At the start of 2003, I was invited for a philosophy job-talk at Tufts, my alma-mater--then (as now) a stellar department. I adored being back on campus as a job-candidate. Even so, I gave a mediocre talk on a topic that I was thoroughly bored with (Adam Smith’s progressive political philosophy--one of the central chapters of my dissertation that I had defended a year before). That my talk was mediocre was a consequence not just of boredom but also a lack of serious preparation (I had gone on a family visit in Miami Beach just the week before and I had partied with a new fling even the day before my campus visit). Immediately after the job-talk, I could tell by their anguished looks that I had let down my former teachers. Q&A didn’t improve matters.
Not long thereafter, my dog, Saggy (a bullmastiff) died from bloat while I was away at the central APA (recall this post). During my grief I was nauseated by a particular memory of my campus visit at Tuft. Like all on-campus candidates I was shepherded past the College Dean, Susan Ernst (a developmental biologist), who had no trouble remembering me from my undergraduate days. I had been active in student government, set up a scholarship fund, and I wrote for the school newspaper; I hoped for pleasant small talk with the Dean. In fact, Dean Ernst reminded me that she had been my undergraduate pre-major mentor, and she remembered, in particular, my ingenuity at avoiding classes before Noon. So, she had a pointed question: ‘would I be willing to teach morning classes?’ I answered (truthfully) in the affirmative, and explained, with a bit of exaggeration, that since I owned a dog my sleeping patterns had changed. At the time it seemed amusing, but after I failed to land the job, I was horrified by the idea that my time at Tufts could be summed up by this exchange.
As an aside, feeling like I let down my teachers is awful because part of my motive to want to become a college professor is to emulate them and join their club of smart, rigorous, witty, and profound thinkers. Obviously, this insecure-vain motive is problematic (and it connects to a lot of bad norms in the profession), but since I have studied Spinoza and Seneca it seems less so. None of them ever said that I let them down or that my mediocre performance reflected badly on their judgment, but at the time it was an inescapable thought which helped me avoid reflecting more intensely on myself.
As it happens I cried for weeks on end. In hindsight I continue to be amazed by the generosity and warmth of my Wesleyan colleagues. But a decade later it remains hard to describe what I was exactly crying about. Obviously, I was grieving my absent dog. I was also clearly unnerved by the fact that I had prevented myself from stepping up to take hold of the job-opportunity when I had the chance. I knew that on some level that I was also mourning the failure of my first (and then only) romantic love, despite the fact that I had not seen her for seven years. (Coincidentally, the last time I had seen her was the morning of my first day with Saggy.) I was thirty-two and I could not honestly say that had I given anything my very best shot; I was living by not trying, by being incapable of really trying (recall this post).
I am not a naturally gifted teacher—I lack patience and I find it difficult to enter into the perspective of my students. I am suspicious of grand narratives, and so I have a tendency to undermine my own narratives by relentless editorializing. But I adore teaching, too, especially because I tend feel very alive in the classroom; the performance is not a make-belief-act, but rather I magnify features of my personality that allow me to connect with the inquisitiveness, receptivity, vanity, and curiosity of my students in order to explore philosophy together.
That Spring, as I was struggling to escape the dog-death-and-job-failure induced gloom, I found my academic ‘voice’ while teaching an early modern survey course. It happened during a class lecture on Berkeley’s Three Dialogues. Berkeley’s pre-assigned role was to prepare the way for Hume and Kant, and also exhibit the ingenuity of empiricism as well as the risks of idealism. In response to a student question, I suddenly realized that Berkeley was challenging an indispensability argument (that is, the materialist appeals to the indispensable role of matter in science). I had been familiar with this type of argument since my undergraduate days as a student of Jody Azzouni, who was invested in undermining the so-called ‘Quine-Putnam Indispensability argument.’ As I was explaining to the students what the form and nature of an indispensability argument is, it struck me that such an argument is an also argument from science’s authority. I remember pointing out to my students that the very idea that science could have such authority to settle debates within philosophy in Berkeley’s age was no trivial matter. 
It is hard to describe the excitement of that impromptu Berkeley lecture. I was unsure if I had been the first to notice this argument in Berkeley, but it did not matter in the moment; I understood that it was the first time I did not impose a pre-existing mold (inherited from a professor, the secondary literature, or the tradition) onto a text that I was interpreting,--I had found my voice, by letting Berkeley’s words surprise me.