Over at my Who’s Your Daddy? thread Deep Sea asked me the following question:
This is off-topic entirely but I don’t know where else to ask the question. I’m curious about your career path and your decision not to become an academic. You have an immense capacity of knowledge and learning, and many of us readers are grateful for your continuing willingness to share it so generously.
For the benefit of younger LDS scholars deciding on career paths, would you mind sharing–perhaps in a separate post??–what led you to take the path of the part-time (but still prolific and influential) scholar? thanks in advance!
This is my attempt to answer the question. My hope is that others will similarly tell the tale of how they ended up where they are now.
Through First Year of BYU
In middle school and the first two years of high school, I wanted to be an astronomer, or some other stripe of scientist. My uncles were physicists (Los Alamos, Argonne) and my cousin turned me on to astronomy with a backyard telescope. I subscribed to both Boy’s Life and Sky & Telescope. While still in junior high I corresponded with a grad student at Harvard concerning a question I had about escape velocity. I was definitely a science geek.
About halfway through high school I made the foolish decision to try to appear less bright than I was. I stopped reading school assignments or doing much homework. For a lot of classes this really didn’t matter, but it did in math. I could have been a mathlete had we had such a thing (think Freaks and Geeks), but when I stopped studying my math abilities went in the toilet. And science almost always requires a strong capacity in math. So in my youth I really kind of limited my future career options to things that didn’t require a lot of math. This was all youthful stupidity on my part.
Freshman year at BYU I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I concentrated on general ed requirements. I think I was probably partial to psychology at that point, as many freshman are. I got good grades my first semester and let it go to my head, so I spent my second semester just partying and not studying at all. My grades that semester were terrible and I temporarily lost my scholarship (I would gain it back after my mission).
I served in Colorado ’77-’79. That is where I was first introduced to scholarship. The first month I read what I wanted to of the old reference library, and it wasn’t close to being enough for me. I needed more.
It seems as though no one actually read anything on my mission. The fashion was to collect and listen to tapes. My instructor was an aficianado of Dead Sea Scrolls/Nag Hammadi Codices tapes, most by Einar Erickson (produced by the Simi Valley Stake Seventies Project). I was fascinated by these tapes at first. But I did a couple of things no one else did. First, I actually bought translations and books about the Scrolls and read them. Reading the actual scrolls was a very different experience from listening to pie-in-the-sky lectures about them.
Second, I was introduced to Hugh Nibley’s work. I immediately saw the difference it made when a scholar who actually controls the languages deals with something compared to one who is limited to secondary literature. So I gained an interest in ancient, especially biblical, languages. I started to study Hebrew and Greek even on my mission, learning the alphabets and various words. I used a Berlitz reader and a Strong’s Concordance for my initial forays into such study.
The short answer to the question is that my post mission schooling took place during the recessionary early 80s.
When I got back in October of 1979 I spent several months working moving an auto parts company. I was thinking at that point that I would like to study history. But jobs were hard to come by, and I was doing backbreaking labor, long hours, six days a week. I knew I didn’t want to end up doing that the rest of my life. So I decided to major in Economics with the idea of going to law school.
My first semester back at the Y, I took economics courses, accounting, and yes, math.
I stayed at school that summer to catch up so that Fall Semester I would be a junior. I needed an extra major skill for my general ed, and I wanted to use the opportunity to take New Testament Greek, to actually learn the language as opposed to just playing with it as I had on my mission. My father, who was a professor of education at NIU, persuaded me to take Latin instead, reasoning I could always take Greek later if I still wanted to. So I signed up for the accelerated Latin summer program.
Latin was a bear for me. I had had a total of one semester of Spanish in high school; that was it. I was in a class with returned missionaries who were fluent in romance languages. The professor kept talking about genitive this and ablative that, and I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. It was brutal.
But I had learned from my mission (my academic salvation!) how to focus and study. So I rolled up my sleeves and went to work, and ended up getting one of the best grades in the class.
It is traditional when learning Latin for your first post-grammar course to be spent reading Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, and that is what I did Summer term that year. And I was smitten. The text was an Oxford Classical Text–not a stitch of English in it anywhere to be found. I was reading the actual words of Caesar as he wrote them, not trusting some intermediary. I fell in love. So I decided to switch my course of study to classics. (I ended up majoring in Latin and minoring in Greek.)
Fall semester I dived in. I was taking second year Latin, introductory Greek and introductory Hebrew, and ancient history classes, all at the same time. It seems insane, but in retrospect studying all of that language all at once was good for me, as I could compare and contrast the different languages as I went. I loved it. I thought I would go on and get a Ph.D. in classical philology and become a classics professor.
Then reality interfered. We got pregnant with our daughter, Emily. I had to take a cold, hard look at my plans and hopes, and decided that the risk of me driving a cab to actually make a living was unacceptably high if I didn’t change my plans. So I kept on with the undergrad classics degree, but I went to law school instead of grad school. I spent three years at the University of Illinois, then in 1985 I started practicing public finance law in Chicago, where I’ve been ever since.
My father was an academic by day, but a frustrated lawyer at night. He loved Perry Mason and murder mysteries and read a lot of legal literature. Conversely, I became a lawyer by day but a frustrated academic at night. But I really don’t regret the way things turned out. I am able to support my family; I am able to retain my passion for scholarship, since it isn’t my day job, and I can study and write pretty much whatever I want, without worrying about tenure committees and that sort of thing. So while part of me would like to be in the ivory tower, most of me realizes that things worked out for the best.