Miss Marple ethnography

by Carl Dyke

At Savage Minds Rex has opened up a can of whoopass on the idea of ‘culture shock’ as a pillar of anthropological method. Rex thinks anthropological study can be transformative, but he doesn’t think it’s culture shock necessarily doing the transforming. And he argues that keying on culture shock reifies cultural boundaries at the expense of cultural fluidity, creates false dilemmas about studying ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, narrows the anthropological imagination, and “reduces an ethics of connectivity … to an impoverished series of debates about how best activist anthropologists can help those poor, poor people.”

I might go a little farther and say that the idea of culture shock can exoticize and romanticize native ‘others’ while allowing us to be lazy and complacent about our own weirdness. Rex captures this nicely by contrasting anthropology with sociological ethnography, in which the study of ‘us’ is robust and unproblematic. Symbolic interactionists, ethnomethodologists, sociologists of culture and so on know that “there are lots of different lifeworlds to be explored, all of which are finely textured, unique, and deserving of description.” In a sense Rex agrees with Rachel that when it gets all pantybunched about culture shock anthropology is Otherness for Dummies © — hunting the Big Splashy Technicolor Other rather than all the little ordinary shades-of-grey others of everyday life.

Rutherford all set to crease some skull

Which, along with Asher’s last post, brings me to a thought I’ve had in the back of my mind for a long time about Miss Jane Marple, one of my favorite fictional characters.

I should say off the bat that my Miss Marple is imaginary at least three times over, since she is based mainly on several different movie and tv adaptations and I have not actually made a study of the twelve novels in which Agatha Christie invented and developed her (1930-71). This is even less than usually a trivial proviso, because screen depictions of Miss Marple range from the robustly athletic, even swashbuckling cinematic Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple of the early/mid ’60s to Joan Hickson’s iconically prim and frail BBC/A&E/PBS Miss Marple of the mid-’80s/early ’90s.

Hickson creases her brow

As much as I enjoy the dynamic first-wave gumption of Rutherford’s Marple, it’s Hickson’s more deliberate cerebrality that really captures my imagination. Behind the placid tea-fussing biddy surface is a keen observer and shrewd analyst who nothing escapes and for whom nothing comes as a surprise. Christie’s Marple has some moderate worldliness in her backstory, justifying Rutherford’s take, but the fundamental premise of her character as captured by Hickson is that she has become a profoundly wise old woman by staying put and closely observing the doings around her ordinary little English village, St. Mary Mead. This exchange with Cherry Baker from The Mirror Crack’d (1962, ch. 12) sums it up:

“You’re always surprising me,” [Cherry] said. “The things you take an interest in.”

“I take an interest in everything,” said Miss Marple.

“I mean taking up new subjects at your age.”

Miss Marple shook her head.

“They aren’t really new subjects. It’s human nature I’m interested in, you know, and human nature is much the same whether it’s film stars or hospital nurses or people in St. Mary Mead….”

Miss Marple is interested in everything, notices everything, thinks about everything with the dispassionate rigor of the puzzle-solver. The thing about human nature is a bit of a red herring (or rather, the ‘much’ in that sentence is important): she doesn’t have a grand theory of human essence. Instead, she has a vast and growing database of detailed human observations against which she checks each new case for analogies. The whodunnit gimmick is that she has learned so much from close study of her own little village that she is able to detect patterns and puzzle out manners and motives that baffle more worldly investigators. She is most definitely not shocked by culture.

Part of what I take Rex to be chewing at in his post is how the desirable decentering of self happens, when we awaken from our pre-Copernican slumbers into a world of differences and relations. He’s troubled by the version of the anthropology metanarrative in which to experience this transformation we must go out into the distant corners of the world and engage heroically with shockingly different Others. What both sociology and Miss Marple suggest is that others can be pretty shocking right around the corner; as Gregory Starrett says in the post’s comment thread, “culture shock … might be experienced anywhere practices are unfamiliar, even if some people might define such experiences as being ‘within’ some imaginary bounded culture.” The question then becomes how we sometimes manage to miss the profound otherness of ‘our own’ Others, and whether going where folks wear bones through their noses and eat bugs on purpose is really going to fix that.

45 Comments to “Miss Marple ethnography”

  1. Culture shock is variable. Training to work on a telephone crisis counseling line in Japan, I became aware of a phenomenon that people in the therapy trades call the “W” curve. The initial encounter with a foreign culture can be a honeymoon, the discovery of all sorts of interesting and exciting things about the other. Then comes the first crash, brought on by the inability to do things that seemed quite ordinary back at home. With a little local knowledge the mood brightens again. One can begin to get around on one’s own and that feels good. Then, with deeper understanding comes the horrid realization that you don’t and may never know. Rising from the second crash requires a modest assessment of what one has learned and finding pleasure in continuing to learn.

    There is also the particular nature of the shock to be considered. Anthropology, area studies and a start on language training meant that Ruth and I arrived in Taiwan pretty much immunized to the sorts of culture shock that afflict spouses of business or military people suddenly dragged off to places in which they themselves have no interest. We were prepared for the very real benefits of finding ourselves in a place where we started out with less street smarts than the average three-year old. We did, however, suffer from what we came to call “culture fatigue,” the sort of feeling one gets when someone mentions how well you use chopsticks for the thousandth time. And, yes, there were moments when local expectations clashed with childhood training. I can still vividly recall the first time that I was taken to a Chinese temple, handed a bunch of incense sticks, and expected to bow to the god on the altar. The feeling that the Lord God Almighty would surely smite me for bowing down to graven images came roaring up out of my Lutheran upbringing.

    Other anthropologists working in Taiwan had their own stories. Larry Crissman used to define culture shock this way: “Discovering that your best friend and informant has just sold his daughter into prostitution to buy a motorcycle.”

  2. Cross-posted from Savage Minds.

    Has anyone ever examined the relation of culture shock to the desire to escape the straitjacket of the culture we grew up in that brought me, for example, to anthropology? Do anthropologists, given our motives for studying the other and our training in anthropology, experience culture shock in the same way as those involved in transcultural encounters by other circumstances?

  3. Then you do/will love Beryl Peoples in Richard Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool.” Jessica Tandy did a fine job in the movie (as did everyone else in the movie), but the book remains one of my all-time favorite works of fiction, and Beryl Peoples is one of the main reasons for that.

    One of the other aspects of her, and, presumably, of Miss Marple, is that women become invisible once their fuckability has(is determined to have) disappeared–which means they can watch other people more openly than otherwise.

  4. Really enjoying this discussion, John.

    Narya, your point about unfuckability is certainly true of Miss Marple and of course spills over to all sorts of marginalized Others who are recruited from time to time in literature as wise observers. I think there’s a lot to the trope, although when it’s precocious children doing the wise observing I draw the line, just because that’s the kind of curmudgeon I am.

    But isn’t that also the celebrated claim Sonia Sotomayor made, that as a Latina she enjoyed a kind of marginality that was automatically wisening? She seems wise to me and no doubt being Latina (and diabetic) had something to do with it, but do we really want to buy that all marginalization automatically leads to special wisdom? So what are the other factors?

  5. I think a distinction needs to be made between (a) the wisdom one can acquire by virtue of being marginalized, be(com)ing conscious of that marginalization, having at least one foot in, or access to, the group(s) from which one is marginalized, and considering the boundary questions, etc., which is what I take Sotomayor’s commentary to be, and (b) the wisdom one can acquire incidental to being marginalized, that is, because one is ignored or hidden, one has more freedom to observe. And, maybe, the observation part is at the core: people in group (a) are more likely to be observed, by the group into which they are trying to fit, and will be under a microscope, will be seen as representatives of every other member of the group of which they are a token, etc., while people in group (b) are able to do the observing, because their marginalization has rendered them invisible, rather than hypervisible.

    Obviously not mutually exclusive, but probably a distinction worth making.

  6. Narya, I like your distinction a lot. I wonder, though, on reflection, if there is any wisdom to be acquired by virtue of marginalization. Doesn’t wisdom spring from inquiring minds conscious of marginalization and unwilling to take it as given?

  7. Slight quibble: I meant the “by virtue of” to be, as typed-but-possibly-not-clearly-enough-articulated, by virtue of being marginalized AND becoming conscious of that marginalization. I don’t think marginalization, in and of itself, is of intrinsic value; some sense that one has been marginalized is necessary as well, as is the language to speak about it. Of course, people are better or more poorly able to articulate this (cf. Wittgenstein on the complexity of one’s language being intertwined with the complexity of one’s life).

