Friday, April 20, 2012

Autres temps, autres moeurs

My first year in grad school I was invited to a casual dinner at the home of one of my professors. I don't recall what we ate, but it was something easy, served buffet-style, and the eight or ten of us sat companionably around a couple of coffee tables and end tables, some of us on sofas and chairs, others on the floor.

This particular professor was a WASPy New England gent (who wasn't actually a WASP, but with his patrician features, full head of white hair, and marvelous honking voice he might as well have been), and his home suited him: an exquisite old place that managed to be homey and elegant at the same time. There were many things to remark on there--those Oriental rugs were obviously really old! and who painted their entire downstairs Wedgwood blue?--but the thing that blew my mind was when his wife gestured toward the sideboard and I saw two long ranks of wineglasses laid out, both white and red.

I was astonished, first, that anyone owned that many wineglasses. But I'd also never realized that having separate kinds of glasses was a thing: no one in my family owned two sets of wineglassses, nor could I remember ever going to a house where they'd been in evidence; to me, they were the special province of restaurants. The fact that my professor and his wife had laid them out for us grad students, in our jeans and our sweaters, strongly intimated that they hadn't thought twice about it. They just lived in a world where each beverage demanded a dedicated glass.

But I'll tell you what: when you get married, you throw a bunch of things on a wedding registry. And even when you say "no gifts," half your guests still buy you gifts. And someone, inevitably, buys you those sixteen white wine glasses and sixteen red.

And when you get home at 10 p.m. from a long day of teaching and you put on your flannel pyjamas and you eat your dinner of cold pizza standing up at the kitchen counter, you'll be drinking your red wine out of a proper red wine glass. Because a person's gotta have standards.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Still feeling fraudulent after all these years

Last week concluded the lecture series that a colleague and I have been organizing all year. It's been great, and we've had some awesomely smart people out, but it's also been a lot of work. Though looking after a visitor always involves some anxiety (will the plane be on time, will the hotel be okay, will the audience be big enough), all the previous speakers were people with whom I or my co-organizer were friends, or at least had warm professional relationships. So amidst the hassle and anxiety we were also just really looking forward to hanging out with them.

This final speaker, however, was someone neither of us knew and whom I invited in a fit of ambitious optimism. She's genuinely famous (or at least famous-for-academia) and arguably the most important scholar in my subfield. This means that, as her visit approached, I was consumed with anxiety--and not only about the practical details. I was also experiencing a total failure of imagination when I tried to picture her having dinner in my house or even having a conversation with me. (And two days = lots of conversation time.) For one thing, she's intimidatingly learned. And for another, she's a full generation older than I. And just as my students are often astonished to see me at the grocery store or to learn that I know who Lady Gaga is, it can be hard for me to believe that someone so far above me in the profession is, like, a regular person: someone who tells jokes and does funny voices and has favorite time-wasting sites on the internet.

There may also have been another reason the whole idea of her visit freaked me out a little: I'd long believed her to be the reason that I didn't get a particular post-MLA campus visit. It was a school I was already keen on, and the hiring committee was warm and lovely, seemingly very interested in my work, and mostly pitching me softball questions. Then someone asked, "So is [Scholar X] important to your work?"

And I said, "No."

Here's some free advice to the job-seekers out there: this is never the right answer to that question. And in fact, it wasn't even quite true; I just panicked. I'd read a few of her articles on one of my authors--and even had strong opinions about them--but in the moment all I could think was, "Shit. I haven't read Book Y or Book Z. Why did I never get around to them? OBVIOUSLY I'm a fraud."

This episode wasn't scarring or even anything I've thought much about since it happened; there are funnier and more mortifying stories from my other MLA interviews. But I do think that the interview established a link in my brain between Scholar X and my sense of my own intellectual inadequacies. I've now read several of her books and I could easily have a conversation about them, but her name still registers with me emotionally in a key different from the names of other scholars of comparable stature.

