Sunday, May 2, 2010

Shop talk

I attended the department's annual party last week. Even though I've always had to share an office with people no matter where I teach, and even though we always chat about our students and our research, I only socialize with them sporadically. Partly it's because I always have a million things to do. Partly it's because I don't actually "work" with the other instructors; I work with my students. And I don't socialize with my students. Once a group from one of my classes invited me to go out drinking with them, but I said no.

Although the people in my graduate program took most of the same seminars together and are more or less in the same academic boat, at times I feel like graduate school is a little like my grade school, where several cliques formed in the first grade and more or less stayed intact through the senior year of high school. And I've never been good with cliques, neither in grade school nor grad school. Most of the grad students are friendly and nice to me, but I doubt I'll become one of the "insiders" anytime soon.

It's not like I've never hung out with the other grad students; I have gone out with them every now and then. But it's difficult for us to find time to hang out because in academia it's not only acceptable to be a workaholic; it's also expected that you will be one. When I was completing my master's degree, I met a girl who said she wanted to be a professor because professors only had to work a few hours a week and had the rest of the time off, including weekends and summers. And I thought, Have you never MET a professor?

But this year, even though I had a million things to do (as usual), I decided to go to the party, which was at a bar. At first I felt shy and hung towards the back, but then I mustered the courage to "circulate," and chatted with the people standing in small groups around the room. I talked with grad students, lecturers, and professors I already knew, but I also introduced myself to several people I didn't know but had seen around campus.

There were one or two people that I introduced myself to or tried to talk to, but they would just smile, say hi, and then turn away from me to go back to their conversations with  other people; I stood there for a couple minutes before quietly walking away. Huh. I guess this means we won't be AFF(Academic Friends Forever). I guess this means we won't be trading copies of Judith Butler's books and telling inside jokes about Foucault. I guess this means we won't camp out together to wait in line to get Doctorow's autograph. FINE, then.

However, most of the people I talked to at the party were really nice, and I wished I'd spent more time getting to know them earlier. Most of the conversations centered around work, and I admit that I was also guilty about talking about my work a little too much. What can I say? I pretty much see everything in terms of work; a good day for me is if I get a lot of work done.

After a couple hours, however, all of the shop talk started to get a little too much, even for me. I would've been happy to talk about non-academic stuff, like my favorite TV shows. But there are a couple people who always say, "Oh, I don't even have time to watch TV. I'm too busy working on..." (Oh, well. If they can't recognize the brilliance of Sam Waterston or Hugh Laurie, then that's their loss.)

There are a couple other people who claim not to be workaholics, and they'll say stuff like, "Oh, I haven't even thought about that project yet," which almost makes me feel embarrassed about spending so much time on my work.                                                     

I say "almost" because even though I do obsess over my work, and even though certain aspects of being a professor-in-training drive me up the wall sometimes (like the grade complaint e-mails from students; having to work extra jobs since an academic stipend is not enough to live on;  the hundreds of pages of critical theory that often send me running to the dictionary in order to understand what I'm reading, only to find that the definitions are even more confusing than the words I'm looking up, which make me wring my hands in despair because I can't always understand the dense phrasing that they use, and then I think about how much easier it is just to read fiction without fifty citations per paragraph...), at the end of the day I still want to be a professor.  And I don't think I should feel bad just because I'm passionate about my work and am willing to work a bunch of part-time jobs to support myself while I pursue my career goals. I actually fantasize about being like those scholars in those documentaries about literary classics, where they talk excitedly about their research on authors and critics who have been dead for hundreds of years.

Being a professor is second on my list of what I've always wanted to be. (Being a writer is number one.)  I'd also like to be a CIA agent, but I'm thinking it probably won't be as much fun as Sidney Bristow made it look. I'd probably end up getting my cover blown within the first week or something.

Getting a tenure-track position is about as difficult as landing a spot in Oprah's book club, but most people hope for it anyway. Me, as long as I get to keep teaching, learning, writing, and actually earn a living where I won't have to work a zillion jobs in order to feed my M&Ms and Frappuccinos habit, I'll be happy.

Still, though, I left the party just in time to get to the gym for my evening dance class. It was a nice switch to go from talking about work to giggling over dance moves with other people in the class.


  1. Well done for going to the party and having the courage to introduce yourself around in the first place! That's something I always find a bit daunting and I'm impressed by anyone who can do it.

    As a former teacher I've found teachers to be among the worst for shop-talk; even worse than in the corporate world! Get 2+ teachers together and within five mintues they'll be talking shop.

  2. Hi Talli,
    It was kind of daunting to introduce myself around, but I figured I couldn't just stand by the refreshment table all night. :)
    You're right that teachers are among the worst for shop-talk. I think it's because teaching is one of those jobs that is all-consuming, so that you think about it and talk about it even when you're not at school.

  3. ARGH, I hate the whole "oh, I don't have time to watch TV" attitude! I get it if you really are busy (like me, I have to limit the shows I get into) or if you're just not into TV, but it's the whole superiority thing that bugs me.

    Everyone has their escapism. Including YOU, Mr./Ms. I'm-Too-Good-for-TV. Yours may be going to a bar or eating ice cream or reading magazines, but YOU HAVE A WAY TO RELAX. So don't judge mine.

  4. Hi maybeimamazed,
    For me, watching crime dramas is pretty relaxing, even if the plots get intense sometimes. I guess I like the way that everyone usually manages to figure things out.

  5. Being an English professor was second on my list as well. When I entered college my freshman year at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, I had this professor probably in her late twenties, who taught poetry, and she was everything I wanted to be. She wore her hair in a loose bun and seemed like a character in a Jane Austen novel. So cultured, so intelligent, so literary!!

  6. Jane Austen's characters (as well as Austen herself) are always inspiring. Even Mrs. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, because she was so hilarious. So to meet someone like any of those characters in real life is wonderful.

  7. NW, I relax on Saturdays by watching Dateline and 48 Hours. So I feel ya. ;)

  8. I lose respect for people who say they don't watch TV. It's weird. They say there's "nothing on"...uh...there are thousands of options. It's like people who say they don't like movies. How can you not like movies?! Who does not enjoy cinematic adventures?! And that's what TV is, short cinematic adventures.

    Okay, I'm done ranting.

    I'm not very good at small talk so I wouldn't have done very well at a gathering like that.

  9. Hi Palindrome,
    I too don't believe people when they say nothing's on. True, there are some shows that I don't like, but I just choose not to watch them. And there are so many shows out there, like you said; I'm sure that anyone could find at least one show worth watching.