Welcome to Chicago

One hears rumors that speakers coming to the University of Chicago [I speak here of History, Anthro and South Asia] to give a talk get apprehensive. They have heard the stories of harsh questions and severe grillings. They have heard about the graduate students. When they approach Foster 103, the speakers, all nervous like a bakra on Eid, can be easily divided into two categories: those that have been here before and those that haven’t. The first type will adopt an overly congenial manner, talking loudly with the faculty or needlessly loitering in the hallway. This, they think, sends a signal that they “belong”; that they are “one of us” and, hence, should be treated with deference. Former students are specially prone to such behavior. Forgetting, perhaps due to survival instincts, that Chicago devours it’s own first. The second type walk quickly and quietly with their faculty handler straight to the speaker’s chair. They shuffle around their papers and place their water bottle in the right spot. They are extremely careful in avoiding eye-contact and show no outward signs of any terror besides the green around the gills. After they finish the presentation, they submit to the slaughter with quiet dignity. Some even survive.

Why? There is the reputation of intellectual exactitude and rectitude at the University. There is the famous faculty with unkempt and unnatural facial hair that can make any presenter nervous. Above all, there are the Chicago graduate students who are weaned on a diet of intellectual snobbery and fraticide. Like the candidates, we are also easily divided into categories. In the immemorial words of Biggie Small, You see, there are two kind of people in the world today / We have, the playaz, and we have, the playa haters / Please donít hate me because Iím beautiful baby. Some of us are wanna-be playaz, and some are, indeed, playa haters.

It never stuck me as odd when the speakers on campus are asked tough questions about their meta-narrative or methodology or facts. Or when they are asked to explain this or that. I have watched some memorable displays of faculty or grads tearing someone’s arguments to shreds. Someone being very prominent members of the elite historians/anthropology guild. I admit I enjoyed it. I further admit that Chicago has nurtured some snarky habits in me as well. I am too quick to dismiss the entire argument if one piece doesn’t fit. I shrug away whole books because the intellectual agenda does not jibe with mine. I have, slowly, come to recognize these faults and am doing what I can to correct them.

The realization came last year when I had conversations with some speakers and learned of their abject horror at the way UChicago grads tear people down. Then, at conferences, I would talk to people from other places about panels we had both heard. They would say, “Yeah, I really liked the paper.” And I would reply, “I am so tired of this bland positivist narratives with their indexicality fetish. Who is the observor? Is she really going to sit and create a dialectic about tourists and natives without explaining her own outsider status?” or “Reading Dick Eaton’s book cannot make you an expert on the history of Islam in Bengal.” etc. etc. I am not saying that my objections aren’t valid. I am saying, I can stand to be not so negative. I am still mulling over the comment made by someone at some panel. “You Chicago people are harsh”. That kinda hurt me. I like to think that we pay attention to history, language and context in any presentation. I like to think that our queries are meant to provoke the speaker into furthering their presentation from the set script. I like to think that we participate in the truest form of Socratic method. Still, I do feel a bit peevish about some incidents.

Is graduate school designed to produce playa haters? Or, is it just us freaks at U of Chicago who think we are the hottest, smartest textualists left on God’s cold earth? And as one starts the transition into faculty, how does one change that attitude? The competitive edge is necessary and essential in the graduate classroom. But, it is not so hot when you are a junior faculty and need to build long term relationships and colleagues. You also have a lot less to prove. Right? Less snark. More Collegial. My New Year’s Eve Resolution [a bit late, sure.]

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sepoy

what is the vertiginous chapati saying to me?

17 thoughts on “Welcome to Chicago”

  1. Note to self: never accept an invitation to speak at Chicago. (Not that I was expecting one any time soon anyway.)

    In my experience, all departments have at least one crocodile. They’re often lovely people, but they eat external speakers for dinner and spit out the pieces. And everyone knows what’s coming when Dr Crocodile says, ‘I have three methodological observations and a four-part question…’ We just smile secretly with the relief of not being on the receiving end. But Dr Crocodile is not the worst. Nor is Professor Rottweiler up the front who barks out completely irrelevant questions based on his own obsessions. It’s Cuddly Professor Teddy Bear in the corner who amiably asks the question that you never thought of which leaves your entire argument hanging in shreds, who you really want to watch out for.

  2. You know, I heard the same thing from the friends I had at U Chicago grad school, and it made me really uneasy about accepting the PhD offer that they made me when I applied a few years ago. I think that academically, the institution is brilliant, if not unbeatable, but I hate the attitudes that it’s engendered in several of the people I know who graduated from there with any sort of postgraduate qualification (even undergraduate, for that matter).

  3. ye gods!
    and i was planning to come here!
    positivist indexicality…
    aaaaaghhhhhhh!!!!!
    (what was i thinking? i already get enough of this crap at sarai… people act dismissive about shahid amin here, for chrissakes!)

