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Unfiled June 26, 2003
Lifestyles of the Liberal & Elite
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 2
As Bush the Elder said, "Jobs, jobs, jobs." Most of the jobs didn't even require the discipline of Mao's blank page. It was much simpler, more American: it came down to smiling.

That's what happened to my one moment, the one time I came close to one of those precious tenure-track jobs.

It was 1990, and my Ph.D. was five years old -- moldy by professional standards. (Of course, as a quixotic I didn't know such things; I was "above" them.)

Another year, another 100 jobs applied for, waited on...then another 100 polite letters from places like Southeast Mississippi A & M, regretting they had no room for me. It does something to you to be brushed off by states like Mississippi or Louisiana again and again. Like being snubbed by stray dogs.

Then came the letter inviting me to an interview in Bend, Oregon. Bend -- the most beautiful town in the lower 48! I would have cleaned toilets for the chance to live there at the Cascades' spine-and they were going to pay me just to teach!

It was an all-day interview on that campus--standard procedure. A professional would've looked up the faculty, their books and hobbyhorses. I ate in front of the tv and tried not to think about the interview.

They were nice, the Bend hiring committe. They didn't seem to know that they were offering me a transfer to Heaven. Instead they pretended to grovel to me (a classic professional move, but I didn't know it yet.)

The Chair asked me, "Well, a Berkeleyan like do you think you'd adapt to a town like Bend?"

"No cappuccino here!" grinned the one woman on the committee. They all chuckled, passing an overtone I missed. She was good, the smiler. A professional -- you could tell by the high enthusiastic voice and suit.

I tried to convey my rapture at the thought of being allowed to live in Bend. But I couldn't get that across. Hadn't trained right, you see.

They kept asking: "Gee, could you come to a place like this?" After a dozen tries at saying, "YES!" I panicked; next time they asked I said, "Uh, well, nobody really knows how, uh, they'll react to a new home...?"

There was a very professional silence. And a month later, a very nice letter informing me they'd found someone for the position. But they encouraged me to bill the Personnel Office for reimbursement on my gas costs from Berkeley to Bend.

I never would've found out what happened, except that Sara, this woman I sort of knew happened to share a room at a conference with the woman who'd asked the cappuccino question. Sometime during their chats, the Bend woman established that Sara knew me and told her the real story of that Bend interview. It turned out to be a simple matter of professionalism: "He was very qualified," she explained, "maybe overqualified...but when we asked him if he'd be able to handle moving to Bend, he said he didn't know."

So it had come down to professionalism in the most mainstream American sense: displaying vastly exaggerated enthusiasm for the new Firm no matter how many times you are asked to do so. That's what they were testing for: office skills, solidarity gestures, smile technique -- in short, professionalism.

Sara, by the way, had it to spare. She got a tenure-track job in a real city in her first year of applying. I'll tell you what a professional Sara was: once while we were walking in the Berkeley hills she asked me to help her out a little with a technical glitch in her dissertation. "It's about the figure of the chambermaid in eighteenth-century novels," she said. "I can handle the theoretical context, it's just the novels...I can't read them. Can you read the novels and I'll fit them into the argument?"

So you see, fellow Americans, you have nothing to fear from my successful colleagues in the academic elite. They're not elite; they're not liberal (couldn't care less). They're like you: total professionals.

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