He’s a scholar arrived for a dinner party, an invited lecturer the next day at a well-respected university. The dinner has been arranged as a welcome and almost all of the attendees are themselves academics.
He’s friendly in his attempts to ask at least one question of everyone there and duly complimentary to the hosts for their fine meal and excellent after-dinner drinks. He is, in many ways, a charming dinner guest with impeccable table manners and an assured yet relaxed demeanor. In many ways, it’s a perfectly lovely evening. In all good conscience, how could someone complain?
Well, for one, he tends to be more than just a bit of a name-dropper: “Ruth at the National Museum,” “Anne at Duke,” “Sam at Berkeley.” Perhaps you know the type: he’s apparently on a first-name basis with every major scholar you’ve heard of. Not only does he know them, it seems, but he feels comfortable delineating their character traits or professional situations, such as “she’s really difficult to work with, of course” or “It’s really not much of a situation to be in there. Things aren’t good overall at the university and they haven’t been very supportive.”
From how he talks, he is clearly an insider. He gives off the air of someone who went to school with this one, or was on that grant with that one, or spent that week at Dartmouth with so-and-so, and on and on… But at some point in the evening, perhaps over those lovingly prepared tubers your hostess bought especially at the local farmer’s market in honor of his arrival, you ask of yourself, “An insider to whom, or to what?” Well, apparently, to pretty much everyone who is anyone, and to all of the key current debates in academia. With all the close relationships he has formed with so many important scholars, as well as with so many prominent institutions, it’s a wonder he has time to get any work done.
Oh, but he has, and he’s more than happy to tell you about it. “I started the first something-something program in the country”, “When I was at Yale…”, “When I was speaking at Champaign-Urbana…”, “I just spoke at Maryland…”, “My article on…”, “I was asked to be a consultant on…” and on it goes.
Some things he seems to get curiously wrong, such as the definition of irony, which apparently began in the 1950s (!), and some things he just doesn’t know, such as who A-Rod is. Now, baseball can be a very boring game for those who never really played or who were never introduced to it in any real way, and certainly no one needs to be a baseball fan, or even passingly familiar with the game, to be honest. But, I must say, the lack of cultural currency in not knowing who Alex Rodriguez is just seems to me to be a bit beyond the pale, even for the aesthete that he clearly is. That’s just part of being tuned in to the broader culture in the most basic of ways. Alex Rodriguez makes $25 million just playing baseball each year. Even elitist academic snobs should know who he is.
None of this, by the way, is meant to impugn the quality of his work. To give him his due, he seems to be an accomplished scholar who has earned a number of prestigious fellowships and different positions at two highly prestigious universities. About the quality of his work, I cannot speak, for it is not in a field that I’m particularly familiar with; nor was I able to attend his lunchtime seminar nor his late-afternoon lecture. I was a guest at the welcome dinner and pleased to be included in the evening. This is really meant to address how he interacted with other scholars in his field at the institution to which he had been invited to speak.
I am writing this some time afterward. The lecture went off smoothly, the visit was a success with the department and the university. Things have changed in his professional situation, but I have never really forgotten this evening, which our host and hostess worked hard to pull off and in many ways went quite very nicely.
How much of it was insecurity? Although he had secured a series of fellowships for a number of years and he had published a number of articles, he had not produced a book and, at the time, did not have a university position. Not that he wasn’t sure to let us know that he was “in conversations with University A and University B.” No, he was sure to drop that in to the conversation, but after a few hours, one was left wondering:
Most academics have all been in this situation, to varying degrees. Was his behavior, his bravado, a way to shield a sense of inadequacy? Or was he just something of a jerk?
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