But her visit went fine; of course it did. She was charming and gracious and gave an excellent lecture, and I think my colleagues and institution showed to advantage as well. And hey: now she knows I exist! At least one thing has changed in six years.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The big book of shadenfreude and self-loathing

It turns out that someone else is as fascinated by this phenomenon as I. (And of course, that "someone" is the New York Times Style section.)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Conference-going on the eve of tenure

This year I went to both RSA and SAA, which I vow never to do again--or at least not when they're only two weeks apart. Yes, they were both in great cities, and yes, I saw people I love (and made useful new connections), and I heard great papers and ate & drank well, and I got to trot around in some pretty clothes. And this year I even had Twitter, which definitely beats a blog as a vehicle for catapulting conference observations and irritations into the internet. But it was exhausting.

What I love about conferences is their energy and their serendipity, and this applies as much to the social realm as to the intellectual. But as I get older there's less serendipity and I have less energy. My first year or two after getting the degree, seemingly every conference dinner involved between ten and fourteen people. This was because I'd plan to have dinner with a couple of friends, and they'd each invite someone else along, and those people would already have promised a few friends to dine with them--and we were all so young and so thrilled to be getting to know more people in the profession that OF COURSE everyone was welcome! We'd all get sushi together! And we'd have to wait 45 minutes for enough tables, drinking and gabbing throughout, and by dinner's end we'd all have promised to attend each others' panels (even the ones at 8.30 a.m. the next morning), and we'd leave the conference knowing another dozen people well enough to call friends.

Now, however, I know so many people that I often don't bother to make plans at all. It's impossible to prioritize, for one thing, so unless there's someone I haven't seen in a long while and have specifically been looking forward to seeing, I'm content to let chance do the planning and just see who I run into at the right moment (or who I turn out to be most excited to see, when I see him or her). And I'm not interested in groups larger than six: I want to talk to the people I'm with and I don't want to waste time trying to figure out where to go, or trying to get a table. Everyone else I figure I'll see at the bar.

The bar, too, is a problem: I may still be there every night until the lights go up, but I can't drink (or more to the point, I can't recover from a hangover) like I used to, and it's getting so even the drinking feels necessary, feels like social work: I have to stay there until I've made the rounds and talked to everybody I know, and that means I keep drinking even if I'd be better off in bed.

The other problem with knowing so many people is that I have to consciously try to meet new ones--especially new ones who are not already friends of friends, and especially grad students. It's easy to get lazy and to forget that having any kind of reputation and any kind of stature entails professional and social obligations. My position in the profession isn't a glorious one, but it's secure enough that my opinion actually does matter to a few people, and it's secure enough that I sometimes get read as slighting someone or being high-handed when really I'm just being a moron.

This happened at one of my past two conferences. After one panel a scholar, basically of my own generation, but with an acclaimed first book and an extremely fancy second job, came over to where I was standing chatting with a mutual friend.

I'd been looking forward to an opportunity to meet him, so I immediately stuck out my hand. "Oh!" I said. "We haven't met. I'm Flavia Fescue." And I may have added something about admiring his work.

"Actually," he said, "we have met. At Conference X last year."

"No," I insisted, smiling. "I'm sure we haven't."

He repeated his certitude, I repeated mine--and then he produced a whole conversation we'd apparently had. Based on its specifics, it had to be true, but I had no memory of it. And because I couldn't very well say, "wait, was this at a bar? maybe I was drunk?" instead I said, "oh, huh. I guess we have met."

Someone else came over then, and the scholar drifted away, awkwardly, and I realized that somehow I--who felt like the nobody--had come off as the self-absorbed jackass who couldn't be bothered to remember a person like him.


I'm sure I'll always enjoy conferences, but I expect they'll continue to be less purely fun than they were in those few first years. We have less to prove, professionally, and more to distract us: we have to run back to our hotel rooms to deal with departmental crises by email, or to nurse an infant, or to grade papers or work on grant applications. And if we're good members of the profession, as I hope to be, a lot more energy will be expended just trying to stay current: meeting people younger than ourselves, taking an interest in their work, and offering what advice and assistance we can.

Keeping up takes work; it would be easier if conferences were only about hanging out with one's friends for three days straight. But if what I like best about conferences is their energy and their serendipity, I guess it's well not to get too comfortable, to take it too easy, or to stick with the people and the things already known.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Promissory note

Apologies for my extended bloggy silence--but two conferences in two weeks, followed by playing host to a famous visiting scholar, have not been conducive to longer-form writing.

Rest assured, however, that I have Things to Say: about both my recent conferences and a fascinating wealth of other subjects.

Stay tuned!