top of page

Call Me Ishmael No More

A personal example, using myth to understand and make sense out of the course of one’s life, is from my early academic journey. It uses Moby Dick as a framing device. I also now have a few drafts under my belt of a fuller short memoir, “Call Me Ishmael.”

It came to fruition in structuring a story of this part of my life in my early days as a psych professor at Elizabethtown College, my second academic post. I think it got shaped while teaching a course on theories of personality, which I taught annually for over 30 years, one of my favorite courses. This was in part because my favorite undergraduate professor was the guy who taught this class when I was at Indiana University, in Bloomington. Despite his trying to honor my high score on an exam by having John Teste come to the front of the room, he did end up being my senior thesis advisor. Anyhow that last third of my own course was all about narrative theories of the person, one of the important layers of our self-understanding. Much of this was pulled together by one of the originators of the theory, Dan McAdams, author of the text I used through multiple editions. That and teaching an interdisciplinary capstone colloquium on “Narrative and Identity” were some of the important streams that were tributary to the whole neuromythology perspective. But the course, and the colloquium, came after the ship had actually sailed. Not The Pequod, I guess, but The Rachel, Melville's rescuer of Ishmael.

It began with a conversation with a good friend, Matt Hayman, whose memory I honor with this story though, sadly, he was also an example I eventually used in class of a person with “identity diffusion.” He never appeared to seriously consider or consistently commit himself to the sort of identity around which most of us build lives. We eventually grew apart, I think largely because he continued to reminisce about our college days long after I had built a career, started a family, and left much of my college memory back in those stormy seas of young adulthood. But Matt died young, the first of a nexus of friends from early adulthood to go, and the first real bellwether of our mortality.

These were still the days when he would sometimes hitchhike out, from far reaches of the country. He’d come to visit my wife and I living in uptown Harrisburg. I was teaching in my first faculty position at the branch of Penn State University there. It was a tough time in the academic job market, and I was actually the only one of my PhD cohort to land a tenure-track job. Still, it was a nightmarish transition from the validation of a well-attended doctoral oral, at the age of 26, after graduate studies supported by an NSF grant that, in the days of runaway inflation under Jimmy Carter, didn’t prevent me from needing food stamps. Matt and I had gone down the street for a few beers at the neighborhood dive. We were talking about life in general, and I think I was telling him that, while I thought I’d lead some kind of intellectual life, getting a doctorate wasn’t that important -- one of those moments when a dear old friend, in brutal honesty, tells you: “you’re full of shit.”

Matt was the son of a Purdue University professor of English, and was himself and addictive reader. Moby Dick was one of his favorites, which he’d read many times, and had long sections memorized. I had finally gotten around to reading it, the year I managed the west coast warehouse of Brentano’s Bookstore, across the street from the UCLA campus. So he asked me to remember a scene with him, where Ahab is saying “my soul is notched to an iron rail,” and he is making demonically clear that the white whale is his inescapable goal. “That’s what you were like in grad school.” Ouch. I do remember the guy for whom I TA’d graduate statistics telling me that I had to imagine that i would die if I didn’t get my dissertation finished before heading to the academic post for which I had been hired. Too many people he knew went off unfinished, and either had horrible times adapting to the responsibilities of a faculty post, taking extra years to finish, or eventually left and didn’t finish at all. I’d also broken up with a girlfriend in the early summer, which may have given me a springboard of energy, and was working full-time at a research job in Boston, commuting the hour or so from Worcester each day, and then spending the evening analyzing data or writing. A lot of people have this huge image of getting a dissertation done, which they sustain even though, like many goals, it seems smaller and smaller the closer you get, and then less and less as time passes after it is finished. But I was damn well going to get it done. I remember getting home from a full day of work, plus commute, sitting in a chair and putting a 2X4 behind my head so I could doze for a little bit, but if I started to nod off, my head would hit the wood. If that is what it took, that was what I would do. So I knew Matt was right, and I suspected that, in the eyes of others, my obsession might well have bordered on the satanic focus of Ahab, sacrificing boat and crew in his demonic quest. I now sometimes even think of the wooden heels of the boots I wore, clomping through the hallway of Jonas Clark Hall, in a three-piece suit on the way to my orals.