    The three marginalizations with which I am personally familiar (prepare for anecdata) are (a) being female in mostly-male environments (college major; grad school; several workplaces; a sport I played for 15 years), (b) being of decidedly working class origins in venues (college, grad school, several workplaces) where the Working Classes are not expected to live, or are expected to shed those origins, and (c) being an atheist (3rd-generation, no less) in a decidedly judeo-christianist society. And now we can start adding the age one as well, given that I am older than 50.

    The wisdom acquired/acquireable by virtue of marginalization is a better sense of the landscape of the marginalization–when it’s being applied to you, you (had better) learn to figure out where and how it’s likely to display itself, but the people who are doing the marginalization need no such awareness, and, in fact, if they have any claims to decency at all, must be ignorant of what they’re doing. I’d say that what I’ve learned–and I regard it as an open question whether I’m “wise” or not–is how to identify and negotiate boundaries of a rather wide variety. I’ve become a pretty good translator, back and forth across the boundaries, and I like the way it has broadened my overall perspectives. Because of the variety of experiences, and the assumptions inherent in the environments/people in which those experiences took place, I can sometimes bring a clarity to a discussion that others cannot. And not just because I’m a Special Snowflake.

    Though, of course, I am that, too. 😉

  8. This question and answer helped me a lot to find my frame for this discussion. In Stigma Goffman anatomizes exactly these questions of marginalization and boundary negotiation. He argues that stigma is a multi-dimensional, situated social dynamic, and that there is no one who isn’t stigmatized in some dimension(s) in some situation(s). So the experience of marginalization is available to everyone (overdetermining the anecdata), but clearly its wisdoms are not, in large part because the strategies of stigma management are so common and doxic that they require no conscious analysis or deployment.

    In fact, denial and reversal are preferred strategies, so people who can get away with those never have to experience their stigmas consciously at all. Definitions of the situation and the power to enforce them are therefore key, including the doxic power of habitual interpretive schemata, which is why even though the working class long since took over the academy statistically and institutionally, they may remain locked in a self-defeating experience of marginalization there. Stigma identities are also routinely negotiated and become commonsensical in ways that may be fairly satisfactory or at least comfortable (niching, passing or the illusion of assimilation) which further blocks the development of critical decentering. (Note that even when one is at a collective margin, one is still one’s own center and thus critical consciousness still requires decentering.)

    I guess what I’m getting to is the suggestion that routinized stigma / marginalization are likely to produce an uncritical (or ritually critical, c.f. our earlier discussion on hierarchy holidays) feel for the game without stimulating critical decentering. Perhaps there does need to be some sort of ‘culture shock’ in the form of a rupture of routine to bring the habitus into conscious focus. Whether that shock produces delight or resentment, empathy or rejection will have to do with all kinds of factors ranging from the psychology of the person to the conditions of the rupture?

  9. Hah! And I just realized this is exactly the place to muse about something that has been rattling in my brain for awhile.

    Let’s take my brother (and Carl met him, IRL, many moons ago). He is white; he holds a profoundly (even archetypical) working-class job; he is bright. He is raising his sons to be non-racist (which, in the area where he lives, isn’t exactly a given). Although I (and his wife) find some of his gender assumptions to be problematic–he still, at the age of 45, apparently believes in a laundry fairy and a dishwasher fairy–it is also the case that he spends prodigious amounts of time raising his kids (coaching their teams, taking them hunting, Doing Stuff with them on a daily basis, etc.), i.e., he doesn’t leave raising the kids to his wife. And so on.

    Most of the academic discourses about race and gender would call him privileged, at least because of his race and sex. But telling him that he is “privileged” will be incomprehensible to him. HIS experience of his life–this is where the centering part is probably relevant–is that he works his butt off, doesn’t make all THAT much money, doesn’t live extravagantly or have a lot of luxury items, etc. He is happy with his life, I think, so he doesn’t have a lot of the teabaggerish resentment (for example), but he also doesn’t experience his life as privileged, at least not in the ways that the race/gender discourses would have him defined. In his case–to oversimplify–class, particularly class that can be purchased with money, trumps any other kind of privilege he can see. And, truthfully, I can’t think of any kind of “culture shock” that would disrupt or dislodge that, at least not any kind that he is likely to experience.

    (The kicker, in some ways, is that I think much academic discourse would disallow his experience, or would write him off in crucial ways, or would point to his race/gender privileges and possibly allow that to trump the class part of the equation.)

    But I also want to recall the other type of marginalization–the type that enables one to observe more, because one’s marginalization has rendered one INvisible, rather than hypervisible. The kicker to that one, I’m thinking, is that, in order for one to act on the observations that invisibility has allowed one to make, one must negotiate in some way with the marginalizing power, i.e., Miss Marple must be able to be heard in order to actually bring a criminal to justice.

  10. Narya, is your brother (say hi for me!) a reliable narrator of his own life?

  11. Was reviewing this conversation and realized that no one has mentioned Miss Marple’s age in relation to Carl’s proposition that,

    she doesn’t have a grand theory of human essence. Instead, she has a vast and growing database of detailed human observations against which she checks each new case for analogies.

    I think of the young anthropologist I was when I did my first (and only two years) field research. Could I have been Miss Marple, even if I had wanted to be?

  12. Carl, please explain; I suspect that you mean something specific by “reliable narrator,” but I am ignorant. I don’t think he has a lot of illusions about his life, for example. And, for another example, when I suggested that his younger son (who likes football, and, in particular, likes the hitting) would be great at hockey, my brother said it wasn’t possible–hockey takes money, in that neck of the woods, for equipment, and ice time, and travel, and such, much more so than football, and therefore is out of reach, no matter how much my nephew might like it. In other parts of the country, where hockey is a more common sport and more likely to be subsidized by a school system in the ways that football is, it might be possible for him to try it, but not there. My brother isn’t particularly resentful about that, mind you, but he recognized, I think accurately, that my nephew’s choices are bounded by the finances of the situation, even if he wouldn’t use exactly the words I’ve used to describe it.

    John: I’d say, “maybe.” If any of our musings here are correct, you might well have trouble getting certain kinds of information–for example, people (men and women) often treat men and women somewhat differently. In some environments, there are certain kinds of questions you couldn’t ask, certain types of interactions you likely would not be privy to. (This is all true for Miss M., too, of course.) But in so far as you were able to observe, build a database like hers, etc., then, yes, possibly, you could.

    However: what I was sort of arguing above is that certain kinds of marginalizations allow one to observe unseen–e.g., how Old women become invisible. If you are able to observe unseen, then those observations will be available to you for your database. But another kind of marginalization enables one to see a landscape of assumptions that are not visible to someone who is not subject to that particular set of marginalizations. If you haven’t been Treated As (for example) less-competent-because-you’re-female, then you will likely have less insight about both sides of that equation, which will change what you will be able to acquire for your database. (And here I’m assuming that at least some people who are subject to others’ marginalizations learn quite a bit about the people who are doing the marginalizing, in part as a defensive strategy.)

  13. If you haven’t been Treated As (for example) less-competent-because-you’re-female, then you will likely have less insight about both sides of that equation, which will change what you will be able to acquire for your database.

    Narya: My initial response is “Of course,” but only, I realize on second thought, if I underline “likely.” Pushed to a solipsistic extreme, this sort of argument too easily becomes, “You will never understand because you are not X,” where X may be, for example, a woman, a Japanese, or me. Pushed this far, it denies the possibility of empathy that transcends conventional categories.

    In thinking of my personal experience, I think of self-definitions, “I’m not mechanical” or “I don’t like sports,” for example, through which I identified with my mother and contrasted myself with my father in a flagrantly Oedipal way. This may have predisposed me to becoming an advocate for equal rights for women, married to an engineer’s daughter and the father of a daughter who sought and received an appointment to Annapolis, got high marks in “Urban Assault Warfare,” while training with the Marines at Quantico, did better than her Marine Corps pilot husband in SERE school …oh, well, you get the image.

    Returning from biography to theory: I wonder how much the invisibility of old women differs from, say, the invisibility of old waiters, convenience store clerks, or taxicab drivers.

  14. Good points, John. I think the “you will never understand” statement is dangerous. Accurate, sometimes, in some limited, perhaps circumscribed, circumstances, but not necessarily the thing with which one wants to lead.

    For example, I will, in fact, never understand what it’s like to be black in this country. I can make some analogies–e.g., one is “visibly” black in the way that one is “visibly” female, so observers immediately classify one with regard to race and/or sex; many people feel free to touch black people’s hair in ways similar to (but not the same as) the ways many people feel free to touch a pregnant woman’s stomach (or so I’ve heard). But I would pretty much never say that I “understand” what it’s like to be black in this country, and, in a conversation about being black, I would very much try to STFU rather than draw the analogies I just mentioned, i.e., very much try NOT to turn it into All About (White) Me. (In a conversation about immediately apprehensible categories, however, I may very well talk about race, sex, etc.)

