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.]