I had thought about writing a post about the problems of academic meetings that seem to last too long and that seem to serve absolutely no purpose, but then I decided that writing about something boring would be boring too. In any event, while surfing around, I came across this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Chairman’s Dog” by Michael “obviously has to be a pseduonym” Beardsley. I think it’s fair to say that this is as much a piece of comedy writing as it is a typical CHE “First Person” piece, but while I am sure that many of the important details are made up, it does have a ring of “truthiness” to it.
Beardsley tells the story of how he, as a graduate student, dog and house-sat for a professor of his. When the professor’s husband arrives home and he is introduced to “Rob,” Beardsley realizes what he has gotten himself into: “A minute later I was shaking hands with the man who had warned me that the job market would be my undoing if I didn’t shape up and fly right and cautioned me when my grant was about to be cut off — none other than my department chairman.”
Anyway, it’s a nice piece of comedy. I thought the article was worth reading because it is a simplified (albeit not inaccurate) depiction of the relationships that often exist between graduate students and senior faculty, and also because some of this silly story rings a bit too true. I will spare the stories about dogs (though I know well some true stories of grad students who watched after faculty pets), but it did remind me of my own house-sitting experience way back when. It was about 14 years ago when I was a year or two out of my MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. I house-sat for a professor for a year while she went off to England. Like Beardsley’s, my family too seem impressed. And I did have a few moments kind of like this:
I took to spending afternoons in the backyard, laying my books aside for sessions in the patio’s built-in Jacuzzi. At ease, I gazed over at the smaller apartment buildings where tenure-seeking assistant profs toiled obediently at their book manuscripts, and farther below at the dingy hovels where grad students, antlike in the distance, came and went. And there I was above it, the chairman of all I surveyed.
Well, kind of. There was no Jacuzzi and I wasn’t actually in school at the time. But I did live far above my means and I had lots of parties. In fact, I met my wife at one of those parties, also an academic (with a different last name, of course).