    And it may be the case that the degree of marginalization that results from a particular characteristic affects the understandability of the marginalization. Or something. Point being, given the facts you’ve told me about yourself above (which sound seriously cool), I WOULD think you’d get a lot of it. There are some aspects of being female that you’ll never get–what menstruation or childbirth feels like, bodily, in the same way that I’ll never know what it feels like to have my genitalia all hangin’ out there. But then we have to ask whether those “never gets” are relevant, and we’re back to context again. In some contexts it’s probably relevant that you’ll never know what a female body feels like to live in, but in others, perhaps most others, probably not so much.

    Which, maybe, is a way to answer about how invisibilities may differ, to which categories (race, age, class, sex, occupation . . .) the invisibility may be due.

    May I also say that I would much rather be sitting in a coffee shop somewhere having this conversation than sitting at my desk, knowing I need to do a bunch of crap today?

  15. Thanks guys! Right, definitely a coffee shop, one with sofas like a proper salon. Btw sorry to get behind here, the semester just started and I’m getting back up to speed.

    Re: unreliable narrators Narya yes, I am gesturing at a literary trope, but in a more general sense I’m just waving my hands at the question of how well any of us understand and report our full relational situatedness in the world, both because of inevitable limitations of perspective and because of some pretty powerful incentives to ideologize and/or self-mythologize. The reason that an academic might be inclined to discount Bro’s class-based self-understanding is that it’s never a big surprise in the bigger picture when white boys don’t think much about race and gender or see the relevance to their lives. That’s how whiteboyness tends to work.

    Re: hockey, I’d agree with the general assessment while adding that poor Scandinavian immigrants would probably find a way for their kids to play hockey, e.g. via street hockey, equipment exchanges and so on. So there’s more to it than just expense and ‘possibility’ is a tilted space rather than a bright line. Rugby involves lots of hitting and hardly any equipment at all, but the tilt for it is even worse than for hockey in this country. So again, this is a place where (like all of us at times) Bro reports a habitus that may not well match a different perspective on the situation.

    I agree with you both in recoiling from the ‘you-just-can’t-understand’ move, the more so the more categorical it gets. I mean, I have no actual way of knowing if my junk al fresco feels ‘the same’ as some other guy’s junk al fresco, or what differences in that feeling variations of size etc. might make. And I’ve listened carefully to a lot of reports about what female bodies feel like to live in, some of which sound similar and some of which explicitly disagree on what seem like critical points. So I think there’s always something at least a little bit projective about empathy, which of course does not invalidate it. Then again as a historian I’m pretty much stuck with an imaginative engagement with the dead people I study, so I don’t scruple about that quite as much as when they’re around to be offput by outsider perspectives.

    John, I guess you could have been as much Miss Marple in your youthful fieldwork as she was as a younger woman. It’s certainly essential to her character that she is old and therefore her database is vast, but one imagines her being an unusually sharp cookie even as a young woman. The key to the value of her database is that she sees clearly, without a lot of prejudicial filtering, so she’s not just using her observations to feed her biases back to herself.

  16. Narya, thank you for your kind words. Carl, too.

    Carl, I agree that one imagines Miss Marple being an unusually sharp cookie even as a young woman. I recall, however, a younger self, nervous, self-obsessed, filled with raging hormones, not at all sure about what I was supposed to be doing while doing fieldwork — except that I was very concerned that it not be the same as the work produced by predecessors or colleagues. Looking back, I see all sorts of prejudicial filtering and just plain thrashing around. I was still in pretty much the same state when I started teaching, busted out of academia, then started working in advertising in Japan. I could be doing my fellow anthropologists a disservice by projecting my experience onto them; but I can’t help wondering if seeing clearly, avoiding bias, and carefully adding observations to a growing database of reliable knowledge is more the exception than the rule. Isn’t Miss Marple remarkable precisely because her habits are so different from those of most of us?

  17. Let’s compare Miss Marple to Bro.

    Bro is unsurprising, in an assortment of ways. He’s basically a decent person, and there are aspects which may not fit neatly, in the sense that those aspects differ somewhat-to-quite-a-bit from the persons around whom he lives and works, but, in general, he isn’t surprising, in precisely the ways that Carl identifies. (As a possibly-relevant aside, he can be particularly funny, in a sharp-observer kind of way, as when he referred to the parenting style of many of the people around him as “Stop-or-I’ll-say-stop-again” types of parents. As a coach, he has a lot of opportunity to observe kids and their parents, and I found that observation to be rather trenchant, suggesting that he does have some observational abilities, even if he isn’t quite as sharp as Miss Marple or as able to identify his own filters as we might hope.)

    Miss Marple IS surprising, though, or she appears to be, and what we’ve been teasing out, I think, is just how and why she is surprising, or remarkable. Is it because she is really that much more observant and smarter than the rest of us? Or is it because she is in a position–in the sense in which we have been describing various types of position(ing) and various margin(alization)s–to make a different type of observation? And, of course, we’ve been arguing that it’s both: she’s smarter, AND she also has a perspective from which to make observations that may enable her to leverage that intelligence in particular ways, AND people around her expect neither, which is where the surprise appears. It may also be that she has fewer of the filters that prevent her from making observations. (I actually haven’t read any of the Miss Marple books, I now confess, but I can’t imagine her as differing all that much from the general pattern in my head of the Miss-Marple Type.)

    What Miss Marple’s–and, it sounds like, John’s–lifetimes of experience can teach us is that, despite whatever assumptions and obsessions and prejudicial filtering they started with, they have been able to see what’s there, in some sense, instead of what their prejudices tell them is there. And, of course, there are still things they/we will never be able to see; language itself shapes our reality in ways that create that reality, and then reality doubles back. Or something like that.

    In any case, I strongly re-recommend that y’all go get Richard Russo’s book–Nobody’s Fool–and see if you don’t become completely enchanted with and entertained by Beryl Peoples. And Sully, for that matter. And, really, they could stand in for Bro and Miss Marple in this thread.

  18. And, as I go back and read the end of the original post, I would say that my own experience is that going off to college, and then to graduate school, did, in fact, cause culture shock in me. The Others in my classes, both in the seat next to me and in the front of the classroom, were shockingly different from the people around whom I grew up. Some of those shocks were class-based, some were gender-based, but shocking they were. Just one example: I graduated from high school in 1976. When I went off to college, I had never met a woman who had an occupation other than nurse, secretary, clerk, or, as they called them then, homemaker. I had discovered Ms. magazine at the local library, and I knew in principle that women could be doctors and lawyers and chiefs, but I had met precious few people who did any of those types of jobs–the class part of the equation–and no women. So, to find oneself in worlds where women did those things–and, sometimes, people’s mothers or grandmothers did those things–was startlingly different.

  19. And, of course, there are still things they/we will never be able to see; language itself shapes our reality in ways that create that reality, and then reality doubles back. Or something like that.

    Narya, are you familiar with the work of Mikhail Bakhtin ? Bakhtin is famous for advocating a dialogical approach to cultural understanding, and one of his central propositions is that understanding requires dialogue because we all have blind spots and need to hear what others see that we are missing.

    P.S. I like to tell people that I grew up in Virginia and didn’t realize how different it was until I went to Michigan State and was made to take a required American studies course where there seemed to be an awful lot of emphasis on the Pilgrims. To me they had been nothing more than the people who got there second — after Jamestown, that is.

    P.P.S. When I hear people going on about school prayer, I remember my fifth-grade home room teacher. She was a classic southern steel magnolia and in her home room the day began with (1) the Lord’s Prayer, (2) the Pledge of Allegiance, (3) the Star-Spangled Banner and, then……..(4) we remained standing with our hands over our hearts and sang “Dixie.”

  20. I think I stumbled across Bakhtin somewhere along the line, though not in any detail–Wittgenstein is really my guy, with a heaping dose of Bourdieu. I like that notion of Bakhtin’s, though.

    So why did you decide to go off to Michigan State? Not an obvious choice there.

    I am not surprised by your 5th grade teacher, though also glad that I didn’t run across her counterpart, as my parents are atheists as well, and that prayer thing would not have gone over well.

  21. Michigan State? Wanted to get out of Virginia. Did well enough on the National Merit Scholarship exam that MSU recruited me for its Honors College Program. Cost half as much as Harvard, which I turned down. Was seduced by the thought of having the freedom to explore the university’s offerings without a lot of pesky prerequisites. Didn’t realize what going to Harvard might have been worth. Things turned out OK anyway.

