Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Hardy boys (and Tess and Sue)

Above: Nastassja Kinski as Tess Durbeyfield. Right: Kate Winslet as Sue Bridehead. Below: Christopher Eccleston as Jude Fawley. Left: Egdon Heath.

Perhaps I have come too late to the party, but pardon me -- I was working the night shift. This is all too fitting, I suspect. A party crasher I was born, and a party crasher I'll stay till the day I die. Let me explain.

Usha Rodriguez's post, Notes of a Native Daughter, along with responses by Ann Althouse ("Proffspring") and Vic Fleischer (Lingua Franca), has exposed one of the deepest, least articulated cultural divides in academia. My MoneyLaw colleague Jeff Harrison would call it class bias. Without rejecting this explosive but arguably apt label, I'd like to ask a very simple question: Which side are you on?

Unlike Usha and Vic, you see, and like Ann Bartow, I am not the child of academics. Far from it. I come from a long line of food service workers. Among other jobs he held when he preceded the rest of my family in moving from Taiwan to Georgia, my father bused tables at the old Stouffer's Hotel in Atlanta. My mother worked the counter at the Krispy Kreme on Ponce de Leon. In distant family lore, there is a grandfather or great-grandfather who supposedly abandoned his water buffalo in order to hear the wealthy kids' school lessons. For my part, let's just say I know a neat trick for getting pizza cheese off commercial-grade flatware.

Krispy KremeThese jobs didn't last, of course. Dad kept books for a regional liquor wholesaler till he was downsized in the mid-1990s. Mom worked at various forms of data entry till Moore's Law caught up with her, too. Though these positions were tilted toward the menial end of non-sweat-based jobs, my parents did not spend their lives in work environments that would have come to compromise their health in their retirement. They are traveling for leisure in Taiwan as I write this. As the son of parents born early enough to have lived through the losing end of World War II and the Chinese Civil War, I can ask no more than this, that my parents lead lives of relative health, wealth, and comfort as they approach and pass the proverbial three score and ten.

What if anything, you may legitimately ask, does my family background have to do with my presence in academia? You might expect the stock "Asian immigrant" story, but you will not get it. Deciding whether that is a flaw in the stock story or in my family is an exercise left for the reader. This much I will say: My family's cluelessness about the American educational system -- including my own -- yielded some rather twisted educational outcomes. In exchange for our collective years on campus, we three Chen children have a solid human resources post, a thriving orthopedics practice, and a university professorship. But intellectual fulfillment? Professional self-actualization? My siblings can answer for themselves. Me? I really, really, really hate the Mets.

BaseballDid growing up in a modest but not impoverished immigrant household motivate me to go into academia? Hard to say. I do know some of the things from my childhood that affect me still:
  • I played a lot of baseball and spent even more time poring over the statistics. I suppose I was destined to create a website called MoneyLaw.

  • I swore when I grew up that I'd never find myself linguistically marooned. Have I succeeded? I wonder. French is as morphologically impoverished as Spanish is sexy. German is lovely, but Icelandic is sublime. God, wherever she is, surely speaks Italian. Most of all, though, academic lingua franca remains the most alien tongue I've ever encountered.

  • I despise consumer debt, and I'm just happy not to have to sweat or perform repetitive motions to stay out of it. Translation: Usha thinks of the campus as home. I think of it as the place where I work.

  • I relish the friendships I have made in this business. That said, I find that my closest friends either (a) work as Web designers, loan officers, high school teachers, accountants, and the like or (b) find themselves in law, in academia, or both with roughly the same sense of destiny or inevitability that drove me into this business, which is to say, none at all.

  • All of this gives me the means to adapt Vic Fleischer's closing line to my own upbringing and to my sense of my place in this business: "Most of my Columbia classmates just don't get what it is professors do -- I still get asked what I do with all my 'time off.' If my parents were investment bankers, I probably wouldn't get it either." Fair enough. My entire family and most of my friends just don't get what it is that I do. And having met no investment bankers or professors before I set foot on a college campus, I suppose I don't really "get it" either. Never did; never will.
Thomas HardyOne mystery remains. What does Thomas Hardy have do to with this post? As I have come to understand that working in academia was neither foreordained for me nor sacrosanct in the sense that I could not imagine working in any other setting, I have slowly begun to appreciate why I love The Return of the Native, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure. In particular, the male protagonists of Native and Jude -- Clym Yeobright and Jude Fawley -- resonate with me. What Chaucer said of his Clerk could be said of young Clym or young Jude: "And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche." All these guys ever wanted was a chance to study with the big boys and to strut their autodidactic stuff. For their part, Tess and Sue wanted to crack the cathedral of elite Wessex society (albeit strictly by the terms Hardy could imagine for women in Victorian society).

None of it ever comes to pass. Hardy's depiction (among other things) of the Victorian elite's utter disdain for rough-cut Wessex boys ranks among the harshest indictments of higher education anywhere, any time. If you speak the lingua franca of America's academic elite, I suppose, you don't need me to tell you that the best outcome for these Hardy boys and for Tess and Sue is that one of them gets to wander Egdon Heath as a blind itinerant preacher. Actually, given how Hardy felt about the way of this world and those who promise another one yet to come, I'm sure he thought that Jude and Tess got the better end of the deal.

In the end, as much as I sympathize with the Hardy boys and their female counterparts, I can't claim the mantle of "Jim the Obscure." You might say I'm far from Hardy's madding crowd. Unlike Jude, I got to spend three years at my Christminster. As I've said or hinted throughout this post, I'm one of the lucky ones. Most of what I know, or at least the truly useful parts, I learned on my own or under the influence of family and nonelite friends. In spite of those social failings, the academy has let me stick around for more than a dozen years. Thanks. All the same, I look at this profession and wonder how many Jude Fawleys and Tess Durbeyfields are being excluded from our mystical order of high priests.


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