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The Importance of Elsewhere

The Importance of Elsewhere
April 8, 2005

Tasi. Stavanger. These are the names of actual cities. For me, these constitute something more: actual names from among the most remote locations in the fantasy structure of my career. I have never been to either city -- in Moldovia and Norway, respectively. (Fifteen years ago, the one had a Fulbright position, while a few weeks ago I noticed the other as the location of a job vacancy.) Yet how not to dream of going? I have always had a desire to work somewhere else.

Where? Just about anywhere. I used to joke with a former colleague about attractive job descriptions I chanced upon. It seemed he had already once applied to every one of the departments in question, and he always knew something precise about the geographical setting of each university. So much for my fantasy, whether or not somewhere I had no desire to go in Texas was actually (according to him) quite pretty, or somewhere else maybe more attractive in Indiana was in fact the most godforsaken place on earth.

Usually, though, the most important thing about a particular place is that it has simply been, or rather represented, Elsewhere. Anywhere can be elsewhere. At various points in my career, all sorts of places have suddenly and seductively appeared, from Waterford, Maine to Portland, Oregon. To apply for a job at respective universities there was to quiver at the romance of Arctic temperatures or to thrill to -- well, I never decided precisely what Portland evoked, although I could fancy myself bent over some dense volume at Powell's Books while drinking a steaming cup of latte.

What about the job descriptions? Finally, they never mattered. The institutions only mattered a little more. The decisive consideration was always geographical location. According to my fantasy terms, anywhere was just about an equivalent term with Elsewhere, although if I chanced to have some personal knowledge of a place, I usually ruled it out. (The region too remote, the town too small, and so on.)

Otherwise, I could not do so, at least for the purposes of an initial application. No wonder, therefore, that I virtually never got any interviews. My interest in any one specific position was not academic enough!

No wonder, also, that eventually I began to seek out employment opportunities abroad. Not only is the imaginative category of Elsewhere best -- most exotically -- represented by the Foreign. Many universities throughout the world cannot easily be known in terms of the exact circumstances of their location. So more or less through chance have I found myself, for example, teaching at one of China's most provincial universities as well as one of Brazil's most prestigious. In each case, I was content. I had gotten the location I had desired.
 
Just as good, the respective departments had no agonizing politics, the students no recalcitrant identity, and the universities no problematic status. To be fair, I'm sure there were issues in these respective places about which both professors and students felt great passion. But neither the issues nor the passion intruded upon a visitor's experience.The nice thing about teaching abroad is that you are just passing through.

Back home, on the other hand, there remain the colleagues with whom you try not to make eye contact in the halls, the students who still have to be told repeatedly not to leave their seats to sharpen pencils, and the deans who assure parents and congressmen that the reputation of the university has never been better. That is, back home you are an academic, for better or worse, in sickness and in tenure, till death or retirement do you part.
 
Elsewhere? Pure fantasy for most tenured people. Tasi? High-flyers only get invited to such places, for one-day improbable conferences on even more improbable subjects. Stavanger? Who knows who applies there?

Maybe they are people who never got a Ph.D., or tenure, or a break. But in any case, you yourself have to worry about tomorrow's meeting of the Curriculum Committee, not to speak of next week's seminar preparation, the cost of the upcoming summer's new roof for the house, or, surely by then, the reader reports for your manuscript that the press has had for, it seems, years. In three or four more you can apply for a sabbatical and then take the family to, well, London. But right at this moment London seems as much a fantasy as Londrina.

What about off the tenure track? There is undoubtedly a whole class of people in the United States for whom the Tasis and the Stavangers of the world are remorselessly real places because they are the only ones where full-time employment can be obtained. In addition, prior to 9/11, certain universities in the Middle East had larger academic expat communities, where scholars enjoyed salaries and private schools for their kids that they could only dream about back in the U.S.
 
In any case, though, few of these people are (or were) adjuncts. Granted, adjuncts do not have to serve on committees. In theory, they are free to go anywhere. In practice, few even dream of it. If there is an Elsewhere, it is just across town or 40 miles down the road -- or else more defined by the availablity of a tenure-track job than geography or culture. Not only are adjunct circumstances remorselessly local. Adjuncts have no security. You can only have a fantasy structure to your career -- you can only have a career at all in the fullest or most meaningful sense -- if you enjoy job security.

Rather than beginning my own career at somewhere in Missouri I had never heard of I began it at somewhere else I never heard of in Pennsylvania. Perhaps this is why Elsewhere has remained so vivid to me. What if I had made the wrong choice? However, in today's terms, at least I had a choice to make. Opportunities are more scare today.
 
Those fortunate enough to reside in full-time, tenurable positions now are likely to have secured them with few, if any, alternatives (except becoming adjuncts). In this respect, it seems to be one thing to have working conditions in which a fantasy structure of escape or travel is embedded. It seems quite another thing to have work that neither elicits nor provokes a fantasy structure to begin with.
 
And yet, these two things may not in the end be so different after all. Readers may recognize the title of this column to be the same as the title of one of Philip Larkin's poems. Larkin does not romanticize Elsewhere. He begins, "lonely in Ireland." Yet, strangely, he cherishes his separateness. Back home in England, he has "no such excuse." It would be more "serious" to refuse his own customs and establishments.
 
"Here," the poem concludes,"no elsewhere underwrites my existence."
 
Should this be the case? In the poem it simply is: the very conditions of our permanent lives require an "elsewhere."

Just so, I would argue, the academic conditions of the present moment, especially the most pure -- settled, tenured, on the road to the next promotion and well past the last mortgage payment -- virtually mandate being underwritten by elsewhere. But of course one could just as well argue that 'twas ever thus. Some imagination of such places as Tasi and Stavanger enriches our lives both as members of our communities or as separate individuals.
 
Our dreams of being somewhere else are every bit as important as the realities of being professionals in one place. Indeed, it is because we are professionals that we can have such dreams at all.

 

 

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