Gooble Gobble One of Us

I went to an academic inaugural lecture in the Netherlands a few months ago. Being inaugurated is more or less the equivalent of tenure in the United States–the final stage of initiation into the highest circle of mystery (although there is still a ladder of post-initiation ranks that can be attained). But the Dutch do it much better. The departmental faculty all dress up in their archaic robes and walk solemnly down the aisle of the lecture hall while rattling ritual objects. Friends and family are invited to sit in the audience. The inauguree gives a brief (yes, brief!) overview of his or her research, a bit of personal biography, and then thanks friends, family and colleagues. The inauguree often ends up in tears, or at least a bit choked up. A party often follows. At this party, the entire deparment had even written and jointly performed a song for the inaugurees.

In the United States, on the other hand, all we get is a letter and a few congratulatory emails after tenure. Then it is back to business as usual: a random interaction of self-absorbed individuals who happen to share offices on the same hallway. Perhaps something more happens in science and social science departments, where collaboration is more the norm. But U.S. historians live out the fantasy of self-reliant individualism with gusto. (I was reminded of this inauguration, by the summerschool I am currently teaching. The students are mostly social scientists, and I have been very impressed by their great enthusiasm and skill for small group work, even an assignment that asked them to design a joint research project. I’ve done similar assignments with historians, and they are completely perplexed and nonplussed at the prospects of designing joint research with others).

I have to confess, that while the Dutch ceremony was impressive, I am much too habituated to the practices of U.S. history departments to want to adopt a similar ritual. I don’t want to bond.  To be sure, historians do frequently reiterate a communal fiction that we are all members of a common department and discipline that shares common goals and ideals. But any commonality is usually achieved through relentless self-policing, selection and peer review. Emotional bonding (whether ritualized or not) is not part of the program. And so many of us nurse such powerful bitterness and emotional defenses that any attempt to inject positive emotional substance through ritual seems either doomed to failure. Either the ritual would become hollow, or we’d have to undergo the trauma of rethinking our adamant individualism.

That said, there is one ritual I’ve always thought might effectively channel the emotional realities of a U.S. history department:

There’s the superficial resemblance of comparing historians to a collection of perverse individualists creating a happy community of outcastes. But the real emotional effect of this ritual comes when the tenure recipient yells, “Stop it! Freaks! Freaks! Freaks! Get out of here.” She still thinks she is beautiful and pure, not truly one of them. But this very act of rejection makes her the most perverse individualist of them all, the one who is unable to accept any acceptance and community. Thus, in the very act of rejection, she confirms that the freakish community of historians is the one place that she belongs.

Unfortunately, this ritual does not yet include any final rite of reincorporation–it is not a full rite of passage. I know that I am still yelling, “Freaks, freaks, freaks! Get out of here!” But in the absence of any rite of reincorporation, I am the one with nowhere to go, not them. (In the film, Freaks, the freaks just wander away sheepishly. They don’t appreciate her outburst and eventually hunt her down in the mud and physically transform her into a human duck. I suspect that historians would be satisfied with a more gentle and symbolic embodiment of their post-tenure fate.)


Posted on September 1, 2012, in Academic History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.


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