Grad school nostalgia

2 December 2012

When I was searching for a job, one of my harried advisors said, “I don’t know why you want a job. Grad school is great. And jobs are so much work. You have no idea.”

I fumed. Well, it sure would be nice to have health insurance that isn’t oriented purely to health catastrophes, and a car that isn’t on the brink of collapse, and more than $64.25 in my bank account.

Yet here I am, ten years later, thinking, “I don’t know why you grad students want jobs. Grad school is great.”

I will never, ever say that aloud to anyone, for I remember too well the financial precariousness of grad school. But shit. You have no idea.

I have a new junior colleague who has recently moved to town, so I work up a small cocktail party to bring her together with some other people I’ve wanted to get to know. Nothing fancy — sort of last-minute and casual and all, but with some good sangria and cheeses and friendly women.

My new colleague emails me back this morning. “Sounds great! The only thing is transportation — you see, I don’t have a car.”

I stare at this email for a good while.

Is she really suggesting I come pick her up? Am I a bitch for thinking I don’t need to spend the 30 minutes before the party driving across town and back? The guilt reflex pokes me in the gut.

At first I remember being in her position myself — a new job, didn’t know anyone, and deathly poor. Back in those days we didn’t get our first paycheck til October 1, so us new professors amassed breathtaking credit card debt on top of the debts we already had from grad school. Maybe she, too, is that poor.

Then I remember she’s not coming straight from grad school, but from Private University where she had a one-year position. Not that one year of that salary would have eliminated school debt, but a year of it plus having no car expenses surely would have taken the edge off.

I email back proposing she catch a cab, and tell her I’ll drive her home afterward — a sort of compromise. Public transportation in our city is sporadic and inefficient, while cabs are plentiful.

She replies: “I’m very sorry to miss your gathering, but I’m sure I’ll meet you next week.”

In short, she has told me that unless I pick her up beforehand and drop her home laterin addition to throwing a cocktail party, she will not attend. Her transportation is my problem.

It’s not just that this makes me want to sit her down and give her a lecture on professionalism and collegiality like the bossy mid-career scholar I am.

The worst thing is that I feel crappy. I feel prickly and taken for granted — and above all guilty and somewhat gobsmacked by her behavior. Guilty enough to let it fester, but confirmed enough not to change my mind about it.

And I think: sometimes the biggest roadblocks in feminism consist of those micro-conflicts between one woman and the next — conflicts over how to behave, how to treat one another.

You are not the colleague I want, we say to each other via email. You aren’t behaving as I think you ought to, as my behavior has clearly called forth from you.

And we arrive at the impasse.

Academia as gothic horror

25 January 2012

And they say professors are ineffective, boring types who spend all their time thinking about the esoteric. Clearly they haven’t been reading the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Usually academic novels emphasize satire. No one who has ever attended a faculty meeting doubts there’s plenty to mock. Also, satire is easier; it’s a form of humor that does not ultimately throw one into a state of existential angst or lead one to ask oneself, “Should I just quit this stupid job?” One tends to try to view one’s own work with the same sardonic grimace and soldier on.

But let’s face it — the worst aspects of academic are not grimly amusing but horrific. (James Hynes understood this with his utterly memorable collection of gothic-horror novellas, Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror. Hynes, how did you also manage to make me laugh during these tales?)

In this week’s Chronicle we learn of the operatic drama taking place at San Francisco’s California Institute of Integral Studies, where two anthropology professors — a husband-and-wife team — have been fired after having worked at the Institute for 25 and 14 years, respectively. The school charges them with having “breached student confidence, falsified grades, misapplied funds, and otherwise engaged in unprofessional conduct, generally to ensure the loyalty and obedience of those they taught and advised.” Moreover, the school says it was

“shocked at the climate of fear and intimidation” Ms. Chatterji had fostered, and it found “deeply disturbing” Mr. Shapiro’s complicity in creating such a climate, “centered around a cultlike idealization” of his wife. It said his “unwavering and uncritical support” for his wife “gave little hope for reform or remediation.”

Where’s a screenwriter when you need one? “Cultlike idealization”? “Climate of fear and intimidation”? This is Hollywood gold! (Sorry, the Chronicle article is password-protected, but you can read more here.)

So here’s a couple of recommendations to screenwriters:

You have to capture the subject position of grad students accurately to convey the horror of this situation. All grad students are under the thumb of, indebted to, and subject to the whims of faculty advisors. Some advisors are good and ethical people; many are not. Many view grad students as clinging, unsatisfactory servants who need to just figure out how to be brilliant on their own. Some of them use grad students as chauffeurs, grading machines, or dartboards. Chatterji and Shapiro were accused of using grades to demand servile loyalty from grad students. But I also know of cases in which advisors demanded blow jobs from their female grad students or complained bitterly that a student had married someone the advisor disapproved of. Actually, I know other stories too, and I’m sure you do as well.

You have to capture the often nonsensical world of academic celebrity — those rare figures who achieve national or international acclaim for their work and command fawning respect from students and fellow faculty alike. In a strange world driven by intellectual insecurity and indefinable, vague notions of “importance,” no one among us can ascertain which individuals or books or articles are truly Important. Rather, it’s determined by ubiquity: if the crowd seems to be running in that direction, they must have a good reason. “Well, if Professor X’s book keeps getting used in grad classes and cited by scholars, it must be Important.” Thomas Kuhn, anyone? Structure of Scientific Revolutions? It often makes no sense why one academic becomes a celebrity and another does not.

