30 May 2007

Freedom


Life has the distinct flavour of the interstices right about now (Mmmm, Mom, is that Nutella mixed with pear?). While I wouldn’t venture to pull out my dusty Arendt buried beneath all my editions of Valley of the Dolls and claim grandiloquently it’s between past and future, it does seem larger than the usual end of term evacuation to one’s other lives elsewhere. And evacuation does seem to be the apropos metaphor: a life frozen while on the road for three months, a temporary emergency, like a Flo-Jo Zombie invasion. I might as well be a Rock Star, except with piss poor clothes and travelling in coach. It's become humid here, Mr. Gordo’s harried with work, Big Sis started her new job, La Vicky’s new beau debuted to the gay gaggle in Little City this weekend, proving once again that lesbians do not have the corner on cheap melodrama (although the image of seven gay men lapping at ice cream cones in the heart of Little City will be one the heterolocals won’t soon forget). I spent the day tying up loose ends via email and telephone, ventured out for a pre-cooked roasted chicken, negotiated storage for the car, and to have some more holes put in a couple of old belts. No worries, I’m still zaftig (the belts are old, alas). The week directly before three months away feels like waiting for Godot, although a party on the weekend and last minute appointments promise to fill the days with blather both sacred and profane.

News came through the wire earlier in the week that a faculty member is decamping from the Sarah Bernhardt Memorial Theoretikal Skool of Hard Knocks, much to the quivering of the engorged quills of a grad student cell of refuseniks and some alumni. This faculty member arrived during my time there, although I never worked with hir, much less took a random seminar on Trendy Theory: Methods and Approaches. There was something a little too Seventeen-ish about the sartorial gesture, and ze quickly assumed the distanced, aloof countenance of the tenured faculty, which I found, even then, somewhat disconcerting. It’s one thing to have clawed your way to the top of your game, but it’s a whole ‘nother to be a Nobody with a prestigious hire. "You only work in a shop you know, you can drop the attitude." Shameless is as shameless does, however. The email correspondence, which as far as I can tell has sunk like a stone on the alumni listserv, shakes with rage at “the loss,” with the usual suspects responsible for the latest outrage: the senior faculty, inattentive administrators, the Man. There is a mildly hysterical tone to the communications, like someone wringing their hands and screaming at the top of their lungs, “Someone DO something!” while you bleed to death right in front of them. It’s nice to see that some things don’t change, one being the righteous, misplaced rage of the grad school subaltern, although it’s all for naught. The faculty member in question has simply parlayed hir way up the ladder, and it seems, given where ze is going, that tears shed for “the loss” are wasted on the gluttonous. It’s not the burning of the Library at Alexandria, after all. Civilisation shall, undoubtedly, continue her (hir?) forward march into oblivion.

This electronic re-encounter with the resistant refusenik sentiment so prominent in my time at Sarah’s Skool has caused mixed emotions. After I received the emails in question, I called the one person who was on a relatively matched time clock (i.e. North American) and who would also get all the references: La Gamine. Much to my consternation, she had already received the news (within the same 60 minutes that I had). Damn, the transcontinental chisme echo is so loud you can barely hear yourself think. We laughed about the electronic rage, but were cautious about being too dismissive. We have had our own run-ins with the mechanisms of the meat grinder, and a bad placement can be hell on (w)heels, especially when you toss race and gender into the hot cauldron of the workplace.

