Thursday, April 07, 2011

Irony-Free Zone

For my sins, I spent last evening at a dinner for those who endowed academic chairs lately down at the University, together with some of those who will occupy those chairs (technically, I fell into neither category, but the wine was good).  Anyway, my point is that I can't remember when, since my days as a Cub Scout, I have encountered so large a gathering so utterly free of irony.  The presenters believed that the donors had done A Good Thing; the donors certainly believed they had done A Good Thing.  And the recipient/professors--you know, funny thing about professors.  One is tempted to dismiss them (us) as pious jackasses,  too full of themselves, too accustomed to being the center of attention, too apt to roll out spectacles of mutual self-congratulation with lots of good food and  (yes) wine.

Fair enough in a sense but there is a darker flip side: professors have a diffident streak.  They like being the center of attention, but there's always a little black bird on the shoulder telling them that they have no business here,in that any moment now they'll be exposed as a fake and sent packing back to to the shadowy basement where they belong.  Might be in part inborn--why they took the job in the first place, i.e., precisely to get the attention they weren't sure they deserved.  But part of it comes with the structure of professing.  If you're a bond trader, say, or a trial lawyer, or a hangman, you know whether or not you've had a good day. You (may) have the adulation of your students, but a part of you knows that hey, they are students, so what do they know.  Otherwise, as the great Grant Gilmore said, it's a bit like being a spy in enemy territory, where you are never sure whether what you are doing is in accord with instructions or, indeed, whether the guy who hired you is dead (cf. this great cinematic metaphor for the professing trade).  Enjoy the din of applause while you can, then.  Pretty soon the lights will go out and you'll be left alone in the dark.  Again.   

Update--DeLong Does My Homework:  ...and tracks down the original of the Grant Gilmore story.


brad said...

OK. So what is the Gilmore story, and where is it?

Brad DeLong

Buce said...

Brad--Gilmore--the late, great Grant Gilmore of Yale/Chicago--was the first person I heard use the spy in enemy territory metaphor. I'm pretty sure he used it in a talk to Yale alums in SFO around Christmas 1969, maybe 1970. Or in an occasional writing about that same time, perhaps in the Yale Law Journal. Or perhaps both places. I have not nailed it down precisely but I probably haven't searched hard enough.