It’s funny that these two pieces should cross my Facebook feed the same day:
Even funnier that I had just returned from an academic conference myself, at which I had done a good bit of “networking” (read: finding old friends and catching up with them, and shamelessly introducing myself to people whose work I’d read and admired).
I’m surprised that the author of the second article was so little attuned to the concentration of introverts at such a gathering as an academic conference. Introversion is as much an asset for high-level academic work as extraversion is for salesmanship, and when introverts get together in large groups, well, certain characteristic patterns emerge.
Large groups of people looking at each other’s name tags is one of them. Unlike the author of the second article above, however, I don’t believe that looking at people’s name tags is self-evident proof of status consciousness. It may just be evidence that we need help with people’s names.
What Shuman calls the “scope and sneer” no doubt occurs; I imagine we academics content ourselves for our relative uselessness and impecuniousness by reveling in what few status markers are available to us.
“My kids may qualify for reduced lunch at school, but at least I don’t have a 5-4 load like that poor guy!”
“I may make a fifth what my school’s football coach makes, but at least I’m in a tenurable field!”
But, seriously, some of us “poor bastards” spend so much time in the library we can’t remember our children’s names; the rest of us spend so much time grading that we . . . can’t remember our children’s names.
I looked at everyone’s name tag at my conference not because I wanted to judge their relative status, but because I wanted to remember if I knew them.
I assumed, when people looked at mine, that they were doing the same thing. If any of them looked at my name tag and found my institutional affiliation contemptible, well, frankly, I didn’t notice.
I also assumed, when other awkward social interactions occurred, as they frequently do at academic conferences, that the people with whom I was awkwardly interacting bore me no ill will. I assumed that they’d spent rather too much time in the library, or grading. I hope they assumed the same of me.
A predisposition to assume the best of others, to find the best in them, rarely survives the academic initiation ritual known as Graduate School; it confers no competitive advantage and few people choose to class “intellectual generosity” among the scholarly virtues. (“Cognitive equilibrium” often proves impossible to maintain as well.)
Still, it seems worth the effort, particularly in the face of institutional indifference. If academia is the sort of place that doesn’t particularly encourage intellectual generosity, caring friendships, or good mental health, perhaps academics can marshal some of the anti-institutional perversity the institution does seem to engender.
Perhaps, just to spite academia, academics can become the sort of people they themselves would enjoy being friends with.