Ending Well & Lingering

Well, it turning out to be a rather long week between my last post and this one.  My apologies to those who were disappointed, but trust me when I say I have a string of good excuses.  Now watch this video.

Before I began pursuing my grand path of academic development I working a whole string of horrible jobs.  I worked as a digital photo retoucher for a nationally known professional portrait photographer who seldom shipped an order in the same year she shot it–and used her two employees as her excuse when in reality she just couldn’t find the time between cheating on her husband and jet setting to far-off trade shows to actually do her job.  I worked for a mom-n-pop electronics retailer under a boss who was known to both drink on the job and steal merchandise–but who was too convenient to be terminated.  I also spent the first year of my married life commuting to a town of seven hundred people in Missouri to work at the world’s smallest Wal-Mart as a cart boy–the very lowest circle of retail hell.  Suffice it to say that I can understand the nearly pathological desire to write “I quit” on my chest in sharpie and dance to Queen all the way out the door–see, you should have watched the video.  However, as much as I can understand the desire to treat graduating from this or that school with a pyrotechnic display of vitriol on your blog, on another person’s blog, or by some other means equivalent to dancing on the cafeteria tables of your former employer there is a real danger in doing so.

Academia is a small world and your discipline–whatever that happens to be–is an even smaller world inside that already shrunken planet.  Even worse, it is a land in which strange, ethereal things called “reputations” are forged, fostered, or forgotten through highly subjective processes–behind closed doors and at the whim of strangers.  Yet, it is only by securing a “good reputation” that one can possibly hope to improve one’s station within the academy.  All that is to say, that while it might seem cathartic to trash your old school the day after graduation or air their dirty laundry to the first available audience, the world has ways of making you pay for such indiscretions.

I have heard would-be public intellectuals argue that any institution that would consider a candidate’s kvetching about their previous school or academic position on the Internet a reason to dismiss that candidate from consideration for some future position is simply not one worth applying to–the argument being something like “a good school with real integrity would not discriminate against someone honestly and accurately complaining about another institution.”  As good as such pompous poppycock sounds when spouted by one not yet worried about the harsh realities of rent checks and insurance payments, any adult familiar with the real world will freely admit that every institution is made up of good eggs and bad and every student or employee subject to fair treatment and subtle slights in turn.  As such, it falls on the adult graduate and/or professor to use discretion when discussing previous engagements with other schools.

To bring things down from the lofty heights of theory and to the brass tacks of this blog, as a graduate of University of Chicago’s Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities  (MAPH) some would say that I have the right to share each and every highlight and weakness of the program–and my experience of it–by any means available to me.  However, my advice to fellow graduates and my own tack has been to treat that nine-month relationship in much the way I would discuss an my time with an ex-girlfriend: it behooves me to sing her praises–because if there was nothing noble or worthy about her then why would I have spent so long with her?–and it costs me nothing to hold my tongue about her inadequacies except where I might spare another from entering into a relationship with her under false presumptions.  When I praise UChicago and the MAPH I add to the prestige of the school and the value of my own degree and when I rail against the school, its professors, and programs those attacks only serve to potentially alienate people from whom I might someday need a word of recommendation.

As an aside, certainly the wrinkle to my little plan to only speak well of the program is that I spent nine months excavating as much unvarnished truth about the MAPH as I could on this blog–some of it far less than complementary.  However, my defense against the dirty laundry I have aired is the sheer size of the blog and the fact that those comments are so deeply contextualized within the historical events in which they were first made.  While someone could come through at a later date and assemble every less than kind word I ever spoke about UChicago, they would have to be highly motivated to do so.
The challenge comes down to finding a way to end every relationship well.  Doug Walker’s video ends with the observation that “that bridge has officially been burned” and certainly a hard and fast split at the end of some academic relationships might be best response–yes, Chariton Community schools I’m talking about you.  Those dysfunctional relationships that brought out the worst in all involved need to be excised with surgical precision.  However, there is also no reason to dredge up the dirt on one’s ex to the world at large once the bond is well and truly broken.  She may have done you wrong, but no future relationships will be enhanced by recounting tales of her sordid deeds so ending that past relationship well means only speaking of it when absolutely necessary and with great discretion.  On the other hand, most academic relationships do not warrant such a cease and desist response and the best route to ending them well is to try not to end them at all.

After my graduation for my BA and while I was at UChicago I did my very best to maintain the relationships that I had spent the previous three years forging at my alma mater and the end result was the job that I officially began yesterday as a philosophy adjunct.  Since graduating from UChicago I have attempted to remain connected to some of the professors and administrators there with hopes that at some point those relationships might serve me in similar stead there.  My goal in both cases was/is to linger in the periphery of the institution’s consciousness as a happy memory and a future resource.  The art of lingering is to remain periodically present without becoming a “hanger-on” or evoking the image of one who didn’t or couldn’t move on.

Much more could be said on the task of ending well and the art of lingering, but what I offer here is merely a gesture at both suggesting the possibility of a better alternative to those who might–as job hunting season draws to a close–be tempted to take out their frustrations on their previous academic engagements.  To the MAPH class of 2012: I remember you with an undimmed fondness and a special concern and wish all of you the best for your future prospects.

Tomorrow: Selling the MAPH