The wind at his back: or, effortlessness in academia

10 September 2011

I’m having a coffee with a grad student. He’s very smart and seems utterly lacking self-doubt. He tells me at length about his research in a way that’s very polished, direct, and never pauses for those other filler expressions — I’m not quite sure yet about these conclusions, forgive me for going on so long. He doesn’t even insert any I thinks. His whole persona tells me, I have the wind at my back. By the end of the conversation I want to hurt him. (Be patient: it takes me a while to get to my point.)

It’s the time of year when I use metaphors drawn from tennis, so I’m going to come up with a term for this student’s self-assurance: The Wind At His Back, a.k.a. Federer 2004-09. It’s hard for me to forget the mixed emotions with which I watched Roger Federer win all those tournaments before 2010 or so. It’s not just that he was unstoppable, capable of the most extraordinary and magical moves. It’s that he made it look effortless. He didn’t sweat; he didn’t even seem to be very tall or muscular compared to some of his most serious competitors. This was a mirage, of course, but it makes my point: Fed exemplified The Wind At His Back. When he started endorsing all those luxury cars, espresso makers, and expensive watches (who wears a watch anymore?) and wearing an awful, pretentiously monogrammed white dinner jacket onto the court before matches (see above), it seemed to cement the notion that everything came easily, effortlessly for him.

This grad student is the same way. He’s on fellowship at a very fancy grad school. He talks too much, dominating the discussion. With some students I might assume such dominance was a sign of a kind of insecurity, but this guy seems accustomed to being the center of attention. He also makes frequent references to “my wife,” a classic move by straight male academics designed to suggest, “I am safe, utterly untroubled by gender, race, or sexual orientation concerns, and concentrate on very little but my research.” Obviously, I have never met a woman, a person of color, or a gay student who takes this posture.

In important ways, grad students learn some of this behavior early. They take classes in which some of the ideas or readings leave them fuzzy-headed, but they pretend to understand it all. They learn to write jargon-laden paragraphs that obfuscate the conceptual vagueness underpinning it, or if they have a gift for good prose, they write long, lovely, descriptive paragraphs that don’t say anything but which charm for their elegance. If they’re terrified or depressed, they cover it up — not just from their professors but their fellow students, whom they see as competitors. When — or rather, if — they become assistant professors, they continue to fake it till they make it. But some students, like the one I had coffee with, never seem to be faking it. For a rare few, everything comes easily; writing is easy, publishing is easy, maintaining psychological equilibrium is easy, getting recognition from important scholars is easy, getting a job is easy. And they act as if it’s only natural, as if it is the universe’s job to open doors and proffer important dinner party engagements in Cambridge or Paris or Mexico City.There was such a golden boy in my department. My senior male colleagues said things like, He’s making all the right moves, even though he wasn’t really doing anything differently than the rest of us. He was welcomed into the confidences and living rooms of the men who made big decisions in my department. To be frank, I’m not sure I would have wanted to watch football with those guys, but that’s not the point: they provided the wind at his back, the way that supportive and loving parents buttress their children. My colleagues called him brilliant and an excellent teacher and all the other things that made him feel supported.

One time I tried to talk to this young colleague about his circle of supportive men. I assumed he, too, realized it was a little weird and crazily beneficial, but I was wrong. In fact, he got angry that I brought it up — angry at the notion that it might not be natural that he would have such support, angry that I might suggest that other darker-skinned, female or gay colleagues could never receive it from those same men.

The thing is, Roger Federer’s era with the wind at his back ended. Maybe it was the natural course of things: he’s older now (the ripe old age of 30), more beset by injuries. He has two small children, and one suspects that having a family is a distraction for one in the intensely psychological game of singles tennis. He loses now, and sometimes it looks as if the tennis isn’t coming so easily any more. Now, when he wins he has to fight for it — he has to show the effort. And when he loses, it’s as if he caves in on himself. It’s not that he gives up; it’s more like he stares at the court and thinks, how could I have lost that point? I’ve found myself to be a much more straightforward fan now that I see him sweat and work and struggle.

Not long ago the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a story, “A Professor and His Wife on Absorbing the Shock of Tenure Denial,” which doesn’t offer much except a fascinating view into a golden boy’s psychology. Despite the fact that this professor immediately found another job (and a big raise) at another major university in a major US city, he calls it “the loudest F one can earn.” Meanwhile, “His Wife” explains that she’d never seen her husband experience such a shock to his confidence.

