The Accidental Academic
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
By Terry M Pace (2020)
Note: First draft. Corrections and updates coming soon.
I have been thinking about writing this story for a couple of decades. The idea came to me once while on a walk and thinking about my life and career. Though I did have thoughts about and interest in becoming an academic, those ideas were a way down the list in my aspirations. However, I spent over 25 years as a professor and all of my 31 years of my career as a teacher of some sort. In this time, I can say that I both loved and hated academia. That I loved working with students, but disliked much of the overhead of paperwork and political schemes and knifings that go on. And I usually felt out of place in academia, not sure I belonged, not sure I wanted to belong; often feeling that I was just very behind others as I often spoke in and maintained my old Texan country farm boy ways. Though I did not really set out on this journey, its where I ended up and all in all I can say I was happy and believe my life and time was well spent with positive impacts on many people. That was my one true goal.
I grew up among farming and working- class people. My mother was the first and only member of my family on either side to have earned a college degree. She did that in the 1940’s, initially against her father’s wishes and she did it all on her own, working her way through. She became a second- grade teacher which she did for about 10 years before marrying my dad and settling into being a farm wife and mother. My mom was one of six siblings and all were hard working folks; her four brothers were carpenters and farmers and eventually one of them became the owner of a small oil field service company. Mom’s parents were small-time farmers and ranchers and before that her grandfather had immigrated from Denmark and after doing odd jobs here and there he settled on a hard dirt farms in what is now southwestern Oklahoma and then later north Texas.
My dad finished high school in the early 1930’s, worked on the farm, became a radio repairman, served in WWII and came home to the farm and did that the rest of his life. He was one of nine siblings raised by a sharecropping family in north Texas and southern Oklahoma until eventually owning land and their own place in west Texas, just as that country was being settled by farmers who came to tap into the water of the Ogallala Aquifer. One of his brothers died in childhood and two of the other three were farmers, with one serving a career as a Marine. Of his four sisters two married farmers and two married refinery workers. All people who worked hard physical work with their backs and hands as the main tools. My dad’s parents and grandparents and many before that were southern farmers from Virginia, migrating across the south to Texas and Oklahoma.
This was the life I was born into and knew growing up. I cannot remember when I was not working around the farm. I started by being my mom’s helper and I loved cleaning the house for her. Then I became the keeper of the flower beds, graduating to a top role as a gardener apprentice to my folks. I cannot recall a bad day doing any of this work. Then around age 10 I started working for real on the farm with dad, earning .50 cents an hour. I was mainly a weed exterminator, which means I hoed down weeds in the cotton fields or as we called it then “chopping cotton.” I recall working 5 to 10 hours a day often. I loved the 10- hour days as I could earn a whole $5.00!!!
It was soothing work in its own way. You could always measure your progress moving up and down the quarter to half mile- long rows and seeing where the weeds were down and where they still waited. I loved watching the sky change during the day, usually starting bright and clear with white cumulus “summer afternoon” clouds coming along. It became a sort of game of watching as the cloud shadows passed and hoping for one to cover me up in a brief moment of shade. I had great fun in chasing after dust devils (whirl- winds) that ripped over the fields of green cotton in the afternoons as heat waves rose into the sky and caught the wind. Another thing I liked about chopping cotton was the brief rest breaks at the end of a round of rows. Then I would stop for 5-10 minutes (usually no shade) but would drink my fill of cold well water I carried in a canvas water bag. I am not sure if it was the well water fresh from the earth or the canvas that gave the water its sweet taste but it remains the best water I have ever had and I usually doused my head with a splash before heading back to work.
In those summers I turned dark tan as I spent so much time in the sun. My dad would turn almost black from his days in the sun and I enjoyed our hard working looks and I liked looking a little more like dad. Other than waking up at 5 or 6 am to get a start while the mourning was cool, there was nothing I didn’t like about the work. Another thing that kept me happy out in the fields was all the small wildlife I encountered. I recall coming onto foxes and once a den of little foxes and their mom who was not pleased with my presence. I regularly found rabbits, including nests of babies, quail and their nests (there may be nothing cuter than a baby quail). Of course there were skunks and I knew to just keep calm and stay away. There were lizards to chase and snakes to catch; turtles and frogs and salamanders to admire and hawks soaring on the wind keeping a watch on us all. Other favorite birds I saw often were the Killdeers who protected their nests on the ground by pretending to be injured and hopping away to lure predators after her instead of the nest. Such pretty, bold and dedicated parents and baby killdeer may rival baby quail for cuteness.