  22. There is a world packed into “Didn’t realize what going to Harvard might have been worth.” And, for that matter, into “Things turned out OK anyway.” And then, of course, consider the challenge of trying to explain those two sentences to my brother, or my parents, or someone located somewhere in some other habitus. Pretty much sums up the whole long thread here.

  23. Narya, could you tell us a bit more about yourself?

    In my case, I was born in Savannah, GA but brought up from the age of five in Virginia, where my parents moved because, after the end of WWII, my dad was finishing his training at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock’s apprentice school and starting what became a forty-year career as a machinist and, ultimately, quality control inspector. Mom’s father was a pharmacist with a drug store in Savannah, and it was he who provided the loan that enabled my parents to buy the 70 acres at the head of Patricks’ Creek where I and my brother Dan grew up in the paradise created by Dad’s interest in horticulture. Mom and Dad had met in the choir and youth group at Ascension Lutheran Church in Savannah, and the Lutheran churches my parents helped found on the Virginia Peninsula were a huge part of my growing up: Sunday School, Confirmation Classes, acolyte; parents who sang in the choir, taught Sunday school, served on the Church council; the annual church picnic held on our front lawn. As a teenager, I felt intellectually smothered and couldn’t wait to get out of all that. That was the start of a path that led to a B.A. in Philosophy at MSU, a Ph.D. in Anthropology at Cornell, where I met my wife; fieldwork in Taiwan and, following an aborted academic career, moving to Japan, where we have been for 29 going on 30 years.

    My brother Dan, with whom I fought like cat and dog while we were growing up, went off in totally opposite directions. He followed my Dad into the shipyard apprentice school; came home after spending two years in the Army as a truck driver in Germany to marry a nurse (my Mom trained as a nurse but settled into being a housewife); left the shipyard and went to work in the model shop at the Army Transportation Command at Fort Eustis; they built a house on a piece of the family property next door to Mom and Dad. They did, however, make a point of going to a different Lutheran church from my parents.’ In his spare time, Dan was a waterman, with a boat, a couple of pound nets and a string of crab pots. He joined a hunt club and the NRA and became a musket and crossbow hunter. He has enjoyed the perks of his “gu’mint job” but remained fiercely conservative. When asked why others shouldn’t have the health care and other benefits he enjoys, he responds that those who didn’t work hard and get a similar job are “damned fools,” who deserve what they have made of themselves.

    That said, he is absolutely honest, totally devoted to family (I have no trouble at all with his being the executor of the parents’ estate), and, if truth be told, less racist than I am. He has always had black hunting and fishing buddies. I never did, and without thinking much about it, followed paths that didn’t lead to having black friends.

    What’s your story?

  24. I was born in a small working-class town in northwest New Jersey. My dad was a sheet metal worker and my mom was a secretary. My (german/Pennsylvania Dutch) father’s parents were good presbyterians–my grandfather was apparently a deacon in the church. My mother’s parents, however, well, my grandmother was an immigrant from Italy, and my grandfather’s parents were as well, and my grandfather was an anarchist and an atheist. (And he fit more into 76 years than any three normal people–he’s been dead for more than 25 years, and every time we start telling Guido stories (that was his name), we hear a new one.) That grandfather started a business, selling appliances and installing plumbing and heating into houses; my dad did the HVAC and my mom’s brother did the plumbing. In the early 60s, my grandfather took a chance and started doing mechanical subcontracting, again with my dad doing the HVAC and my uncle doing the plumbing, with additional guys from the union hall as necessary. (My dad was a union member all his life, and that is what has enabled him and my mom to get the excellent medical care they’ve been needing of late.) In the early 70s, my grandfather handed the business over to my dad and uncle. Thus, I was raised atheist, and rather farther left than just about anyone I know. My dad remains one of the smartest people I’ve met, despite no more formal education after high school (and I’m named after him, for that matter).

    I’m the oldest, born in 1958. I went off to Oberlin, which I even knew about at all because one of my grandfather’s anarchist buddies (the buddy edited an italian-language anarchist newspaper for many years and was written up in the Village Voice when he died, in a long article that I have around somewhere) had a son who taught romance languages there. It was known as “that radical place where Vinio teaches.” Plus, when I looked at the admissions brochure, I saw they had the Gay Union listed among the student organizations, and, though that didn’t describe me, I figured any place that put that in the admissions brochure, in 1974, was my kind of place. I did a double major in philosophy and government. After college I moved to Philadelphia, got a non-academic secretarial job at Carl’s father’s institution, and basically floundered for awhile, in part for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, but in part because I had no idea what to do next, how to figure it out, or who to ask. I had more education than anyone in my family. So, I took a few classes with Carl’s dad, and finally applied to grad school at the University of Chicago, because I realized that I’d really like to be a professor (and I still think that was a good career choice for me). Got the Ph.D. in political science in 1993, the year of the worst job market in political science in anyone’s memory, plus my advisor had died just as I starting writing. I was unemployed for more than a year (one of the worst years of my life), and eventually got a job managing grants for a substance abuse treatment organization. (Hence my affection for junkies and alcoholics, who were the only people willing to take a chance on me.) Worked there for four years, then at a biotech for 7 years (managing clinical trials on imaging neurological effects of pharmaceuticals) and doing general management stuff; I was employee number 8, and we never got above 25 total, I don’t think), then, when that failed, went to pastry school for six months so I could start my own bakery. Also got married to someone I’d been with for more than 5 years. The marriage lasted less than a year, however–he lost his job, got a new one, was diagnosed as bipolar, and discovered he couldn’t deal with our open relationship (he had played around, but I hadn’t before, and, on top of everything else, well, it’s a novella on its own), all in the space of about six months. We’re still in touch, in part so I can continue to see his son, who was 17 months old when we met (the son is now 12 and taller than I am). I was working at a bakery, making croissants, at which I became quite good. Did that for two years, while doing freelance copyediting and proofreading (because $10/hour at the bakery really wasn’t enough) and gave up the dream of my own bakery. Two years ago I got a job managing grants at a non-profit; the part of the organization I work for provides health care to people who are homeless and people with HIV.

    My sister was 17 months younger than I am. In 1982 she went off to Kenya, in the Peace Corps. Her ashes came back a year later, after she contracted rabies. Our family–individually and collectively–had to decide whether to Go On, in some important sense (rather than, say, building a shrine and getting stuck), and we decided to do so, and figured out how to do it. She was Pretty and Popular in grade school and high school–I was most emphatically not–and that dichotomy definitely shaped my earlier experiences.

    My brother is 6 years younger than I am. He became a mechanic (and a damned good one). He and his wife and two sons live near my parents; he’s also the executor. He’s also a hunter, for that matter, bow and gun, and his older son is following in his footsteps on that. (Too soon to see whether the younger one does.) He’s basically decent, not nearly as far left as the rest of us, but his sense of fairness and his basic intelligence keeps him from skewing too far right.

    So, really, I can tell that story in ways that make me sound very working-class and ordinary, but I also recognize that there are a number of bits, not all of my own making, that don’t fit into such a narrative, such as the anarchist/atheist grandfather.

  25. So, really, I can tell that story in ways that make me sound very working-class and ordinary, but I also recognize that there are a number of bits, not all of my own making, that don’t fit into such a narrative, such as the anarchist/atheist grandfather.

    The anarchist/atheist grandfather who also started a successful business is far from ordinary. But even without him, it is hard to imagine a story that includes Oberlin and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Chicago as “very working class and ordinary.” I am left wondering though, why did you give up the dream of having your own bakery?

