A few weeks ago, I traveled to a conference whose focus intersected with my own research and teaching interests. There was the faint air of reunion about the event, with Prancilla and some compatriots from various past lives in attendance, in a large city much livelier and urbane than Cold City. The first impression being back in such a city was how much I missed it, this urbanity: the self-conscious scopophilic pleasure of the street, the flâneur-like quality of the men and women passing by in their smart clothes and big sunglasses and nifty shoulder bags, the surging crowds, the monumental 19th century architecture sitting under the glowering monumentalism of modernism, an odd architectural conversation, but enervating nonetheless. Here was a city that stretched to the horizon, like Cold City and its environs, yet also vertical and dense, a ‘thick’ space, to borrow the nomenclature of cultural studies.
Coming at the end of very long and challenging winter, such a vision, so close yet far, was enticing in its possibilities, and suddenly I was afraid my finer sensibilities are being worn down to the nubbin under the unrelenting banality of Cold City and its solid Babbitt-like sense of self. Perhaps what I need, if not now than in the future, is more sensibility than sense, more Marianne than Elinor, more Helen than Meg, more magical realism than the “architectonics of the suppository,” in Scott Long’s memorable if unrelated phrase. But then again, this is neither here nor there.
The writing of my presentation, which sought to put flesh on the skeleton of a colorful neologism, was like eating glass. An idea tossed off casually in an abstract posted in August was now in need of a corpse, and I struggled through three drafts to arrive at a barely acceptable version of what I wanted to say, which in reality remained beyond the bounds of my available talent at the moment, not to mention the 15-minute time limit. A senior professor prominent in my interdiscipline but trained and placed in a more conservative traditional discipline, whom I have known in the past, was in attendance at the panel. Afterwards, at the post-conference cocktail, he approached me to deliver his pronouncement, Zarathustra-like, on my presentation (“well-written; circular; said nothing”) but more importantly, to inquire as to the status of my manuscript.
I haven’t seen this professor in many years, and had no idea how much he knew exactly about my rather baroque journey on the tenure-track: the glorious rise, the vertiginous fall, the stylistics of the walking wounded. I didn’t necessarily dodge the question, but my somewhat stock, vague answers he waved away with a manicured hand holding a plastic glass of Merlot. The real issue, in a sudden turn of character from amiable to critical, was that I had always been the special boy, the good student, the wonderful writer, and I was afraid of exposing my work to criticism, was indeed afraid of criticism. Prancilla, who sat beside me, remained quiet but observant. I did not, in the instant, deny this somewhat easy psycho-social pater familias gesture. The question, for a famous tenured professor, as to why probationary faculty at R2s with no research support and no pre-tenure sabbatical would not, in fact, produce on the level of an R1 faculty member was deemed mostly immaterial. My tenured colleague's critical stance, unfortunately, removed all production problems outside of the system and the structure of the Business and grounds them firmly and irrevocably in the lack of the junior professor, which of course is exactly where the Business prefers them.
Yet, for as facile of a reading as this may have been on his part, the accusation (for that is what it was) has stuck with me. I have pondered whether or not this is true of me— am I afraid of criticism? For what it is worth, I am willing to own up to my own role in the paucity of my publication record. I have no good excuse, other than I have been teaching and performing service since I received my doctorate with no appreciable break. We know, of course, that this is not nearly good enough (as excuses go), yet I also must mine the distinctions here, not as apologia, although invariably this task functions as that, but primarily because the material bases for “work” are often elided in these conversations.
Recently, someone asked me if I was happier 5 years ago than I am now, and I honestly could not answer without deep ambivalence, even if at heart the true response to such an unfathomable empirical question is no— I am in fact not happier now than I was 5 years ago. But I am also not the person I was 5 years ago. That person, in photographs and memory, seems very far away. But then again, this is neither here nor there.
For myself, I do not see the lack of a manuscript as attributable, exclusively at least, to a fuzzy notion of psychological block, a primal scene of professional phobia, although no doubt there is some of that there, someplace, knocking around, along with all the other psychodramas of trauma and discovery, experience and disappointment, fear and loathing, that have characterised my time swimming in the tenure stream. What I do see as perhaps a more crucial element here is the role of mentorship, of which I have written before, material support, professional expectation, and generational gap. And ambivalence, of course. Always that.
In this instance, a reliance on pop psychology offered something less than useful. I wish to save such conversations for my shrink, who is trained to interpret them and paid handsomely to hear them. Rather, something more material than noblesse oblige passing as advice is called for, although what exactly constitutes this materiality remains unclear to me. It does seem to me that lately in particular, any demonstration or expression of vulnerability on my part to others, in both personal and professional contexts, does not trigger humanistic empathy, but rather a disturbing sadistic instinct stronger than reason, one that passes sinisterly under the guise of “good advice.”