Tuesday, April 27, 2010
How I Became a Third Rate Academic (With Coffee Stains and All)
The chairman of the Scandinavian department looks sternly at me. We're at the annual conference for Scandinavians in America, SASS. This year it takes place in Seattle and I've become drunk from half a glass of Chardonnay.
"You aren't just a writer, Peter. You're also an academic," he says.
I sigh. Why does this nice man from University of Washington have to insult me? Couldn't he accuse me of something more innocent like robbing banks? But no, the chairman is going for the throat.
I study him. Is this great scholar getting back at me because I borrowed his first name Terje in The Tsar's Dwarf? In my novel, Terje is a drunk and violent Norwegian who swallows his own vomit. But don't all Norwegians? What is so insulting about that?
"You teach at an American university, isn't that correct?" he continues relentlessly.
"Yes, part time, but Portland State didn't hire me as ..."
"And you write historical novels that require scholarly research. So, Peter ..." He looks triumphantly at me. "You're a scholar and an academic."
I sigh but the chairman is right. I'm in denial. I'm an academic, too.
My problem is I don't like labels. I can easily identify with novelist and human being (if the latter isn't bragging), but not academic or scholar. Actually, I take pride in the fact that I only have a B.A., not a Masters or a PhD. I'm also proud that I've never read a single book on literary criticism in my life. And most important, I don't own a tweed jacket or smoke a pipe.
For the rest of the SASS conference I walk around in a daze.
I look at all my great colleagues presenting papers like "The Aesthetic of the Interface: Performativity and Pornographic Symbolism in the Poetry of Post Modern Sami Writers." I admire how the eyes of college professors are glued to their manuscripts; how they drown their PhD's in exquisite red wine, and use words only known to scholars of the 14th Century.
"How can I compete with that?" I sigh. I've never read Tolstoy or Camus. James Joyce and James Conrad bore me to death. "So what am I doing here?" I shout to the mirror in the elevator, but the mirror doesn't respond. After all, mirrors aren't academics, they're simply useful.
The next day I return to Portland and decide I have to accept my cruel fate, so I enroll into the local chapter of Academics Anonymous. At the first AA meeting I stand up. On my shoulder lies a blanket of dandruff. In my pocket, two midterm papers sticking up begging for Cs.
"My name is Peter," I whisper. "I'm an academic."
"Hi, Peter," the crowd greets me. I look at the janitors with Master Degrees, the award winning poets, the adjuncts and novelists who dreamed of becoming curling instructors.
In a corner, a bearded man is shouting, "tenure ... I want tenure". It's not a pretty sight. Getting in touch with your Inner Academic never is. I sit down again. Two scholars doing research on the pronouns in the Icelandic sagas embrace me warmly.
I'm going to pull through. And tomorrow I'll buy that tweet jacket if it's the last thing I'll do.