Around age 12 I graduated to tractor driving and irrigating to go along with chopping cotton. Among these jobs I cannot say which I most enjoyed. I liked them all. Each had their rewards and challenges. From age 12 to 22 I often spent long days running the tractor, from planting to cultivating to disking and listing. Dad mainly hired harvesting out to others, so I did very little of that. I did pick cotton by hand, to clean up the ends of rows where the cotton strippers would leave more boles. I did enough hand picking to know that was one job I did not like as it was the most back breaking and brutal of farm work. But tractor driving had many of the same things I liked as did hoeing, being out in the weather and the sun and among wildlife. It was lonely work and allowed a lot of time to think and as an adolescent I really needed and enjoyed these days. There was a meditative aspect to tractor work in the fields, as long as the trances were not too deep and I remembered to pay attention at the end of the rows to be safe and turn carefully.
Irrigation work could be a lot of different things when I was growing up. Now most irrigated farms have circle sprinklers or even drip irrigation systems requiring little actual labor. But we mainly used ditch irrigation or hand moved sprinkler pipe. Watering from an irrigation ditch was fun as one could also cool off in the fresh cold but muddy water, which I did often in those days. We used suction tubes to run water from the ditch down each row of crop. We had to change these rows out every 8-12 hours which meant resetting a stop in the ditch and carrying the tubes to be reset on new rows. It was muddy work and I liked that.
Moving sprinkler pipe was a challenge, but one I had fun with also. A quarter mile string of pipe was typical and I would have to turn off the water, unhook each pipe (again lots of mud) and move it about 30 yards or so over to string a new line together. A usual line of pipe took about an hour to move, but I learned to run as a form or working out and could get a line moved in 30 minutes on a good day. Simply being in the field, on the land, under the sky, by myself, doing something tangible that was necessary to help my family all made this work happy for me then.
On another level, as a rural farm family, we then had many farm neighbors and even family and it was our cultural norm then to just “drop in” and visit anytime, no invitations ever needed. So, I grew up with people coming and going at our kitchen table for coffee and lots of casual visiting about life. These were people we knew and loved and enjoyed. The conversations were easy going, funny, honest and time was generally not a major factor. People came and stayed or left as they wished, life just seemed to flow and for me anyway felt more like a river that flowed along with us in it with little need for clocks or calendars or artificial barriers. Of course almost everyone was conservative, white, Christian and saw the world in similar ways, so there was little controversy or drama among us all.
The only type of doctor I knew about was a medical doctor. I am not even sure I knew what a Ph.D. was and until my junior year of high school I had not begun to think about college and don’t recall any discussions about it either at school or home. I had enjoyed farm life and I wonder now if my folks thought I would probably try to be a farmer. Though I was good at the physical work and loved being out on the farm, I was not good mechanically in a day when we did almost all of our own mechanical related work. I took shop and agriculture classes in high school. I was in woodworking, small engine repair, welding and four years of vocational agriculture. Again, I enjoyed all of this, especially my agricultural classes, but was not very good with the more technical aspects of the other work. In ninth grade I took a career interest test and my counselor told my mom that I should just not plan on college and find a manual trade job. Nothing wrong with such jobs, essential work to our lives, but I could not remember technical visual-spatial directions and so was not good where those kinds of tasks were needed, I just didn’t know anything else. The only higher education sort of career that was listed or I recall was that of an agronomist or soil scientist which I thought sounded interesting, but had no clue what it would take to be one. But this was at least a small opening to other worlds I didn’t know anything about. As a side note, when I earned my PhD my mom made sure to put a news story and my picture in the local paper so that counselor would see!
What finally really opened the door to me to consider other career options was religion. In the late winter, around February of my junior year of high school I came home late after carousing around town and just felt empty and so picked up the family bible from our family room and started reading Genesis. From there I started reading every night (a first for me for any book) and read and read till I had finished the entire old and new testament by the end of the school year in May. The Christianity of west Texas Baptist churches was the only source of life guidance I had ever heard of, so the only place I knew to look for whatever wisdom might be found beyond the farm. By the middle of the fall I was hooked, converted to a serious Christian and leaning toward some sort of career as a minister; the only other career beside a medical doctor that seemed to me to address life health and life meaning.
