Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Day 19 "In the trenches" (oscillation edition)

Oscillating weather, that is. Yesterday afternoon it was 70 degrees, crystalline blue skies, and the kind of sunset-golden light that Natalie Goldberg rhapsodizes about in New Mexico but for which we pay half-price in Lubbock. This morning it was dramatic storm clouds rolling in (every Massachusetts sea-coast kid of my generation learned the "red skies at night: sailors' delight / red at dawning: sailors take warning" trope, and it's pretty darned accurate). By 9am, in the midst of a search committee phone interview, it was snowing lightly. By noon it was overcast and gray. Now windy, shiny, and cold.

As the much-missed Molly Ivins once said, "if you don't like the Texas weather, wait ten minutes." We's all meteorologically oscillatin' up here in this crib.

Can't talk much about the search as that would violate ethics and good manners, but I can comment, in passing, that the lessons learned in the great wisdom traditions--and, for that matter, on job-sites--are well applied in both bureaucracies and academic communities, and most especially in those places where bureaucracy and academia converge: searches, committee-work, and dissertation defenses. These are, potentially, dehumanizing situations, because they are designed to put (typically) quantitative measures on qualitative and subjective assessments--and nothing is more subject and qualitative than the assessment of one human's performance by other humans. The way to counter this, as the great Gary Snyder once said of his work on the California Arts Commission (back in the good old days when CA had a progressive policy wonk--Jerry Brown-- as governor, rather than a posing, Botoxed, grade-Z actor--pick Ronny or Aanold, they equally represented the triumph over substance over content). Gary said: "act openly, admit error, take responsibility, tell the truth."

These are not bad rules for any bureaucratic decision making; in fact, they humanize the process--which is precisely why so few bureaucrats deign to employ them (cue the point-haired boss in Dilbert). So, in our own academic / bureaucratic conduct, we try to do the same: to seek transparency, to answer questions honestly (if, where required, only partially), to give reasons for the questions we ask ourselves, to move swiftly but with maximal consideration.

None of them are hard rules to follow, if you remember what it's like on the other side. Most academics that I know--including myself--are prone to a kind of reminiscent windbag pompous nostalgia, when confronted with current students or candidates present suffering or life uncertainties. The quintessential (just because it's stereotypical doesn't mean it never happens) response by an overage-in-grade tenured professor to a student's, candidate's, or junior colleague's expression of concern, fear, exhaustion, or unhappiness, is an expansive "well, I remember when I was in graduate school [the job search, the dissertation process, etc], and I remember that I thought it was really awful but really it's not so very bad as all that and you'll look back on these times and realize that they really weren't so bad as all that and I can tell you a story about my time in graduate school [the job search, the dissertation process, etc]..." ad infinitum ad nauseum.

This is defensive bullshit. No professor really remembers what it was actually like, and entirely too many of them take active measures to forget what it was like, take up a posture of defensive nostalgic self-engrossment.

Because to be in graduate school, in the dissertation process, or on the job market is a painful experience. It's physically and emotionally exhausting, uncertain, demanding, disorientating, and (can be) prone to humiliation. It's roughly akin to asking some pasty-faced low-aerobics 18 - hours - a - day - in - the - swivel-chair dissertating student (that would be me, at that stage) to stand up on a runway in New York and Paris and parade all his/her assets and faults down the row while a bunch of forgot - how - hard - it - was tenured faculty pontificate about his/her faults and assets. It can be incredibly demoralizing, and it's very easy for that to happen.

But, as Henry Kaiser once said to me, patiently explaining why his World Out of Time CD series had reimbursed all the Malagasay musicians fairly, in the way that Paul Simon's Graceland had flagrantly avoided, "It's not hard to do the right thing."

It's not hard to be fair, considerate, timely, honest, thoughtful, compassionate, and all those other things Gary Snyder called for: you take a little extra time, or make one more phone call, or send one more email reminder, or take one more millisecond to confirm that your mental focus is on the candidate and the process, not the indulgence of your own self-engrossed nostalgic ego. These are not big things--they are small things. But taken cumulatively, they amount to the difference between a positive, constructive, mutually respectful experience, and one that is clinical at best, dehumanizing or disrespectful at worst. And to make those small positive things happen takes one very big thing: the honest acknowledgment, at least internally, that graduate school, the dissertation process, and the job market are at times painful.

Too many senior faculty forget this, because too many senior faculty want to forget this. For most people, past trauma is something to be sublimated, avoided, squelched, stuffed, or otherwise ignored. Going through the grad school - dissertation - job search is "hard goddamned work" (q.v. Wesley Snipes in White Men Can't Jump) and too many of us who are past that point do everything we can to forget it.

But we shouldn't. We should remember what it was actually like, in order to retain some sense of empathy, collegiality, and compassion for the person on the other side of the desk (or the conference call). I walked out of my final doctoral oral exam--through which I went in such a high-adrenaline state that I can't remember the experience, but which I apparently nailed--and leaned boneless against one of the walls in the old Sycamore Hall on the IU campus, and stared into space, and said aloud, to the empty corridor, "Don't you ever fuckin' forget what this feels like. Not ever." Because, after 12 years of graduate school, I had heard that pontifical self-loving suffering-denying nostalgic reminiscent bullshit from long-tenured professors (not, Jah be praised, from any of the revered members of my committee) to know that they really do consciously seek to forget. Because it hurts too much, and acknowledging to a student just how hard it is means you have to engage with the fact that the person across the desk from you is in a scary, exhausting, and uncertain place.

So: "act openly, admit error, take responsibility, tell the truth." Rules for Living. Or at least for ethical bureaucracy.

Below the jump: 4-season skies on the South Plains.

1 comment:

Mac Tíre said...

every Massachusetts sea-coast kid of my generation learned the "red skies at night: sailors' delight / red at dawning: sailors take warning" trope, and it's pretty darned accurate

Consequently everyone on the gulf coast in my generation got this one too.....did you ever get, "when it's sunny and it rains, the devil is beating his wife." Fairly gruesome...but, that's the deep south for you.