Heart of Amerika

Having just written a long response to a question on a post about writing and academia, it occurs to me that I might mention some of my tales of culture shock upon entering the professoriate. I always thought that by being an academic in the humanities, and in humanities fields oriented towards cultures other than the mainstream American one, I might be able to lead a life somewhat insulated from the aspects of our culture that feel uheimlich to me. I was very innocent.

In the second week of my first job, a senior colleague invited me to a dinner party. I appeared, duly dressed in a hip-yet-discreet urban outfit, with a bottle of wine of the type professors, not graduate students, buy. It was the first time I had done this, but I knew how. As soon as I saw the house, one of those dismal mini-mansions on the outskirts of town, I knew I had miscalculated. Everyone else was wearing Madras shorts, and they were horrified at the idea of drinking anything at all on a weeknight. So I had already made two faux pas.

Dinner was pizza with ham and pineapple, accompanied by Sprite, and entertainment was the World Series, on a wide screen television. I actually like baseball, and I have been known to surprise everyone by inviting myself to boisterous, beer-guzzling, macho parties just so I can watch it. In this case, however, I couldn’t take the conversation, on the purchase of mini-mansions, about which all new faculty members but me were very enthusiastic. The neighborhood reminded me distinctly of a graveyard. We new faculty were all under thirty years of age. I could not believe that everyone else was waxing so enthusiastic about the purchase of pieces of land which so resembled burial plots, and houses which resembled mauseoleums.

We were living in a large metropolitan area, with several very interesting research libraries. The week before, at a cocktail party, I had made another faux pas. Unaware that this would be mal vu, I said I had spent Saturday checking these libraries out, and I was very excited about them. “We are glad to be where we are,” responded my interlocutor coldly, “and we have interlibrary loan.” So I decided I had better not contribute to the conversation on real estate. I was likely to ask about older, more ethnic neighborhoods, and upset people again.

Leaving my colleagues to their baseball game, and their conversation on mini-mansions, or mausoleums, I retreated to the kitchen, where their wives were preparing dessert. One wife, I had been introduced to before. She looked a little disaffected, and was sitting to one side, so I approached her. “So, have you finished unpacking?” “Yes,” she said, “and I have enrolled in the community college.” “Good for you! What are you studying?” “Mortuary Science.”



Filed under Poetry

5 responses to “Heart of Amerika

  1. This is surreal, right from the ham-and-pineapple pizza on down. Why on earth wouldn’t they be happy to live in a place where research libraries were nearby?

    Hi Undine! Surreal is the word. Unbelievably, this was at a very well regarded institution. Its true nature really caught me by surprise! Interestingly, when I had been about to go to the on campus interview, I was at a party where I met two people from the region where this institution is located. When I told them I was about to go interview at that campus, the said instantly, in chorus: “Don’t go there! It is the Twilight Zone!”

    Why my colleagues weren’t happy about those research libraries: (a) they were attached to universities, which which our university felt competitive, so it was traitorous to set foot on these alien campuses, and (b) not everybody at my institution really believed in research. –Z

  2. “Dinner was pizza with ham and pineapple, accompanied by Sprite, and entertainment was the World Series, on a wide screen television.”

    In my best Eliza Bennett voice: Insufferable!

    I wish I had kept the copy of The New Yorker that showed a study of cities where there are more academia. However, what they had suspected did not turn out the case. They went into the study thinking same fields of study would live around each other, but what they found out was, any field as long as it was in “a growing mode” proved beneficial to others. For example, one may study Biology and the other Literature and both still benefit because the level of engaging and interacting tend to make little sparks that grow. This compared to say a scholar who was isolated in a town where it is mostly blue collar, farming, or just comformity. The latter being the one who will produce the least. I feel the pain and can tell you it is why I am thinking of drafting a letter to my alma mata’s president. When we went through the whole graduation rah rah they encouraged us to join the alumni. One big benefit they claimed was the use of the library. I love the libary…..AT HOME! While I was a student I had the password to get to the databases, JSTOR, search premier, etc. When I tried to I could not. I contacted the library and asked why, I was immediately told that my alumni membership gave me library priviledges but I would have to come in to get them. That means, drive there, park (and pay 6 dollars), compete for that space, then compete for a computer. Without the database I have not way to get to “scholarly” articles. NONE! So the school talks about education, cultivating a great society, etc, yet it all stops the second we march at commencement. Yet the alumni is very good at sending me donation requests.

  3. ‘They went into the study thinking same fields of study would live around each other, but what they found out was, any field as long as it was in “a growing mode” proved beneficial to others.’

    Yes, and I think it’s actually better that it not be the same field. I’ve seen this phenomena where people in the same field/same department all live around each other, and it doesn’t produce a growing mode – it produces incest!

    Library, alumni association, yes, it’s awful. In the olden days, that parking and coming in person (and not being able to take books out of the building) was for members of the general public – the idea being that university libraries, even of private schools, do get a lot of public funding and part of the mission is to be a community resource. So, anybody can come in and use the stuff. Then, you could pay to JOIN, which enabled you to take books home, access databases from home, and so on. This, again, was an option available to just anyone. I can’t believe the alumni association membership doesn’t include library privileges at THAT level. But those alumni associations are shysters, I do not belong to mine, and I do not know that they know where I live. My mother went to the same school, but did not graduate. The alumni association has now, 60 years later, decided that she DID graduate, and keeps hounding her for money.

  4. God, how apropos! Mortuary Science! This is a great entry, and details succinctly how academia can be just as stiffling and unimaginative (if not more so) than Mammon. Except we’re not making money.
    Yeah, Oso, what I can’t believe is that this actually happened like that, word for word. This was at a place like your Sadistic College. A friend referred to it as Stepford College. I was very tempted the first few weeks to start a new Ph.D. program. I would walk to work because I was afraid that if I took the car, I would give in to my impulse to drive after class to the nearby Really Big University and just enroll myself. I thought that would be a bit hasty. In retrospect, it might have been a good idea! –Z

  5. Yeah,

    It is interesting. I having been darting in and out of the university system for years because of the oddities of character and social interactions that I have come across.

    In a way, I guess I have learned that just because you work in the tower doesn’t mean that your co-workers are not residing in the local fields. So everything from the cuisine to their value system may be affected by the American Empire’s point-of-view. And it sounds like your notions of what is HEIMLICH and UNHEIMLICH were affected too.

    But darling, I can tell you . . . I got stories and jokes too.

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