I’m tired of the confidence, the guys who act as if the wind is at their backs, all of which cloaks the true effort involved. Let’s stop pretending that this is easy. Let’s confess that writing is hard, teaching is hard, and striking a balance between the two is the hardest of all. Let’s talk about how hard it is to get a piece published in one of the top journals in our field. Let’s talk about how much harder it all is when our universities increase our teaching loads, put us on “furlough” (i.e., cut our pay), or rescind the $325 they had promised to help us fly to a conference. Let’s talk about how hard it is to do all this when you’re single, or when your partner lives 1200 miles away, or when you’re in an unhappy relationship.

Instead of trying to be Federer (2004-09), let’s emulate someone like Rafael Nadal instead — he sweats profusely, he grunts and sneers and has that whole superstitious routine before each point (tugs at his underwear, tucks his hair behind his ears), and you see him strain for every single ball. You might marvel at what he can do, but you’re never tricked into thinking he’s not working for it. Let’s call what we do WORK, and let’s stop wearing white monogrammed dinner jackets when we do it.

(This post is for Servetus, Profacero, Spanish Professor, Historiann, and the rest of my compañeras fighting the good fight in academia. More movies and feminism soon.)

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29 Responses to “The wind at his back: or, effortlessness in academia”

  1. Spanish Prof Says:

    Thanks. And I’ll add another tennis reference: Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi, 2001 U.S Open quarterfinal. You should show it to your student. The best have to work, and work hard. And even if you make almost no mistake, you can lose.

  2. servetus Says:

    I was having a fb exchange today with someone I went to college with, and i was thinking something along these lines. You don’t have to apologize for your privilege, you don’t have to give it up, but can you *please* stop acting as if you don’t have it?

    • Didion Says:

      I’d go even further: don’t pretend that those privileges are the natural state of things, don’t pretend you deserve simply because of your innate wonderfulness, and don’t start crying foul when the wind shifts slightly and suddenly everything isn’t so easy. But I’ll start with those golden boys admitting that they enjoy a little bit of it.

  3. Z Says:

    The reason I object to hearing and saying that it is hard is that I perceive and experience that as a gatekeeping / intimidation tactic. They always told women that it would be too hard for them and so on. I sat through so many lectures on how hard it was and would be when young that I am not willing or able to listen to one more, and I will never give one.

    It just never has been so freakin’ hard for me. I can’t relate when people say writing, teaching, and service are so hard, so hard. Sure, they take work, luck, skill, talent, some support, and so on, yes.

    But hard is a whole other level of difficulty. Hard is dealing with unpleasant / bad working conditions, harassment and obstruction, hostile workplaces, living in weird places, really low pay, not having libraries, things like that. Hard is some other things you have to renounce.

    • Didion Says:

      Fair enough, but I guess I see “it’s hard” as commiseration rather than gatekeeping or intimidation. Sometimes when I try to dissuade undergrads from applying to grad school, I explain that during the semester I regularly work 70 or 80 hours per week and still feel guilty that I’m not writing quickly enough or reading enough of the new literature in my field. I perceive the workload and the accompanying guilt as hard, an intensity that can shift by April to feeling onerous.

      In contrast, I see these Wind At Their Back guys as implicitly engaging in gatekeeping and intimidation. “Oh, the publication process doesn’t come easily for you? It must suck to have to work so hard.” Or, “Oh, you’re not invited to Important Colleague’s house tonight?”

      • Z Says:

        I guess an advantage I have is not having that kind of guilt. I never did — people talked in graduate school about feeling “guilty” for going to the movies, but I never did.

        Another advantage I have over other people in that I do not expect to be invited to Important Colleague’s house. I know I can e-mail him if I need him for something and that he will answer.

        I have served a lot of women before by listening to them complain about what a hard time they were having. I’d be writing at night and someone from graduate school would call on the phone saying they had an emergency. Their emergency was, they were feeling so bad, they hadn’t been invited to Important Colleague’s house. So I’d get out of my writing mode and try to comfort them. Then they’d say oh gosh, I’m sorry I can’t listen to you now, my class isn’t fully prepared yet, I apologize for “cutting you off.” So I say fuck commiseration, too.