I still had one existential crisis to accept and that was to realize I would never be a college athlete. I was just too small. Maybe if I had focused only on baseball and worked year around at it, might I have landed at a junior college. I was a decent baseball player, but did not love playing it as much as other sports, so the appeal was just not compelling, thus all my energies then went into helping my dad on the farm and studying Christianity. Through this I learned college would be a good idea and I enjoyed the intellectual questions studying the bible raised for me, so figured college would be a lot like that. Thus, I enrolled in our local junior college - South Plains College and after taking history, philosophy, sociology and psychology during my freshman year, I was sold on loving college. I had gone from a non-reading, farm working, very much fun- loving guy to a rather serious college student trying to make sense of the world we live in and the meaning of life. Yet, I was doing this all within the broader context of my same rural west Texas white, conservative, protestant culture. That was still all I knew.
This entire change process was gradual and like a flower slowing blooming. As I became a young ordained and licensed Baptist minister, I temporarily served as the interim preacher for my very small church for a while during college. I also served as the president for my college’s Baptist Student Union and then again as the interim director while the regular director and my friend Arlano Funderburk took a summer sabbatical leave after my sophomore year. Those are the big things I did as a minister, I preached many youth revivals and as a guest preacher for dozens of small west Texas churches when their regular minister was gone. I helped lead several mission projects and weekly group “encounter” discussion groups about faith and daily life for high school and college students. I took several college religion “bible” courses that did include scholarly perspectives beyond devotional or theological ideas. And as I moved though these times, I began to read commentaries and other books offering varying views of the bible and religion. I also started taking more history, philosophy and psychology courses where my reading lists greatly expanded and for the first time I realized that many of my own doubts and questions had been grappled with for thousands of years by people from all over the world. To an innocent, ignorant, segregated Texas farm boy this was like learning for the first time that the world was round instead of flat. It was shocking, disconcerting and very exciting.
By the time I was a senior and had married and moved away from home for good, my thoughts and feelings were changing about myself and about religion. I still occasionally went home and worked on the farm and enjoyed being a part of that world and lifestyle, but had realized that a life of farming would leave a lot of things undone that I had come to enjoy and care about, namely being of direct emotional and intellectual support to others facing their own life decisions or crises. Thus, despite my love of history and philosophy and religion, I had come to an understanding that being a psychologist was likely the best path for me, as I no longer felt a specific religious calling, I was too much of the questioner and doubter to fit in well, but felt a direct personal role in the health and well-being of others was what I was most interested in. I did consider medical school for a while, but decided my poor math skills and the necessary hard sciences might be challenging for me, so psychology it seemed to be! An entire field I barely knew existed only four years prior as I graduated high school.
I ended up earning a double major in psychology and philosophy from Texas Tech University then went right to work as a substitute teacher in a dozen schools and most grades before landing my first psychology job. I worked for Lubbock Mental Health Center as a residential trainer (houseparent) for intellectually limited adolescents and young adults, teaching every life skill imaginable as well as learning how to help the residents manage their own emotions and behaviors with others. It was a time I learned so much about others, about life, about psychology and about myself. I worked every shift so was there to get them up and teach them how to get ready for their days, to afternoon shifts when most activities happened to overnights which were usually a bit boring so I used that time to study all the histories and issues of each resident ever more deeply. I loved the job and only look back on it now with thankfulness and fondness.
During the next three years I continued in various versions of this job while I started volunteering as a research assistant for psychology professors at Texas Tech. I helped complete three different studies with three different research teams in this time and gained valuable insights into graduate school and realized I really wanted my PhD in psychology. The first year I applied only to PhD programs and did not get any offers, so I focused on building more work and research experience, retaking the GRE and figured out a broader application strategy. This time I applied to a range of program types, Ph.D., Psy.D., masters, and both counseling and clinical psychology programs. I received a couple of doctoral program offers in places and program types I did not feel comfortable with after further discussions. Thankfully I had several offers to masters programs, including the University of Nebraska where one of the professors I was working with, Dr. Cal Stoltenberg had come from. So, having little else to go on I committed to Nebraska and come August of 1983, my wife and I loaded up and left Texas and our regular connection to rural farm life, though part of the comfort I had with Nebraska is it being a central plains farm state with open horizons.