    Returning to my own saga, I should mention that this working-class boy makes good story omits a lot of background. My paternal grandparents met at the University of Missouri and the families in question included an admiral, a couple of Congressmen, and the owner of a newspaper a generation back. This set of grandparents moved to Savannah when Pappy (that’s what we called him) was hired as Superintendent of Shop Instruction for the Savannah School District. They had seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood. My dad was one of the underachievers. Bob became an agronomist, a specialist in soil chemistry, and professor at the University of Georgia; Bill got his Ph.D. in agricultural engineering and taught at Auburn; Baxter got a master’s in mechanical engineering and had a successful career with the Corps of Army Engineers. Dad would have gone back to school to get an engineering degree; but then my maternal grandfather, the one who provided the loan that bought the place I grew up on, was diagnosed with lung cancer and came to live with us in Virginia. Dad’s younger sister, Geef, married a DEA narc who told me that he understood perfectly why people who worked in chicken factories took speed: “If I had to spend every day standing up to my ankles in chicken guts, I’d take the stuff, too.” Dad’s older sister, my Aunt Nan, married a Georgia dairy farmer, Phil Campbell, who got interested in politics, got elected Commissioner of Agriculture, was a major player in introducing industrial agribusiness to the South, and was one of four Talmadge-machine Democrats who bolted the Democratic Party after the 1968 convention and carried Georgia for Richard Nixon. He was then appointed Undersecretary of Agriculture in the Nixon administration, which is why, when Ruth and I arrived in Taiwan in 1969, we got in touch with the agricultural attache at the U.S. Embassy, who arranged for us to have lunch with the head of the Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, a very nice man and fellow Cornellian named Lee Teng-hui, who would follow Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo and become the first Taiwanese President of the Republic of China on Taiwan. I will never forget going to my cousin Ann Campbell’s graduation from the Georgia finishing school to which the daughters of prominent Georgia politicians were sent. Talk about ritual, envision if you can a bevy of young belles dressed in white hoop skirted dressed and carrying bouquets of red roses. A wheezing reed organ is playing Baptist hymns, and the graduation speaker is Senator Richard Russell, Chair of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, speaking on, I kid you not, the virtues of southern womanhood. Any wonder I became an anthropologist.

  26. When I graduated from Oberlin, I moved to Philadelphia because I had to move somewhere, I didn’t want to move back to my home town, and the family of the guy I was dating lived there. He went back to school that fall. So, here I am, 21, never lived in a city before (and, in fact, had spent no more than a total of about 15 days in any city at all, ever), without a job (except temp work, some of which was thrown my way by his mom), and absolutely no clue how to get one in that environment, other than answering ads in the paper. I ended up working for that boyfriend’s dad at Temple. I had no connections, other than that. And that is the way that I was (and am) working-class, and boundary-crossing. I had a great education and no clue how to leverage it and no one who could give me any advice at all on that. I ended up in a job that anyone with a high school education could have done, and became bored. I took classes there because I could do it for free, and realized I needed to do more with my brain. And, really, it seemed that being a professor would suit my talents quite well.

    When I finished grad school, I essentially found myself in exactly the same situation: no job, no way to leverage this education, no one to help. (Faculty at the U of C hadn’t yet realized the job market truly sucked and they had to help grads get jobs–my situation ended up being a big warning bell, because I and my work were well-regarded, but that didn’t help ME so much as it helped people after me.) When the junkies & alcoholics hired me, I had enough money to pay my rent for September and October and to eat for about 2/3 of that time. Unlike some of my fellow grads, I had no partner to support me. My parents had helped out–paid my rent for six months, basically–but it was unreasonable to expect them to continue to do that.

    I gave up the bakery dream because my marriage fell apart, and the dream was contingent on not having to worry about things like medical insurance or actually eating during the start-up time of the bakery. One cannot reasonably expect to go from making $10/hour (no benefits; I paid health insurance out of pocket, which isn’t something I recommend, especially if you have any kind of preexisting condition) to starting one’s own business, especially if one is nearly 50 years old, unless one has won the lottery, which I had not. And, hey, I already had experience with having my dreams crushed.

    The connections you detail in your latest installment–which are absolutely fascinating–are ones that are simply nonexistent for someone like me. I have no way to leverage what I know, because I don’t know people who can leverage it for me–except other working-class jamokes like me. I was discussing this with a local writer/columnist for the Trib who also happens to be my yoga teacher. She’s about my age, and similarly backgrounded, and she fell into the work she’s doing. (She was a finalist for a Pulitzer a couple of years ago.) We’ve discussed this class thing at some length. For example, when she applied to college, she picked one because of its reputation, sort of. She got in, too–but she put the letter in a drawer, because she saw how much it would cost and knew that her family didn’t have that money. A teacher said, hey, what’s up with that, and she had the courage to be honest. And the teacher said, did you apply for financial aid? No, of course not–because she had no idea it existed. If the teacher hadn’t asked? No college.

    Really, I could write a book about this stuff (and actually want to).

    The thing for me is that the intelligence that runs rampant in my family–my younger nephew is scary-smart–is unusual, in the not-everyone-is-that-smart sense; those bell curves occasionally map onto something real. And the conversations we had around the dinner table, and the lack of religious dogma, all contributed to who/where I am, and those things are all unusual for my class of origin, too. Another thing, too: I’ve made my way as a woman, which, for women of my age, is no small thing. We’ve often had to carve out space for ourselves in both class AND gender terms. And, in our case, typically without a partner.

    But, when push comes to shove, I finished each step of my fancy education with no job and no one who could help me–certainly no one from my family. And, you know, that’s okay. I get to use my talents for good rather than evil, so that’s definitely a win. I wonder sometimes what it might have been like if I’d had an opportunity to do more than I do, or different–if I’d been able to be a professor; if someone had taken me in hand when I was in college and helped me (several professors helped me intellectually, quite a bit, and I remain grateful for that); if I’d had any clue what the possibility space was, if I’d known it was bigger than my background had prepared me to be able to see, if I hadn’t had to worry about eating and paying the rent at each step of the way. But thinking about that is not a good path to take. It makes me sad.

    Anyway. Your family is absolutely entertaining–as you say, no wonder you became an anthropologist!

  27. And, hey, I already had experience with having my dreams crushed.

    Ouch. Odd question to ask, I know: Have you read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers? Or Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed? I can’t help thinking of them as I read Narya’s story and hope that she does write that book she mentions.

    Class and background work in odd ways. It is easy for me to imagine someone thinking, “Ah, that McCreery fellow, with his background he was bound to turn out all right.” But the closest they came to directly influencing what happened to us after I didn’t get tenure was when Uncle Phil offered to set Ruth and me up in a pig-feeding operation in north Georgia, feeding piglets up to the weight where they would move on to the next stage in the mass pork production process. The connections that brought us to the life we lived in Japan were Ruth’s. She was the one who got the fellowship that brought us to Japan, the one whose colleague at Yale provided the list of phone numbers that produced my first job in Japan, which became the stepping stone to the thirteen years I spent doing something I never expected to do, writing English-language copy for a Japanese ad agency. What would have happened to me if I hadn’t walked down the hall connecting the anthropology and sociology departments in McGraw Hall, seen her sitting in the sociology graduate students’ study and asked her out? What would have happened to us if, without Bob Danly’s list of phone numbers, I had settled into teaching English as a second language as the only way I imagined I could earn a living before we got here? What if we had taken up Uncle Phil’s offer or followed up on feelers from the CIA because we had studied Asian languages (Chinese and Japanese)? Class is very real; but so are all the odd accidents that shape a life course.

    But enough of me. Narya should definitely write that book. I’d want to read it. I’d bet a lot of people would.

  28. Oh I COMPLETELY agree about the accidents.

    For example, I was interviewed for an academic job that was perfect for me. Three of us interviewed, two of us were finalists. The other person had been denied tenure elsewhere, and had a little more experience that I did, but I believe I did more interesting work. We had had the same advisor–the person who died as I started writing my disseratation. I believe firmly that, if he had been alive, and had been asked for his opinion (as he would have been, as the fact that I was his student was one of the things that helped get me interviewed), he would have told them to hire me. But? Dead men provide no recommendations. The chair of the search committee, in one of the most decent things anyone has ever done, actually called me to tell me of the decision. He made it clear that I had had supporters, that the committee had had a difficult time choosing between us, and that he believed I would go on to be a great professor. Of course, there were no jobs, and I was an odd duck in some ways, so, no. After I hung up the phone, I went into my little office, closed the door, and sat on the floor and cried. I knew that was it. The next two years, the job market was abysmal. If my prof had been alive? Different life, most likely. Not necessarily better or worse, but surely different.

    It did sound like some of the connections–the embassy connection?–were yours, but of course, those are still accidents. The overriding question, IMHO, is what possibilities we are able to see, and, along with that, the constraints we face in navigating those possibility spaces (e.g., rent, food). Several professors suggested I try to get a post-doc, but, even if I had managed to find one that was suited for me, they typically pay a pittance, and I already had $60k in debt–on top of which I would have had to move away from all of the people I knew, and go into more debt to do it, with no reassurance that Something Would Turn Up. So it just looked, to me, like a very bad idea (and I’ve never been convinced otherwise, or been convinced that there was, in fact, a post-doc out there with my name on it). And I think of adjuncting as contributing to the conditions of my own oppression, which I have limited interest in doing.