But still (you knew there would be a but, right?), we were exasperated by the risible defense of someone who is not being consigned to the dust bin of the profession, but has used the dark arts of reputation and connections to actually move to a more prestigious institution. I mean, what’s there not to like? Sarah’s Skool loses a bad hire and Big Name U. gains a well-paid token, not to be too cynical about it. Sounds like the perfect formula for egghead bliss, to me! See, I know some of the ulterior details of this “sudden” departure that in point of fact has been in play since the hire, if not before. I briefly served on the committee charged with determining the job announcement, and it was my first experience with the the type of unintended consequences that play out in the profession like a lingering case of scabies. Not to be too specific, but Faction A wanted Specialist X, Faction B wanted Specialist Y, and thus their hideous love child was an almost incoherent job announcement, something along the lines of this:

The Sarah Bernhardt Memorial Theoretikal Skool of Hard Knocks seeks applications at the rank of Assistant Professor for someone with specialties in X, Y, and maybe Z, with preferred qualifications including A, B, and C, or maybe M, N, and O as well, along with a strong record of teaching and research promise. Please send the usual nonsense by (date) to:

Professor Big Whig
Chancellor’s Crusty Professor of This and That
Sarah Bernhardt Memorial Theoretikal Skool of Hard Knocks
Mediocre University
Dystopic Paradise
USA

An EEOC/Equal Opportunity Employer

The result? Need you ask!? We got Specialist G, satisfying no one (do you see G listed above?). Oh Mary, don’t ask! The dog and pony show of the job talks went as planned, with one rising star (now relatively famous), one medium cool up-and-comer (who has made quite the niche for hirself at Robber Baron U. and editor of Quelquechose Studies), and candidate Specialist G. The inner mechanisms of the hiring committee were, of course, quite confidential, and how we got from X or Y to G was just one of those little mysteries, like the number of licks it takes to get to the centre of a Tootsie Roll Pop.

There were problems literally from the beginning of course, which are less important here than a) the incoherent hiring practices of departments, which occasionally guarantee unhappiness for all parties, and b) institutional attitudes and conditions that led Specialist G, now Assistant Professor G, into the labyrinth of a department in slow motion crisis. I can’t see that it didn’t benefit hir, so I am less than open to expressions of outrage over hir departure. In fact, the positive reading is that ze read the writing on the wall, and was proactive about working the system. Hey, Skoal! Good work, Eve! But I think it is interesting that the grad student faction advocating for action of some sort cannot see the institutional logics here, much less hear the pretty public discussions over the ensuing problems, mismatches, and miscommunications over the last few years. Honey, even I know them, and I’m hardly what you would call a truly interested party. I’ve had bigger fish to fry, like the smell of my own career roasting over the open fire, but that, as they say, is another story.

All of this does make me wonder about the preparation of specialist graduate students, such as myself in the past and the earnest do-gooders of today, for the sharp fangs of the profession. This, of course, is on some essential level a failure of mentorship, but what else is new? It also speaks to an oft-quoted but rarely heeded rule: All Politics are Local. Thinking you are above such plebian concerns is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. So while it may be a shame that current Associate Professor G is moving on up (yes, ze were tenured, in spite of poor teaching and weak research record), it’s not like ze will be begging in the streets. Don't cry for me, eggheads! In fact, ze will be making a lot more money, for one, not to mention living in subsidized housing in one of the world’s most expensive cities and finally has landed a co-placement for hir erstwhile partner, wandering all these years in the wilderness of the shadow of the employed. Some perspective on these things is important, I think. The academy is full of truly tragic stories, of faculty dismissed without cause, or because of a topical vendetta or racism or sexism or heteronormativity or simple personal antipathy, relegated to the margins or in fact driven out of the profession in toto, career and reputation viciously destroyed, or those thousands upon thousands who never even get in the door of the tenure track. This little ditty, alas, is not one of them.


And this, as far as I can tell, is one crucial difference between graduate school and the profession on the ground: the ability to tell the difference between tragedy and farce. The fact that such knowledge is gleaned almost exclusively from the empty skulls and crushed bones of once and future colleagues is seemingly beside the point.

4 comments:

Michael said...

I think I may print and laminate the concluding paragraph.

GayProf said...

To misquote de Gaulle:

The cemeteries of the world are filled with indispensable professors.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I also love your concluding paragraph.

rwellor said...

Also chiming in with love for that last sentence. I detected a soi distant element of scorn towards the dear departed, and the buildup of that emotion concluded in a perfect wave of dust...