Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Loving the low-cachet city

Though I've never been to Detroit, Frank Bruni's column yesterday ("Detroit: A Love Song") resonated with me. I live in a small and unglamorous Rust Belt city and will be spending my sabbatical in a large and unglamorous one (a place that exists, in the mind of most Northeasterners, mainly as a punchline). Both are terrific cities with lots to love, but increasingly I love the fact that they're cities that aren't all about themselves.

As Bruni writes,

The people there don't tether their identities to the luster or mythology of their surroundings. Their self-image isn't tied to their ZIP codes.

[. . . . ]

[I]f you inhabit the gilded precincts favored by those of us who fancy ourselves power brokers or opinion makers or players of one kind or another, it's a remarkable thing--and a welcome one.

The political operative in Washington, the financial whiz or magazine editor in New York, the studio executive in Los Angeles, the Internet impresario in Seattle or San Francisco: all are creatures not just of a profession but of a profession that blooms and struts in a given self-regarding place. Many have egos nourished by that terrain, which feeds a hyperawareness of status, a persistent jockeying for position.

Now, I grew up in Seattle and spent six years in Manhattan, and I love a world-class city at least as much as the next person. If I got a job offer in one of those places--or in Chicago or San Francisco, Boston or Austin--I probably wouldn't turn it down. But I find the geographically limited worldview of my creative-class peers both tedious and sad.

Certainly, there are industries that are centered around a single region, and it makes sense--it may even be necessary--for many people to live in-or-around D.C., L.A., or New York. But deriving your sense of hipness or glamor or self-consequence from where you live (or once lived) strikes me as a tragic kind of overcompensation. And I've got no time for transplants who can't forgive their current location for not being New York or San Francisco. Each of those cities? There's exactly one of. Move back, or get over it.

I wouldn't have moved here if I hadn't gotten this job, but I'd be thrilled to be here for another decade. Indeed, the fact that it's not hip and not a place that people move to means there's no anxiety about keeping up (cool new bars or restaurants open at the rate of about one per year) and no unusual cachet to doing so (at almost any venue you're equally as likely to run into your dentist, your tattoo artist, and some random meathead from your gym).

It's not that there's no tribal signalling of one's hipness and aesthetic and intellectual sensibility here, but it's not foregrounded in the same way. And thank goodness.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Against potential

I want to go on record as hating "potential." And "promise," too--promise is a real bastard.

Now, I assess potential all the time: in the classroom, in recommendation letters, and in job interviews. I don't expect this to stop soon. But potential is always a projection, and the younger or more junior a person is the easier it is to read him through the lens of your own experiences and biases. This student reminds me of that other student! So, she'll probably turn out the way that one did. This job candidate got his degree from Program X! So, he's probably about as strong as their other grads.

Or: I've never seen a person like this succeed. So I won't believe it until I see it.

I make such judgments when I have to, but I'm wary of them. I'm wary even though, as an Ivy-degreed white lady, the promise game has long been rigged in my favor. As far back as I can remember, I hated being evaluated by my potential. I wanted to have done something, not to be judged capable of doing it eventually. And I was terrified that those judging me were wrong: that their assessments were based on something trivial, some one smart thing I had said or done, or some superficial resemblance between me and a prior success. It was nice to be thought well of. But I never really believed it.

(Which may, incidentally, have something to do with my predilection for uncomforting or unkind authority figures.)

So I never understood the grousing in certain quarters about grad students becoming "too professionalized," and I never understood those who were sorry to trade their graduate institution affiliation on their name-badge for that of the less-elite institution that had hired them. To me, "professionalization" was a relief: I could stop worrying about whether I sounded like an idiot in my graduate seminars, or whether I was sufficiently praised and petted, and by whom, and what it all meant--instead, I had concrete goals like attending conferences and publishing articles. And as for my name badge? I hated worrying that people were only talking to me because they thought I was junior faculty at my alma mater. The place that hired me as a lecturer, and then the place that hired me as an assistant professor? Dude, I got those jobs.

