Thoughts with Richard Bleil
Working at the back gate of the drive-in theater, I rather enjoyed watching the birds. None of them were traditionally predatory birds, but they seemed to enjoy playing and showing off as they flew around and past me as if to say, “look at me!”
The day was particularly windy and flying with the wind they were zipping past. But flying into the wind, they were very nearly stationary compared with a point on the ground. They would fly furiously headlong into the wind getting, well, kind of nowhere, and yet, somewhere at the same time.
See, they’d beat their wings frantically three times, and rest, then repeat the pattern. With each cycle, they would fly, but not laterally. Instead, they were flying straight up, higher and higher with each effort until they were at a dizzying height. And I couldn’t help but wonder why they were flying at all.
See, a bird of prey flies high. With their amazing eyesight and incredible speed, they can spot their meal and dive into it with incredible accuracy. Height is an amazing advantage for these graceful creatures, but at the dive-in, I simply couldn’t understand the purpose. They were flying over a field, so there were no trees for high nests, and they weren’t hunters other than for insects and seed. And they did it time and again, this routine of flying frantically and only gaining height.
I guess they didn’t really need a reason, but birds will eat roughly five times their body weight every day to get the energy they need to fly. From a physics perspective, it just takes an incredible amount of energy to fly. So why were they flying straight up? I don’t think that most birds have the eyesight to spot insects from such an incredible height, and they weren’t trying to escape a predator, so what were they doing?
I like to believe that they were playing. Maybe it was a mating ritual, showing off for the females of their species in the area.
If you feel a metaphor coming on, yes, you are right. In my life, I feel as if I’ve been flying against a headwind most of the time (if you don’t mind my paraphrasing Bob Seger). Maybe I didn’t get as far as I would have wanted, but I did reach incredible heights. But now, sitting alone in my house watching Columbo, I can’t help but wonder why I struggled as I did.
In academia, tenure-track faculty have basically four ranks. New faculty almost always start as “tenure-track assistant professors”. When I was a professor, I was the only chemist in the institution, but you start out as an assistant professor. Within five years, you must apply for tenure, and if you don’t get it, then you have one year to find a new institution. That’s not any specific institution as they’re all the same. With tenure, you’re guaranteed a position for life (short of doing something illegal), so to be denied tenure, the institution is telling you that they don’t want you to stay.
With you tenure, you are always advanced in rank to “associate professor”. It’s the next higher rank, but not the highest. In five more years, you can apply for full professor, but the promotion is not guaranteed, and there are no consequences if you don’t get the promotion (and you can try again as often as you like). The fourth rank is Professor Emeritus, which is an honorary rank for retired faculty who spent their career in the same institution.
I did reach the rank of full professor (but for some reason, they spelled it “fool”). I was relatively young at the time, and it represented the final and highest point in my career as a professor. It was much like those birds, fighting the headwinds and ascending as they do, but once you reach that limit, that proverbial “glass ceiling”, you’re left wondering what’s next. Why have I been struggling and fighting to reach this peak, and what follows? I had fallen out of favor with my administration, and found myself working with a new and hostile dean, so did I really want to stay? And if I left, where would I go?
The birds didn’t seem to have a plan. They’d reach their peak, then swoop and dive at speeds they never would have been able to reach on a calm day. Maybe I did this when I found my position as the director of the forensic science lab, and consequently as a dean. Maybe I reached my apex, and simply swooped and played, and like those birds, eventually I inevitably found myself back on the ground.