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When Worlds Collide
January 16, 2012 - 8:31am

In the days preceding my wedding in a Cambridge College chapel,  my brother would perform a spot-on imitation of George Costanza from Seinfeld and shriek, "Worlds Collide!" each time the English and American in-laws to be or my husband's Oxonian undergrad buddies and our shared Cantabrigian graduate cohort threatened to run amok.

Academics seem particularly prone to such celestial crises.  University towns the world over make neighbors of colleagues in a manner my husband has never experienced in his post-modern/post company town, private sector career.  When you see your supervisors at the block party you experience both your relationship with them and with the rest of your neighbors differently.  Warmer more personable connections not only fuel workplace camaraderie, but also mean you are never entirely unguarded.  Friends and neighbors who work in far-flung professional roles can gripe over a beer about their annoying colleagues.  No such indiscretion can creep into the fully integrated work-life community.

The flip-side of integration besets those like the University of Iowa professor who besmirched his non-academic neighbors in print and may find himself pilloried at his neighborhood park.  Valparaiso University Professor Mark Schwehn described the dislocation from elite and urbane graduate institutions to colleges surrounded by cornfields year ago in his Exiles from Eden.  Such exiles also dance among the dangers of collided worlds, but they are profoundly different.  Everyone can easily spot those who despise their surroundings.  They need not unveil themselves publicly in the pages of The Atlantic.  Their disdain seeps from their pores, poisons any positive aspects of their experience, and deepens the gulf between them and their enforced community.

This contempt is a tragic by-product of the need to take a tenure-line job - any tenure-line job - no-matter how miserable it makes you.   A lucky few land upon the tenure track at their dream institution whether ethereal coastline colleges or research universities with convenient commutes to city centers.  Schwehn found his perfectly integrated calling at his Lutheran university.  Others, like me, opt for life off-the tenure track but within worlds we encourage to collide.  It is a huge and scary leap (and one I continue to question) to opt for my culture of choice over tenure’s “brass ring.”  I don’t know if anyone has studied how many of us make this active choice.  I suspect more women are willing to sacrifice prestige on paper in order to balance to dual-careers and child-rearing in a metropolitan area over the sparse professional options of rural college towns.

I have been both a culturally dislocated faculty member and observed those relocated to my beloved alma mater against their will.  Disaffection fails to serve anyone well.  It’s one thing to be a swinging single scholar on the move.  Singletons dig in and either grow roots or sow scholarly oats (aka articles and books) that allow them to move to their definition of a more desirable location.  Those of us who enter the job market with partners and progeny in tow experience any culture shock in exponential form.  The weeping wife, the harried husband, the crying child simultaneously detracts from our own integration into the new institution and limits our access to any means of escape.  Suppressed, silent misery causes less offense than forthright rants, but just as surely sucks the pleasure from life and power from pedagogy.

All this returns me to my marvelously collided worlds.  I’ll gladly stick to one margarita at the block party and bite my tongue about university politics on play-dates in order to live where my entire family feels at home.  When I self-edit, I do so to maintain the intermingled communities I love, not to hide my misery and protect a paycheck.

Evanston, Illinois in the US

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at her undergraduate alma mater, Northwestern University, where she teaches History and American Studies. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to http://elizabethlewispardoe.wordpress.com

 

 

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