Friday, December 13, 2013

The Return of Chicago Charlie.

Picture it, September 27, 2008, large east-coast city. A humble villager from a small Pacific Northwest town, emerging, like some child-god, from the underground into the klieg lights of the big city, the scent of an urban autumn in my lungs, the wind whipping through the concrete abyss, skyscrapers on every side, across the boulevards and through my hair, arms extended in full embrace of the world. And then, in a dizzying swell of romantic genius, this divine youth sat down at a desk piled high with papers, cigarette butts, empty coffee cups, a worn out copy of Leaves of Grass and, in a lament for the ages, decried the state of the academic world and his place in it, concluding: “So, I have no fear anymore; I just don't care. Not about teaching, not about publishing, not about the juvenile shenanigans that count as academia. Nothing. Numbness. And the worst part is, I still have forty more years until I can retire.” And that boy, that child-god, became a man, and the legend of Chicago Charlie was born.

And now, he is back, Chicago Charlie, to share with you the long strange course that, Odysseus-like, has brought him back to the Ithaca of collegemisery, that walking corpose, that resurrected and undying zombie he once knew, long years ago, as RYS. I sit here now, on this terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, enjoying the last two weeks of a six month research fellowship (#academictourism) before heading back to the lonely shores of the USA, to eat a golden egg laid by the golden goose that is the tenure-track, crowned in the laurel wreath that is the tenure-track job, drinking from that potent mix of wine spiked with vodka in a golden cup that is the tenure-track, while wearing the brass ring that is the tenure-track. Yes, yes, I did it. I got on the tenure-track. Like that ancient mariner with his glittering eye, I will tell you a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

It was a dark and stormy night (it actually was), circa January 20, when I got the call: a 4/4 composition job at a “university” in a “country” (still mostly unrecognized by the UN and FIFA) rife with tales of human trafficking, frequent power outages, lack of internal plumbing and a low-grade civil war. And they wanted me there Feb. 1. But the game is the game, and this was the last card I had, so I played it, bade the wife farewell (“I don’t move to shit ‘countries’” – yes, there were air quotes around “countries” when she said it, though – comp 1 rule here… quotes within a quote get inverted comma not double inverted comma), sent an email to my advisor (response: “get a gun before you go”; response back: “I’ll get one on the black market once I get there”) and voila. Upon arrival, the first thing one noticed was the stench, later easily traced to the constant plume of soot from the rusting coal plant which their brilliant engineers decided to put in the middle of the city. The second thing you noticed was the “professoriate”: three types. (1) old school colonials who couldn’t be bothered to leave or learn the local language; (2) young freshly minted Ph.D.s (like yours truly) who thought they could do a year or two and move up and out and (3) “lifers,” i.e. those who had been type (2) for more than ten years. It turned out not to be so bad. People were nice; students were nice. The large international peacekeeping force, many UN officials and NGO workers, the Marine battalion and the INTERPOL operatives actually gave the place a lively international flavor. And wherever there are international people, there are Chinese, which means a Chinese restaurant, which means Chicago Charlie could still get his fix of sweet and sour tofu. When the power went out in class the first time, I was at a loss, but by the second time, I learned to bring a flashlight and carry on. The first time a cow wandered into the classroom, I was a bit unprepared; the second time, I just said she could stay if she had done the reading. But then we read “Howl” and I was told to tone it down, and triumphantly declared “no one censors me!” and relations between me and admin got worse, most notably when they tried to saddle me, at no extra pay, with a fifth course (I had already agreed to do so the first semester; another semester just wasn’t worth it).

My wife came to visit. We went to a nearby country with a coastline. At night, I got an email: it was Ridiculously Prestigious Western European University offering me Ridiculously Prestigious Post-Doc in Contemporary Theoretical Approaches to Applied Comparative Hamsteric Poetry during the Period in Question. I had forgotten I had even applied what was it, ten months earlier at least? I had been teaching 4/4 composition loads for four years, and here I was, staring at a vast two-year sea of research stretching out before me. I began my victory dance and shouted out to my wife, who ran over to the computer, read the email, and started crying. Two more years apart. I wanted to go because it was a great opportunity, and also because it was the only card I had left to play, and I wanted to stay in the game.

I swore to her and myself that I wouldn’t waste a minute of it, that I would do what I had to do to get that golden goose, that tenure-track job that would secure our future. And so, off I went, to explore parts unknown, to a city I had never seen in a country I had never visited, which certain other international researchers (and I soon as well) referred to as “the strange paradise.” Paradise because, inside the university environment, the air was practically electric with high-level research, scholarly exchange, collegiality, extraordinarily generous financing for research and travel, libraries overflowing with books. There a scholar could really blossom, like something planted and tended. My Ph.D. program in America was something like, let’s dump a bunch of great seeds in this parking lot where a barrel of toxic sludge recently spilled, then let’s jump up and down a lot, and the one which manages to sprout, we’ll pluck. There, it was like being in the care of some brilliant gardener in some even more brilliant garden. We were nurtured like bonsai trees, and we flourished. And then, wouldn’t you know it, because of those glorious two years, I published, I grew, I developed, I came of age. Dare I say, I actually became a scholar. And then tenure track job followed just like that, the very next year. And, the kicker, I became desirable enough that the same year I was offered a tenure-track job I was also offered an extension of my research grant, and I took the money to the country more closely aligned with my research, and this is where I sit writing today.

