Tuesday, March 04, 2008

After the Fall

A recent article in The Chronicle Review, “The Sweet Lure of Your Graduate-School Town” (2/22/08 issue), has been a topic of discussion in the part of the academe-o-sphere in which I orbit. In the essay, the author, Murray Sperber, proposes that many academics view the site of their graduate school days as Eden, and therefore choose to return to live in the vicinity of their old grad school when they retire.

The author of the essay spent most of his academic career in Indiana, but is retiring to Berkeley, where he went to grad school. It might be difficult to convince some people that this particular trajectory is evidence for a trend in academic society. To do so, it would be necessary to show that the opposite trajectory is likely as well – i.e. that Berkeley faculty who went to grad school in Indiana are longing to return there. Indeed, to support his hypothesis, the author mentions some academics he knows who plan to return to Indiana (site of their grad school days) after living many years in France.

If this grad-school-as-Eden-retirement-magnet idea is true, this is interesting. I can see why the place you end up as a professor might not be your ideal place to live – we tend to go where the jobs are, and most of us don’t end up living in our geographic location of choice. But why would GradSchoolVille be more Edenic than, say, the place where you went to college or did a postdoc or the place where you grew up or even some other random place you’ve never lived before but have always wanted to?

Sperber proposes that we long for GradSchoolVille (GSV) because when we were in grad school we were young, energetic, independent (perhaps for the first time), optimistic, and intellectually stimulated. After grad school, “.. we had to work at a demanding, often frustrating full-time job, usually devoid of the stimulation of graduate study.” In fact, I think that is a very sad statement considering the unequal distribution of time (for most people) between duration of grad study vs. academic career. Furthermore, I have found that being a professor is much more intellectually stimulating and rewarding than being a graduate student or postdoc.

According to the Sperber hypothesis, your postdoc year(s) could also be Edenic. You are still young(ish), intellectually stimulated, further on your career path, past the stressful exams and will-I-get-my-PhD stage, but not yet burdened with (too many) administrative tasks and other frustrations and stresses that come with a faculty position. Or perhaps the stresses of being a postdoc (and being in the will-I-get-a-job stage) negate any Edenic potential. I would not move to my postdoc town because I have unpleasant memories of being harassed there, an Eden-wrecking experience if there ever was one.

Nor is Eden a word I would associate with my grad school experience. However, it so happens that I went to grad school in a geographically excellent place, and I would love to live there again.

Despite my willingness to move back to my old GSV, I guess I’m not convinced that there are flocks of professors longing to return to their GSV. I have met very few who have made such a move, and am not aware that my grad school contemporaries long to return to our GradSchoolVille. It might be fun if we all did, though. We could move to a retirement villa in GSV and recreate our grad school days. To make the experience authentic, our rooms must be very small and lit by flickering fluorescent lights, squirrels and/or other rodents must die and rot in inaccessible sites between the walls, and we must occasionally be told that we are inadequate. It will be just like old times, but at least we will be living in a beautiful place.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Love you sarcasm, but so damned true! I think I would move to Berkeley in a heartbeat had I not gone to grad school there. Being there again without any of my old comrades would just be too depressing.

ejh said...

I wonder if there might be something to this phenomena, but for less sentimental reasons. I went to grad school on a coast, and it was a very exciting place to live, but also prohibitively expensive if you want something more than the flickering fluorescent lifestyle. As a grad student you have a lot of mobility, and who wouldn't want to live in an "eden" for a few years when you are going to be broke anyway? No surprise then that later in life, with more resources and again relatively free of obligation, you might think about returning.

EarlyToBed said...

Perhaps the article was written about me. In a split second, I would move back to Shangri-La, which is my mom's term for the town where I went to grad school. In fact, over a dozen years later, my long-ago roommate still lives in the same old house, and I stay there when I visit. Of course, it's not just a place, it's a time: pre-marriage, pre-house, pre-kids, pre-job, pre-parents getting older. Life was simpler then.

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

And while we're extolling the virtues of the grad-school life, let's not forget about how fun it was to have annual "inspections" of the grad apartment, complete with snarky notes about how we couldn't have flower pots on the patio. Because they might wreck the concrete, or the appraisal values, or something....

I had a great time in grad school but am fairly tired of the town in question, and can't ever envision wanting to move back permanently. Except that, of course, a job offer from there would be better than any other offer I'm likely to get!

Jamy said...

You could not pay me enough to move back to my grad school town--which has since become a golf/retirement mecca. If you like sleepy Southern towns, it's great, but otherwise? I'll take my current town (DC) or my real home town (Seattle) over it any day.

Anonymous said...

In my case grad school was where I made my closest friends. I got out and experienced the city, which makes me love it. I'd happily move back there or to where I did my undergrad. Both are wonderful college towns.
Perhaps the trend - if it exists - is related to the fact that most of us get faculty positions at a somewhat "lesser" school than we get degrees. Places with the "better" schools tend to have the culture and amenities which appeal to academics.

Academic said...

Hmmmm....does this mean that the retirement villa would have to be on campus housing?

Anonymous said...

I am dying to go back to my undergrad town...but that is purely for the football games.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I *love* my grad school town. I would really like to stay here after grad school, but I doubt it will be possible. Unless I discovered a place even more Eden-like, I think I would be happy to move back in the future. But I think it has little to do with being my GST and more to do with being an exciting place to live.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is about the time of life and I think he may be onto something. I know several people who refer to that time of their lives as "the Camelot years", and I'd heard "Eden", "Shangri-La", and "Nirvana" as well. Very successful people who love academia, mind you.

I think it may be more about age than anything else. Sort of how people tend to keep liking the kind of music when they first started liking music that was different from what their parents or some of their friends liked.

Anonymous said...

Add me to the list of people who would move back to GSV in a heartbeat. Realistically, I never could, because as earlytobed noted it's not just the place but also the time that I long for. Still, my goal is to someday find a permanent position in a town similar to GSV in setting and character. I wonder if part of the reason for this phenomenon is that we generally have a significant amount of control over where we go to grad school, vs. where we go for postdocs and faculty positions? Part of the reason I chose to go to grad school where I did was because that part of the country had always appealed to me - turns out my instincts were right, as I have never felt so much at home in any other place that I've lived.

Doctor Pion said...

The comments of "academic" could be close to the mark. There are plans to tear down a huge student apartment complex near my undergrad U and replace it with a condo community. Earlier, before condo prices tanked, they ran teaser ads in the alumni mag to lure us back there in retirement.

The latest version reportedly has a more realistic goal of renting to students, but it might have been tempting during the summer months. That campus (like many) was only idyllic when the students were gone.