Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Breaking of the Fellowship of the Postdoc

Well, perhaps I should have known that the first year of the postdoc was too good to be true, friendship-wise. I just assumed that everyone would be friendly and have free time for me and have similar interests and beliefs as me. I had a few bumps with the shit-stirrer (because he likes to be a shit-stirrer and that's not my style) and the person who could never accept that s/he left California went back to California, but by and large, we hung out a bunch. Including the newly-hired faculty to an extent.

(Yr humble blogger. Although my hair never looks as good. The hairy toes and love of Second Breakfast are a good match, though.)

Then we brought in a couple new postdocs --- one was never around, one I only sorta got along with but we'd both invite everyone to various social things, and one is just as nice and lovely as the first year people. Things started falling off a bit; the tt faculty especially, and as the tt faculty and a couple postdocs' wives got pregnant, first the wives dropped out of various social things, then the husbands. Things seemed not quite as nice and friendly as the second year.

At the end of the year, the one who was never around left, the prickly one left, deciding that adjuncting back at husband's PhD institution would be better than postdocing here, and Angry Anarchist Postdoc left the country for the equivalent of a tenure track job in a faraway land.

(Will he return? Probably not. But landing a tenure track job is a lot like being a wizard who returns from almost certain death, right? I mean, tenure track jobs are basically only legends these days, right?)

This year started out all right --- I was trying to get people to hang out with me and for everyone to come out for a meal and a few beers at least once a week. But then I started being witness to stories that would be great fodder for the blog, if only I could post them and still have them still be funny but not identifiable. Seriously, hilarious. And jail time is involved.

Then very quickly these stories I was witnessing became very unfunny. They were sad, awkward, and uncomfortable. Perhaps this was to be expected when the postdoc committee met and drew up a short list, and then only one person from the short and long list agreed to come, it pays so little here. So they went back to the pool and called every single applicant. They finally filled two of the remaining three spots. But I got the feeling that there were problems in both sociableness and academic socialization in these postdocs. I would not be surprised if these problems ended up derailing their academic chances.

(I hasten to add that one of our new postdocs is wonderful to get along with, funny and plucky and brave and if all of them had these qualities everything would be fine:

This postdoc is very sparkly and cheerful and especially since we do not work in the same scholarly areas I am rooting for Sparkle Postdoc to get some amazing job somewhere.)

The first problem --- no wait, this is the second problem. But it was a bigger blow-up.

The stress was getting to all of us. But my good friend and postdoc from my first year here, Local Kid Makes Good, has taken it hardest, I think. She dropped off the radar at one point, and said something about dealing with being depressed over the summer. But while we had office hours at the same time, it seemed like I saw her pretty regularly and we were for the most part getting along. (I hope? I am now paranoid and reading into everything we said to each other in the last few months...)

But her temper and ability to put up with bullshit have both suffered, resulting in a shouting match with another postdoc in the middle of one of our outings. This happened almost at the same time as the two other new postdocs got in a huge debacle of a fight with each other, and now everyone is keeping away from everyone else. Remember those logic problems where you need to sit people around a table but Bill won't sit next to Mary and Mary cannot sit next to Sue or John, but John only wants to sit next to Bill?

Now whenever I send out an email to invite people out for something, I either get a bunch of "Is ___ coming? I won't go if it's so."

Or silence.

Since the blowup at our local bar, I have barely heard from Local Kid Makes Good. I agree that this new person said stuff that was sexist and dumb. I feel like the argument was over the top and pointless, though, mainly because I am pessimistic about changing the minds of sexist people. But this new person was really rattled and has spent a lot of time with me talking through everything. I wouldn't choose this new person (who needs a name but I am strangely coming up short in the LOTR pantheon) over Local Kid Makes Good, but I am worried that she thinks so. I am also worried that I am just plain old annoying and have driven her --- and everyone else --- away by simple fact of my personality. I mean, if the only postdocs they could get were people who were beyond socially awkward, and I am a postdoc here, then QED...?

This semester I am all alone in my office, since everyone else teaches on the days I am not there, and I am all alone out at dinner and the bar, since the new postdocs have managed to displease and alienate either each other or the established people.

So when I send out the emails inviting people out for a burger and some beers...

This is the first problem. There is someone here who is just ... difficult to hang out with and impossible to have a conversation with. At first I could get around this with just the sheer numbers of people at the table, by reminding everyone that if we all talk, then Gollum won't be monopolizing the conversation. And if you don't want to watch him eat, you could always sit diagonally from him. And if we just set up a few code words, we can steer the conversation away from himself and his more pompous verbal tics.

Now, however, when I send out a call to hang out, this is the only person who shows up.

I don't like disinviting someone from a hangout; that's shitty. And I don't want to not hang out with people; it gets lonely here. And the problem is not that this person is unpleasant, but that now we have hung out alone a couple times and I have figured out how lonely this person is and how much this person suffers from the effects of having a personality that drives people away. I don't want to laugh at him; I feel sorry for Smeagol. That was kind of horrible and humbling to learn. And knowing that, I can't turn him away, and I'm not sure I can bring back more postdocs as a buffer effect, and I don't want to spend the rest of this year only socializing with him --- there's this creepy effect of watching one's own worst social fears embodied there across the table, covered in ketchup.

Is there any hope for a poor lone hobbit to escape to a more congenial place? Is there no hope of Fellowship? I'd take a fellowship, too, especially if it paid more than here.


Bardiac said...

Oh, that sounds miserable. I'm so sorry.

Anonymous said...

Also sorry. Earlier in the post, I was thinking "There always comes the moment when Our Hero has to strike boldly out alone!" but then you got to Smeagol. I belong to a group that used to have a Smeagol. Because Sir John treated him with compassion, I managed to do so as well, though before that he really creeped me out, and a lot of other people in the group were even more creeped out, so I know how awful this sort of situation is for everyone. I wish I had some good advice. But remember, I've met you, and you don't strike me as socially awkward (okay, maybe that's damning with faint praise, but I get by). Rather, I expect you're the one really socially adept person here, the one who understands that you have to invite everyone, and the one who has the social intelligence or empathic ability or whatever it is to allow you to deal with Smeagol. OK, one idea now comes to mind: could you and Smeagol both volunteer for some activity where his problems wouldn't be such a liability and other people might be more compassionate? Go pet cats and walk dogs at the local shelter, say?

And, off-topic, could you add the name/URL option to comment-posting? I have a terrible time with the OpenID thingy because my ID is dameeleanor not dameeleanorhull and I have to log in and out and mess around a lot to use it.

Sisyphus said...

DEH, do you know how to do that in blogger? People keep asking me to change my settings as if I've actually set any of them, when the reality is I have no clue what they are talking about and I just left it to the standard presets...

Bardiac said...

In Blogger, get into your um... well, you can get there by hitting the new post thing, and then instead of writing anything, you click "close." That takes me to a screen that has a left hand list, starting with new post, overview, posts, etc. As long as you've got that left hand list, you're good.

Scroll down on that left hand list, until you can click "settings" and click that. That opens a sub list, and about number 2 or 3 on that sublist is "posts and comments." Click on that. Then you can change who can comment, whether there's a capcha thing, whether you do moderation, and so on.

Is that helpful? What you're looking for?

Psycgirl said...

That situation sucks! Sometimes group dynamics are much worse than the individuals... Have you thought about just spending one on one time with the postdocs you do get along with? You may actually get to go out more in that scenario

Anonymous said...

Cog, you sound like a person I would want to hang with.