In graduate school at Nebraska I found a wonderful group of professors and student colleagues who became friends. I continued to love the process or learning and putting ideas about human behavior and health together in actionable ways. I was hired working with a career guidance workshops for college bound kids from across the state, bringing them to campus for tours and experiences at the university as well as doing a career guidance workshop with them. These were mostly small- town farm and ranch kids and I had an instant rapport and could see myself in them as everything at the university was new, confusing and exciting to them. This was a fun job and fit me well and I learned so much from my supervisor, Dr. Barbara Kerr. As an aside one day in a supervision meeting with Barb I shared the wonderful poem “Possibilities” by Longfellow about there yet being “dreamy boys untaught but by the fields who might yet cross on the stormy seas of thought” (paraphrased). When suffenly Barb looked in her trash can and pulled out donuts she had thrown away and offered me one. I really did feel for that moment I had arrived in academia as Barb was as much friend as teacher and I really needed a friend.
I was also hired to spend one day a week consulting with programs for people with intellectual differences in small towns around southeast and south- central Nebraska. I would drive down and spend a half day or full day with a program and help them develop individualized behavior care plans for the residents. This work built on my three years of work prior to graduate school and I had amazing supervision from Dr. Ken Keith. Eventually I became the regular consultant for the program in Fairbury Nebraska about 70 miles southwest of Lincoln. So for 4 years I drove every Friday across rural Nebraska to the tiny town of Fairbury where I enjoyed working with both the residents and staff and this became a comforting drive and happy time being in a small town with small town folks. Seeing residents become more adaptive in their world and staff more competent and less stressed was always rewarding.
Besides my jobs and clinical training in the on- campus counseling clinic where I was being trained, I enjoyed just about everything else about graduate school. I had really fallen in love with learning since my freshman year of college. In graduate school I would go to the library for specific research or study and end up staying hours extra lost in the book stacks reading whatever my interests discovered. I also loved my own research projects and threw myself into them. So I had several publications prior to graduating and my mentors such as Dr. Kerr Dr. Chuck Claiborn, Dr. David Dixon, and Dr. Tom Dowd began talking to me about applying for faculty positions. That was really the first time the idea of academia as a career became a real option for me to consider.
However, in all my main psychology work to this time I had worked in very holistic, multidisciplinary programs where mind-body-spirit-family-community-culture were all relevant and considered. So, I had learned about the skills and roles of other professionals and about both psychological and medical interventions, which opened the door to me to the emerging specialty area of health psychology that had been formally founded less than ten years prior. This specialty area further met my interests in philosophy and in religion given the ways these sources influence assumptions about lifestyles, relationships, cultural foundations and heath practices.
All this set me up for another job that had a big impact on me. I worked for three years for Lincoln Family Medical Foundation, a program that provided residency training for family medicine residents and low- cost medical care for the community. I worked for Dr. Rick McNeese, a physiological psychologist who had escaped academia, retrained as a clinical psychologist and served as the director of behavioral medicine for the residency. I worked alongside the physicians and residents providing psychological care for medical patients addressing common issues such as depression, anxiety, stress, tension, grief, pain and lifestyle issues related to activity, nutrition, smoking, substance use and adherence to medications and medical guidance. While, this work did not connect me to farm life in any discernable way, it was very exciting to be in on the ground floor of a field, now called variously health psychology, behavioral medicine, integrative medicine or integrated primary care. The training and experience opened one more door to me and that was to study stress physiology with a PhD stress physiologist, Dr. Wes Sime, who became so interested in the psychology side of the street from training me and a few colleagues, he also re-trained as a counseling psychologist. Those were heady, happy days.