      • servetus Says:

        And if getting invited over is the division between having a positive buzz and a negative one? And if the positive buzz gets you tenure, and the negative one gets you dumped?

      • servetus Says:

        I was on the market for five years in which I was repeatedly interviewed and never offered a position — in at least two cases because no one believed I would leave my bastion of privilege. My fault I suppose. I think it’s clear to me that didion is discussing a specific situation.

  4. [...] the time for promising is long gone by this time. The former golden kids (a term suggested to me by the third great post I read today) are left feeling confused and [...]

  5. Different things are hard for different people. I might find something to be completely insurmountable but for most people it’s nothing. And what’s extremely hard for many might be a walk in the park for me.

    • servetus Says:

      The problem is when some people are helped over career obstacles left in place for others because they are a member of a privileged group — and then won’t admit that they benefited from their privilege.

      • Z Says:

        Yes, but they’ll never get it, even when they “get” it intellectually they don’t get it.

        I realize I sound very hard boiled on this but I don’t know. Some people are rich, or beautiful, or born in powerful countries with strong currencies, etc. Not to be means you have a harder life, yes, and may never get as far as they do, it is true.

        The problem is not that privilege exists or that the privileged don’t see it, the problem is the advisors who think that you with the correct strategizing can *necessarily* overcome that and that if you don’t, you weren’t good enough or didn’t try hard enough, etc.

  6. [...] had a job once at a place where everyone was the monogrammed type Feminéma discusses here and they were irritating people, in part because they weren’t even that [...]

  7. Z Says:

    “And if getting invited over is the division between having a positive buzz and a negative one? And if the positive buzz gets you tenure, and the negative one gets you dumped?”

    Yes, but that means it’s time to go on the market! Or just be ready for a harder tenure fight! Etc.! Repeat after me: you are not in the privileged group. If you spend all your time wishing you had the situation of certain golden boys you will never get your own life. There are even boys who do not have golden situations.

    I guess I have advantages since I was not one of the golden boys in graduate school and I was also blond and from SoCal so the Eastern feminists who were the alternate power group had hated me on sight. So I’m used to the harder road of no support. Minority faculty are good at handling this psychological situation and I have always gravitated to them, it really helps. I recommend it.

    Another reason I dislike commiseration is that people who recommend it tend to define it as me being dumping grounds for them. They *do not* want to hear what I go through at my place of work — I have 5 classes this semester, for instance, and that’s just to start with.

    So, I’m only interested in commiseration and so on in the blogosphere. I have turned off my phone otherwise and if you see me in public you will see me talking about research to people who are doing it, not commiserating.

  8. servetus Says:

    I stand by what I said in the first place. They don’t have to give it up, or apologize for it. They just have to admit it’s there.

    • Z Says:

      I have yet to meet one who did. I have met ones who could say it because logic showed it to them.

      And *I* have all sorts of advantages — good degrees from the get-go, US passport, etc., perfect health, and on and on, so if you want to see a privileged person admit they are privileged, here I am, doing it.

      • servetus Says:

        I do, as well, admit privilege.

        I think I should stop this conversation. We may be discussing different things without realizing it. I am becoming frustrated, and I don’t wish to turn my friend’s blog comments into anything she might find unpleasant.

  9. Z Says:

    Also: my writing is fun and publishing is easy stance or pose is:

    a) rebellion against the idea always inculcated in me, that as a girl, what I should want and must want is lower level teaching; and

    b) an attempt to claim some of the space the people on easy street have. Why should they get to be the only ones for whom writing is fun and publishing is easy? I will be god damned if I spend any more time suffering and listening to tales of suffering than I already do. I, too, insist on luxe calme volupté and research.

  10. Z Says:

    “I was on the market for five years in which I was repeatedly interviewed and never offered a position — in at least two cases because no one believed I would leave my bastion of privilege. My fault I suppose. I think it’s clear to me that didion is discussing a specific situation.”

    Ah – I didn’t realize didion was discussing a specific situation.

    Re being on market and not being offered jobs for that and other reasons, I know, I’ve done it for longer than five, etc. I’m not saying there are not all sorts of problems. I guess I just knew about the unfairness already … ? I don’t know.

    • Didion Says:

      I am using specifics, but I’m really talking about a phenomenon rather than a single case.