    On the other hand, 6 or 8 years ago, when my brother’s wife neglected to pay the mortgage for 18 months (and didn’t tell him; long story there), and my brother found out two weeks before the sheriff’s sale, my parents were able to prevent that by throwing cash at it. If my parents hadn’t been in a position to help? The spiral that would have resulted would have been pretty catastrophic. Overall, not all THAT much money was needed, but a certain amount was, and it was needed quickly, and my mother is a financial whiz, so they were able to turn that ship around. Without that? Not so much.

  29. Since we’re waxing autobiographical about the life path I’ll fill in some more anecdata that I hope will support both John’s point about the intersections of structure, agency and accident and Narya’s about the importance of possibility-spaces both real and imagined.

    On some of the plain facts my story looks like destiny, or privilege run amok depending on one’s ideological narrative commitments. But then again I’m sitting here staring at a folder containing my rejection letters from the three years I was on the market before I got this job. It is two inches thick. How did that happen?

    Let us, as they say, start from the beginning. I’m the elder son of a philosophy professor and an art historian. My maternal aunt is another philosopher, and was director of the Women’s Studies program at UMass. On that side of the family there’s a signer of the Constitution, a Rhodes Scholar, an opera star, and a glacier-discoverer. In recent generations they all went to excellent little liberal arts colleges, mostly Swarthmore. Without reflection I expected to do so also (I liked the looks of Oberlin a lot).

    However, Dad was the first member of his family to go to college and he did it the hard way, working his own way through Thayer Academy, Brandeis and Brown. He thought I could do the same if I wanted to go somewhere other than Temple, which was a perfectly good school and free because he taught there. That seemed inconvenient but fair to me. Not being particularly driven, of course I chose free and sure enough, I got a fine education despite coasting quite a bit.

    When I got out with my wifty interdisciplinary degree and underwhelming 3.6 I realized school was a comfortable place for me and tried to arrange for more of it. I applied to Princeton, Cornell and Johns Hopkins. Not getting into any of them was a surprise that shouldn’t have been, so I worked for a year, got married and tried again, with fallbacks this time. Two of those, Wisconsin-Madison (History and Sociology) and UC San Diego (History) accepted me. This time I was waitlisted at Cornell, and only realized later that if I had been more patient I had a good chance of getting in there. Anyway, although I liked Sociology marginally better, I went to UCSD because they offered me a full ride and a fellowship. I have no idea why they did that. It may have been intellectual history’s turn to get the money that year, and I mentioned Foucault in my application. Several of my classmates were also foreigners and may have had government money. (Btw, to intercept a legitimate suspicion, the other two big departmental packages went to women that year.)

    Again I got a good education at a second-tier school, again despite some coasting. After the fellowship in the first year I got teaching assistantships that paid some and remitted tuition, so I was paid to go to school and learn how to teach, which I thought was pretty sweet. I also worked odd jobs to supplement the family income, like telemarketing gorilla suits nationwide. My wife was usually the main breadwinner through these years, as a magazine managing-editor, a paralegal, a law clerk and then a lawyer, which was a huge advantage that I deeply appreciated. But I did generally make enough that I could have kept myself fed and housed if necessary. My doctorate took nine years, exactly ‘normative time’ according to the university. I might have gotten done earlier or more easily if we hadn’t moved to San Francisco for my wife’s law school, then Hawaii for her clerkship, then Oakland for her job; I fell out of touch and drifted. But I might just as easily have settled into stringing together t.a.ships in San Diego and putting off writing; it’s impossible to know.

    I finished in late 1995 and immediately went on the market. My grad program was nationally respectable, my dissertation was a solid piece of work, I had some teaching experience and I had glowing recommendations from advisors with some name recognition. I knew that the market was tough but hadn’t gotten much specific guidance from my advisors or the school (in part because I hadn’t asked for it). I began throwing bloated, jargony, research-heavy applications at every job that fit my training, which was about 15-20 per year nationwide, and began to get back perfunctory rejection letters thanking me for being one of 150-200 qualified applicants. Although I had avoided taking statistics in school I could tell that these were not good odds. The first year out I got exactly zero interviews.

    While I was applying for tenure-track jobs nationwide I also sent out statements of availability to local colleges and universities in the Bay Area. I never did get much response from History departments (just one class in three years) but I got a nibble right away to teach modern philosophy at Holy Names College in Oakland. They were in a bind and needed someone on the quick; I said yes and had a lot of fun learning modern philosophy while teaching it. That class went well so they asked me back to teach social and political philosophy, which was slightly more in my wheelhouse. I got on very well with the smart, well-educated nuns who ran the place. But when a permanent position in Modern European History (my field) came open, I was the second choice because another long-time adjunct with a book in print was in front of me in line. (cont’d)

  30. Meanwhile, I got a tug from the Sociology Department at Cal State Hayward, where the Chair was a harried pragmatist who was willing to see if I could solve a problem for him by teaching theory. I did that well enough and without fuss that he tried me out on Intro and some other stuff. I ended up teaching many of the theory-laden classes in the department plus the grad seminars in theory. I also looked around the building and hooked up with the Human Development program, which was interdisciplinary and used me as their social theorist and historian. That went so well that in the third year I got a full-time annual contract and the inside track for a permanent gig.

    They ended up advertising two positions, one in HD and one joint appointment with Sociology for a theorist. HD wanted me but decided they could get me through the joint appointment, so they hired another guy for their job. Then sure enough, I was the top choice by both departments for the joint position, at which point a faction of the Soc department (that, oddly enough, included two-thirds of the search committee) cried foul that they were getting a white guy jammed down their throats (the case made the Chronicle as an example of shady race privilege) and the Dean cancelled the search. I didn’t cry (I didn’t even disagree with the folks who wanted to enhance the historic diversity of the department), but it was pretty disappointing. (cont’d)

  31. During the second and third year out I started to get a few interviews, at the AHA at first. My favorite memory of that other than the reek of fear in the waiting areas is submitting a cover sheet for a job description that exactly fit my training and getting it back with nothing but a red x in the ‘not interested’ box. They were going to be cattle-calling a couple dozen candidates and it was not a big prestigious school. So I resubmitted with a note: are there really that many intellectual historians of modern continental Europe to choose from? Back it came with another x through the not interested box and a big red YES beside my note. Another good one was when I found out later the school had hired a couple for the position. Hard for one person to compete with two.

    As for campus interviews my only shot at an R1 in History was at Illinois Urbana-Champagne. They already had someone pretty close to me so I’m not quite sure what they had in mind, but it was a pretty good interview and as usual I impressed the more theory-oriented types (which is never the majority, unfortunately). As it turned out, though, they hired Antoinette Burton, which is kind of like tasting the bean dip and then going for the caviar. I guess they hadn’t settled on whether to hire entry-level or established, but I don’t see how you don’t hire her if you can, and they did.

    I had much better shots at a couple of interdisciplinary jobs at cool alternative programs in the Pacific Northwest. On paper I was perfect for both of them. At one, the director who had wanted me and stayed in touch for some time after told me that I was a polarizing candidate, mostly I think because I asked awkward questions when the younger faculty trotted out their dogmas (my bad). The situation at the other was similar but worse; their faculty deadlocked and they had to cancel the search. I was the choice of the old-left founders but rubbed the newer race/class/gender faculty the wrong way by leaving questions open they liked to think were closed and taking perspectives seriously they preferred to dismiss.

    And I continued to get rejection after rejection. Some of my favorites: the one from my alma mater in which I’m addressed as Carol; the one where the Dean flat lied about why I didn’t get the job; the one where I was informed that I did not meet the minimum qualifications to teach Western Civ at a community college; the two identical letters from the same department for different searches a year apart; and the one from this university for its search the year before I got this job. (cont’d)

  32. I laughed at the notion that you resubmitted w/ that question; I know you, of course, so I’m not exactly surprised, but I’m amused nevertheless.

    I sometimes wonder what I might have done if I’d had any indication that I would EVENTUALLY get a full-time position. My realization–the one that resulted in the tears–was that I didn’t have any such indication, and, given the need for food and shelter, couldn’t take a chance. I’m also leaving out the part where, the following year, as I was finishing my dissertation, I was one of 10 people my own university interviewed for five open positions. Each year they hire some number of people for 3-year non-TT appointments, which is a useful way of providing sustenance for people like me; they’re essentially in-house post-docs. Finalist, yes; successful, not so much. (And I knew (in multiple dimensions and senses) one of the people they hired, and he was a pompous twit.) So, once again, close but no income, no job. And I could not afford to do that, financially–keep getting close, keep being a finalist, but not actually getting hired to do anything. (I was also leery of ending up in a small town; single, in a small town in the middle of nowhere, is also not a prescription for happiness, no matter how much one loves the work. The body has needs, too.)

