The Congenial Academy


“Whatever you do, do not be nice to anyone. No favors. No help. No collaboration.

If you want to get ahead, only think of yourself.”

The speaker at the panel was not, as you might imagine, Gordon Gekko. The conference was not on Wall Street. The theme was not–quite–“greed is good.” This was, instead, a roundtable at a conference on ethnic American literature, and the speaker was a distinguished professor of English. The room was packed, more than any other panel I attended at the conference, as finishing graduate students looking for jobs, tenure-track faculty hoping for T&P (tenure and promotion), and even tenured associate professors hoping to become full professors listened and asked question after question. The title of the panel was “How not to Perish.”

I’m pretty sure my friends who are not academics think we’re all a bunch of hippies, the men too lazy too shave, the women too feminist to shave, everyone sitting around, wedged between books upon books, some piled in corners, some stuffed into milk crates or Ikea furniture. All are frizzy haired and bejeweled in some kind of “native” chunky jewelery purchased at a conference in Africa or India or South America or New Mexico, all busy thinking of ways to satisfy their Marxist, or better yet, lefty pinko dreams (I take these adjectives directly from my the lips of a family member), all completely disconnected from the “real” cutthroat, demanding world, evident, of course, in their not grooming (my sister, Nancy Botwin, tells me I’m the lowest maintenance person she’s ever met). We fight a lot, one imagines–against oppressive regimes, bankers, Republicans. That kind of thing.

The failures to wax, thread, shave, visit the hair salon, or apply lipstick aside, academics don’t strike me as dreamy idealists who spend all day writing petitions that no one will ever read. I wish, frankly, that were the case. Instead, I cannot help but note that this advice given by Distinguished Professor is the norm in academia. You think Wall Street is cutthroat? I can one-up you, Wall Street. Minus, of course, your fancy salary (but don’t worry–I am writing a petition against yours, you lowdown capitalist pig! I’m going to circulate it to all the class theorists I know!). How many times have I heard DP’s words from the mouths of advisors and colleagues? World peace, yes, but departmental peace? The word on the academic street is this: Screw all you all. I will get to the top (tenure, promotion, that book contract) by stomping on your head (of frizzy undyed hair) with my kick-ass steel-bottomed Birkenstocks.

Ah, what a world.

Now wish me luck on the job market ’12!


One response »

  1. HA. So true. Long ago and far away, in a land called pre-graduate school, I thought that maybe academia was “above it all” …and then I found out that in fact, the fighting was even worse because the pieces of the pie were so infinitely tiny. Whose office has (one tiny) window; whose course has bigger enrollments and why; whose work is way more theoretical (and thus harder, smarter, bigger, faster) than everyone else… sigh. Maybe we should’ve all gone to law school. We wouldn’t be “above it all” but at least we could afford a summer house to get away from it all…

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