I think it wasn’t until a few years later, blindsided by a tenure denial at Penn State, that, thinking about what Matt had said, I realized that Penn State was the whale. It brings to mind for me the classic black and white movie version of Moby Dick, with Gregory Peck as Ahab, having harpooned the whale, getting caught in the lines, and appearing lashed to the side of the whale like a crucifixion, before the whale finally dives and Ahab is taken to the depths. But wait, no, that conversation with Matt was at the bar at the end of Logan Street, where my first wife and I only bought our first house a year after my tenure denial, the same year my daughter Johanna was born, now in her 30’s and a PhD in the serious and very real science of Astronomy!

I may have been Ahab, but Penn State really was the Whale, which I had harpooned in my quest, and then had my Nantucket Sleighride, being dragged toward the darkness. It was sad and pathetic in some ways, innocent that I was at 26, hired for a “tenure-track” position in which no one had ever been tenured, either before or for many years afterward. Getting the job in part because I could teach both undergraduate and graduate statistics, thankless teaching of courses everyone in the social sciences needs as a tool skill, but which most struggle with and learn to hate. My daughter, a serious mathematician, used to sometimes tell me that statistics wasn’t “real math.” I also got to teach the history of psychology, which I genuinely came to love, and cutting edge courses in Cognitive Psychology, Ecological Psychology, and even a final summer course in Thinking Skills. One of the justifications I was ultimately given for being denied tenure was that my course evaluations were “inconsistent.” Duh. But I was also fresh meat, and while I struggled and finally did get a research program going in environmental psychology, and published in a new journal by that name, on top of a 50 page article on metatheoretical issues in cognitive science -- a brand-new discipline, the teaching load, and the limitations of resources left me swamped. But I came closer than anyone ever had: I’d just gotten the big empirical article accepted for publication, with a second in preparation. I had also organized a whole panel of experts at a regional conference, including a presentation by one of my students, and I had even lined up a few job interviews, including Ithaca College, Connecticut College, and Elizabethtown. My wife and I had been trying to get pregnant. We decided that it probably didn’t make sense to wait, as if we didn’t start now, who knew what would happen, and my wife had just turned 30. She was now pregnant and due in May.

After my paper got accepted, the conference panel garnering kudos from all the leading researchers in the area, and even leading to a second interview with the Ithaca College psychology faculty, I was confident. I remember one day even walking through the snow, listening to one of my father’s favorites, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, soaring above the flotsam and jetsam of the mundane details. “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” I also remember students in History of Psychology singing “We’re off to see the wizard,” on their way across campus to my class. As a branch campus of Penn State, even one limited to upper division students, juniors and seniors, we were a colonial outpost, with all the difficulties that entails in a massive bureaucracy that can only be described as Byzantine. Faculty often said “If you can’t get tenure at Penn State, you can get tenure anywhere. Nobody that ever found out I had been denied tenure there ever judged me for it, at least not that I know of, though I know I did.

I was part of a cohort of four hires that were all eligible to apply for tenure. The system required a number of hurdles. One had to pass the “Program Review,” a “Division Review,” a “Campus Review,” then get the Provost’s recommendation, and then be passed to the “University Review,” which made decisions for the whole behemoth. My colleagues and friends dropped one at a time. The first took a program-level offer to switch her designation to “non-tenure track,” as the program she was running guaranteed her a place, even if she wouldn’t be on the same salary track as those tenured. It was a pretty tough system anyway, where tenure and promotion to associate professor were separate steps, often years apart, and almost no one at our campus ever made it further. Two others were thrown over at different levels, and I became the one at the wheel. When I made it through the Campus Review and then got the Provost Recommendation, the celebrations began. No one who had gotten a Provost Recommendation had ever been turned down at the University level. My colleagues took me out to a celebratory dinner, I was elected VP of the faculty senate, and I became a recruitment tool for several replacement hires.

Who knows what really happened. Our provost was new, female, and viewed as a bit “uppity,” so i may have been a pawn in her being slapped down. I’ll never know. My division head, who originally hired me, probably made it easier by doing it on the phone, and when I heard him say this was the most difficult call he had ever had to make, my knees buckled. There was probably little value in an appeal, which would be lengthy, stressful, and they were rarely upheld. Stan also knew we were due soon, and told me I had more important things to worry about, and that I’d have another whole year for a job search, and would get glowing recommendations from everyone. I do remember the odd thought as I fell to my knees, before I made the call to my father, thinking: You survived Shannon, you can survive this. Shannon was my first love, with whom my breakup was the darkest time of my life.

