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.