Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Academics and their kinfolk

I just spoke on the phone with my aunt, who was keen to get whatever details I had to offer about the nature of my upcoming defense.  I can understand how non-academics are hazy on what goes on at these events; I wouldn't really know myself, if I hadn't attended so many.  What throws me, though, is the way that my aunt, my grandmother, my parents, and pretty much everyone in my family simply don't understand what I plan to do for a living.  I mean, they understand that I want to be a professor and researcher, but they really don't get what that entails.  Case in point: I was explaining to my aunt a fellowship that I had applied for at University X.  I heard her brighten up and say:

"Oh!  You know, [daughter of an old boyfriend of my aunt's whom I barely know] went to University X!"

Wow, Auntie, do I not give a flying fuck about where this girl -- or anyone -- went to undergrad.  University X is, um, a big school.  A lot of people go there for college.  This fact has exactly nothing to do with anything that I do.  But for my family, who have only the vaguest idea what universities might pay me to do on a day-to-day basis, this seems to be their default setting for relating to my work.  (My mom's side in particular, come to think of it.)  They like to establish interpersonal links to things beyond their immediate knowledge, no matter how tenuous or irrelevant to practical concerns those links might be.  I sometimes feel like they tacitly insist on establishing a link -- any link -- between themselves and wherever I might be working, as if the place doesn't really exist if they can't verify some kind of chain of relationships back to themselves.  It's a weird kind of concrete thinking, and weirdly self-centered -- after all, I'm the one applying for the job, not any of them.  Does every academic's family insist on somehow blessing a potential workplace by virtue of its existence in their cultural and social geography?  Or is my family just peculiar?

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