THE SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY OF CAREER TALK
The academic career creates a culture of its own and a special sense of self. This is especially true for the elite and aspirants to it, but it holds for the
stragglers and misfits as well. The marketplace is somewhere “out there” in the great beyond of supply and demand; it insinuates itself into the very fiber of human communication about things that matter.
Apart from writing, the main thing academics do is talk, and talk is perhaps the best illustration of the effects of this culture. Talk anywhere is influenced by the context in which it goes on. I f a Cuban or a Wintu Indian happened to walk down the fourth floor of Barrows Hall at Berkeley, she or he might get the impression of a bare mustard yellow tunnel, long and dimly lit from above, casting ghostly shadows on the under-eyes of its “trespassers.” Closed doors to left and right offer a few typed notices of class meeting schedules, envelopes containing graded examinations, and one wry sign, posted several months earlier by a man who had just won tenure: this machine is not in order. It might be experienced as a place where no one lives. It’s the one place professors are supposed to be available to students, but since students unwittingly block the extension of one’s vita, it’s the one place from which professors are curiously absent. Only instructors not yet in the tenure race and older professors on the other side of it might answer to a knock. The rest are seemingly lost between their several offices (the institute, the department, the home). Often they pick up their mail at dawn or dusk when die department office is closed. The French call them the “hurried class.” On a day when the printed notice says a middle-rank professor will be in, a small society of students assembles on the floor against the wall. They have penciled their names on a posted sheet that marks time in fifteen-minute pieces, and they may be rehearsing their lines.
In the fall of 1971 a male graduate student signed up for an office visit. On my door, in large, bold letters, he wrote: Thompson. That the name was larger than the others led me to expect a large, imposing figure. In fact, Thompson was three inches shorter than I, and I suppose he felt less imposing as well. For after he had seated himself carefully, slowly crossed his legs, and hunched down in the “student” chair, he began, without prodding on my part, to give a long, slow description of his intellectual evolution from mathematical models at the University of Michigan to historical sociology’ to possibly, just possibly—and this was why he was in my office—the sociology of the family. It took about half an hour to say. The remarkable thing was how slowly and deliberately he spoke, as if he were dictating a manuscript, qualifying each statement, painfully footnoting his generalizations, and offering summaries at the appropriate places, rather like the chairman of our department. After the interview was concluded, with a fumble over who should open the door (Whose doorknob was it? Is he a student or a man? Am ] a woman or a professor?), I could hear Thompson behind me, talking with a graduate student friend, in a brisk, conversational dialogue, laughing a bit, rambling. He was talking normally. He wasn’t selling smartness to a professor.
Thompson thought he was being judged in that interview against other graduate students. And he was right. Every month or two I do receive a confidential form from my department, asking me to rank from mediocre to excellent a series of ten to twenty graduate students. Professors are the last people most students come to with an intellectual problem, and the first people they come to when they have it solved. To expose their vulnerability or confusion is to risk being marked “mediocre” on the confidential form.
The culture of the career system is not, alas, confined to the office interview. Despite the signs of otherworldliness, the Volvos and blue-jean patches and beards, the university is a market world, a world of conspicuous consumption. It is not gold brooches and Cadillacs that are conspicuously consumed; it is intellectual talk. I sometimes get the impression in the corridor outside my office, at dinner parties, and in coundess meetings, that vita is talking to vita, that tenure is being won in a conversational tournament, that examinations have slipped out of their end-of-semester slots and entered the walls and ceiling and floor of talk. The intellectual dozens, Leonard Kriegel calls it in his book Working Through. It is academic street-corner talk at which one is informally tracked as excellent, good, fair, poor, or terrible. If you bring someone out (as women are taught to do) instead of crowding him out, you get bad marks. Not to learn to talk this way at this place is like living without a skin; it is a required language.