    Which is not at all to take anything away from the soul-sucking nature of the rejections you received, mind you. My only points are that (a) you didn’t have to worry as much about food & shelter, and (b) you’d actually managed to get jobs and interviews, even if they weren’t TT and such. Both of those things changed the possibility space, even if the emotional space was, arguably, even worse.

  33. So why did I get it the second time around? Persistence, obviously, and applying for a job at a place named Methodist in Fayetteville (we generally get smaller pools than more immediately-appealing joints). But in fact as the search dragged on I became a better and better candidate. As I got a better feel for the market I started casting my applications much more broadly and tailoring them much more carefully. I stripped out all the anxious legitimating garbage grad school encourages and focused on what I could offer that they wanted. For teaching schools I put the teaching up front, for R1s the research, and I kept it all engaging and real. I sent out probably a few hundred applications in all and I did get better at it.

    For this job I knew they didn’t care about my research beyond the fact of it, so that’s all I gave them. I told them about all the teaching I’d done and made it clear that I could step in to a small department, hit the ground running and cover a lot of ground. When I asked my chair later why I’d gotten the interview the second time around he said this was decisive – not just teaching experience, but demonstrated breadth and flexibility. Apparently that semester when I taught Sociology in Hayward in the morning, hopped the BART and bus to Concord to teach Human Development in the afternoon, then bus and BART across to San Francisco to teach Women’s History at SFSU in the evening paid off.

    And even then, I still had to get lucky, because there are plenty of ‘freeway fliers’ who teach sections of Civ or Comp across the known universe and never hit for a real job. But then again, teaching Civ and Comp again and again don’t say much about breadth and flexibility, so I’ll take a little credit for risking a disabling category confusion on my vita and hustling up gigs across the humanities and social sciences. It certainly helped that I loved learning and teaching all the new things I needed to, considered it all an extended apprenticeship, and never thought of myself as being exploited or oppressed. And I was stubborn; I didn’t like rejection, but I liked the alternatives that went with giving up even less.

  34. What, you almost got a job ABD and more than a year away? Holy crap! Only the big stars even get a look any more without the doc in hand; there’s too much experienced, proven, low-maintenance talent on the hoof to risk the newb who can’t climb the real-world learning curve.

    I applied for that Chicago thing a couple years in a row…. I agree, that must have been frustrating to miss on, especially knowing the faults of the competition. But that’s a slim try at the brass ring, and you’re right that you’d make a great professor. And with more teaching refreshing your vita and speaking to you not being an entitled R1 twit you’d be in play at a place like this (where I found a new wife I like quite well, incidentally). Any chance you can dust off the credential and pick up an evening class or two?

  35. What Carl says about persistence is really important. Since getting sucked into the business world, I have met a number of successful entrepreneurs. They don’t seem smarter than I am; but they all have stories to tell about the numerous things they tried and failed at, hanging on by the skin of their teeth, until they hit their jackpot. Endless flexibility and grit seem to be the prime ingredients that separate them from most of us.

    On a less preachy plane, I wonder if you’ve thought about corporate training, which may now (I’ve seen some claims that it is) a bigger educational enterprise than all of the colleges in the U.S. put together. Seems to me that you now have not only that Ph.D. from Chicago but also several years of management experience in some highly technical areas: managing clinical trials and grant applications. The academic world might not care about that stuff, but HR departments with training programs to manage will. Could be worth poking around and seeing who is providing training services for the biotech industry in which you have a track record. You might also want to check out organizations like SITAR (Society for International Training and Research). Just brainstorming, but you might turn up something interesting.

  36. Well, in my own defense, I have to say that I didn’t “give up” so much as “like to eat meals and sleep in a bed.” I am not exaggerating about the dire financial straits I was in when I was hired by the substance abuse tx agency. And, recounting these stories for you guys has proven more difficult than I would have thought, because it’s reminding me of the pervasive terror of that time. When my sister died, it was terrible, wrenching, etc., but I also knew that there are paths one takes with grief, and that I (and other family members) could find our ways. It would take time, and the whole experience would change us, and so on, but grieving is a process, one that moves one along a path, and, even in the midst, I could see that there would be a time when that wasn’t the most important thing going on in my life.

    When I was unemployed after grad school, doing temporary secretarial work (and teaching a course, which, though I had done other teaching quite well, I did very poorly those two quarters), part of what was so utterly terrifying about the situation is that I had no idea what was going to happen, how it was going to work out, WHETHER it would work out, and I had no one to help feed and house me if it didn’t, other than my parents, who of course would not let me starve, but who likely would have insisted strongly that I move back to the small town in NW Jersey. At which point, I don’t know, I don’t like to think of what I might have done. So, every Sunday, I bought the Trib, and the first thing I did–because then it would be over with–was to go through the want ads. (No internet back in 1994, at least not as we know it now.) I’d look for anything that seemed like maybe I could talk my way into doing it. I’d print out letters, send them off, and hear nothing, week after week. The academic market, in political science, starts around labor day, with the convention, so all through 1994, there really wasn’t much in that market, either. If it hadn’t been for the guys I played handball with–most of whom were 20 years older than I am and who would not let me pay for beer–I would not have survived that year. You guys are eliding the part about having a spouse/partner–not just for emotional support, but for actual food-on-the-table-share-the-burden support. It’s hard to make a decision to stick with something when (a) it looks like everyone will think well of your work, and agree you’re smart, but will end up hiring other people, including people who are dolts and (b) sticking with that thing prolongs the period of wondering how much food one can buy at the grocery store this week.

    John, I did look into some corporate training, when I was with the biotech, and it made my insides shrivel, I know it can be good work, but I think I would suck at it, and not just because I often curse like a longshoreperson. Same with the clinical trials management stuff. It’s mind-numbingly boring. Plus, I truly hate to fly (yeah, lame, I know), so the thought of taking a job that would, by definition, require a lot of travel, also causes allergic reactions. These sound more like Excuses, but, hey, at my age, I know myself, and there are some things I am not well-suited to doing; better to know that, I say, and avoid those things unless there’s a very good reason to do them.

    In any case, I don’t know how much I would really want to try to get back into academe. I’ve been out of the Life for 15+ years now, and it’s not clear to me why anyone would see me as a good choice, given the newer available talent all over the place these days. I’m a director at the non-profit where I work now, and make a decent (for me) salary, and I get to help people who are in seriously dire straits (i.e., are homeless), at least indirectly, by writing the grant and managing the money, and I’m learning how to manage a $7 or $8 million dollar budget. So, it could be a lot worse.

    After I quit the bakery and started working at this place, people asked me how I liked it. I said, “I get a comma in every paycheck, and I don’t have to lug 50-pound sacks of flour up a flight of stairs, so it’s all good.” Despite the world of suck that the past two weeks have been at my job (because a person there is playing “Let’s you and her fight” and is generally being a raging asshole), that’s still true. It’s amazing how grueling physical labor, especially when coupled with low wages and an aging body, can reorient your priorities.

    I would still like to do more writing–other than blog commentary–and a little part of my brain is trying to figure out how to fit that into my life. Marx was right about a lot more than people realize.

  37. Narya, I am honored that you have been willing to share your stories with us and to relive the terror of the time when things were at their worst for you. And at least in my case, you are absolutely right about the importance of the spouse/partner. After you told us about the breakup of your marriage, I was reluctant to rattle on about how lucky I am to have been Ruth’s husband for the forty years that we have been married. She has been there for me through a lot of ups and downs and something that is hard to write about without sounding hideously smug is the uncanny way in which our ups and downs have complemented each other. We are doing another bit of that just now. My side of our business comes mainly from advertising agencies, and the Japanese ad world is in crap shape. Her exhibition catalogues and other museum-related work are keeping our savings intact. She’s encouraging me to join the chorus I ran on about in a previous message, not balking at the time and money it’s costing us. She seems happy that I’m happy. What a gift, what a gift.

    But, enough of that, where would you like to go with this? I could tell you about my set-backs; but they have been nothing like as deep and heart-wrenching as yours. I can’t go rattling on about all the good things that have and are happening to me without sounding insufferably smug; but I’d hate to lose our conversations by rubbing salt into real wounds.

    Having just found you, I don’t want to lose you. Friends who share so much, so well, are rare, indeed.

    How shall we proceed?

  38. I thank you for your kind words–and you’re not in danger of losing me. (If I can figure out how to do it, I’ll find a picture of the 4th of July picnic on the roof of the building where Carl and I lived in Philadelphia, back in the mid 80s.)

