discovered that if I held off discounting what she had said and instead followed her lead, then the results often assumed impressive strength.
Only later did I realize what was going on. Without knowing it, I was allowing myself—for the first time—to experience intuitive thinking. In the course of my visits, I was learning to recognize intuition at work, to tolerate it, and even to encourage it—not just in Grandma but also in myself.
Meanwhile, my writing was leading me in a similar direction. As I pressed forward with my dissertation, I discovered that if I waited until late in the day to edit my own prose, I'd likely fall into the same old situation of Latin translations or physics problems. Flail the words as I might, the sentences wouldn't get any better. But if I returned to those same sentences first thing in the morning, when I was rested and relaxed, the snarls would disappear—as if there was a part of myself which I couldn't command, yet which made itself available to me under the right circumstances.
It's clear to me now that the kind of thinking to which I had become accustomed—mostly through my formal schooling—was analytical thinking. From an analytical point of view, ideas are like machines: they have a "go" to them. The aim of analysis is to see what makes an idea "go"—by breaking it down, into its essential components; by making them "go" again as a single, synthesized system.
Intuitive thinking is different. It focuses on ideas as wholes, treating each as possessing an inherent integrity. The aim of intuition is to bring ideas into relationship—through analogies, for example, or by linking them together to form larger patterns. But such analogies or patterns tend to appear at the periphery of consciousness, through a process that resists close scrutiny.
When I was a kid, one of my friends had a fortune-telling 8-ball. We'd ask a question, rotate the toy, and then wait for a message to appear. At first as we peered into the little window at the base of the 8-ball, we'd see nothing but blackness. But then the message would float into view.
Intuitive thinking works like that, with new analogies or new patterns arising of their own accord from unconscious regions of the mind. Nevertheless, over the years I've learned how to "manage" my intuition. I use analytical thinking to help define clear inputs. Also important are any efforts I make to minimize stressful activities and shear busyness—both of which tend to swamp the intuitive process. Because new ideas may appear at any time, I've developed the habit of keeping pen and paper handy. Finally, once I've gotten my ideas written down, I use analytical thinking to refine them.
In fact, I now realize, much of my thinking isn't analytical at all. What I've learned how to do—and to do very effectively—is to simulate analytical thinking. Analytically-shaped inputs give rise to analytically-shaped outputs. Yet the process itself remains essentially intuitive—which is why my thinking tends to proceed more slowly and to take more energy in comparison to other people around me.
What finally transformed all this into an alternative career move was a plan to reorganize RIT's College of Liberal Arts. According to the plan—which the college considered in 1989—each professor would be assigned membership in a single department, namely, the one for which he or she taught the most courses. Without question, in my case, that meant the Science, Technology, and Society Department. Yet I had actually been hired by the History Department, and I identified professionally with my history colleagues.
Fortunately, I was allowed to retain full membership in both departments. But the episode helped me see with new eyes my interest in local history. The time had come, I decided, to live up to the full potential of my dual status at RIT. Alongside my history of science research, I would develop a second field—namely, local history—based on writing that was more intuitive than analytical.
Already I had begun laying the groundwork to have my interest in local history accepted by my RIT colleagues. Each year we are asked to prepare "annual reports" describing our activities during the previous year, and in my report for 1988 I mentioned my visits with Grandma Cornell:
Finally, there is a project that I have never before put on paper in a formal way. During the past year, I have significantly increased the number of overnight trips to visit my grandmother…Certainly there is an aspect of my visits that is strictly personal. But also at stake is a deliberate effort on my part to examine in a fundamental way my approach to the past.
For some time I had been considering how to let my visits with Grandma become an official part of my campus identity. The main hurdle I faced had been clearly expressed by Richard Lunt, a fellow member of the History Department. After hearing about my trips to Campbell, he had commented that my interest in local and family history still seemed more like a serious hobby than a professional activity.
But later—as I went on to explain in my 1988 report—it was Dick himself who opened for me a route onto genuinely professional ground:
Recently, I have come under the influence of a book that Dick Lunt brought to my attention, namely, David Lowenthal's The Past is a Foreign Country. The book describes three routes to the past: memory, history, and relics. So far my research has emphasized only history of the usual sort…[based] on the use of documents to construct both a narrative and an argument.
But with Grandma Cornell, it's memory and relics that are primary: hour upon hour of her stories…dozens upon dozens of family photographs…numerous visits to her barn—which is chock full of things that have been accumulating for nearly a century—and trips around town and the neighboring countryside, to the places she's told me about.
Grandma's death in early 1990 forced me to reassess the whole situation, and one of the most pressing problems was what to do about her papers. Fortunately, I was already on sabbatical from my teaching duties at RIT—which gave me the time I needed to box them up. That work also enabled me to involve RIT in a new way: with funds provided by the College of Liberal Arts, I rented a van, brought the boxes to my apartment, and purchased shelves on which to store them.
Another new development after Grandma's death was my regular attendance at meetings of the Bath Area Writers Group, and as my local history writings accumulated, I decided to circulate samples to all my RIT history colleagues.
I was especially gratified by the reply I received from Salvatore Mondello, one of the department's most steadfast proponents of historical research. In a brief note, Sal expressed his unreserved support. "Local history," he said, "is where history begins and family history is a central concern to local historians. You had a fascinating grandmother. I hope you continue to 'discover' her through your writings."
The climax to this process of gaining official support for my local-history work involved the American Revolution. During the spring of 1993 I applied to the college's Faculty Research Fund Committee for a grant to cover the cost of a week's trip retracing the route of the Sullivan Expedition of 1779, from Easton, Pennsylvania, to Geneseo, New York, and—to my delight—they "went for it."
Like the stories in my favorite books for late-night reading, I now found myself on the verge of a world at war. An opportunity to study the American Revolution was genuinely opening up. But I knew the going wouldn't be easy. One difficulty was my unfamiliarity with the period—because almost all my previous research had focused on the 19th and 20th centuries. Even more problematic was the lesson of my MIT dream, that I was permitted to push my analytical abilities only so far. Gaining access to the American Revolution would thus require using my intuitive abilites: there was no other way for me to proceed.
© 1996, Thomas D. Cornell