Saturday, June 7, 2008

Party Update: Academic Liminality

So I went right out to the party, knowing that I’d go if I just went with the momentum of it all, and I had a pretty good time. It was also not really what I had expected. It turns out I saw quite a few people who I knew; I had TA’d for many of them. You see, the person who invited me is a new TT hire and the partner of said person is filing a dissertation. The party was very much a department party full of faculty welcoming the new TT hire to their department (not the same as mine). So the age and hierarchy and relationship to the people being celebrated breakdown ---- compounded by large numbers of children ---- was just kind of weird and unusual for me to encounter.

The subsequent mix of awkwardness and familiarity made me realize that I’m at a really weird, liminal position in the academy ---- you’d think grad school is liminal but really, you’re just on the bottom of the totem pole and treated like crap ---- no, as someone who is graduating along with lots of colleagues and a year or so after most of my friends who got TT jobs, I’m transitioning between two very different structural positions (well, ideally I will transition once I get a job). There were five or six “professors,” their first year on the TT, who, when I pressed them on it (for I love nothing so much as a little gossip) all said that they didn’t feel any different than when they were grad students, that they were struggling to figure out how everything worked on the other side and that they were still waiting for that feeling of, as I had put it, “I’m a real boy now.” There were also 5 of us from 4 different UCs who had just finished (four defenses and me, although I was claiming to everyone that I was done. Shh. Don’t out me.) There were also some people who had been staff people at my school for the past 20 years, and several professors of the Associate and Full and Distinguished variety.

So I obviously totally need to figure out how to maneuver in these types of situations ---- it was clear to me that my usual “charm,” which consists of being as snarky and profanity-laden in person as on this blog, with the accompanying problem of I don’t remember any of the social niceties like please and thank you etc until just a smidge too late (I blame my years of rebellion against my mother, when I would purposely not learn any of the manners she was teaching me) ----- yes it was clear that my usual abrasive charm does not go over so well in a mixed situation. I think I totally cheezed it with one of the staff people when she was asking what I knew about her dept. and the grad students and I mentioned I had done a lot of union work and also I said some things about them having had problems in the past. Then, after I said it, I remembered that you probably shouldn’t badmouth somebody else’s stuff in front of them. Duh. Also, you can’t snark about any professors in a room where there are professors; it might get back to them. And you probably shouldn’t air any dirty laundry or even too much of a cynical attitude ---- I got some shocked looks. Some were looks of pleased and delighted shock, as in “I can’t believe you said my innermost gripes!”, but they were looks of startlement nonetheless.

It made me realize just how bitter, how “us” vs “them,” our grad student parties get in tone. And that’s coming from someone who’s taken newbie grads aside and told them to cool it for being too hostile and adversarial. But I haven’t ever really been at a party ---- well, outside of the department holiday parties, but those are on campus and feel like a special hazing session ---- where the splits of union and management, boss and worker, prof and student, employed and unemployed newly-minted PhDs, the whole thing mixed with tenure and long memories, all get lumped together and expected to interact.

Grad student parties are all very homogeneous ---- even in age, for the most part ---- and are very “safe” spaces. You could puke under the kitchen table or hook up with the wrong person or have a huge fight with a fellow grad ---- and that would be bad, and also produce some wonderful gossip and entertainment for the rest of us, but we wouldn’t be shocked at it happening. Usually everyone’s on the same “side” and are all sharing gossip and info about how “the other half lives.” You just can’t really do any of that when the other half is living right there in the room with you.

As I said, weird. It’s all a very new and strange idea to me. The newness, when compounded with alcohol and pre-existing troubles with verbal self-censoring, means that I’m going to have to think a lot about how to navigate this in the future. And hope that none of the graduation parties in my department have the same situation. Because I’d like to have more champagne than I did this time.


r. r. vlorbik said...

oh, lucky sis.
how i envy this.

Earnest English said...

I find those parties to be more stressful than any others -- where you are kind of "on" and have to mind your manners in a big way but you're supposed to pretend you're relaxed and enjoying yourself in a social situation and not wondering exactly how you're going to totally fuck up. These are the ones where I definitely drink before the party, but then not so much as the party goes on. Mostly I avoid them. But then, moving 1800 miles away has made it easy for me to reject invites. Move away, Sis. Come down here and we'll hide from everyone and only deal with people through text.

Sisyphus said...

Ooh, look, someone wrote me a poem! But vlorbik, what are you envying exactly? Graduating? It can't be that you envy uncomfortable parties.

EE, I think that with the annual department party I know it's going to be "work" and an ordeal, which ironically makes it all ok. I think it was mainly the whole expecting it to be a purely social event and then being surprised was the big thing for me here.

Anonymous said...

i so feel you on this. when i would speak to professors who i had relationships with as an advisee as i spoke to them in their office, and have them and other profs look at me like i was crazy. must remember not to curse too much, or at all, at parties.

r. r. vlorbik said...

i'm just missing grad school mostly.
also i'm just over 90 days sober.
but who counts.

there was an obscuro-movie-reference
in there too ...