And finally: You have to capture the ways academics are unable to keep boundaries between their personal lives and their work lives. This article makes reference to Chatterji and Shapiro gossiping about their grad students’ personal lives widely even after promising total confidentiality. For many academics, gossip is a way to traffic in power — but it’s also fun for its grisly combing over of personal details. Conferences are horrible places because of the gossip.

Looking forward to the film — aren’t you? And in case anyone needs a consultant for writing this script, I’m available at didion [at] ymail [dot] com!

Chalk it up to heavy metal: Americans have long poured out long-distance affection for the umlaut. From Motörhead to Spinal Tap to Bill the Cat’s Deathtöngue (from the late great strip, Bloom County), Americans have imported and used the umlaut incorrectly for decades, even going so far as to create t-shirts to express their delight with this diacritic.

So imagine linguists’ surprise upon discovering that the kroužek (or ring) had become more popular. Public opinion polls from numerous agencies had shown that it had risen sharply in popularity since 2008. For the first time this August, polls from Gallup, Rasmussen, and the Pew Research Center showed that the kroužek had finally topped the umlaut in popularity.

Why the kroužek? Explanations have evaded academics. Some professors have claimed that Americans must be far more attached to Czech literature than previously known. “I always knew that Růžena Svobodová and  Petra Hůlová had far more US fans than those Amazon rankings might indicate. Just wait: the haček will soon rise in popularity as well,” trumpeted Latoya Washington, one of only four Czech language and literature professors who still have academic jobs in the United States. “This sends a strong message to budget-cutting presidents that Czech must remain in course catalogues!” she continued.

Other language professors expressed exasperation. “The tilde’s on their goddamn keyboards and in their computer programming languages, yet Americans can’t give it a little love? What about the Spanish upside-down question mark?” fumed Spanish teacher Teodora Mirčić, who blames the relative unpopularity of all Spanish-language diacritical marks on their widespread use within US borders. The frequent appearance of those marks, Mirčić explained, had “de-exoticized” them such that Americans now take them for granted.

Vietnamese language professors concurred with Mirčić’s opinion, but predicted that the kroužek’s popularity would be short-lived. “If Americans want exotic, they’ll soon abandon Eastern European diacritics in favor of East Asian ones,” proffered one professor who asked to remain nameless, explaining that if her name appeared in a news story with a prediction that failed to prove true, she would not get tenure at her university. “Take the ‘hook’ from Vietnamese,” she continued. “Now that’s exotic — and really kind of fun to write.”

If this professor is correct, her insight may mean that Americans are developing new and abiding affections for diacritical marks in general; witness the “diacritic” mug available for sale online, which combines many marks in various incorrect usages designed to charm American coffee drinkers.

Yet professors of popular culture studies have waved aside all this wrangling between language professors. “I’ve conducted limited polling myself, which clearly indicates one reason alone for the rise of the kroužek: actor Alexander Skarsgård, who plays the vampire Eric in True Blood,” explained  Đặng Trần Điểm, who teaches the course, “Watching TV Now” at Penn State University and watches the HBO series with a group of other middle-aged female professors every Sunday night. “I mean, c’mon. He’s six-foot-fucking-four, he’s a bad boy, and he’s a vampire. Of course the kroužek has displaced the umlaut. Who wouldn’t vote for that chest? I mean diacritic, or whatever you called it.”

Is she right? If so, this story ends with one final irony. Skarsgård is Swedish (and the son of actor Stellan Skarsgård), and the Swedes and other Scandinavians do not consider the letter with a ring above it to be a diacritic at all but its own separate letter. Thus, opined one Danish language professor, “Americans are so stupid as to think Skarsgård is spelled with a diacritic. Morons.”

A modest proposal

12 April 2011

Free speech can sometimes be a hard thing to stand up for (witness the Terry Jones and Fred Phelps groups), and likewise the concept of Freedom of Information. In Wisconsin, state Republicans are using the latter to get access to all the email of a prominent University of Wisconsin professor, William Cronon (who has criticized efforts to strip state workers of the right to join unions), looking for times when he crossed the line from state employee to political advocate using his university email account. In Michigan, Republicans have submitted FOIA requests for vast swaths of faculty email from targeted departments at Wayne State, the U. of Michigan, and Michigan State. There, they’ve narrowed their search down by looking only for certain keywords, including:

  • Scott Walker
  • Madison
  • Wisconsin
  • Rachel Maddow (?!?)

So here’s my proposal: I suggest all of us put the term Scott Walker into every single one of our university emails. Every time we schedule a meeting by email, stick “Scott Walker” in the middle, no matter how nonsensical. Every time we grant a student an extension by email, Scott Walker. Every time we fill out a form and submit it via email to some university office, Scott Walker. I suggest we request of our students that if they’re going to send an effusive email to us thanking us for the 15 letters of recommendation we wrote on their behalf, they ought to mention Scott Walker.

I don’t doubt that these FOIA requests amount to an attempt to embarrass Bill Cronon in Wisconsin and faculty in Michigan. I also don’t doubt that this is acceptable and legal under the idea of Freedom of Information, which is intended as a value-neutral attempt to make government more transparent. I just think that if people try to embarrass university faculty — truly one of the least radical and most fearful groups of individuals in the US today — those activists ought to have to wade through an awful lot of the quotidian work we do every single day on behalf of universities and students. This work is burdensome, generous, and utterly apolitical. If activists seek to humiliate faculty, they ought to have to see our labor in its entirety.