From there I headed off to the Minneapolis VA Medical Center for my formal internship year where I continued in the same line of training, adding neuropsychology, HIV/AIDS care, sexual dysfunctions, seizure disorders, biofeedback, hypnosis, alcohol related diseases and other areas to my clinical and scholarly experience. I was gifted in this time to continue to work with my dear friend Dr. Doug Olson who was a former colleague at Nebraska and was now on faculty at the Minneapolis VA. So by this time, I felt I knew what I wanted; a position working in primary care medicine and training physicians and other disciplines in how to utilize psychology in their practices. I was interested in two settings for this, a major university teaching medical center or a smaller rural based family medicine clinic as both of these types of positions were opening up then. However, I also knew my parents were aging and having health challenges so I decided to only apply to places within a one- day drive from Lubbock Texas. I blindly sent out inquires and had two options emerge. One was a rural oriented family practice program in Tyler Texas or a clinical faculty position at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Oklahoma was closer and offered so many opportunities, plus my mom having been born and spent a lot of time in Oklahoma at her grandparents near Oklahoma City, so she liked Oklahoma and that is where I ended up.
At Oklahoma Health Sciences Center I worked half time coordinating behavioral sciences training and services for family medicine and half- time doing hospital consultation for pediatrics. It really was a dream job and felt meaningful to me. I found a group of colleagues there in Dr’s Gene Walker, Larry Mullins, Barbara Bonner, Roberta Olson and Heather Huszti who were smart, skilled psychologists and down to earth people. I was teaching, but in the clinics and hospitals not classrooms and I loved it. I enjoyed having trainees from psychology, psychiatry, family medicine, pediatrics and social work. It was an exciting time for me as I was also further forming my own identity as a psychologist. Sadly, a couple of major political fallouts in leadership positions with the departments I worked with and many people started looking for less chaotic jobs and leaving. At a later stage in my career I think I could have withstood this, but as a new faculty member it felt disheartening and I too started looking at other jobs.
I applied for a job in Ft. Worth Texas as director of behavioral medicine at John Peter Smith Hospital who at that time had the largest family medicine residency in the country and a large population of diverse, low-income and under-served patients. I was then invited to apply for a tenure track faculty job with the counseling psychology programs at the University of Oklahoma. The department chair at OU was then none other than Dr. Stoltenberg who had been one of the professors I worked with at Texas Tech before going to graduate school. The OU job was appealing as we had felt happy living in Edmond Oklahoma and would move to Norman, near campus if I took this job, which would simplify life and eliminate commutes. The Ft Worth job was familiar and I liked the idea of going back closer to home to Texas. Ft Worth paid more, OU offered lifestyle perks in flex schedules and living right by campus. OU had a large psychology training clinic in need of further development and that looked like a fun challenge. So, I accepted the OU faculty job on the promise that within a couple years I would be allowed to become the training clinic director.
Directing a psychology training clinic is a bit like juggling 12 bowling pins while riding a bike in a hurricane. Okay, I exaggerate, maybe. But it’s a unique job, organizing clinical services in lieu of clinical training and ensuring both of these are done with the highest ethical and effectiveness standards. Training clinics are also challenging in working to both allow supervising faculty professional independence to teach, while ensure professional standards of service and training are met. Hearding cats comes to mind. For me this entailed overseeing the work and training of about 20 master’s students and about 20 doctoral students as they worked providing counseling/psychotherapy or psychological assessment services for a wide range of folks from both the general surrounding community (much of it either rural or urban) and from the university community. In the peak years of my time, the clinic saw around 200 client appointments per week, fees ranged from $0 to $60, the average fee was $7.00 per visit. No one was turned away based on ability to pay and very few were turned away for any reason.
In doing this I supervised a small staff and was on call for all crises 24/7 for 15 years. One person who profoundly improved my life in these years was Jayne French, our clinic administrative assistant, receptionist, bookkeeper and friend to all. Jayne’s simple competency, kindness and down to earth personality was just who I needed to be around in those years and I’m so thankful she came along. For most of this time, we were housed just off the main OU campus in an old WWII era Navy barracks. It was horrible and I loved it! In fact, most of our clients loved it as it had no pretension and was very homemade and welcoming in its ambiance. In a certain way, working in such an old shambling building felt at home for me as it fit more with my rural working-class identity. It was also located in the midst of open fields and gave me a sense of not being surrounded or locked in as I often felt in other offices.
I felt at home in this environment. However, as for the rest of my work life, my involvement with departments and deans and provosts and so on was where my feeling of not really belonging emerged most strongly. I am sure this was partly, maybe largely just me, but there are times I can point to where this feeling was common, though mainly shared with others in silence.
