a work in progress
When I feel the dampness of summer on the east coast—eighty or ninety percent humidity, mosquitoes during the day and fireflies at dusk, clothes sticking to my body and a slow laziness to the air that prevents me from reading more than a page before dozing off—I have a curious flashback to Madison, Wisconsin. I spent two weeks in Madison five years ago, my first experience of east-coast summer in several years. We rode our bikes around the lake; we had barbecues in the front yard; we lit citronella candles as the sun set late. I remember Madison as quintessentially summery, like the summers of children’s books from another era—the only difference being my first-generation iPod mini and its Scottish folk music. I was fifteen and hadn’t yet discovered rock, and the fiddles and pipes and accordions and guitars took me on long walks in the stickiness of midday or on long drives through pitch darkness from Shakespeare festivals or dinner parties back to our sublet. Now, when I’m in New Jersey and the temperature first climbs above 80, or the first dinnertime thunderstorm rumbles in the distance, I find myself back in that state-capital college-town green-tree lake-shore summer.
I was in Madison because I am an academic brat. My father was teaching a summer seminar at University of Wisconsin-Madison and so we all followed, as we do. We sublet the house of a professor on leave in some foreign country; we hung around the campus but also played tourist in this university town different from our own. We had dinner parties and party parties with our ad hoc academic enclave, where my sister and I talked Shakespeare and Democratic party politics and played video games with the other professors’ nerdy kids, or chattered at kind and well-meaning faculty spouses about our summer camps and our favorite subjects in school, while the professors talked shop and the grad students drank beer out of bottles and gossiped about who might have a job where. My memories of Madison are at times as hazy as the hot and sticky air by the lake (I know we were only there for a few weeks, but in my recollection those weeks stretch out into an entire pastoral novel), but what I remember principally about Madison was the humidity and the feeling of belonging to an academic enclave. In San Diego, where professors and their families live all over the city, and there are three major universities and several minor ones, we have no academic ghetto. The seminar my father was running, on the other hand, condensed time and space: a set of far-flung colleagues from across the country into one college town and a circuit of department parties into one summer term. It was one of the strongest experiences of community belonging I can recall—and perhaps, then, it is no surprise that the slightest touch of dampness in the air, the lowest rumble of thunder in the distance, sends me back.
Last Tuesday was one of these Madison days, when the fan was on all night and I woke up at 7am to a morning already sticky and still. My alarm was set to three hours earlier than normal because 1,166 seniors and 804 graduate students were receiving degrees from Princeton that morning, and I was being paid $10.90 an hour to stand outside in the 90-degree heat in a shirt and slacks and an academic gown in order to take tickets and direct traffic and tell parents that, no, they could not enter the seating area two hours early; and, no, they could not sit in the reserved section without a ticket; and, no, they could not stand in the way of the academic procession and impede the progress of the president, the board of trustees, and the honorary degree recipients. For three hours, my gown caught on the mechanisms of folding chairs and I took orange tickets from antsy parents while my mind wandered off to bikes and lakes and citronella candles and Scottish accordions.
But it was not just the weather which made Tuesday a Madison morning; it was also all the trappings of academe. The cumbersome black gown signified that I belonged to the same community as the seniors in black; the graduate students in black with orange stripes; and the faculty, trustees, and honorary degree recipients in their rainbow of regalia. There is something unifying and meritocratizing, I find, about academic regalia: it suggests that we are all engaged in the same project of celebrating not just the degree recipients, but also the very existence of the institution of higher education. Watching the graduates process, I felt certain that I would someday have a hood to wear with my gown, and even someday have three velvet stripes on my sleeves. In hearing the formal rhetoric (some of it in Latin) which conferred degrees upon my friends and colleagues, I felt invested in and excited by the mission of my university and of the university in general. When, at commencement’s conclusion, I and my fellow ushers lined the path of the recessional, I felt a great sense of membership in a common mission to educate, to produce knowledge, and to credential the next generation to do the same. Wherever we stand in the hierarchy, whether we have hoods and caps and stripes on our sleeves or not, we are all a part of this mission—not dissimilarly from how it was in Madison, when I talked Shakespeare with the other professors’ kids in imitation of our parents talking shop.
Three days of alumni reunions precede the three days of commencement exercises at Princeton, and I expect that this former celebration is where the majority of the tens of thousands of people who descended upon Princeton’s campus that weekend found their community. I witnessed their exuberant rediscovery of old friendships, their rampant alcohol consumption, their orange-and-black school spirit, and their participation in the parade of alumni classes which for four hours winds its annual way down the road which cuts through the center of campus. It was difficult not to take part in bits of the three-day bacchanal, and I chanted my school-spirit cheers along with the rest of the crowd, perhaps finally singing our alma mater enough times to remember about half of the words.
And yet while reunions proved an enjoyable three days of dancing with good friends, they also left me profoundly unsettled. The event is no celebration of the University (qua cultural institution), as I have known it for the past twenty years and four months. Rather, it is a celebration of Princeton: of old white men and cheap watery college beer, of entitlement and privilege. The nausea I felt when one class of alumni somewhere in the 1970s carried signs lauding the percentage of their class making six-figure salaries and the percentage of their class whose children had also attended Princeton was not entirely assuaged by the jubilation I felt when the crowds cheered for the first classes to graduate women. I woke up on each of three mornings to the disgusting and dispiriting sight of my quad—my home for the past nine months, the center of my residential college and thus my emotional life—covered in garbage, stinking of vomit and stale beer, and I was furious with the alumni whose 45th reunion had snatched my quad away from me, from my university, and from my sense of university. I felt displaced and ill-at-ease, driven from what I’d come to think of as my home.
