Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Academic baby-kissing

The other night GF and I went to a political event. It was a fundraising dinner for a political hopeful in our area. This was as good these kinds of events can get, from our perspective – a truly progressive politician, a woman who has a multi-ethnic base of support – out in force that night – in our overwhelmingly working-class constituency. But I found the whole thing a little hard to swallow. Other politicians were there, gladhanding. As much as I admire these people’s work – and sat with or near some of them, and could see that they are human beings – I couldn’t get over the reek of opportunism. The quite genuine agenda and great work of the politician we were supporting was sometimes overwhelmed by too many fake smiles and strategic chitty-chat on the part of her potential future cohort.

Anyway, it got me thinking again about what became clear to me this first year of full-time university teaching: that smarminess will get you places. I wanted to believe that academe was above that kind of politicking. But though most of the people I encounter in this realm are lovely, passionate, genuine people, the ones who aren’t really stick in my craw. I watch them use people, or otherwise treat them badly, and get rewarded for it.

The person I haven’t yet been able to get over is a former friend of mine. I watched her engage in games with faculty and students alike (oy, the stories I could tell – but I won’t), plastering over every interaction in the hallways of that institution with a transparently artificial smile. It felt like as if she had read a Spark Notes version of Dale Carnegie, one that counseled her to “always smile and use people’s names a lot – it will make them feel important”. All of this came, for me, at the end of years of watching her screw over good people. And she once revealed that the secret of her success was, essentially, to treat people well so she could get stuff from them later.*

To make a long story short, this person has made it. She demonstrated highly questionable ethics in her first year as a professor, and pissed off the people who hired her. Her work has never been anything to write home about. But she put her smarminess to work and she’s home free.

We all know of cases like hers. What is it about this profession that makes us susceptible to folks like this? We should know better. Are professors so lacking in social skills that they can’t tell the difference between genuine engagement and self-interested pandering?

I think of my former friend with a certain rage as I watch my friends Gorgeous Big Personality and Lovely Humble Man continue to suffer after LDH's defeat. The pair wrote the book on ethics, and where does it get them? It burns my ass to realize that their life could probably look a lot different right about now if Lovely Humble Man weren’t so, well, humble. If he were willing to do the academic politicking that gets the smarmies the good jobs. And I can’t help but compare myself to my smarmy colleague – after all, we’re in the same cohort, and were on the job hunt at the same time over the last year. I’m no saint, but I have made very conscious decisions not to compromise myself several times over the course of a young academic career – and let’s not kid ourselves, the opportunities for compromise are rampant, are they not? Putting aside my own writing – because that’s not what smarminess is about, and I honestly think I’m at least the equal of my smarmy colleague in that respect, in terms of both output and quality – seeing her and other smarmies succeed makes me wonder if my life would look different, had I gone the baby-kissing route.

*Yes, this person was my friend. This has taught me a lot about, uh, being more choosy with my friends.


Texter said...

Ah, opportunism. It's something I've been thinking about alot. What does it mean to preach social change in the classroom but practice individual(ist) ambition and superficial connection (rather than solidarity) outside? I've actually been working on some kind of post on collectivity and collectives, which takes a different road that what you've broached here, but may be related. I would like to think that being genuinely genuine and ethically committed means something.

Hilaire said...

Yes, these are precisely the questions! I really look forward to reading your post, which I know will be more insightful than my angry rant.

Texter said...

I've been behind - busy right now - but I'm thinking on it and will write when I can. Your questions/posts are interesting and thought-provoking.