      I step away from the blog for an afternoon and I find that what I thought was a relatively uncontroversial point has taken a turn! It does seem to me that there are two different things on the table. One is the point I tried to make, which is the matter of a very few individuals acting as if their shit doesn’t stink like everyone else’s — and benefiting from influential colleagues’ complicity in this fantasy — and the response by some of us (i.e., me) to wish they’d acknowledge that their accomplishments require labor like everyone else’s.

      Profacero brings up other matters that are related, besides the fact that it’s obvious she too has had to suffer those golden boys. The first is what I might call a “yes, and” comment: that academia is a mansion with many rooms, and that there are many different kinds of privilege. One might be the difference between teaching 2 and 5 classes per semester. Teaching and publishing and dealing with service are all aspects of our labor that are relative. I think she’s saying that the question of privilege doesn’t begin & end with the golden boys at major research universities.

      But then there’s the question of whether saying “what we do is hard” is a statement that some people wield with a brickbat. It’s obvious from Profacero’s site that some of her junior colleagues have taken shameless and ridiculous advantage of her collegiality with their bitching & moaning; at some point, she says, we just have to suck it up and get it done. Even better for us if we find this labor enjoyable. I actually agree with this, but I think it’s ultimately a different issue than the one at hand. I’ve had a number of colleagues who are likewise annoying and time-consuming, and I wish they’d just fucking find their own solutions sometimes. So although I often share her exasperation, that’s a different issue.

      I’m a product of a “stop yer whinging” kind of grad school, so I’m used to working through that series of thoughts from “maybe I’m just not good enough” back to strong feelings of confidence in my work & teaching. And I think I’ve written before here about how liberating it’s been, partly by means of this blog, to realize how much I love writing. But I still become infuriated by those guys who get handed things on plates, and who act like it’s the natural order of the universe.

      • Z Says:

        1- The people who have always irritated and also intimidated me by telling me academia (or any kind of job or profession) would be too hard for me are not my junior colleagues.

        2- Most of the “emergency calls” I have gotten are not from my junior colleagues, either. They are from people at places like Johns Hopkins and Ann Arbor who are suffering on their 2-2 loads because someone slighted them.

        I’m just resigned to the golden boy thing, since forever. I’m not saying my irritation doesn’t flare up at times, or that other peoples’ shouldn’t.

        I totally believe that:

        “writing is hard, teaching is hard, and striking a balance between the two is the hardest of all. Let’s talk about how hard it is to get a piece published in one of the top journals in our field. Let’s talk about how much harder it all is when our universities increase our teaching loads, put us on “furlough” (i.e., cut our pay), or rescind the $325 they had promised to help us fly to a conference. Let’s talk about how hard it is to do all this when you’re single, or when your partner lives 1200 miles away, or when you’re in an unhappy relationship.”

        I even believe it might be impossible to teach and write well in some circumstances. It has often been for me.

        However, what my blog was created to counter are the threats I always received: it was hard, too hard, too hard for someone like me, I couldn’t make any misstep, I was going to fall, I would be pushed and fall down a cliff, I must obey, I must really obey, and so on, and so forth. It is just not THAT hard, it really isn’t.

  11. Z Says:

    P.S. also / although — I think I’ve been thrown off another blog for pointing out the realities of non privilege.

    So yes, I was energetically pointing out the realities of non privilege. It’s just that it pisses me off in a different way, from a different perspective: I always knew some people were in privileged positions and would win all the prizes and so on, and that it would be considered recognition of their merit and hard work, period.

    However, where my own blood boils is at these academic advice websites, where amazingly privileged workplaces are assumed and where it is assumed that anything that goes wrong is the fault of the candidate / student / faculty member who did not strategize right, work hard enough, etc.

  12. Z Says:

    Or (and I’ll stop hogging the thread) — let me say it like this — people who have things handed to them on plates and don’t realize it may be irritating / enviable / etc. but I am just a lot more worried about problems like dept. chairs who make everyone’s day harder when they don’t do their jobs or do them badly, deans who won’t support OSHA, etc. My building is sealed air tight and they turn off air conditioning and heat Friday noon, not to turn back on until Monday morning. They seem to turn it off at night, too. It’s hard to work in there without ventilation, and the weird temperature fluctuations aren’t good for the books. This is the kind of thing I am worried about, much more than I am the good luck of the few.

