Thursday, August 06, 2009

Regatta Day

Yesterday was the annual St. John's Regatta, a sculling competition--or series of competitions--that takes place every year on the first Wednesday in August. Or if it's raining, the first Thursday. Basically, everyone looks out their window on Wednesday morning, and if the weather is too rainy and/or windy, they go to work. If not, holiday! And somewhere in the neighbourhood of fifty thousand people descend on Quidi Vidi Lake to drink beer, eat from the many food kiosks set up for the day, and socialize. Oh, and watch some rowing.

Regatta day also has the added element, for me, of being something of an anniversary. Four years ago on August 2 I arrived in St. John's to start a new life as a tenure-track professor at Memorial. The next day was Regatta. The annual August holiday inevitably brings back strong memories of that move, with all the accompanying excitement, fear and anxiety.

Four years. It seems almost unbelievable that it has been that long. When I reflect on the change, on my move, and my job, I offer up thanks to whatever gods might be listening. It could have easily been miserable and disastrous. But it hasn't been.

A lot of my happiness here has to do with what an amazing city St. John's has turned out to be. But even more has to do with my job. It is in the people I find myself working with that I have to wonder at my unbelievable good fortune.

Academic life has a great potential for discord. No one can hold a grudge like professors, and tenured life can lead to long-term enmities. There is probably more career mobility now than at any time previously, but it is still nothing like the business world, where people make moves all the time. So there is a tendency for a certain longevity in the university world, which, coupled with the fact that getting professors to stand in a line is like herding cats, exacerbates the normal political and personal bullshit one finds in any job environment. I have heard, and experienced, many, many horror stories about inter-departmental warfare. As has been said, academics take themselves so very seriously because so little is at stake.

One nice thing about the job is that it is possible to put one's head down, stay out of the fray, and simply do your own thing, ignoring as much as possible the spats and skirmishes. But that isolationist type of academia is really not why I got into this. I like, and to a certain extent need the interaction that comes with sharing research and ideas, shaping curriculum, navigating a course for the department.

One of the things I loved about my department here at MUN from the outset was the knowledge that not only was this kind of inetraction going to be possible here, but that as new faculty I would be more or less obligated to be involved.

Which itself could have made for a miserable situation, but I found myself in the midst of an amazing group of people, supportive and serious, many of whom had themselves lived through an extended departmental civil war in the 1980s and early 90s--and were generally unwilling to ever go through it again.

The other thing has been the departmental renewal that has happened in the last five or six years. I was one of the first new people hired, but since around 2003 we have brought in nine new professors. And what's astounding, even a little bizarre from the perspective of academia, is how well we all get along. I ruminated over this the other day with one of my pre-tenure colleagues, and we both commented on how unusual and unlikely in our experience such a lack of backbiting, grudge-bearing, and professional jealousy is. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Perhaps we're not actually unusual, my colleague speculated. Part of our common ground as new faculty is a general impatience with that kind of behaviour, an impatience we learned in part from observing it during our long graduate apprenticeships. Perhaps this is something the new generation of academics have in common?

That seems a bit utopian to me, but it serves as good an explanation as any for the time being.

Right now, apropos of my fourth anniversary of coming to Newfoundland and Memorial, I'm just grateful to have landed where I did, with the people I did.


Andrew said...

"Because no one is talking about substance, only alliances, and because alienation is general, a vacuum exists at the center of institutional power which is not filled by talent or argument, but by those who feel most comfortable or justified taking advantage of it. For those in power, and for those who hope to attain power, the arrival of a new junior faculty member is to be watched closely for his/her schmoozing choices. As a result, it is not simply the case that junior faculty fear senior faculty, but that the senior faculty fear the junior faculty, walking around wondering whether this new person will contribute to their already hatched plan to take over the curriculum."
- On Being Postacademic: Kenneth Mostern (an excerpt)

Anonymous said...

So...when do we get to see some l'l Locketts running around these parts? ;)

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