Scenes from Academic Life August 4th, 2012 I. When she received her progress towards tenure review, she looked at the grid that the college included with the official letter stating what percentage of a raise she would receive the next year. She found her number—4 out of a possible 9—and checked it against the grid. She found that most professors had received a 5. 5 was average. She was below average. Unable to process this information in any other way, she took her dog for a walk through the back fields. Her dog is huge and coiled with energy, a chocolate lab who spends his indoor hours in a cage and when called bolts with too much force, sometimes knocking her down onto the kitchen floor. “Otto! No! Don’t you dare!” she screamed at him, the anger laced with a desperation she didn’t know was inside of her. Otto was already past the strawberries planted by her ex-boyfriend– who had recently left for a new job flying falcons over airstrips to scare the hawks away–by the time she had leash in hand and her coat on. She went out to find him, only two words in her head. “Below average.” The next year she took a new job, lower on the hierarchy, in Oxford. II. Depressed mothers were popping up that semester. Every week, it seemed, there was a new one. James’ was bipolar and devout. Ken’s was suicidal and violent. Louise’s was needy, needed her daughter to shield her emotionally during a divorce. I wondered whether an essay I had written, which perhaps they had googled, had influenced them. Was I their depressed mother model? Were they doing some oblique transference? Why did they feel so free, so licensed to write about mom and share their stories with the other 15 students, with me? Those poor women, I thought, in opposite directions from the classroom, in New York and San Francisco, regretful, texting to offspring before class, after class, those lonely women who had brought these aired-out, sad children to Tuesday 3:00-4:15 week after week. And these kids, they were something else. The love their sad moms. Not my crowd, back in the day. We were angry. Arms crossed, never making eye contact, always finding the longest words to circle round and round the hurt. These kids? They are unafraid to admit what they don’t know. They aren’t particularly ambitious (which is why they end up being more successful once the semesters end). They don’t rebel too hard. I loved these kids for their tortured concern for those moms who couldn’t get out of bed. III. Their offices were about 10 yards from each other. But in a small town, you can make 10 yards into a yawning expanse. The offices were perpindicular; one old building smudged against a newer one, with a door in between. Each building had its own entrance. So they took those separate entrances, those different exits, as they put down their computers and picked up lecture print-outs, held office hours.. He never went to town for lunch or coffee; too chancy. Might run into her. Friends often asked her if he had left town he was so hard to spot. He had perhaps made a tunnel, created a secret passageway from office to god knows where. IV. When it was a dress up occasion, a party or a performance, he always wore his leather pants, which was oh so very sad. One imagined them buying those pants together, in Europe, 15 years ago. That badge of bohunkness pathetically remained, revered in closet after closet after they moved from graduate school to first faculty job to second faculty job and then finally here, which they hoped would be third and final faculty job, but in that they were wrong, too. He would be denied tenure, and away they went again, leather pants folded up in the luggage, to be taken out again perhaps in the third year, when it might be safe again, at the departmental open house. V. The women were smart and ambitious and had jobs but did not see themselves as quite as smart and amibious as their husbands, who were the really brilliant ones, the ones with tenure-track jobs, who made the move to the town possible, and would determine whether or not they stayed or left. The husbands picked the kids up at school, organized play dates. They were model twenty-first century dads; the women could not complain. And anyway, it was his journal article acceptance they talked about at the dinner parties, the slightly overcooked meat and garden-grown salad dinners where it was setting yourself apart to pour a second glass. The women, they had made these deals. They decided at some crucial moment in their mid-20s how to orchestrate the life. And while they could never have articulated it, the women were the ones who set the stage for who would move for whom. This may have taken the form of a number of small actions seemingly generous and self-sacrificing in the modern mold. She would edit his revisions instead of writing her proposal. She would help him prepare for the defense and make dinner that night, leaving her reading untouched. The funny thing is, the men would have been okay with equal billing or even, for awhile, opening act. But it was safer for the women to have him lead, even if they asserted always that they were the ones with the idea of applying in the first place. That was their feminism: we can do everything, but he would shoulder just a smidgen more of the pressure of performance. They were sometimes uneasy with this deal, and sometimes complained, though always couched in a throw-away aside or one of those sweet yet passive aggressive dinner party remarks that quiet the table for one extra uncomfortable beat. “The chair always asks Jim what he thinks first. And when I offer my opinion he asks if I might organize an ad hoc committee.” That sort of thing. They men, they got the joke: they nodded and agreed, yes, it is all so unfair. But what the women knew is that they set it all up. Any regret about that decision they might have down the line–when the kids were in middle-school or when it was clear that permanent position was never going to open up, despite the dean’s yearly encouraging comments–they would have to shoulder, too. They had made the bed. VI. Every year the bus drops off a new, smallish but promising load of the entering class. Some are eager, proud survivors of the random firing squad of the 21st century job market. Those ones, the credulous ones disbelieving of their good fortune, you ask out for lunch at the café to go over the houses for sale in town, map out the terrain of high-level committees, give the skinny of wrongs done decades ago that explain departmental dysfunction, the ins and outs of preschool. You might even invite them to the potluck. Others step lightly to the ground, carrying only a few bags. Their advisors were pleased but to them it’s not what they dreamt and, after all did you know they don’t even have free-range in the local supermarket? For them, frequent quips jokes Midwestern dinnertime –six, really?–and soybean fields are a gesture of defiance and self-assertion. We don’t see this group at the summer softball games; they’re keeping it up, at least for now, off for the summer to larger libraries in cities with cultural topography. Then there are the substitutes, the mercenary soldiers paid to sit in while one of us spends a year in Kyoto or learning Italian. Of them most stay clear;. One friend decided she couldn’t invest in these itinerant, fly away souls. She couldn’t see how she could get a good return. Leave a Reply Click here to cancel reply. Name (required) Mail (will not be published) (required) Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.