May 13, 2004

The Tenured

As I've said before, ad infinitum, ad nauseum, the most annoying thing about graduate school is dealing with The Tenured. Not all tenured full professors are members of The Tenured, by the way. No, The Tenured are a special subset of academia, unfortunately much more prevalent than they should be, and they are the ones the dissenters both inside and outside of academe hold up to ridicule. The Tenured personify the pompous insulated arrogance that sends intelligent non-, ex-, or fellow academics completely around the bend. On the positive side, they're really easy to make fun of. On the negative, they completely lack the humility and self-awareness to appreciate a little self-deprecation. They're over-intellectualized pricks, basically, and respond to each and every criticism by calling the attacker an anti-intellectual or by implying (particularly against a non-tenured adversary) that their opponent "couldn't (or can't) hack it," or has a "case of sour grapes."

So why am I revisiting The Tenured? Well, because it's easy to forget how completely overbearing and socially inept they are when you aren't dealing with them on a daily basis. Lord knows I did, until I ran into one at a recent social event. The soiree in question contained folks from all walks of life--plumbers, teachers, doctors, IT folks--and The Tenured. How do I know this? Because The Tenured spent the entire evening doing the same tired name-dropping of institutions, degrees, programs and "colleagues," that I would expect to hear at an MLA conference. To my chagrin, my first impulse was to counter with a little degree and institution name-dropping of my own (particularly on the BA level--dear God! She went WHERE?), but I recognized the incipient symptoms of Academic Dick Swinging before I succumbed, and squelched the impulse.

Look, we were hanging out and eating finger food and discussing family pets and toilet training. I have to admire her ability to work the names of the leading lights at such-and-such U into the conversation, but "work" was the operative word here. No one else was talking about their work. It wasn't like the plumber was pouncing on every conversational pause and remarking, "You know, that reminds me of something a colleague told me just the other day. I had my head stuck down so-and-so's toilet, and Bob (you know Bob, he's tops in his field over in Garner and leading the research into hair clog removal in kitchen pipes) let fly such a witty riposte that I nearly concussed myself on the porcelain rim! Post-modern plumbing theory is just so rich and layered!"

But The Tenured was. And while I was secretly amused by her antics, I was also more than a little pissed off, because it wasn't like this prof was just looking for a little ego stroking. It was more like she was trying to put everyone else into some sort of pre-defined "place," where rank was determined by an actuarially unsound conflation of job description and perceived IQ. I have a problem with snobbery generally, but intellectual snobbery really pisses me off, mainly because it forces me to revisit the portions of grad school that I found most infuriating (and it forces me to do a bit of uncomfortable self-examination: I defy anyone to look back upon year 22 of their lives with nothing but righteous pride about the ideas they held).

I often wonder, now that my hindsight has that lovely 20/20 quality, if folks in the increasingly incrementalized and politicized courses of study in the humanities know that a lot of the research they do isn't as earth-shatteringly useful as they think it is? I wonder if they question the validity of their pieces of paper, if they see through the sham studies that a lot of Universities are funding and that they're benefitting from, if they realize that their positions often owe as much to judicious ass-kissing and the "right kind" of scholarship as to their own intellects, and feel shame? And I wonder if that's why they need to constantly prove their superiority--not necessarily because their IQs may be a few points higher than someone else's, but because they've spent a lifetime pursuing work that no one deems as important as they do? And they fear that the great unwashed might be right about their work? Insecurity is a horrible thing, and impossible to hide.

Methinks The Tenured protest too much.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at May 13, 2004 10:23 AM

What kind of soiree contained this much diversity of professions? Such events are sadly rare, nowadays...

One thing to note is that you can't out-snob someone who won't be snobbed. I once heard a rather vain woman trying to impress a quick-witted redneck:

"When I was at Smith..."

"Smith? Is that some kind of college or something?"

Posted by: David Foster at May 13, 2004 12:16 PM

Just a cookout at a friend's house--work colleagues, friends from grad school, and spouses. I was impressed by all the different kinds of people, but it made The Tenured's affected mannerisms stand out much more.

Posted by: BAW at May 13, 2004 12:36 PM

I just now discovered the wonders of this site! All this time I've been living in isolation with my pent up frustrations with The Tenured. I'm so happy to find others, more vocal than I, who find it difficult to simply grit their teeth at the nonsense spouted by the tenured, leisured, and pampered.

Like many others, I suppose, I've got a wealth of stories from grad school.

Once I completely alienated an advisor by finally telling him point blank that I wasn't interested in the postmodern (he called it post processual) theories of center and periphery in Ancient Assyrian colonization. Not only was he totally deflated, but I became the enemy.

Yup, as you would expect, my grad education entered a new, liberated, yet swimming upstream era that day.

Posted by: Charles Easton at May 13, 2004 01:57 PM

Oh my god! "(The) post processual theories of center and periphery in Ancient Assyrian colonization." I've got to commit that to memory. I wonder if that (and stuff like it) is the "intellectual" version of speaking in tongues.

Posted by: Bruce Lagasse at May 14, 2004 12:29 AM

Oh it is! And don't you feel that much closer to
God because of it?!

Posted by: Charles at May 14, 2004 06:09 PM