    Here’s the thing. When my sister died, a part of me–not surprisingly–went around, in my head, sort of envying others, people whose sisters hadn’t died. And I quickly realized that one cannot merely take one part of someone else’s life. For example, there’s a blogger I read frequently. In many ways, she has a life I would have fantasized for myself: she writes software (I think); has a wonderful husband and two wonderful kids; has a great house, with a wonderful garden. And so on. She also has chronic, severe migraines. I can’t say, oh, I wish I had her garden without taking the migraines with it. And, personally, I do NOT want migraines.

    Everyone does, indeed, have setbacks and challenges. And, really, I wasn’t trying to wave my arms around and say mine were somehow worse that Carl’s; I was mostly trying to explore the possibility spaces we started off describing earlier in this thread. What things do we consider as possible? What do we recognize as a problem? What solutions to that problem present themselves to us? Thus, for example, if I’d had someone paying the bills and otherwise providing a partnership, I might have been able to hold out as long as Carl (and, in fact, many of my friends from grad school) and would have gotten a TT job somewhere. On the other hand, I’ve had several disparate careers, and worked with an amazing collection of people, and the ability to get along with the lot of them–for example, in the bakery–is really nourishing. It has its own difficulties, but so does everything.

    And I could tell that you and Ruth are happy; it kind of radiates. And I love that. My parents have been married for 53 years, and their marriage survived the death of a child (which most marriages do not). In many ways, they are every bit as much in love with each other now as they appear to be in their wedding pictures. That kind of abiding love is a gift that some people get in this lifetime. I would also say that it’s part of what they were able to give to me, on some level. They’re pretty amazing people, in their own quiet way, and the older I get, the more thankful I am for them. And you and Ruth clearly have been able to share that with your daughter–overall, the world is a much better place for the love you and Ruth share, in addition to the personal benefits you also reap from that.

    I don’t know the best way to proceed, exactly. I’m not going anywhere, but I’ve also been neglecting my own blog (which, actually, is where I was going to answer the division of labor question you posed in the post later than this one). The real question may be whether this particular thread has exhausted itself, and, if it hasn’t, whether there are ways to take the remaining questions out of the comments thread. Because we have, in fact, touched on much more than personal biography, though we’ve managed to get a lot of that in, as well.

  39. p.s. Carl, the almost job was actually at Swarthmore, which would have been perfect in so many ways.

  40. Yeah, Swarthmore would be nice alright. But again, if you were in play at that level more than a year before finishing, you were in a completely different league than me. People like you got jobs ahead of me for three years while I scrambled myself into a more marketable shape. Then again Oberlin/Chicago vs. Temple/UCSD says that already, which is interesting because the surface facts of our family backgrounds ‘should’ have had that go the other way, which is why it’s worth drilling down into the particulars without losing sight of the patterns (Miss Marple again).

    I should also say that I really wasn’t playing the comparative misery game. If I’m not careful my narrative becomes an odiously triumphal one in which I’m the hero, dark heaths are manfully traversed, dragons get slain, damsels rescued and the princess married in the end. I can translate it into the tragic mode if the conversation requires it, and it’s readable that way no matter what because all stories are, but with some hasty exceptions my intent here was really just to provide another pile of anecdata. There are of course all sorts of details and processes I’ve left out, lending themselves variously to tragic, pathetic, epic and comedic treatment. Since we’re still talking about Miss Marple, instead I’d like it all just to be facts that are available for analysis.

    And we do each have our metanarrative biases, as Hayden White points out, in which we play to our strengths. I’m disposed to experience life as a series of puzzles, situations to figure out and master (again, basically a heroic trope in a geeky kind of way). My strength is situational improvisation, reading and reacting, and so not surprisingly I tend to arrange my life so winging it is brought into play. Each puzzle solved is a little victory. This created tension with my ex-wife. For solid childhood reasons her strength was crisis, so her disposition was to take little troubles and turn them into major catastrophes. My tightrope act fed back terribly with that, and then her crises fed back terribly on my equilibrium, and over time we wore each other down. Note that this complicates the story of relational support. It was great to be supported and backstopped by her, but it came at some cost (and I’d also like to get credit for hustling up incomes that mostly would have done the trick — at a much, much lower standard of living).

    On the other hand Narya, you’re one of the best copers I’ve ever met. The danger might be arranging one’s life so that coping is the relevant skill, except that there are some very, very good things to do with one’s life where that’s exactly the skill that’s needed and you seem to have found one of those. Just as I’ve found improvisation to be pedagogically productive, especially as a stimulating contrast with colleagues who are more orderly.

    These are the kinds of dispositions that Miss Marple detected, archived and used to understand people and their doins, including the murderers and their crimes. In a less deviant frame I just think of it as understanding who people are and what they’re good for. I teach by supporting people while pushing them out of their comfort zones; I’m trying to teach my students how to be more flexible and resilient. This seems valuable to me because it’s what works for me. But for some people it’s never going to be plan A, and if they can find their sweetspot and arrange their lives around it, my compliments. Folks who have found their ‘fit’ are a wonderful thing.

  41. I must say, in my current job, I can see and use the improvisational/coping aspects, and the orderly aspects (my spreadsheets have spreadsheets, and I have formulae all over the damn place), and the listening aspects, and it can be exhilirating in its own way to put all of that in play, as you get to experience as well. Figuring out how to put together multiple budgets in ways that maximize resources, and figuring out how to teach other people what’s going on, even if they’re not detail-oriented (i.e., empowering my boss, in very real ways), and listening to the medical providers and figuring out what they need, all to the end of getting health care to people who are homeless and people with HIV . . . well, it may not be as intellectually stimulating as I’d like, and the past two weeks have been full of suck (and not the good kind), because of someone being an asshole, but it’s good work, to a good end, and my overall goal is to put systems in place where there aren’t any. I’ve realized that that’s my true talent in life, anyway: I’ve done it in every job I’ve had, and there’s real value to it. It’s invisible, if it’s done well, but, hey, can’t have everything.

    In addition, I’ve been there only two years, and already there are a number of people who value me as a sounding board, therapist, what have you, not because I’m all Helpy-Touchy-Feely, but because I have learned how to listen to what is being said and not said and to ask people questions or frame situations in ways that help people get to the next step. Which, of course, is exactly what you are doing with your students.

    I know what you mean about metanarrative biases, too. Joan Didion says, at the beginning of her essay titled (I think), “the White Album,” “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And that is profoundly true. You and I (and John: hi John!) have some self-awareness that tries to prevent us from adopting the Heroic mode of storytelling, at least some of the time.

    So, and this seems to be related, when the last set of crises struck (within a year’s time, the biotech company failed; I got married; I went to pastry school; I started working at the bakery for $10/ hour with no benefits/health insurance; and my marriage blew up, which included mental illness in the bargain), while there was certainly a part of me that was in full panic mode, another part was rolling its eyes and saying, christ on a pogo stick, not ANOTHER fucking upheaval already. And I just worked on figuring out what the Next Thing was, and then doing that. Four years later, well, I have a different job, I’m still an excellent baker, I have an amicable relationship with my ex-husband (he and I and his son had dinner last night), I have work that I like reasonably well, and I have a friend/lover who is good company, as well as an incredible variety of other friends. (And, as an aside, my mom got a kidney transplant over the holidays.) Some of it all working out like that is certainly luck; no doubt about it. And some is probably due to my efforts, and I can identify a couple of things that might maybe be due to that. But, all in all, it’s yet another conglomeration of luck and accident and trying to do the next thing without fucking up too badly, rather than a Heroic (Heroinic? Ironic? Xenic?) quest. And? Still a comma in every paycheck, and still no 50-pound sacks of flour, so, WIN. Now I just have to figure out what I want to say so I can write the damned book already.

  42. Narya, this sounds so much better. Allow me a bit more autobiography. No words, just this


    The big guy is Pat Glynn, the tall blonde Kate Glynn (né McCreery), the older woman is Ruth, the boy grandson Keegan, the girl granddaughter Fiona. The first few shots were taken in Corpus Christi, TX, the last few in Cambridge, MA.

  43. Narya, you mention a blog of your own. Can you provide the URL? I’d like to check it out.

  44. Click my name; should go there. if not, go to dharmaplease dot blogspot dot com. And, incidentally, if you find all the “bakery” posts and go back to late 2007, you’ll see some answers to your questions about divisions of labor in the bakery.

    The blog is mostly of the what-i-had-for-lunch variety, so don’t expect many profound observations. Unless you read the Top Chef posts; THOSE are full of profundity.

  45. Probably a dead thread, but coincidentally there’s a wealth of anecdata and analysis about the job market in the liberal arts at Historiann. Thanks to Undine for that and several other related links.

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