I was able to recoup some sense of belonging when I went to the LGBT alumni’s Saturday-night party, a lame little student-center-basement event made much less lame by dance music I knew the words to, welcoming friends, and a sense of being among “my people.” Knowing nearly everyone in the room, and dancing with nearly everyone I knew, shifted the dynamic of reunions from something which displaced me to something which welcomed me, and I felt once more that—Milwaukee’s Best-drinking old white men striving towards the Platonic ideal of entitlement notwithstanding—there is a place for me in 21st-century Princeton. It was a sloppy little party at the end of the bacchanal, populated by a ragtag collection of queer kids who’d had too much to drink. But when we all wandered off in the early hours of the morning, it was at least after having been in a multipurpose room where everyone knows your name, and where orange, black, and massive and omnipresent class-consciousness were less important than Lady Gaga to having a good time.
Since, however, it was only the queer party’s dissimilarity to the rest of reunions which saved it from being condemned with the rest of the debauchery, it would take more than a few Madonna songs for me to restore my faith in Princeton as ivory-towered home. This would instead entail three days of listening to speeches and pointing people to the nearest restroom; of entertaining myself by guessing professors’ grad schools by the color of their gowns; and of feeling not-so-secretly thrilled every time I got a smile from a be-regalia’d professor processing past me. By the time Tuesday morning came around, I felt more solidarity with anyone wearing a black gown than I did with anyone shouting “Tiger tiger tiger sis sis sis boom boom bah!” I was proud that I have apparently, after all these years, retained enough Latin to make sense of the salutatorian’s address; I helped to instigate a standing ovation for Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she received an honorary degree; and I applauded wildly President Tilghman’s address, in which she admirably called upon our generation of Princeton graduates to return maturity and civility to the public discourse. Eventually, chatting at my residential college’s reception with the faculty, graduate students, and staff who comprise my surrogate family, Madison morning slid into Madison afternoon—and I was back at the end-of-the-summer-seminar barbecue, telling the academics who all my life have been my literal and metaphorical family about my plans for the summer and then going back for seconds of pineapple and watermelon.
I write this now in Rhode Island, having put my books in boxes and left campus for a while. Maybe I’ll spend some time at my parents’ university when I’m home this summer, but for the next little while I’m among dear friends who don’t play the academic game. It’s summer vacation, and I for one am glad, after a hectic and stressful (but productive) year.
And yet it was on summer vacation that my family went to Madison five years ago, and it was on summer vacation that, last night, I wrestled my network settings into letting me log into the Princeton network remotely so that I could search archive databases for a particular manuscript relevant to the enormous research project on which I am just beginning to embark, the one which I hope will someday become my senior thesis. The leads I found on the internet suggested that this manuscript was given to some library or another—maybe the Library of Congress, maybe the New York Public Library—but no one seems to know which library exactly. As I trawled through the most likely catalogs, marveling at my ability to use my own university’s library resources even though I’m gone till September, I was reminded of the crucial difference between college and academe. College is a four-year adventure, a transient state of packing one’s life up every few months and moving to a new dorm, a new internship in a new city, a new academic project. Semester by semester, your life changes: you grow older and wiser; your research projects get longer; your friends graduate; new friends matriculate. Life is constant change in college, as I found two weeks ago when I realized—to what should not have been my surprise—that packing up my life and vacating my old and beautiful sunlit room over the archway was normal.
But if college is impermanent, academe—in my life, anyway—is the state in which things will always be. Perhaps I am only reminded of this on Madison mornings which turn into afternoons in the Scribner Room, evenings in Rhode Island researching my thesis, or sleepless nights spent stressing about the job market. But academe was my life from the day I was born—and at some sudden moment maybe a year ago, when the air was hot and still like it was in Madison and one of my parents’ colleagues asked me what I thought I might major in and I said “history,” clearly and firmly, I embraced the world I grew up in for all it contains and all it is worth. Most children, I suppose, choose to reject their parents’ world and strike out into uncharted waters, and to them I wish all the best of luck. But as long as “uncharted waters” to me means a document lying undiscovered in an archive, a connection between texts never before made, a student’s mind not yet unlocked, or a degree not yet received or conferred, my permanent home is in ivory towers everywhere, more so than at college reunions or even than on the gay dancefloor.
I don’t yet know whether I’ll come back to Princeton for a reunion years hence, but I’m sure I would return to campus if I had black stripes on my sleeves from another institution, a tenure-track job, and a book on my CV; and if there were a conference in my field and I submitted a paper and wound up presenting it, sitting at last on the other side of the Dickinson 210 seminar table. It wouldn’t feel so much like a homecoming, back to “the best old place of all,” as like an extension of the same world which has always been and always will be my home, no matter which institution grants my degrees or gives me (I hope and pray) a job. For Princeton is not my home so much as academe is, and so I imagine that on a hot and humid summer day in a fantasy world years hence—when I’m working on my senior thesis, my dissertation, my first or my second book—I’ll feel the slightest stirrings of a breeze or see the cloudburst clouds gathering overhead, I’ll put down my book or cease typing for an instant, and I’ll think of summer in Madison.