Indeed, the best thing about my current career stage may be my confidence that any judgements about my "potential" are now--for the most part--grounded in what I've actually done.

I don't presume that my specific neuroses are widely shared, and I know that many people of my class and background are at least a little sad that they no longer live in a world of limitless options (now I'll never live in a yurt! now I'll never play saxophone on the streets of Paris!). But on the whole, even the most golden of former golden boys and girls seem happier and more grounded as adults than they were as students.

And in any case, we're past that now, all of us: past the stage where our futures are being constructed out of whole cloth by our elders: those people who thought they could predict who, at age eighteen or twenty-two--or who among a group of unpublished, inexperienced ABDs--would go on to stardom.

Well, most of us are past that.

Some people, it seems, still do get described chiefly in terms of their potential or promise, even many years into their career (and/or absent much experience or success in it). And some people get to be The Next Big Thing year after year, or are regarded as up-and-comers for decades.

If I dislike the rhetoric of potential when applied to those who are nothing but potential, I especially dislike it when applied to those who really should have delivered on it by now.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I may not have the inside track, but I know where it is

After suffering no more than the usual commercial-travel-related indignities, I'm now back in my native land. And I gotta say: despite the punishing heat, the miserable Tube, and the more-irritating-than-you'd-think absence of trash cans wherever a trash can might be desirable (yes, I know--and I DO blame the motherfucking IRA), it was an awesome trip. This was my fourth research trip to London in ten years, but it's been five years since the last one--and though I was using some of the same collections and even some of the same manuscripts, I might as well have been a completely different person.

For one thing, this is the first trip I've made to London that hasn't involved staying in a dorm room. Now, I may be hanging my hat in the UCL dorms in years to come, since only flukey good luck got me and Cosimo a pair of generous travel grants that allowed us to pool our resources and rent a beautiful flat in Notting Hill. But it was a major step up, and one that brought home to me my increasing. . . something. Age? Professional stability? Bourgeoisitude? Whatever you want to call it, I felt it.

Indeed, more than a research trip, this felt like an extremely long conference--ON METHAMPHETAMINES. I'm not sure that I got a full night's sleep more than once in two weeks, what with running from intellectual to social stimulation all day, every day: when I wasn't in the archives or working at home, I was having lunch, dinner, or drinks with friends and colleagues. I covered more of the city than I have in any prior trip; went out of town a few times; saw a bunch of theatre and a bunch of art; and somehow wound up dining in two Oxford colleges and two London clubs.

Now, I've usually had a few friends to meet up with in London, some who lived there and some who were there researching, and days in the archive are always exhausting. But usually I had a decent amount of downtime: time to read a few chapters of a novel every night, time to catch up on my sleep. This year, after five away, it was like everything was multiplied by five: five times as many people to see, five times as many things to do.

I don't say this either to brag about how glamorous my life is (because it isn't, particularly), or to complain about the burdens of, like, knowing people and doing things (because here's the world's tiniest violin). I'm just marveling, as I suppose I never cease to do, at how quickly things change and how surprising it feels not to be quite the person that you were before.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Further surprises in the archive

After my last post, things at Small Archive improved: the archivist made some phone calls and arranged for me to have access to the manuscript for a third day; I got useful work done (involving some modest but real research surprises); and on my last day I encountered, quite by accident, someone who was thrilled to have me there.

I was sitting looking at the manuscript in a spare librarian's office (the special collections room being used for other things, including storage), when someone came through looking for the librarian.

"Oh!" He said, encountering me instead. "Hello! I see you're looking at one of our treasures!"

Oh, um, yeah. I said.

He introduced himself as a historian who sits on a board that advises Small Archive. When he heard what I was doing, he invited me to lunch, introduced me around, and showed me a few local sights associated with the author of the manuscript--who has an important connection to institution that houses the archive.

As I left, he asked to be kept in the loop once the edition comes out, as the institution would love to host a celebration.


