Thursday, May 25, 2006

Loss and the academy

I have a close friend here named Gorgeous Big Personality. When I arrived here last August to take up this contractually limited appointment, I rediscovered her…she and I had a graduate seminar together about six years before, and we’d become fast friends in that grad-seminar way…the way that doesn’t transpire into a friendship outside of that context, but that is intense and oh-so-valuable within it. And then she’d gone on to another university to do her PhD and I’d never seen nor heard of her again. It turns out her husband, Lovely Humble Man, had been hired here for the year, like I was. So we rediscovered each other, and it’s been a year-long love-in. They’re a fantastic couple and she is particularly brilliant and perhaps the kindest person I’ve ever known. It’s been a year of drinking hard together in that semi-genteel academic sense I’ve discovered since I’ve become a professor. This leads to bonds.

Anyway, Lovely Humble Man, who is an accomplished junior scholar, has suffered defeat at the hands of academe since he finished his PhD several years ago. He is one hell of a smart guy, working in an obscure but somehow sexy/hip field, with a prestigious postdoc under his belt and his book on the way. His students like him. Suffered defeat, you say? That doesn’t sound like defeat…And yet, from his perspective, it has been…five years of applying for jobs has resulted in nothing but the 9-month contract at this university. He didn’t get a single interview this year. GBP talked to me about how shattered he’d been. This has torn him apart, in her words, as a guy singularly suited for academic life. He wanted so badly to just settle somewhere and do the research he loved. Instead of criss-crossing the country running after the nine-month contracts that are increasingly the favoured money-saving scheme of bastard (and shortsighted) administrations everywhere.

Yet this year, what did transpire was an offer of a permanent, very fancy position at this very university. They loved him, it seemed. It was all contingent on some external funding, but there were reassurances from high and low that the funding was in the bag. And he was the chosen candidate, the golden boy.

So LHM started to relax. He and GBP started looking at houses to buy in this here weird city, and planning kids. GBP, who is working desperately to finish her PhD this summer, managed to get herself a not-too-shabby full-time contract here for next year. Things were set. LHM seemed giddy. So did GBP. I went to real estate open houses with them. They had a meeting two days ago with a credit union about a mortgage.

Then yesterday LHM got a call from the VP. He was asked to come in as soon as possible. GBP consulted with me anxiously, and we decided that it couldn’t be anything but good news. Were all ready to break out the champagne.

At 5pm yesterday I was sitting at home at my desk, when GBP called to me through my screen door. She’d come to get me because LHM didn’t get the fancy position. The funding hadn’t come through. He was sitting alone on a patio drinking beer while she came to round me up and take me there to commiserate. She looked stricken but professed numbness. When we got to the bar, LHM was joking around. But it was at his own expense, and I could feel them slip into a dynamic they’d thought they’d escaped from.

Fuck. This fucking life. Over drinks and dinner we and a couple of other friends had the conversation junior scholars have so often it has become banal (sorry, folks). About what we are not told when we choose this path. And the sad knowledge that we would probably have chosen it anyway. Which should make us proud of our passion and commitment, but instead, at moments like these, makes us feel profoundly idiotic. Just the other night, over dinner at my house, GBP had been talking about how really, when you really arrive – when you escape from insecure, contractual hell – being a professor is the best job in the world. Last night, she called it “the third worst job in the world” – can’t remember the first two. Putting things in perspective, and remembering the millions of people out there who do excruciatingly difficult labour for fifty cents a day, I think it’s somewhere in the middle, perhaps with a strong pull toward “best”. Perhaps its rank changes depending on where you are in the profession, and in your career.

No matter, really. Nights like this – happening to good, nay great, people like GBP and LHM – are sick. And thinking of their next few days together – which are apparently going to consist of entire days’ worth of episodes of Lost – gives me shivers.

This has been a rehashing of what so many of us already know. But like any trauma - and I think this is what it is (like), to a limited extent - it needs going over. Ugh.


Mireille said...

I like it!
On a more serious note, what a good opportunity to reflect for a young fellow about to start grad school!

Hilaire said...

Merci for the feedback, Mireille! Thanks for being my first comment.

App Crit said...

Wow, very powerfully told.

I've heard the topic come up a lot, especially among my friends in adjunct purgatory: how could the reality of post-PhD life be understood earlier in grad school? I don't know myself--I don't think I would have believed any of it at the time.

My own assumption is that most of us want to work in a school not unlike the one where we took our PhDs. Unfortunately, not a great lot of us get to do that. We, therefore, find ourselves changing addresses a lot or moving to places we never imagined, or whatever. So...yes, we're not working in the mines, but it still kinda sucks.

The more I read, the more I enjoy your blog.