  4. And that is exactly why I have my MA from the U of C and am going elsewhere. I really, really appreciated what I learned, but I have no desire to deal with the place for another 6 or so years. All universities have some snarky folk (they add a little pizzazz), but I think my alma mater has the uncanny ability to throw TOO much attitude (after all, how many Nobel prize winners do they have again – for the nineteenth time?).

    And you are one of the cool ones!

  5. Sorry, Chapati, but its all true. I was at UChicago for a summer, I think it was the summer of ’97, for one of those 9-week language courses (A year’s worth of Arabic in 9 weeks). I met a LOT of Uchic grad students in the International House where I stayed (I believe it closed down a few years back? Thats a pity). The student’s I spoke with were miserable, cowed rats, thanks to UChic academic culture. As one of them put it: “Its like boot camp. They tear you down, and rebuild you in their image.” That was not my idea of education, more like indoctrination… Needless to say I later on went on to grad school at Columbia (which is, in many ways, the opposite extremem – here they leave you totally alone, which is great if you come in with your own ideas, otherwise not). I’ve always felt sorry for my UChic grad student friends – they never got to do original work, by their own admission, at Chicago. Too much kowtowing to the ruling orthodoxy, whatever it may be (when I was there, the Subalternist regime was about to take charge). Has there been a rebellion yet? I doubt it…
    Is such an approach to education something to be proud of? I dont think so, I dont even consider it to be education. Perhaps I’m being too harsh. “Exactitude” isnt a bad thing. Fetishizing it, however, seems fatal to me. Its beyond “snobbery”, no? There are harsher words one ought to use.
    I am, though, a little reassured by your post – even a little self-reflection by a Chic person on these things, is a sign that perhaps not all is lost there.
    Too harsh? Maybe… maybe I’m just a “playa hater”… maybe I don’t think these are the playas worth playing with… I dont know, I’m just a grad student too.

  6. Whoa now. Y’all spoutin’ poisonous paragraphs about the lil school in Hyde Park. Snarky’n’sparky though the atmosphere may be, the ‘black legend’ of South Asian studies at Chicago tends to get taken a bit too far. I have been in grad school for a while now (not quite a decade), rolling from Austin to Boston and through Berkeley, Russell Square and Morningside Heights at different times. I cannot claim to have completed full ethnographies of the academic culture at each institution, but I will say this: the intellectual environment at U of C is a powerful thing. Lots of folks over there are doing incredible work, and many productive exchanges can be had. And no, Jak, the projects I have heard about are no more derivative of the intellectual agendas of the ‘ruling orthodoxy’ than the kind of work people do at Columbia – which should not be taken as an attack on either institution. One always has to stay within certain paramaters – trashing an advisor’s argument on wax is a nearly universal no-no. Needless to say the vicious back-stabbing and politicking that make Chicago infamous are very much apparent at Columbia too, from prominent saffronish donors of huge sums to recent Zionist agitators and beyond.

    In some places one is a bit more on their own, and in others departmental honchos apply despotic authority towards the end of maintaining more polite academic cultures. Each scenario has its drawbacks and advantages. In the end, we are all playaz in the same game, so why not hone our collective snarkiness in a collagial fashion?

  7. Here we go.
    jak: I-House stands proudly. Subaltern Studies is here, as well, and enjoying some cricket. We are doing some ORIGINAL work.

    I am very proud of my education and of UChicago. My post was about the urge in grad students to be critical as a way to build their own credibility and how that changes as they begin to become faculty. I used UChicago because I know it best AND it exemplifies it. I have learned more from a question asked by Shelly or Dipesh than from the entire 40 min presentation I sat through. Like I said, no hatin’.

  8. Last I heard, Shelly was on his way to Columbia… and we’ll be glad to take him if he comes.
    Dipesh I’m ambivalent about, but whatever.
    Glad to hear I-House is still standing. It was a memorable summer.
    Some clarifications about my post: No need to get the school pride feathers all ruffled up, it wasnt a ‘my school is better than yours’ post. It was more of a “uncollegiality and ungenerosity in academe is unfortunate, no matter which school its done by” post. I speak only in generic terms. Different schools have ‘reputations’. UChic has one that ya’ll have identified, and is one that others have confirmed to me as well. Columbia’s reputation is for being hands off, and its been largely that in my experience. Individual cases and experiences will vary, of course. But there is such a thing as differing ‘philosophies’ of education, and often you’ll find different schools emphasizing one over the other. But no surprise there.