I return to the US in two weeks, to my t-t job, to my wife. I signed some papers guaranteeing me health insurance, retirement options. I have a 2-2 load (no composition), there are some promising graduate students. Conclusions? Who knows. I once asked my older brother how to get laid. He said it’s like this: in soccer, you have no control over whether or not you get a great cross in front of the goal. But you do have control over whether you put yourself in the right position to get that cross, and it’s entirely up to you to put it in the back of the net. I think also, you know, I think a lot about when I was a student, and I was a horrible horrible student. I was the student who came to class sloppy drunk and often stoned (at least) out of his mind. I was the student that people here complain about all the time. And then I straightened my shit out, and then with some good classes and some good professors and a lot of luck I became the super-keener that everyone here also complains about. And then I went to a shitty graduate school and got treated like shit and became the jaded and hostile adjunct that everyone here always complains about. And now I’m the self-satisfied junior colleague who just landed on the t-t and feels infinitely superior to just about everybody who everyone here complains about. So, you know, growing up. And so, if all the stages and phases which seem to the old-timer as cliché and melodramatic but which to the newbie seem disorienting and unique and unprecedented in the history of the universe to the person living, it’s because they are. And with a lot of effort, and no small amount of luck, we grow and change within a growing and changing world and, if we’re doing it right, always feeling a bit disoriented and always one step behind, because that means we’re still moving.

So this is where I am now, and why I have started trolling Zombie RYS, because I’m a bit nervous about the American rules of the game after a few years in the international league, with its corporate inanity, its fecklessness, its self-inflated sense of moral superiority, its crippling self-doubt, its written and unwritten rules, its teams and factions and, shudder the thought, its classrooms full of students, many of whom I dislike only because they hold up to me a mirror of the person I once was and now wish I hadn’t been. But, in the end, it’s the best game in town; I have lots of cards in my deck, and this is the one I choose to play. And also now my wife can get off of what my dad mystifyingly calls her “birth control apparatus” and can use my new paycheck and health insurance to start having babies. And I hope, if I read this in another six years, I’ll be just as embarrassed to read it as I am reading that first part now. Reader, I concluded that first post like this: “So, I have no fear anymore; I just don't care. Not about teaching, not about publishing, not about the juvenile shenanigans that count as academia. Nothing. Numbness. And the worst part is, I still have forty more years until I can retire.” What a fool that stupid punk was.


  1. Great story and congratulations. That's quite a route to a t-t job. For our own sanity, please tell us that it's not all that great.

    I do have one scholarly question, only tangentally related to your post. I did not realize that Odysseus went to Cornell. Did he do most of his writing after joining the fraternity there?

  2. JHC this a fantastic tale. It brought a tear to my jaded eye.

  3. That country sounds a lot like Kurdistan, the un-recognized but de facto state in Northern Iraq that emerged after the Hussein al-Tikriti Ba'athist regime was smashed by and inane US president and his German warlord, Freiherr Rumsfeld.

    John Dolan worked out there:

  4. What a beautifully written experience!

  5. Congrats, Chuck, and here's hoping your good fortune rubs off at least a bit on the rest of us!

  6. Congratulations! I like the "put yourself in the position to score" advice. You certainly followed it, with considerable stick-to-it-iveness and a sense of adventure, and it seems to have worked out well. The hard part for many of use these days, I think, is figuring which of various goals to try to position ourselves in relation to (TT job? alt-ac? completely non-ac?).

    And I want that fellowship! It doesn't even have to be in Europe, or away from home, or anything. Somebody please just pay me to concentrate on my research for 2 years (a year? six months? a summer? please?!?).

    Finally, be very, very, very, very, very, very nice to your wife, who sounds like real trooper (I admit it; I was holding my breath throughout the piece for the divorce). I see lots of diaper changing, and laundry, and wee-hours soothing, and trips to the park so she can have an hour or so to herself, in your future. Hopefully getting a head start on the writing and research necessary for tenure will leave you time for all that.

    1. Also, I liked the cow. Any creature that has done the reading (and isn't overly inclined to snack on the other students) is welcome in my classroom, too.

      And hold onto your flashlight. My first-world university loses power pretty frequently, too (I think it's a combination of an overwhelmed power grid, 50+ years of resistance to spending on basic infrastructure in the U.S., and the university's determination to be visibly "growing" -- i.e. building more and more buildings).

  7. And now you have some life experience to talk about in classes when students ask if you've ever done anything beyond go from school to school to more school, to PhD school, only to get a job at a school. :)


  8. Congratulations, Charlie, but this just makes me mad about how the profession has become about as family-unfriendly as possible, involving all the moving around of the military, with none of the security.

  9. What an amazing tale you tell! And, I might add, you prove a point made here before: we complain, we whine, we despair, but it is mostly just venting (hear that, Yuri!). Many of us then go on to fight the good fight and try as hard as we can.

    I am so happy for you and I want to give that old self, the one who wrote the despairing post, a hug right now and tell him that it will all work out! But I guess he did not need that anyway!