Academia is one of the few places that accommodate quirky people. Which is why I’m there. Annoyingly, academia also includes perfectly normal people. Which is where the clash between the normal and the quirky happens. Guess on which side I am. (If you hazarded “normal”, I forgive you because you must be new here.) As a junior academic at the mercy of senior colleagues, I have it tough. But I fight like an angry grumpy cat.
The other day I received a mail from Professor Pfeiffer, one of the angry old men who guarantee my doctoral study programme. At face value, he asked me to submit my individual study plan signed by me and my supervisor. In between the lines, he was blaming me for not having delivered the document yet and was craving my blood. There ensued an exchange of passive-aggressive mails between Professor Pfeiffer and my supervisor, all of which I received in copy.
Doctor Jefferson, my supervisor, wrote along these lines: Dear Pfeiffer, Mara was the first to come have her documents signed in September. Will you kindly fix the mess you notoriously have in your darn papers? Xoxo, Emma. On which Professor Pfeiffer wrote laconically: What you say may or may not be the case. But I got no papers from her. Pff. When I discovered that the paperwork I was required to procure now was different from the paperwork I had already handed in, I thought it fit to visit Professor Pfeiffer in person to avert a looming feud.
Except I’m not a people’s person. So in the process of solving one problem, I created a bunch of new ones. I should have known better. I cornered the professor in his office while chancing to wear skinny jeans, furry heels and red lipstick. (My outfit, not the professor’s.) It was clear from my looks that I was meaning business. (Irony intended.) I knocked on his door, and undecided whether I heard come in or not, I proceeded to let myself in using the key left in the door from the outside.
Has no one stolen your keys yet? I said by the way of greeting as my head emerged in the office, the body tentatively remaining outside in case I was not invited. Uh, er, nope, the professor managed to respond but looked as though he were confronting the spectre of a white rabbit. Actually, what he was facing was an army of black owls, which happened to be the print of the obviously work-appropriate shirt I was wearing. (Sardonic sneer.) Come in, sit down, the professor ventured. I waited for him to offer me something. He didn’t. I should have brought my slivovitz.
I initiated a bit of beating about the berry bush, that is, small talk intended to prove me as the normal member of society which I am not. I talked weather (So, it’s freakin’ freezin’, right, professor?), but for mysterious reasons it didn’t work. Also, I’m kidding. As a respectful student with a reputable language register, I spoke thus: Good morning, Professor Pfeiffer, I’m so sorry to bother you, but I’d like to apologise for any inconvenience caused by my failure to submit my paperwork in time. I will rectify this regrettable situation immediately. Please don’t fire me.
The professor seemed well pleased with the outcome, admitting that the individual study plan was a momentary random idea he got on Friday. I understood that instead of going for beer, like any sane person on Friday does, he sat down to contrive a plan how to engage doctoral students in a regular one-to-one interaction with senior department members. With a benevolent gesture, he waved my questioning stare away and observed, beaming with pride, that his brilliant plan was working because I indeed came to him for a talk.
Whatever. I concluded that Professor Pfeiffer was simply feeling lonely, so I offered I’d come see him more often. He refused in order to save his face. Not a people’s person but a people’s expert nonetheless, I decided that some Scottish Literature talk was what the professor needed. I asked him an academic question or two to cheer him up. It worked perfectly. The professor started purring like Lil Bub and observed casually, Perhaps Professor Berryman is mistaken to believe that you don’t know what you’re doing. On which I screamed internally, WTF?!?!
Now this hurt. A lot. Professor Berryman is the single person with whom I disagree on everything, and more than everything, yet whose lifetime achievement I deeply respect. I actually started to suspect that he hated me, hated me so much when I saw his sternly disapproving face in the first row of a recent conference where I presented my leftist separatist paper. Professor Berryman, of course, is a strictly right-wing globalist who strangely enough managed to retain his visionary optimism throughout his long life, while I lost mine very promptly in the process of growing up. Heck, professor, but does that necessarily mean I don’t know what I’m doing? I’m crying internally.
Disinclined to further discussion as I was processing this mortifying piece of news, I suggested to no one in particular that I could ambush Professor Berryman and demand that he reconsider his shockingly low opinion on me. Professor Pfeiffer contemplated my plan and contended that I might prefer to return home to my proofs. I was wondering whether to interpret this paternal advice as something like, Your research sucks, but cheer up, we need your proofreading. To spite Professor Berryman in absentia and demonstrate that my visionary optimism is not dead yet completely, I decided against this discouraging interpretation. We literary scholars have it tough, always interpreting stuff.