No one likes faculty meetings in academia and that went double for me. It seemed to me that most everyone else got it and understood how to behave at these meetings, but I always felt lost, like I was in a foreign land with a language I didn’t understand. I recall when I became department chair (accident of accidents) and tried to make ordinary sense of the budget and provide all the information I could for everyone to collaborate on together, that I was seen by some as naive and I was. I thought we all could discuss and share and compromise on budget issues, but I found that many folks sought to use the new information to advance their own special interests over others and that as chair, I was now being blamed by some for the budget problems that were just endemic. So, as much as I believe that my efforts were good, I came to understand why so often folks don’t share information as things just stay quieter. So damed if you do, damned if you don’t.
It seemed to me that most faculty had an implicit understanding of how university policies and politics work which was always a mystery to me. There were times that others knew word meanings or pronunciations that my background did not include. I do think growing up around finances, business, art, science, literature offers insights into the world and organizations that I never had need of or opportunity to learn growing up and graduate school does not directly teach these things. Additionally, I am mildly dyslexic, a poor speller and a terrible typist, so I had to work extra hard and sometimes just take the mostly good- natured teasing and occasional scorn for these limitations that were often on full display as a professor.
I was called “oblivious” once by a faculty colleague who was unhappy with me and she was partly right. I even agreed with her at the time. She just confirmed my own feelings; I doubted I belonged. I for sure did not understand or embrace the personal ambitions and politics. Social etiquette was also a mystery to me. What to wear to university events, how to speak with donors, what to bring to faculty parties were all confusing. And my country blue collar ways stuck out like a sore thumb at times. Note: fresh beets is not a good thing to bring to a university party. Apparently beets are or were then country food only those of us born of dirt enjoy.
My closest friends in academia were almost all people who had come from relatable rural blue collar or farm backgrounds and who knew hard physical work and direct friendly informal social relations. I think there was so much for me to learn from more worldly and sophisticated colleagues and I tried; some approached me with kindness, humility, respect for my unique skills and knowledge and others were not so kind or tolerant and made it hard for me to learn from them as I wish I could have. Much of this made me want to be working alone, on the tractor away from all this unpleasantness.
I survived and at times even thrived by focusing on the students. One of my advisors and mentors in graduate school was Dr. Dave Dixon who was a marvelous professor and wonderful person (who came from a family farm background of course). Dave once advised me to just always focus on doing my best for the students I taught and he was right. The students I worked with over the years were by far the best part of being a professor. Though sometimes challenging, I cherished my time and ultimately friendships with my students. I learned more from them than they did from me. One thing that just happened was one of my last doctoral students joined the facultu of Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. That meant he joined up with one of my first students from 30 years ago who has now spent a long career there. So these two lovely people became a sort of symbolic bookends to my career.
I also loved my various clinical practices, providing direct psychotherapy or assessment care. I began seeing private patients immediately after starting at OU Health Sciences in September 1989 and continued until December 2019. And I worked in at least six hospitals and had 10 different private offices in different places. I usually saw private patients one or two days per week over most of these 30 years. Though from 89-91, then 2010 – 2017 I was in half to full time clinical practice as well as usually still teaching some. Directing the OU Counseling Psychology Training Clinic was a perfect mix of working with students, providing daily clinical care to patients, collaborating with faculty colleagues and community professionals and building a program to serve folks without health insurance with quality mental health services.
Two colleagues who became life- long friends and helped me more than I can ever say are Dr. Rockey Robbins and Dr. Cal Stoltenberg. Cal and Rockey were there to make me laugh when I needed it, to share their many abilities and perspectives with me on our work and on life. We celebrated the high times together and rode through the rough ones the same. we did research and published together and I am forever in their debts.
Finally, I think my very pragmatic decision to join OU was rewarded many times over by the lifestyle academia afforded me. I was often able to set my own schedule, to come and go around family needs and activities and be present and involved as a parent when our daughters were growing up. I was also able to escape work stress and within 5 minutes of leaving my OU offices to be home and working in my garden, where peace almost always came to visit me amidst busy times. So while I never set out to be a professor for 30 years, as an accidental academic, it was a meaningful career and I am thankful for the opportunities.