When my daughter was born, she may have saved my life. Dancing in the recovery room with her in my arms gave me some real perspective. This new life, this beautiful baby was what really mattered. Penn State was just a job, and I’d find another, an opinion shared by another academic family who invited us to dinner, who even predicted that we could well be buying a house in a year. It only took two. I suppose I could have taken the whole year, but when I had a late-season interview at Elizabethtown College, I knew it was right. The Chair was an old Berkeley behaviorist, but would ultimately encourage my pursuit of scholarship in Science-and-Religion. The students they dragged in for my talk were the cream of the crop, and asked good, perceptive, and critical questions. I remember the President telling me he was impressed with the tidy package of publications, though I think more that I actually knew some philosophy. When I was getting back into my car, I remember thinking that the campus looked like what I thought the groves of academe should look like at a little liberal arts college. The Chair assured me I probably was in, and the offer was no less than I was getting at Penn State. I would also be shifting to teaching social psychology and personality theory, some advanced research courses, and the periodic, often interdisciplinary specialty courses that would be how I really marked the productivity of my career. I’d lose the history course, but I would no longer have to teach statistics. Moreover, the school was just down the old Harrisburg pike from where I already lived and, after the birth of a baby, we wouldn’t have to move.

A year later, my commitment would be cemented when I got an almost sure offer from an old graduate colleague now at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes area. I turned it down. Too cold in the winter. And my wife couldn’t have gotten her licensure in psychology in New York without a PhD, and she was on her way to being a Psychologist in Pennsylvania. Within a year, I’d be invited to a major science and religion conclave on the island of Cyprus, be bitten by the travel bug, and begin directing my career away from empirical psychology to scholarly work in Science-and-Religion. I’d teach my first interdisciplinary course in Mind and Brain, get tenure based largely on bang-up teaching and on my empirical work, and, in the wake of my father’s death, be supported in presenting a paper at an international conference in Germany. My Chair’s recommendation to the Grants Committee said that he’d support me out of pocket if they did not.

So yes, it may have been during my tete-a-tete with my friend Matt that we elaborated the idea that not only may I have been Ahab in grad school, but that I had harpooned the Whale. I think it was a later addition, thinking on my feet and using this as a discussion example in class, that I would see myself as Ishmael, the survivor, bobbing to the surface after the destruction of the Pequod.

I was in the shark-infested waters of a difficult job market after being denied tenure and cut loose from the Whale of Penn State. I am saved by the appearance of a little dinghy, where I drag myself over the gunnels and flop myself into the boat, heaving a sigh of relief, out of the dangerous water. The dinghy is labeled Elizabethtown College, a small teaching school in “the rural area of a large Northeastern state.”

Then I realize that there are no oars, and few supplies, and I see the storm clouds of middle age gathering on the horizon. But as I turned my work more over to the work in Science and Religion, I add another detail. My father was a Lutheran Campus Minister at both the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and then at Purdue University in Indiana, and was himself very involved in the “dialogue between religion and science.” The first thing I published in this area was a memorial to my father, entitled “Conduit of Flesh.” He celebrated my trip to Cyprus, saw me get tenure, and got to hold my son Jacob, born the semester I got tenure. But I would be raising a stein to his memory in a German Bierstubbe just a few years later, would publish in this area extensively and ultimately play a leadership role in the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science. I remember walking the deck of the conference hotel on Star Island off the coast of Maine, now IRAS president, feeling him look through my eyes, his stride in mine.

I also had a memory, one of those “achievement orientation” memories, when I got my first report card at the Lincoln School in Madison Wisconsin, when we still lived at the Lutheran Student Center on Fraternity Row. I remember comparing report cards with the other kids and feeling good that we’d all gotten “At Grade Average” in everything, on a sliding scale from “Below” to “Above” grade average. For some reason I remember my father sitting on the floor of the kitchen with me, wearing his blue-and-white checked shirt, his sleeves rolled up his hairy forearms, seeing the hairs on the knuckles of his fingers as he pointed to the check marks and told me I should try to move some of these, the “Ats,” to “Aboves.” I think I cried, feeling that I’d somehow failed, that I always needed more to please him.

But I did get my father’s intellectual inheritance in the Science-and-Religion world. He might have been the theologian and I the psychologist, but this was the work I would do for 25 years. Sitting in the hull of the Elizabethtown dinghy, with little to navigate my rescued life, I found my father’s blue-and-white checked shirt, and rigged the sail that would take me all over the world. I am no longer Ishmael.

Copyright: John A. Teske

bottom of page