So yes, as several of the comments to my last post noted: there are advantages as well as hassles to working at less research-oriented archives.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Surprises in the archive

I'm in London for what was supposed to be a leisurely two weeks of research: time to do what I needed to do while also enjoying the city and seeing some friends. My research agenda is straightforward, and I thought I'd budgeted for any surprises: I'm just double-checking my transcription of a few different manuscripts of the text I'm co-editing. I figured I needed a maximum of four days at the smaller archive that holds the more important manuscript, and less than that at the British Library.

Today was my first day at the smaller archive. I've worked there before and I'd arranged my visit months in advance, in consultation with the head librarian. A week ago I checked back in with her to confirm. She said that she'd be on vacation but that the archivist would have the manuscript ready when I arrived.

It was good day. I went at about the pace I expected, and figured that if I continued working that steadily and came in a bit earlier each morning, I could get done in two more days. When I returned the manuscript to the archivist, I mentioned--just by way of making conversation--that I was hopeful I'd be done by closing time on Monday.

Oh, the archivist said. No one's here next week. We're all on vacation.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Playing in the minors

Last night Cosimo and I went to a minor-league baseball game played by our local AAA team. I'd been to a couple of AA games back in college and grad school, but while those outings were great fun, everything about this enterprise seemed more professional: a gorgeous ballpark, smack downtown; a free performance afterwards by the symphony orchestra; a spectacular fireworks display. (I can't claim to remember the level of play at the AA games well enough to make a comparison on athletic grounds.)

I wondered aloud how much the baseball players made and whether it was enough to live on. "Oh sure," said Cosimo. "Not enough to live large--but it's definitely a full-time job. The average triple-A player probably makes as much money as we do."

Which got me thinking--since this week is apparently Compare-Academia-to-Other-Stuff-It's-Sorta-But-Not-Really-Like Week at Ferule & Fescue--how helpful professional sports are as an analogy for the ruthless winnowing of academia. The best ballplayer your high school has ever seen may not get a college athletic scholarship. Many of the best college players don't get the chance to go pro. And of the few who do, most wind up playing in the minors or in overseas leagues; even among sports fans, they don't have a national reputation.

However, the players in the minors are still phenomenally successful. They get paid to do what they love. They have a dedicated local fan base and the best of them are known to players in the majors. Other athletes know who they are and how to value them.

And that's broadly similar to how academia works. I don't know about the rest of you, but when I was on the job market I got a lot of snobbish comments from expensively-educated acquaintances who assumed that the selectivity of a college's undergraduate admissions had some kind of transparent relationship to its desirability as an employer--or the difficulty of getting an academic appointment there.

A friend's boyfriend, upon hearing that I was shortlisted for a job near his hometown in New Jersey, was plainly incredulous: "But. . . would you even take that job?"

"Are you kidding?" I said. "It's a tenure-line job, with a 3-3 load, within commuting distance of New York or Philadelphia. Their junior Shakespearean is already kind of a big deal. It's a really good job."

"If you say so. But the kids I knew who went there were a bunch of dumbasses."

This happens all the time, sometimes benignly (an aunt or uncle just assumes that, with one degree from Cornell and another from Princeton, you're destined for a job at another Ivy--or at least at a state school they've heard of) and sometimes not so benignly (I briefly dated a local guy who repeatedly implied that having a B.A. from the best of the area colleges made him my intellectual superior--because I taught at a school he sneered at).

The error lies in thinking that being in the minors isn't already a sign of success and of having already survived some significant culls. The related error lies in thinking that the only successes are people affiliated with institutions that nonspecialists think they know something about.

I don't want to push this analogy too far or try to nail down the exact equivalencies between the different levels of the minor leagues and the different levels of academic employment; you see what I'm getting at. Those outside of academia only keep up with the local teams or the major leagues--the schools in their region, or the schools with national reputations or the schools that their kids and their friends' kids are applying to. That's perfectly reasonable. But within the profession, the standards of judgement are a bit different.

People move up from the minors--or they don't, but they're still highly trained with an exceptional set of skills (and they're still extraordinarily lucky). In other words, they're all very much in the game.