Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"No socks until tenure!!"

It sounds coockoo, right? But I'm not kidding. "No socks until tenure!" has been a mantra of mine for *years*, ever since the whole sock explosion began and knitters everywhere started spending their hard-earned savings on fingering-weight wool/nylon blends and obsessively carrying their sock projects around with them. At first it was just dpn's, but soon the alternate techniques came along and the Great Debates arose: magic loop vs. 2-circs, toe-up vs. top-down, heel flaps vs. short-rows vs. afterthought heels, etc. People took sides on these questions, and you couldn't visit a yarn store or knitting website, or open a knitting magazine, without bumping into another disquisition on why such-and-such was the most revolutionary and life-changing invention/discovery since the yarn swift. And don't get me started about all the hand-painted sock-yarns that suddenly flooded the market...

For a long time, though, I was only dimly aware of these momentous developments, because I had inured myself to the entire world of sock-knitting. I had heard just enough about the allure of sock projects that I instinctively shied away from them ("Beware the sock...") and vowed that I would continue to steer clear until I was granted tenure, and with it a measure of freedom and autonomy to accommodate passionate hobbies in my life, if I chose. Until quite recently (see below), I didn't buy sock yarn, read sock books, download sock patterns, or even fave sock designs on Ravelry (although oddly enough other people's knitted projects were in a different category from the work of sock designers). Mind you, I had nothing against sock-knitting per se. Quite a few of my best friends are avid sock-knitters, and I agree on principle with this fellow blogger's recent apologia for hand-knit socks. Yet nevertheless I came to view sock-knitting as Something That Happened to Other People, for the time being at least.

The problem was that my attentions, as a junior faculty member, were already spoken for. I needed to get my career stabilized before taking on either the financial burden or the massive time commitment that I knew sock-knitting would entail, because it would never stop at the first pair, or the second, or the third. One thing was bound to lead to many more, and I simply couldn't afford outside interests. To make matters worse, my first professorial "gig" was in a dysfunctional department. All my activities were closely scrutinized, and knitting too much, especially in public, would have been frowned upon as an indicator of insufficient dedication to my research. I was hired by a state university primarily for my skills as a teacher, and given responsibility for large lecture classes with 100's of students, but then judged strictly on the basis of my scholarly productivity. Juggling all the conflicting expectations and demands became a professional nightmare. I did what I could, but under those conditions, not getting tenure did not come as a shock in the end, or even as a disappointment. Honestly, the predominant feeling that I had was *relief* at being set free from an unpleasant work environment, especially since the job search eventually brought me to a small liberal arts college where I am MUCH more at home and have been both happier and, oddly enough, more productive as well. So no hard feelings remain, just gratitude at having arrived in a better place. It is remarkably easier to get along in life when you *belong* where you *are*...

But as more and more years went by without my getting tenure, I established an identity for myself as Someone Who Does Not Knit Socks. I had been chanting the mantra for so long that it simply became a fact of life, something taken for granted, like gravity, or tax increases, or the onset of presbyopia. My husband had heard tell of "Beware the sock" too, had seen the credit card statements from my other knitting exploits, and could do the math. So every time the subject of hand-knitted socks would come up, or sock yarn, or sock patterns, etc., he would roll his eyes and thank his lucky stars that I had not yet succumbed.

Staying away from socks per se did not prevent me from knitting. Lace emerged instead as the perfect alternative for my lifestyle, since each purchase of gossamer yarn, though by no means cheap, would yield hours, weeks, months, even years of contented handiwork. It was a process knitter's dream: once or twice a year I could spend a bit of money on gossamer yarn, and then settle down again for the long haul, putting in as much time on the project, or as little, as I happened to have available from day to day and week to week. After switching jobs, I found that I could actually knit during faculty meetings, or between classes, or after dinner, or whenever I needed a break. The eventual result was the Wedding Ring (see photo at left) and Princess shawls. Not too shabby, hein?

In 2006, after a year at the new post, the decision-date for tenure was set for several more years down the road. I did not object or try to accelerate the pace, because I was happy to concentrate on enjoying my work and let the rest take care of itself. All in due time, eh? And no socks for MRPP until 201o-2011.

Which is this academic year.


Suddenly the familiar landscape is changing. It was one thing to keep saying, "No socks until tenure!" when that basically meant "for the foreseeable future." But now that I am actually *up* for tenure this year — have indeed filed all the necessary paperwork and am only waiting for the Powers That Be to reach a decision — the possibility of knitting socks has started to loom larger and larger in my imagination. In many ways, sock-knitting has become the symbol for me of what tangible difference, if any, finally getting tenure will make in my life. I certainly don't want to jinx anything by speaking too soon, but the omens for tenure this time around are truly very encouraging. It's a totally different world. I feel extremely confident that the process is going to end with a verdict in my favor. So as far as sock knitting goes, we are no longer talking about a remote possibility. It could actually happen sometime in the next few months.