It is often said that women do not speak up in class as much as men do, and I have noticed it too, occasionally even in my graduate seminar on the sociology of sex roles. The reason, I suspect, is that they are aware that they have not yet perfected the proper style. (It is often older women, not yet aware of the stylistic requirements, who speak up.) Some say also that women are ignored in conversation because they are sex objects; I think they are more often seen as conversational cheerleaders to the verbal tournament.
The verbal tournament seems also to require a socially shared negativism toward other people’s work. It is often considered an evening well spent, for example, to tear down Merton’s theory of anomie, or to argue that Susan Sontag is overrated, that Erving Goflfnan is passe, that Noam Chomsky’s latest article, like most other things one has read lately, says nothing really new. It is as if from these collective wreckings of intellectual edifices the participants will emerge, in some small way, larger. But the negative talk about the stupidity of academic conversations, the drivel in the American Sociological Review, which one proudly claims not to have read in two years, also establishes a floor of civility, a silent pact to be friends or associates, regardless of one’s rise or fall in market value. In a sad way, it says, “Despite the griddcd walls around us, you and I share something in common after all.”
There is still another kind of talk, not in one’s private office, or in the halls, and rarely at parties, but in the main office: faculty talk to secretaries. That talk generally is brief, smiley, and rich with campus gossip or news ol
the Xerox machine or good places to eat It obeys the rules of civility and obscures the irritations or jealousies that might momentarily stop work. It also tends to foster the secretaries’ identification with the professorial career. In the 1970s we happened in my department to have a “liberated” secretarial pool, who saw this kind of talk through a feminist prism as condescending and manipulative, a sort of oil and grease of the machinery that maintains a pay and status for them far below what an early estimate of potential would have predicted. Unable to change their essential condition, they jealously guarded their poster of a Vietnamese woman on the wall in the main office and gave up smiling at anyone who daily invaded their public space, they having no private space at all. Their new model of talk was that between a union negotiator and business representative. Here it was not vita talking to vita, but worker talking to boss, be it man or (assimilated) woman. The administration considered the secretarial pool a “problem,” but their new style was more basically a challenge not only to their inferior status, but to what about talk holds it in place.
Women compromise with the career culture in various ways. It is as common among women as it is among men to consider market talk gauche—who got what job, was awarded what grant, or had an article accepted by which journal. On the other hand, a woman is “unserious” or fuzzy-headed if she appears to be out of it altogether. The compromise some women affect is to publicly endorse anticompetitive or noncompetitive values while privately practicing the competitive ones. One publicly discredits the “rat race" and then, at home on weekends, climbs quietly onto the revolving wheel.
Academic talk reflects academic life and academic life reflects a marketplace. Ideas become products that are “owned” or “borrowed” or “stolen” from their owners, products that through talk and in print rise and fall in market value, products that have become alienated from their producers. The marketplace pervades the life of conservatives and radicals alike; for both, ideas are “products.” Even if, with the growth of giant monopolies, the country as a whole is no longer capitalist in the old-fashioned sense, in a peculiar way the university, especially for its junior members, is.
I suspect that a different system would produce a different talk. And
women trained to this career unwittingly learn to admire in others and per – feet in themselves the talk that goes with the system—for it is uncompetitive, undressed, nonproduct, supportive talk that is, in the last analysis, discriminated against.
Even writing about career talk in cynical language, I find that, bizarrely enough, I don’t feel cynical; and I have tried to consider why. I think it is because I know, in a distant comer of my mind, that the very impersonality that competition creates provides the role of the “humanizer” that I so enjoy filling. I know that only in a hierarchy built on fear (it’s mislabeled
242 SPEAKING PERSONALLY
“respect”) is there a role for those who reduce it. Only in a conservative student body is there a role for the “house radical.” Only in a department with no women are you considered “really something” to be the first. A bad system ironically produces a market, on its underside, for the “good guys,” I know this, but somehow it does not stop me from loving to teach. For it is from this soft spot, in the underbelly of the whale, that a counteroffensive can begin against women’s second socialization to career talk and all that goes with it.