  13. Z Says:

    Or (and I am going on about this at my thread too): I’d say that it isn’t research that’s hard, it’s renouncing it that is.

    Yesterday (Friday) I prepped and graded 2 hours, taught 3 hours, went to a graduate exam 1 hour, then went to a student event 2 hours, which had lunch. Then 4 hours in office doing spreadsheets on book orders for library and web maintenance for our unit.

    Today: graded e-workbooks for 80 students, then created membership spreadsheet for academic senate, including looking up e-mail addresses of all new members and making the links go live.

    Tomorrow (Sunday): more e-workbooks and test creation, WebCT maintenance, correction of spreadsheets for senate and grant administration. See what I mean? Research and writing are, by comparison, very much fun and easy.

    MWF: miniprep prep and grading, office hours, teach 4.5 hours (only 3 on Fridays, but there is that student event instead); W after teaching there is a standing university level meeting after which notes must be transcribed.

    Tuesday: megaprep, office hours, department meeting, teach 3 hours.

    Thursday: the putative research day, although it has gone to grant writing this semester so far and will do through October.

    And none of that is actually all that hard, just boring, and I don’t like finding out that things like this happened and I am not and would not be in a position to go.

    I don’t care about going as a golden person, I’d just like to be in the audience. This is what I have to say about all this.

  14. [...] would love to be in a position to get irritated about the privileges of a few stars but I just can’t seem to begrudge them a thing, there are so few of them. They can be [...]

  15. lb Says:

    My experience: here’s my father on WorldCat:

    And it doesn’t even have all his stuff (that’s the commercial version of WorldCat) and his life was easier because he was a man but it took some efficiency to do this not being a golden boy and having to keep the work week to 40 hours so he could do housework and all that.

    All I remember from childhood are arguments about how academic work is work. A lot of days Mama thought a professorship was a position not a job and did not understand, even though he made us all breakfast before leaving and was home by 5.

    He did not get to enjoy his job, being forced all the time to prove that it was legitimate work and took effort. He didn’t get to ever say he had enjoyed anything except maybe lunch with a colleague, since that was social and Nice.

    I don’t have anyone at home saying that kind of thing to me — prove it’s work now, talk about how hard it is — and I am glad. It’s exhausting enough without also having to rub it in, go into some kind of collective depression, etc. I know a lot of people renew their energy by complaining and they feel better. I don’t, I just feel more burdened.

    I am Micantlecuhtli and I am not willing, on my free time, to mope on about how work is hard and it’s work. I started unionizing TAs in 1981. I am on statewide committees to prove to the legislature that academic work, is work, now. I will be god damned if I am not allowed to say there are things I am interested in and that are actually enjoyable in this job.

  16. Z Says:

    And also, finally, Didion: to me you are that golden person. You got a job at an R1 with a PhD program in your field and a really good library. You didn’t like it so you got another job that you like better. You finished your book and won a prize and decided this was the profession you wanted to be in. You’ve got double income / no kids which is an amazing financial situation to be in. You have time to see all these films.

    I know that there are people more privileged than you and I think it is normal to be envious. But people like me don’t need to learn that academic work is work, we know. And we know it’s hard for you, too, we just have a little less time to worry about it, and we also need to keep our spirits up. We have so little time for the parts of it that we actually enjoy that we cannot afford to sit and say that those parts also involve suffering –.

    • servetus Says:

      I don’t understand the investment here in claiming that because some people are more victimized by academia than others, the less objectively victimized should shut up about their problems. We could simply end this debate by pointing out that starving children in ______ (fill in name of place with starving children) all suffer more than we do and are objectively much more heavily victimized by capitalism than any of us. Just because one person’s trauma is not mine, or seems untraumatic to me, does not mean that she does not suffer from it, indeed badly. If being in the worst situation is the only thing that allows people to speak, that would delegitimate the comments of most of the members of the academic blogosphere.

      I urge Feminéma to close comments on this strand.

    • Didion Says:

      With all due respect, Profacero, you really do not understand or know my situation, which is so radically different from what you describe that I am shocked by your presumptions.

      And because I now strongly believe that this conversation has turned from being merely unproductive toward being needlessly vicious, I’m closing down comments on this thread.

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