Incidentally, it can be an interesting challenge to decide precisely *when* tenure happens. This is more than just a semantic question. The specific procedures and protocols differ from one place to another, but there are typically several stages to the process. On our campus it goes something like this...

First the candidate prepares and submits a dossier and colleagues write letters (that was back in August), then an elected body known as the Faculty Evaluation Committee reads through all the materials (this is going on now) and eventually drafts a letter to the Dean with a recommendation, yes or no. That will happen most likely sometime before Thanksgiving. The candidate gets to read the letter before it is sent, and can make comments or suggestions for the record that are also sent along to the Dean. Next there is a meeting with the Dean (sometime in December?), who in turn makes his/her own recommendation to the President, who eventually presents a slate of candidates for tenure to the Board of Trustees at the February meeting. Only then, with a vote from the Trustees, does the tenure decision become official and final, although in practice that vote is almost always a rubber stamp. Deans and Presidents have been known to go against the recommendations from earlier stages in the process, but generally speaking, if the system is working right, the committee's recommendation should prove to be decisive.

So when do you celebrate? If you throw a party when the letter is initially drafted, the whole deal could still go sour at a later stage, which would be a devastating blow. But if you insist on having everything signed, sealed, and delivered, you have to wait until after the February meeting of the Board of Trustees, by which point the results are old news. It's a real dilemma.

Since I intend to mark the arrival of tenure with the knitting of socks, I have decided to celebrate in stages, by taking baby steps in that direction as each successive stage of the process is auspiciously concluded. My birthday comes in August, and this year it happened to fall right after I submitted my tenure dossier, including the grueling self-evaluation, which came out to a bit more than 12 pages single-spaced (I chose to be deliberately anti-superstitious about the page-count). My mother sent me a generous birthday check, and so I spent a chunk of the money on sock-related materials to mark the completion of the dossier.

First of all, KnitPicks was having the magnificent 40%-off sale on books. At the recommendation of a friend who is a veteran sock-knitter, I ordered Sensational Knitted Socks by Charlene Schurch (AMAZING tutorials and tables to calculate stitch-repeats for feet in all shapes and sizes), along with its sequel More Sensational Knitted Socks. These books are the perfect place to start in learning about basic sock construction and how patterns of color and/or texture are worked into the various parts of a sock. And then, once having taken the plunge, I lost no time in acquiring the two irresistible sock-knitting books by Janel Laidman: The Eclectic Sole and The Enchanted Sole. The latter in particular is about as eye-catching a pattern collection as I have ever encountered, so I knew it would be at the top of my list when a portal opened for me into the magical realm of sock-knitting.

I bought a few experimental skeins of KnitPicks sock yarn too, in order to have some on hand. My purchases included two colorways of Imagination (hand-painted merino/alpaca/nylon, right), two colors of Risata (solid-toned cotton/wool/elastic, lower left), and one skein of Stroll Tonal (merino/nylon, upper left).

And I arranged for a "sock yarn petting-zoo" with my friends from a knitting group that gets together at the Barnes & Noble in Louisville twice a month or so. The experienced sock-knitters in the crew (i.e. everybody except me) went stash-diving and brought in sample skeins as well as finished socks in a whole variety of different yarns and fiber combinations, and then we spread them out on the table and discussed them one by one, drawing lots of comparisons and contrasts. It was so much fun!! I loved getting to see and touch and learn all about the different yarns from people in-the-know. I took notes. It was a fabulous hands-on experience, and by the end I felt a lot more confident about shopping for myself over the internet. I have a great big wish-list of sock-yarns now, as well as a growing queue of amazing patterns that I can see are in my future.

My not-too-distant future. WOW. Tenure means *socks*. Stay tuned for more...


  1. I don't want to jinx anything by saying "Congratulations," so I won't. Yet. I've succumbed to sock knitting mania already so I look forward to your insights once you join the pack. Have fun! You bought some great books.

  2. Imagination is a great yarn. The socks I made from it have held up well and feel wonderful on my feet. Best of luck with the tenure and the socks. :)

  3. Greetings from another knitting academic! I taught myself to knit socks while finishing my dissertation. You can also find a lot of great sock patterns on Knitty – Cookie A's patterns are always a great choice. If you plan to buy your sock yarn online, The Loopy Ewe has a fantastic selection of independent dyers and great service. Here's hoping you'll be knitting socks by Valentine's Day!

  4. No new posts until tenure either?


  5. LOL, Joan. No, I'm not holding out on you. It's just been a really busy term, and there are some technical difficulties as well. Please stand by for a word of explanation shortly... And thanks for the moral support!! I love knowing that there are honest-to-God READERS of my blog. :-)