    I happily acknowledge all the positive contributions the ‘Collective’ has given South Asian Studies. We have all benefitted. I also acknowledge – much less popularly – that many Subalternists have somehow convinced themselves that they single-handedly will save-and-represent ‘India’, and that everyone who disagrees with their vision/project MUST be a right-wing-religious-fascist of some stripe. And that that attitude has had a v. destructive side to collegiality, generosity, dialogue, and scholarship in South Asian Studies. I dont see a contradiction in acknowledging both aspects of the Collective’s work. Of course, those on the inside of this clique – can I call it a clique? – tend to be overly defensive when I – or anyone else – points this out. To the point of assuming that they must be – you know – right-wing-religious-fascists, etc. I’ve seen this knee-jerk response from Subalternists at Columbia too. Its very destructive and unproductive. Is that okay to say?
    No doubt the threat from Hindutva is real. And no doubt the subalternists have, in its name, taken some very tough-handed measures (read: bullying) against scholars who seek to be neither Marxists nor Fundamentalists. It is these scholars – and there are much more of them than we usually acknowledge – who have suffered the most in the binarism that SS and Htva sustain together in the field, implicitly and often explicitly.
    I know – gasp! – and all that. Here I am suggesting this to a Chicago grad crowd. I know the risks.
    If I were ever to present there, you can be sure I would say the same.
    ;)
    Peace. Sorry for the long post, this is a discussion best had in more official spaces, probably.
    p.s., Hindutva at Columbia – is there any school that has not been touched by this problem? Zionism at Columbia – ditto. Seems a pity if scholarly ideological camps merely join in the fray (and thereby sustain it), often turning critique into careerism (or at least obliterating the difference). Why start being more collegial after joining faculty? Why not before? Unless collegiality and generosity are not themselves valued as pedagogical virtues. I think they are. Thats all I meant to say.

  9. “Less snark. More Collegial.”

    Y’know, some of us are still waiting for your Bernard Porter review ;) Does this mean you’ll give him a fair ride?

    …of course, couldn’t possibly read it myself…

  10. Even my la-la-la liberal art self knows all about the snideness of Univ. of Chicago people. I think its amusing but I’m not an academic (thank God!). However my brother is an academic, so I’m use to snide comments coming from people with doctoral degrees!

  11. and that’s why i went to berkeley instead of chicago. it is possible to learn and think critically without the necessity of the cock of the walk attitudes that are frequently exhibited around the south asia folk at u chicago. i once witnessed an exchange between bernard cohen and a younger male scholar that was truly sad to see – the elder scholar picking the eyes out of the young challenger, no room for the children; the older rooster using all his devious tricks to defeat the young one. i saw enough over the years to know that this was not an atypical exchange.

    perhaps it is also the reason why, when some less enamoured of the ideology/theoretical framework de jour reads work from a university of chicago south asia graduate (particularly when the “de jour” is dated), they come away with a clear idea of how the writer comes down vis a vis the ideology – a pristinely clear idea of the scholar’s place in the flow of the history of ideas, and with little knowledge of what is underneath the theoretical framework imposed by the writer.

    this had long been my unvoiced conclusion. it was make concrete and clear by one of the most interesting pakistani intellectuals i’ve had the pleasure of meeting when he was a phd candidate at johns hopkins some years ago.

    it’s a bit of a hothouse atmosphere at u chicago… it helps to recognize that while you are breathing what seems like such a heady atmosphere…..

    incidentally, i don’t believe dick eaton ever claimed that one would know everything there is to know about islam in the bengali muslim hinterland if you read his book. it was conceived while he and i and others shared a house in lahore, the idea coming partly out of work i was doing at the time that has never been published, something that was probably never credited (since my work was never completed because of health issues, the field has been less than kind – anita weiss fails to remember that her dissertation topic was chosen after i disabused her of the idea that her original idea was workable and suggested the one she chose; barbara metcalf, while s.a. editer at u of c press refused to allow david gilmartin to credit my unpublished dissertation on the grounds it was unpublished, even tho his work and mine had developed in tandem for several years with almost daily exchanges of ideas….) nevertheless, dick went about the discipline of learning bengali, having already learned persian, and was willing to take an out of the box look at his subject. you really do know something when you finish reading it and don’t have to disentangle substance from a theoretical superstructure. be thankful for that.

    she waves from rogers park.

    lily

  12. lily: thanks for your comments. I am curious as to who is the pakistani intellectual at johns hopkins some years ago?

