Notes from the Glebe

The Academy is No Place to Talk of Place

Sep 22, 07:12 PM

by Local Culture Journal Alumnus, Nick Borchert

My tentative plan for life after graduation, pending a one year detour, is to pursue a doctorate in English language and literature. This past week I visited the campus of the premiere research institution in my home state to visit with some of the professors there and get a feel for the nature of the program. In the course of a conversation with one of these professors, I mentioned that I would like to study at this school because it is located in a place that, for me, is near home, and to which I feel connected. This elicited the facial response of one preparing to gently correct the false opinion of a friend. He offered that, in this discipline, it is unwise to hope to stay in the same place for long. Because of job constraints and the far-reaching nature of the opportunities that do arise, “You really have to give up any ties to a specific region.”

Now, my rational mind knew this to be the case. Very few of the professors who taught at my undergraduate institution in Illinois grew up or went to school in Illinois. Still, in my cheating heart, the part that traffics in ideals rather than facts, I had dared to hope that I might stay home and yet somehow still travel the itinerant path of the academic.

I suppose that the most disturbing part of this professor’s counsel was that it was offered in the paternalistic tone of the sage, rather than the lamenting realist’s. Had he sounded at all remorseful that this was the case, had he vilified the system that turned our teachers into wayfarers, I may have been able to more easily swallow his prescribed physic. But none of this was the case. He was trying, with all the best intentions no doubt, to get me to see the truth: that there is no reason for an academic to become overly attached to a specific place, both because it is unrealistic for him to expect to stay in that place, and because what is truly important is not This Place but anyplace—that is, any place that will pay you to carry out your important work.

Now I happen to think this is problematic; you can draw a short line between this type of thinking and the homogenization of local cultures. It’s hard to care that Sandy’s Diner, Woody’s Auto, and Dave’s Grocery are all being run out of town by the Wal-Mart when you never knew they existed in the first place. It is exceedingly difficult to be a responsible citizen in a place at which you’ve only just arrived, especially when you don’t intend to stay any longer than the next grant or promotion. What’s more, it seems to me that it is equally difficult to be a great professor of literature without having one’s feet firmly planted in the community in which one teaches. Can we speak meaningfully of love, death, and purpose without speaking of the people we share them with, or are we destined to devolve into a lot of deconstructionist prigs, murdering literature to dissect it, filling pages with clever but vapid analyses of the postmodern condition?

What price do we pay for our ambitions? It is all well and good to edit the local culture journal as an undergraduate, but when push comes to shove, am I destined to transience? I sit here this morning, the hypocrite as usual, mere hours from boarding a transatlantic flight for a seven-month sojourn in France. My great uncle has passed from this vale of tears this very evening, and I will not be here for the burial. No one in the family is disappointed in me; indeed, they can hardly wait to tell me what a grand opportunity I’ve been given. But to think that my absence from this place could become the rule rather than the exception, well…it has me reconsidering everything.

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