Sunday, October 4, 2009

Professionalization and Maturation

I'm writing the introduction for S.S.'s talk Tuesday, and it has brought me around again to what I think is one of the central professionalization questions for any young member of academe:

How do you suck up without seeming to suck up?

Or, more delicately, how do you express your admiration for a more senior scholar without sacrificing your dignity?

S.S. is a scholar I genuinely admire; I think her work is both smart and important, which are, from what I have gleaned, the most effusive compliments we can give around here. She's a good writer and a better thinker, and above all else, I want her to like me and think that I'm smart and worthwhile, too. Okay, really above all else I want to not embarrass myself in front of the entire department, but then that other thing.

Unfortunately, nobody really tells us what the rules are for dealing with senior scholars. What's a sufficient excuse for approaching them? How do you maintain contact without annoying them? Etc., etc. Clearly to some degree it's a matter of personality and individual preference, and every approach is not going to work with every scholar, as I learned when I got blown off by a big-name Anglo-Saxonist at Kalamazoo this year. (Yes, still bitter.) By the time we start thinking about approaching these people scholar-to-scholar rather than student-to-teacher or advisee-to-advisor, it is too late to practice on our own senior scholars because the mystique is gone. We respect them but we don't fear them, or at least not for the same reasons.

Clearly the only answer is respectful trial and error, as well as development of a thick skin, which graduate school promotes anyway. But I'm still going to fantasize about some sort of master database on the internet, where upon receipt of the Ph.D. every scholar enters his or her individual preferences for dealing with peons and makes everything a lot easier for my ambitious but awkward self.

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