  13. you know, sepoy, i can see his face and watch him taking apart javid burki after one of his pompous soliloquies at an AAS meeting i don’t remember where (i had done the same, but being female i had no locus standi in burki’s cosmos, so i watched this with absolute glee, and he did it so deftly…), but i cannot remember his name and have lost the address book that had it in it.

    pakistan being a small country – in my own work, among other things, i delineated kinship networks among punbabi rural political elite families, so i have some glimmering just how small it – he could be found if someone’s interested (i am, i would love to know where he and his wife wound up.) he’s the descendent of a family of pirs from a gaddi in bihar, not too many of those, that should narrow it down. he already had an mbbs, as did his wife, and was active in more radical politics, or social activities, i no longer recall which, in karachi when he was younger, perhaps working with his wife as a physician in the karachi slums. his wife was punjabi, from one of the rural political elite families. he was doing a phd at johns hopkins, late 80’s, dissertation research in egypt, if i recall correctly, in public health, determined to acquire a credential that would allow him to speak truth to power in pakistani relations with international agencies with unquestioned legitimacy. i’m not certain he would describe himself as an “intellectual” but i will say that he was, at that time, and i had lived in lahore from 74-77, traveling widely in all parts of the society, the brightest, most articulate pakistani i’d ever met.

    his remark? “i’ve read everything that group of u chicago contemporaries has written (part of the first tranche of grad students to be allowed in under bhutto’s opening of the country to scholars) and i know everything about what they think, and very little about pakistan. i read what you wrote and my wife and i were up all night talking about it, how it illuminated a system we’ve lived in all our lives and never really understood before…” he went on to say it should be translated and, in an abridged version, on the desk of every school child in pakistan.

    that was years ago. it’s only the past 2 years that my health has improved enough that i can take out what i wrote with the idea of finishing it. if anyone has a handle on where this fellow is now, i’d love to know (i don’t think he was an aitchisonian…. that he went to school in karachi….).

    btw, i really enjoyed reading your blog. mine, which doesn’t concentrate much on scholarship at the moment, is at http://www.xanga.com/home.aspx?user=pearlbamboo

    regards, lily

  14. I have a lot to say about U of C and academia in general, but I’ll just limit myself to this:

    I am so glad I got out of U of Chicago. And I really mean that.

    Sometimes, though, I fear that I will one day regret my decision to quit graduate school all together because my choice was based on my experiences at the U of C.

    I do miss the idea of being immersed in an invigorating and intellectually stimulating environment that educational institutions should theoretically provide. Can’t say I miss Hyde Park, though. And I definately don’t miss going to conferences and sitting in class where people eloquently bullshit for hours and talk about everything and nothing without saying anything concrete and tied into reality.

    In the end, there are serious problems with academia in general, and for anyone who seeks to make social, political, and economic changes on a larger scale, American academia is not the place to launch those kinds of movements(unless you are a public intellectual, which is an admirable feat when you consider how many obstacles you have to hurdle over in order to reach an audience that goes beyond academic conferences and other academics who read your work.) U of C in particular is one of the universities that is the most far removed from reality and things happening on ground. It revels itself in ripping people apart just to show off how presumably “intelligent” they are. This arrogance, competition, snarkiness, and frankly elitist attitude really incensed me from time to time.

    Moreover, I hated how we were being groomed to be a part of this small, tight, insular and exclusive academic clique. About a month into the beginning of the academic quarter, I realized that the same names kept cropping up in all of my books- for classes that were of different disciplines. The thought of spending the rest of my life reading pieces written by a handful of the bigger names in my field and seeing the same people at academic conferences scared me. It seemed way too intellectually restrictive, and to me it felt like knowledge was being contained and reigned in by the hands of the publishing industry and academic industry. Knowledge, instruction, and ideas were duking it out in this boxing ring which was delineated by the parameters of academic journals as well as the academic structure and conventions which U of C instilled in us. Ironically, academia is supposed to be the liberation of thinking and the dispersion of knowledge that goes beyond the walls of the institution and out into the greater public sphere. Not so, from my experiences at U of C (I’m a bit of an activist by nature, so it was frustrating for me to write well thought out analyses on pressing topics, only to know that it will most likely get read by other academics, not readers from the general public. The privatization and containment of academia is another topic that I won’t go into here).

    If you are contemplating going to U of C for your undergraduate degree, DON’T DO IT. As an impressionable youngun who absorbs training and knowledge like a sponge, you’ll be more susceptible to the U of C’s indoctrination. It will distort your perceptions about the realities that you will come across. You’ll also come out cocky as hell, smug in your feelings of superiority that U of C seems to do so well. I met, listened, and interacted with U of C undergraduates. They fulfilled all of the above observations.

    If you are thinking about going there for graduate school, just stop at your MA so you won’t get sucked in too deep. Being at U of C for your MA is enough time to fine tune your analytical and critical skills; staying longer is just intellectual suicide. You don’t want to die a slow death, do you? Or you don’t want people looking at you like, “What the hell is she talking about?” when you speak in abstract terms and academic jargon, no? And you definately don’t want to get into your sixth year and decide that you don’t want to do this anymore. Six years of your life that you invested now has gone down the drain. I met three grad students who quit after 2, 6, and 8 years of grad school. U of C has a way of doing that.

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