In December 2020, I wrote a blog about my decision to leave academia. Just as I published it, I was invited to teach a virtual and synchronous Roman history class for the History Department at Virginia Tech. I taught for them on an exchange a few years ago, so they knew I could step in and assist at the last minute. To be honest, I am delighted to have been asked because not only are my students and colleagues fantastic, but it gives me some work while I develop my own business.
This week, I taught my students about Julius Caesar’s infamous crossing of the Rubicon (49 BCE), a river that demarcated the division between Roman Italy and Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy today). According to the Roman author Suetonius (Ist-2nd AD), Caesar rallied his troops just before they crossed the river to enter Italy by saying, “[t]he die is cast (Life of the Deified Julius Caesar, 32). Essentially, he meant that there was no turning back from the decision to march his legion into Roman territory. This quote is used today to mean that people have committed to a decision, and the situation compares well to my own. For me, the die was cast when I left my former university. Now, I am at the starting point of crossing my Rubicon, which I see as the division between academia and entrepreneurship.
Put simply, Caesar’s goals were to control the Roman Senate, defeat Pompey, and become the dictator of Rome. My aims are quite different from Caesar’s, but like him, I have to strategize and negotiate new areas and ways of thinking because academia is remarkably different from creating a business. In a metaphorical sense, I am now building the foundations of a bridge to cross into this new territory. It is exciting and a tremendous opportunity for growth and developing new skills. Yet, there have been and will be times when plans and ideas change and/or do not work as I initially intended or expected, but these developments have led me to rethink my ideas to create something better than it originally was. Not only am I learning practical skills, but the experience is an opportunity for self-growth.
For me, the die was cast when I left my former university. Now, I am at the starting point of crossing my Rubicon, which I see as the division between academia and entrepreneurship
Some of the most important strategies I have learnt so far are:
Experimenting with a wide audience. My business is unique because it combines three seemingly different fields: ancient history, design, and environmental sustainability. I am also reaching out to non-academic audiences. Before I fully committed to leaving academia, my ideas were embryonic, so I had to test them to see if they were viable and if they appealed to different groups of people. For me, it took courage to approach different groups. I tested my ideas on primary schools and afterschool clubs; floral and environmental groups; and online sessions for university students during lockdown. I also acted as a consultant for the reproduction of an ancient garden. These experimental activities demonstrated that the combination of ideas worked well and they helped me to develop my ideas further.
Flexibility. I consider myself flexible, but I have to admit that stepping out of academia has sometimes thrown me when I think I am offering something quite good only to find people may not engage as I had hoped, especially when I know my students and academic peers would. Ultimately, I have to adapt my teaching style and subject matter to people with a variety of interests and levels of education. Fortunately, this is unproblematic. I find it fun to think of various ways to present similar materials to different groups of people. For example, one of the most important lessons I learnt early on was that I did not need to provide as much detail as I do in a university lecture. In my first workshop, one attendee pointed out that someone like her husband would be put off by the amount of text I had on my PowerPoint presentation. Heeding her guidance, I made changes for a second workshop presented to a floral club. I told stories around pictures with only a few key words and dates added to the presentation. The results were fantastic. The audience engaged with the subject and asked questions that allowed me to introduce them to more in-depth issues. Here, too, I take a lesson from Caesar. After he crossed the Rubicon, he lost one of his battles against Pompey at Dyrrhachium, in what is now Albania in 48 BCE. Rather than giving up, he reorganized and returned to defeat Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus in August of 48 BCE.
Building confidence and courage. My new work incorporates floral design. Although I have years of floral design experience, I initially felt like a fraud teaching it because my training mainly came from working in shops and taking some intensive floral design classes. I do not hold a degree in fine arts or design, so I kept asking myself “who am I to teach this?” However, holding my workshops and seeing how well my audience created their own work, gave me confidence in my abilities. It also gave me the courage to submit an application for a workshop on Antiquity and the Anthropocene, not as an academic, but as an artist. Much to my surprise it was accepted. Unfortunately, the display had to be virtual because of Covid-19, which impacted how my environmentally sustainable and historically inspired floral crowns, garlands, and wreaths are meant to be experienced through touch and smell, and, in some cases, even being worn. Having the courage to put myself forward in a new way has helped me to build confidence in my abilities that I never would have thought I had as a full-time academic.
These lessons continue to help me to build strong foundations for my Rubicon crossing. Unlike Caesar, who quickly crossed the river on foot and horseback, I think it is best to create a sturdy bridge that allows me to build on a variety of skills while learning new ones. There will be new challenges to face, but I can reiterate that leaving academia to pursue something new has already opened up many wonderful new experiences and personal growth opportunities I would have missed had I not cast my die.
Thus, if you would like to challenge yourself and try something new, why not have a look at my website to see if any of my workshops appeal to you? Perhaps they will lead to your own Rubicon crossing.
Dr. Patty Baker taught classics, ancient history and archaeology at the University of Kent, UK for twenty years and specializes in ancient medicine, Roman gardens and floral design. She is currently a history instructor at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia. She is the founder of Pax in Natura, an online teaching forum that explores what we can learn from ancient history and artistic design to explore new approaches to resolving environmental sustainability crises that affect our wellbeing today.