Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Finding my inner Toby

I saw this cartoon the other day and had to laugh, as I'm sure would any veteran of department / office cocktail parties. I think they're probably particularly bad with regards to university functions, as there is that sub-section of grad students and/or professors who choose academia as a career because it fits in nicely with their particular brand of social ineptitude. All of whom come out of the woodwork to drink cheap wine in one of the department's "social" rooms on such occasions as it is offered. Of particular arduousness was the inevitable meet-the-creature days in the first two weeks of school when there was a polite, awkward mixer where the new grad students met their peers, during which I inevitably felt the overpowering urge to shake one or two of the new arrivals by the shoulders, shouting "You DO realize that in academia you will one day have to interact regularly with other human beings, right??" Now THAT would be an orientation session I could get behind.

So why would I go to these events? Same as everyone else -- free booze. That, and it was worth it to meet the cool newcomers, whose numbers usually balanced out the social retards. Still, I tended to find myself getting drunk very quickly because I was often chugging drinks down quickly to have an excuse to get back to the bar and out of a given conversation. Not that there was any likelihood of me emerging from those events sober -- I mean, let's be honest, there was free booze. But it tended to happen much more rapidly than it would have otherwise.

This is on my mind now for two reasons: (1) I am and the verge of a string of such meet-the-creature, new faculty type parties; and (2) I found myself, quite literally, trapped in conversation for A HALF AN HOUR with someone yesterday, and I was desperate for an empty glass of wine. If I'd been a raccoon in a trap, I'd have gnawed my leg off.

What was doubly annoying about this was I KNEW this was a danger -- I'd had the same thing happen with this same individual back in February when I was here for my interview. And yet I couldn't walk away from the conversation. I'm such a wimp. Something similar happened in London not long before I left, when I got trapped at Williams Coffee Pub by a former acquaintance who has ... well ... gone a little crazy. And I couldn't extricate myself there either.

I've come to the conclusion that on such occasions I really need to find my inner Toby. Toby Ziegler, that is, the prickly communcations director on The West Wing, whose talent for succinctly dismissing things of no interest or import to him is quite wonderful. Some of my favourite moments:

TOBY: I'm going to make a suggestion which might help you out, but I don't want this to be mistaken for an indication that I like you.

JOSH: No. You're listening to me, but you're not understanding me.
TOBY: No, I'm disagreeing with you. That doesn't mean I'm not listening to you or understanding what you're saying - I'm doing all three at the same time

TOBY: Why were you standing behind your office door?
JOSH: It’s this thing that’s supposed to reduce stress. I—
TOBY: I don’t care.

TOBY: Sam, I’d like you to meet the poet laureate, Tabitha Fortes.
SAM: Well, hel-lo! I was quite the poetry lover in my—
TOBY: Nobody cares.

I'm thinking this could be a life-saving talent to develop. As new faculty, I of course want to ruffle as few feathers as possible, but I'll also be a target for adminstrative stuff no one else wants. And this department is, furthermore, very chatty ... it's difficult to walk down the hallway without falling into a conversation, which is usually quite pleasant, but if you're not careful it can eat up an afternoon of work-time very easily (of course, this also seems to be how things get done here -- no official sceduling, just a series of pick-up meetings that happen in the hallways).


b said...

Hey, how's it going?

It's always cool to stumble upon a former profs blog.

I'll continue reading.

Take it easy,
Brian Fauteux

jo said...

Maybe not a propitious source when you're just starting out a new academic job, but perhaps you could resort to Dixon's tactics in *Lucky Jim* when he's trapped and bored by tedious colleagues: you know, making secret bizarre faces like the mandrill face, the shot in the back face, the crazy peasant face. Or you could take refuge in imagining retributive actions, like Dixon's plans to stuff Welch into the wastepaper basket or to beat him about the head with a bottle, or in that scene just before Margaret has hysterics, when she says, "Do you hate me, James?":

"Dixon wanted to rush at her and tip her backwards in the chair, to make a deafening rude noise in her face, to push a bead up her nose. 'How do you mean?' he asked."

Or you could just escape out to the pub, as he does.