I did not fit in too well at grad school. I was brash, a guitar-playing Folkie. Despite excellent recommendations from my undergraduate department, I stood out from my other colleagues in the first year of grad work at an Ivy League school. I stood out by having less money and social polish than my peers. In addition, I had established research goals in specific areas that I was determined to study. In other words, I was not the sort of tabla rasa my professors were expecting. It was written on me in bold letters – I am who I am.
With help from a sympathetic professor or two, I made it through the first year of classes and then my qualifying exams. I was now a Ph.D. candidate. Sometime in the fall of that year, a favored professor took me aside to inform me why I had rough sledding in the department –
- My fellowship was a minority fellowship; people in the department considered anthropology a gentleman’s profession. I was not.
- My developing interests did not seem to be appropriate. Moreover, interest in doing fieldwork in the United States would not be encouraged by the department.
Walking away from that conversation was very tough. I couldn’t alter who I was, what my background was, or my sincere interests—somehow, I just soldiered on until a significant event happened.
Universities love sponsoring visiting professorships. It allows students, faculty, and visitors a chance to learn new things and interact for a lengthy span, a semester or longer. That year the visitor was a British Social Anthropologist. It was fortuitous that he liked to party, and soon we drank together frequently. One night when we were both intensely over our limit in frozen Stoly drunk neat, he decided to clue me in on the secrets of academia.
Looking at me in that bleary-eyed manner, only the genuinely drunk has he began his dissertation, “Look. Lou, you’re not popular in your department. What do you think our chances of them letting you get away with the Ph.D.? are…, no, don’t speak. I’ll tell you shy to none. If you were a mere nuisance, they’d let you go and piss on your recommendations. But you are not a member of the gang.” He then proceeded through a lengthy discussion of M.G. Smith’s work on social groups and his comments on the origin of the term “Collegia” – the basis for our college. He went on in professor mode for about half an hour. Then he summed it all up, ” You see, Collegia could be anything from a college of augurs, a college of priests, or a political action committee. Julius Ceasar severely restricted their actions because they were so instrumental in causing political riots. In short – the damned collegia could be nothing less than fancy street corner gangs. So next time you see a bunch of your profs in the corridor hanging out, think thugs on the corner. Just highly educated thugs with tenure at a university.”
Eventually, my drinking buddy went back to his home university. But his final comments stayed with me. I could not help it. Every time I saw a grouping of professors, my mind would dress them in black leather jackets, their fingers snapping and shoes tapping :
When you’re a Jet
You’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin’ day
When you’re a Jet
If the spit hits the fan
You got brothers around
You’re a family man!
Then you are set
With a capital J
Which you’ll never forget
Till they cart you away
When you’re a Jet
You stay a Jet!
Sorry I couldn’t help it.