Having just written a long response to a question on a post about writing and academia, it occurs to me that I might mention some of my tales of culture shock upon entering the professoriate. I always thought that by being an academic in the humanities, and in humanities fields oriented towards cultures other than the mainstream American one, I might be able to lead a life somewhat insulated from the aspects of our culture that feel uheimlich to me. I was very innocent.
In the second week of my first job, a senior colleague invited me to a dinner party. I appeared, duly dressed in a hip-yet-discreet urban outfit, with a bottle of wine of the type professors, not graduate students, buy. It was the first time I had done this, but I knew how. As soon as I saw the house, one of those dismal mini-mansions on the outskirts of town, I knew I had miscalculated. Everyone else was wearing Madras shorts, and they were horrified at the idea of drinking anything at all on a weeknight. So I had already made two faux pas.
Dinner was pizza with ham and pineapple, accompanied by Sprite, and entertainment was the World Series, on a wide screen television. I actually like baseball, and I have been known to surprise everyone by inviting myself to boisterous, beer-guzzling, macho parties just so I can watch it. In this case, however, I couldn’t take the conversation, on the purchase of mini-mansions, about which all new faculty members but me were very enthusiastic. The neighborhood reminded me distinctly of a graveyard. We new faculty were all under thirty years of age. I could not believe that everyone else was waxing so enthusiastic about the purchase of pieces of land which so resembled burial plots, and houses which resembled mauseoleums.
We were living in a large metropolitan area, with several very interesting research libraries. The week before, at a cocktail party, I had made another faux pas. Unaware that this would be mal vu, I said I had spent Saturday checking these libraries out, and I was very excited about them. “We are glad to be where we are,” responded my interlocutor coldly, “and we have interlibrary loan.” So I decided I had better not contribute to the conversation on real estate. I was likely to ask about older, more ethnic neighborhoods, and upset people again.
Leaving my colleagues to their baseball game, and their conversation on mini-mansions, or mausoleums, I retreated to the kitchen, where their wives were preparing dessert. One wife, I had been introduced to before. She looked a little disaffected, and was sitting to one side, so I approached her. “So, have you finished unpacking?” “Yes,” she said, “and I have enrolled in the community college.” “Good for you! What are you studying?” “Mortuary Science.”